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|
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!