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Long Pause, Romantic Music, Silence

By Laura Legge.

“You mean that’s your idea of desire, with all those commas?”

– Michael Palmer, “Idem I”

Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville

There is a scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) where Anna Karina is standing in a white room with her back to the camera, facing an open window. “Since I met you,” her hazy, Helvetica subtitles read, “I no longer feel normal.”

For the viewer with scarce French, the captioned moment is arresting for different reasons than the original. That is because the words are not a translation. They are a rolling, cadenced guide to the soundscape, images, and emotional drive of the film. They are an astrolabe that works not to produce the panorama but to steer the viewer discreetly through it.


Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk

The goal of subtitles is clear: to cross linguistic and auditory barriers. And to achieve this objective the subtitler must not only translate between languages, but she must convert between entirely separate media. Spoken language is transformed into written text, the difference between apples and sliced apples. If, at the laser-lit karaoke bar, someone is singing viking metal or bachelor pad pop in a language you do not understand, the lyrics on screen are clearly a separate unit from the words being sung. But still they work to float the observer through what might otherwise be an experience of estrangement, or at least one lacking pleasure.

Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together

In Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997), there is a scene of blue mist curling over Iguazu, an Argentinian waterfall the leading pair of tormented lovers have established as a private mecca. Finally making the insufferable choice to free himself from the abuse he experiences with Ho, Lai goes to visit the waterfall alone. His subtitle over the mist simply reads, “I felt very sad.” The image is what holds the burden––the caption can only deepen the impact by virtue of plainness.

Yasujirō Ozu’s Equinox Flower

In Yasujirō Ozu’s Equinox Flower (1958) we see the same muscle in the most basic prose. Every shot of businessman and patriarch Hirayama Wataru’s dinner table has a red-striped can of peanuts in the foreground. It forms a visual equinox with the water-filled glasses and centrepiece bowl, just as Wataru forms an equinox with his daughter and the man he does not want his daughter to marry. At one point an employee of Wataru’s is shown in a bar asking, “Eh? How come I get no peanuts?” His subtitle is not the focus. It’s the blink before the eyes can properly focus.

Carl Sandburg offers several definitions of poetry; among them:

3. Poetry is the report of a nuance between two moments, when people say, “Listen!” and “Did you see it?” “‘Did you hear it? What was it?”

“I felt very sad” or “Hey, where are the peanuts?” are not the moments themselves.

In common with poetry, subtitles at their best show the union of the physical properties of language and its ideal potential. Octavio Paz described translation as “an art of analogy, [an] art of finding correspondences.” For Paz, the concept of accuracy in terminology is unique to math and logic. When dialogue is moved from language to language, there’s a sort of essential, undressed leap that happens––the concepts must be fitted with new clothing (denim of rhythms, batiste blouse of metaphor, gold chains of wordplay). Once the sentence is in its Catalan- or Urdu-language ensemble, it must then be taken to the tailor, who will perform the impromptu act of turning the outfit into a broken-down trailer or a flock of doves.

Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle

Of course not all subtitles are poetry, nor do they need to be. The subtitler of a stoner comedy, though she does not have to write poetry, has a new charge added to her work: keeping things funny. How can you make Danny McBride’s “I call him Channing Taint-YUM” sound equally awesome in Arabic? (I don’t speak Arabic, so maybe there is already a word for Taint-YUM in the dictionary). Or, from the same film, This Is The End (Rogen and Goldberg, 2013), consider the exertions of conveying both the phrase “the elephant in the room” and the history and ubiquity of the final joke.

Jay Baruchel: Guys, listen, listen. I think we need to address the elephant in the room.

Seth Rogen: Whoa, Jay, don’t talk about Craig like that.

Craig Robinson: That’s fucked up. I’m right here, man.

Jay Baruchel: I’m not calling Craig an elephant.

James Franco: That’s racist.

While the work of “I felt very sad” is shouldered by the viewer in the moments and ideally days after the scene, the work of “I’m not calling Craig an elephant” needs to be done before it is printed under Jay’s garden-fresh face. If the work is not done by that point, the desired laughter will not have been earned, not even a Seth Rogen giggle’s worth.

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries

To tear one more petal from the gag lapel flower. Translation of comedy presents a particular danger, viz. what Richard Pryor articulated as “a thin line between to laugh with and to laugh at.” In translation that line is whittled even thinner. Though good subtitles will help the willing observer make sense of the movie’s relationships, visual queues, and lexicon, interpretation of those subtitles eventually falls to that observer. In all but the rarest situations, she approaches the film with her own acceptances of the world. For instance, in the following painful moment from Richard Pryor’s 1964 On Broadway Tonight appearance, faithful subtitles would do nothing to blunt the audience’s edged reaction. He says, “I’m not a New Yorker. My home is in Peoria, Illinois, and uh…” at which point his square-suited, fledgling posture is met with the audience’s laughter.

The poet doesn’t invent, Jean Cocteau said. He listens. What happens then, when the poet is writing for a crowd who will not listen? Language is not the only fence.

Turning to the limits of time and space. Same as Tokyo’s capsule hotels, filled with tiny individual blocks that have just enough room to sleep one, subtitles must fit in the imposed limits of the frame. They must convey the dialogue or voiceover before the scene shifts, before the actor’s expression changes from electrified to blue. Wit is a tool in this. So is absence. But to hit the bull of concision without omission, the subtitler need be careful. She must pack her suitcase appropriately, without spare weight but with layers for the weather. The English subtitles for The Wire (Simon, 2002–2008), as one example, omit thousands of interjections and mortar words––shit, yeah, yo, hey, you know, man, fucking, damn, oh, alright––which obviously breaks the drift of the dialogue and dictates the way characters are allowed to communicate with one another and with the audience. There are instances where these omissions, because of rapid flares in the dialogue, are made essential by limited space. Elsewhere they are not just inessential, but also destructive. Sometimes dialogue is not meant to be orderly and easy to navigate. Sometimes dialogue is a gridlocked city. George Pelecanos has specifically said The Wire was written so audiences would have to work at understanding it.

Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert

The inverse serves to mediate a different kind of anxiety. There are the captions that tell the observer what she is hearing in place of words, or sometimes what she is not hearing at all.

Long pause

Romantic music


These subtitles are to say, I’m still here. The machine has not broken. Please don’t walk away.

Here is a little game using line breaks. On screen we see a still from Annie Hall (Allen, 1977)––a woman on a boardwalk in an orange dress––and underneath her any of the following captions can be used for Woody Allen’s voiceover:

I have some trouble
between fantasy and reality

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall

Centred, the caption is a boardwalk funnel cake, dense and balanced in the middle. This is comfortable for the viewer to hold with her eyes. She has no fear, as she carries the paper plate, that she will drop it.

I have some trouble
between fantasy and reality

Left-justified, this caption is a sailboat coasting beside the boardwalk. There is a forward movement implied by the bottom-heavy shape, an invitation to scroll to the next image. Because of the wind, the distance from trouble to between is shortened.

I have some trouble between
fantasy and reality

Although giving the phrase fantasy and reality its own distinct line is alluring, there is something stagnant about this caption. It moves backwards in time.

The way the subtitle looks is if not equal to its significance, then at least a powerful gilding of it. Just as Diane Keaton’s dialogue is crucial when later she says to Allen, “That’s right, you really like those New York girls,” so is the way the camera shows the sunset, and not her face.

If the ultimate achievement of a subtitle is seamlessness, its brash, announced presence is sometimes an influential surprise. In the brilliant film Touki Bouki (Mambéty, 1973), we witness a young couple in post-independence Dakar wrestling the spirits of colonialism. Josephine Baker’s “Paris” scores their movements and choices––a choppy boat ride to a predatory man’s house, motorcycle rides across pavement and red sand––all of which are motivated by money, and by the tenuous goal of arriving in the city Baker is singing about. Again, the sound is crucial. But even more noticeable is the brand of the repeated subtitle Paris, Paris, Paris on the screen. Under that banner is a republic of questions. Why subtitle the chorus when the city’s name is already so recognizable? What does it mean for a film about the legacy of colonialism to be translated from Wolof, having its soundtrack’s French lyrics covering images of the sun-bleached Senegalese landscape?

One more question, like the boundaries of a television or movie theatre screen, naturally frames the subtitled film: How much of another person’s thoughts can we ever understand?

Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville


Laura Legge lives and writes in Toronto.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 1st, 2014.