Subtitles: Barrier or gateway?
What with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite making Oscar history and all, there’s been a lot of talk about subtitles in the press of late. It seems translated words on the screen are causing quite the fuss — and what better place to talk about it than here, where many (if not most) of us are all too familiar with relying on subtitles. In fact, you don’t know how cozy you are with subtitles until you watch something in your native tongue… and you can’t seem to function. I’d even wager that being without subtitles when you’re used to them is just as unsettling as it is for those who’ve never watched anything with them.
Each of us has a different comfort level with subtitles — for me, I love them, and I don’t think I’ve ever even had subtitle phobia. I’ve long enjoyed cinema from other countries, and whether I was studying early filmmaking in Soviet Russia, or falling in love with sumptuous Bollywood films, subtitles were my friend. They never presented a problem.
For many, though, they do. Bong Joon-ho, in his Golden Globes acceptance speech, now famously said all we have to do is “overcome the one-inch barrier of subtitles” to be introduced to a whole new world. In this sense, subtitles can be a gateway to a new dimension — and that’s exactly what it was like for me and K-dramas.
Is everyone willing to overcome that one-inch barrier, though? For some, the answer is no. Some folks aren’t remotely interested in “reading” while they watch; for others, the fact that something isn’t in their native language makes it immediately unappealing or unworthy. Just the other day someone in the media was talking about Parasite and referred to it as “the subtitled movie,” which seems a pretty sorry distinction to me.
On the other hand, many people are warming up to subtitles lately, and it seems that Parasite will only continue this trend, and the interest in foreign media. Throw in a little bit of BTS’s huge success in the U.S., and you have a lot more open-mindedness around music, cinema, and TV from around the world. And that’s a good thing!
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju
Being willing to read subtitles while we watch something can open up a whole new world — but what are the downsides, if any? Consuming media via subtitles is certainly a different experience than consuming something in your native tongue — there is no denying that.
One drawback is that when you’re listening to a language you don’t understand while reading a line-by-line translation, a few important things can be missed: inflection, intonation, and nuance. These are essential parts of language and communication broadly, and we often forget how much we rely on them as we decode and process language. When we read subtitles, it’s true we don’t have that advantage. We can tell things like volume and speed, for sure. And because Korean is an emphatic and vibrant language, and it’s relatively easy to decode the basic emotions conveyed in communication — however, subtleties are indeed missed. But here’s the good news: that improves.
At least in my own case, when I look back on my (almost) decade of drama watching, I’m amazed how much I have learned about the Korean language. Not only the words themselves, but the use of honorifics, what satoori sounds like, and in short, I’m now able to pick up on a lot of the nuance and inflection I used to miss out on as a subtitle reader.
Legend of the Blue Sea
Outside of years of immersion in another language, what else makes watching subtitled media a successful (and dare I say awesome) experience? Of course, it’s translation. Even more than the one-inch barrier on the screen, the translation is where the real magic lies.
A drama’s translation has a huge impact on how we experience the story, especially since it’s not only the translated words and dialogue we rely on, but also the unique cultural elements and nuances that must be expressed. Often, that’s not as simple as doing a word-for-word dictionary translation. What’s interesting is that over the years I’ve noticed a huge improvement in the quality of translations. Sometimes they’re even so good that they almost lose their Korean-ness and become more “American” than I’m comfortable with.
Man to Man
But what good translation needs is balance, right? On one hand there are translations that are so literal they’re confusing, nonsensical, and sometimes even off-putting. This was mostly many years ago, when dialogue was practically transliterated word for word. For instance, a wonderful phrase like “Jal meokgesseumnida,” rather than being unpacked for what it means and signifies, was translated quite literally as “I will eat it well.” The phrase, as I’m sure everyone knows, is more about expressing thankfulness before eating a meal — and I certainly didn’t get the fullness of that expression from “I will eat it well.” Though it does have a ring to it.
On the other hand, opposite these more literal translations are the ones that push the envelope. They translate the original language, but they also make the content and language current and relevant, almost to a fault. These harder translations turn a simple “Aish!” into a strong expletive, and sometimes, at least to me, a lot of nuance is lost in trying to make something sound like America in 2020 when it’s clearly not.
Boys Before Flowers
Chances are if you’re reading an article on Dramabeans, you’re not intimidated by subtitles. You might even be one of those people that now puts subtitles on in your native language, because it’s become impossible not to read while you’re watching (guilty!). But beyond the many ways that subtitles influence how we consume media, there’s the bigger picture, and that’s around discovery and broadening our horizons. Rather than be locked into the media created by our own culture or country, exploring other media is exciting, educational — and maybe even a little liberating.
As we’ve seen, there’s a lot more to subtitles than waiting for them to be magically uploaded and accurately timed to onscreen dialogue. It’s a rather delicate transaction between languages and cultures — and it provides an interesting look at how we perceive and receive language.
While the conversation around subtitles and translations is a complex one, I’m glad it’s happening. Rather than act as a barrier, subtitles can be a gateway to new experiences, perspectives, cultures — and of course, wonderful storytelling traditions.
Crash Landing on You
- Bong Joon-ho makes history with Parasite (again) at the Oscars
- Crash Landing on You: Episode 1
- [Movie Review] Parasite is a disquietingly brilliant critique of our times
- Man to Man: Episode 1
- Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju: Episode 1
- Legend of the Blue Sea: Episode 1
- Mystery Drama Theater 3000: Boys Before Flowers