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2 April, 2006

Subtitling language

Occasionally, in a subtitled non-English film, the dialogue switches to a third language.  I wonder if there's a good way to handle this within the subtitles.

For example, one scene of the Chinese film '2046'¹, which I watched last night, features a woman talking to herself in Japanese. The audience is intended to know immediately that she's not speaking Chinese, but a non-Chinese audience mightn't realise that until a couple of minutes later, when the voice-over narrative mentions it. Luckily, I can distinguish the two languages (without actually understanding either!), so I was okay, but otherwise it would have detracted from the film. Should the Japanese section have been left unsubtitled, putting the audience in the same position as the lead character, overhearing the speaker without understanding her words? Perhaps, but her words are relevant to the plot, and omitting their translation would have detracted too.

All I can think of is colour-coding, but I'm not sure the standard 'overlay'-type subtitling technology can do that, and audiences mightn't understand why the text has suddenly changed colour – it's not an established convention. The only time I've seen colour-coding work was in 'Nochnoi Dozor' ('Nightwatch') a Russian film intended for foreign viewing, which incorporated subtitles into the initial production (as opposed to being made for a domestic audience, with subtitles subsequently overlaid for foreign distribution). In that instance, colour-coding and animation added to the atmosphere, but that's not quite what I mean, as there wasn't an issue of translating multiple languages whilst indicating that they were different languages.

Has anyone seen this done successfully?

1: '2046' was excellent, in terms of acting, (convoluted) story and visual appeal (rich, almost stylised colours, excellent period details of 1960s Hong Kong, understatedly futuristic sci-fi elements, and the female leads (Zhang Ziyi, Faye Wong and, briefly, Maggie Cheung) were gorgeous ;) ). Having rented it from Amazon, I've bought it from eBay (£19.99 at Amazon – I don't think so!)

Oh; and something that seemed obvious to me, but which seems to have eluded reviewers at IMDb and Amazon: the title is 'two-oh-four-six', not 'twenty-forty-six', and doesn't necessarily refer to the year². It's a hotel room number, and the name of a fictional city in a book written by Mr Chow (Tony Leung).

2: Within the story, anyway. There is a real-world significance, as the Beijing government has promised to let Hong Kong remain as-is until 2047, 50 years after the UK surrendered the ex-colony.


I havn't experienced this in films but what I dislike is when a someone (usually on the BBC) is speaking but has a slight french accent (or any accent) and they subtitle him when it's perfectly clear what he's saying. I have more problems trying to understand people from Liverpool (where I live) with their horrible scouse accents.

Posted by AKALucifer at April 5, 2006 09:48 PM
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