14 January 2013


Have you ever watched a foreign film in which one of the characters spews out a full minute-and-a-half of dialogue and the subtitle is, "I don’t think so"? Did you ever wonder about that? About what you were missing? I have, often. Wanting to know what people were saying — really saying — was one of the things that pushed me to study languages in the first place. But when you don’t speak a film’s language, knowing or fearing that the subtitles might be leaving out crucial plot points or character developments is extremely frustrating to me. I’ve actually gotten into some tense discussions here in Brazil when I complain about the Portuguese subtitling I see on English-language films. My Brazilian friends tell me that the subtitlers have very little space or time within which to work, that they’re poorly compensated, that they do the best they can, that it doesn’t really matter anyway, that people get the gist. But is the gist enough?

Here’s an example: in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there’s a recurrent phrase that has become one of the film’s most iconic lines. After what they think is a just another hold-up, Butch and the Kid marvel at the unusual persistence of their pursuers. They keep asking each other, "Who are those guys?" And here’s the Portuguese subtitle: "Odeio esses caras," which means "I hate these guys." Now, asking "who are those guys" shows vulnerability, it’s crucial to Butch and the Kid’s slow, painful realization that they are — for the first time in their joint life of crime — up against it. But if they say "I hate these guys," they’re showing attitude, and that changes everything. Here's a great montage of that line:

Sometimes the subtitlers don’t rewrite, they get it totally wrong. So much so that it’s funny. Mark and I were just watching an old American film noir called Criss Cross, with Burt Lancaster and Yvonne de Carlo. At one point the Lancaster character, a tough guy, says to another tough guy, "I’ll give you a ring tomorrow." The subtitle? "Vou te dar um anel amanhã," which is a literal translation of "give you a ring," provided you’re talking marriage. Okay, so now the Brazilian audience is supposed to think this tough guy is giving his enemy a piece of jewelry?

Tucci as Frank Nitti
There’s also a tendency when subtitling in Portuguese to sidestep English vulgarity. Okay, even I can understand how some people might shy away from foul language, there’s probably far too much of it these days anyway. But when you do that, when you rewrite the dialogue, your audience completely loses what the dialogue says about the characters. In the movie Road to Perdition, Stanley Tucci’s criminal character tells another criminal character, "You don’t know your thumb from your dick." It’s vulgar, but it’s also funny, it’s colorful and it’s true to the character. The subtitle? "Voçe não entende nada" or "you don’t understand a thing." Not vulgar, true, but also not funny, not colorful, not in the least interesting.

I know this isn’t the most important subject in the world, but it’s one of those niggling things that just make me itch. And as a devoted cinephile I’ve started to worry about how much I’m missing when I watch a Russian film with English titles, or a Danish film with Portuguese titles. More than I’d like to miss, probably. But in the grand scheme of things I guess it’s okay. People still go to the movies and still get something out of the experience. Do they get all the details? No. Do they get all the popular culture references? No. Will Mark and I continue being the only people in the theater laughing? Yes, sometimes. But our friends know that we’ll explain it to them later.

***Just one more instance: I mentioned how subtitles can’t get all the cultural references. Take this zinger that I loved, and will always remember, from the movie Leatherheads, so snappily delivered by Renee Zellweger’s Lexie to George Clooney’s Dodge: "How quiet it must be at the Algonquin with you here in Duluth." How’s a subtitler going to handle that? No matter how good you are, that line needs footnotes, not subtitles!

1 comment:

  1. Hi, it is Renan.

    A few comments:

    - indeed a lot is lost in Brazilian subtitles. What about the film titles then? Like Blue Valentine being translated as Namorados para Sempre? Or The Hurt Locker as Guerra ao Terror? Or Of Mice and Men as Força Bruta? These are three great films that I would watch based on their English names, but definitely would not based on the Brazilian ones.

    - I always wanted to know why is that they avoid foul language in the subtitles. I wonder if that helps the Brazilian version of the film being graded proper for younger audiences and reaching a bigger public?

    - ironically, Brazilian films have so much foul language! It almost feels like they do that do compensate the foul language removed from the American films.

    - the lack of space for the subtitles is a reasonable explanation for so many cuts. And I think it also explains why we have so many bands in Brazil singing their lyrics in English. Centre genres simply don't work when you sing in Portuguese.