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Lost in Subtitles, Gained in Culture

Subtitles are perfect for people watching a video on a crowded train or for those who forgot their headphones at home. They’re a lifesaver if you ask a taciturn homebody stuck at a loud party. And a whetstone to sharpen your reading skills because let’s be honest, when was the last time you picked up a book to read? Subtitles are intended for those who know to read, don’t speak the show’s language, or have hearing disabilities. But now, most of us, despite knowing the language or despite having the gift of hearing, prefer adding them to everything we watch. It eases auditory comprehension, perhaps. We cannot just sit back while our ears miss the most crucial dialogues because it’s incomprehensively pitched down or delivered in a baffling dialect or accent. We need to give in to subtitles because, unlike the response to a real-life ‘pardon or sorry what?’ the actors won’t repeat themselves, and there’s no gift to hear over our own nonstop munching on chips until the fingers are mopping the salt at the bottom of the bag.

Fans of K-pop group BTS are called ARMY

Watching Is Reading

With Subtitles, our collective consciousness transcended from reading to watching and then back to reading again. While reading a fantasy novel, we imagine the dragon described in it and construct its scenes word for word using primary imagination. Similarly, while binging on a foreign language drama, we read the subtitles – all but to make entertainment readable. In many ways, it is through subtitles literature is breaking barriers, creating bridges, and getting educational. Akin to the playbook of life, everything that goes comes back, like in a circle; the art of cinema usually originates from a sheet of literature – the script. From the makers to its audiences, reading becomes a formidable activity. Flavorful entertainment augmented by the metamorphosis of the script to subtitles completes a full circle of literature. Some cinematic meanings are hard to convey without text. Subtitles help them reach us comfortably. It could be a fictional location or a foreign language; subtitles bear the cross of translating the message to us. How else would you understand Dothraki, Klingon, or Latin? While the waltz of eyeballs might initially make subtitles a little challenging, it becomes seamless with time and practice.

Subtitles have dissolved the barrier between languages and basic literacy. Reading subtitles boost foundational reading skills. Studies have proven that closed captions and subtitles boost users’ fluency, phonics, and word recognition. A breakdown of the act of watching includes imbibing information in an audiovisual format as part of our daily activity. It sure differs from reading and writing; however, many of the same cognitive senses are at play while watching something for entertainment. We train ourselves to read as part of watching. Reading fits in as naturally as breathing in our audiovisual entertainment formats. Extending the same analogy, the art of cinema that way has been breathed in and consumed more freely through subtitles. Besides, reading subtitles so often might increase your interest in learning a new language.

The Cycle of Literature

Subtitles are a part of literature when viewed through the glass of translation. Theatre-goers had playbills; we have words and letters at the bottom of our screens. For the not so well traveled, subtitles are a form of a window to the world, generating familiar meanings for foreign words and phrases and simultaneously introducing the culture it represents. It is “not a matter of words only; it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture” (Anthony Burgess). Subtitles act as the artistic medium of cultural confluence, like translation literature. However, this technical translation is bound to lose an array of elements despite the linguist’s skillset and the translator’s prowess. Nuanced emotions, poetry, and humor remain unattended or unappreciated in the gaps and cracks of translation. Whenever a dialogue is translated into the receiving language, emotional, poetic, and humorous expressions are localized, delocalized, and generalized for the global audience. One of the internet uproars that exemplifies this aspect is the Korean show Squid Game’s error in subtitles and cc translation. There is no possible way subtitles or translation, in general, can retain certain emotive expressions from the original language. It can only improve its precision.

“Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.”
– Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories.

Speaking of inaccurate and careless subtitling, a plethora of memes on ‘when subtitles go wrong’ is one google search away. With the surge of virtual socialization, a Meta narrative for subtitles can be detected in online communities. They cross-check facts and philosophies in subtitles, often translate better, and feed each other with more precise cultural information.

However, subtitles are still going strong. Despite the loss of an accurate introduction to a whole new world, the eutony of the words in new languages draws immense attention from the viewers. So much so that words like ‘daebak,’ ‘banchan,’ to ‘dadagiri’ have made it to the Oxford English Dictionary. Apart from the sonically pleasurable words that refuse to leave our minds, the lifestyle, customs, traditions, and philosophy of a new culture draw us in. Sometimes the original intent is lost in subtitles; however, discovering new cultures and communities makes up for it. What is lost in translation is gained in cultural recognition.

Feeding The Curious Mind

Subtitles have unknowingly become part of our conscious choice. Whether it is curiosity about other cinematic cultures or simply the algorithm, we regularly click on foreign movies and shows. Even in an environment utterly bereft of multilingualism, the phenomenon of subtitles has grown its roots. Subtitles have become a good habit that enriches consumers with cultural cognition. People who can’t imagine knowing another language or dialect find themselves watching Turkish dramas regularly or Derry Girls in Irish English on Netflix with the subtitles on. It is new, it is exciting. Knowing about something foreign is fulfilling, especially at the inexpensive convenience of home entertainment. In a world of OTT platforms, English is not the universal language anymore. Exhibit A: the influx of Japanese Anime and Manga, the k-wave, etc.

“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”- Bong Joon Ho

Subtitles are a tool for marginalized cultures to put themselves at the fore. Art is not only an expression; it’s also an impression.

Be Nice To Subtitles

Life without subtitles seems unimaginable these days. It is not just Google that ranks videos with subtitles higher, people in daily life prefer it too. Subtitles as a marketing tool have shown a massive global impact in improving communication and business reach through enhanced semantic density and inclusivity. Adding subtitles to videos amplifies not only its recognition but also supports the disability community, especially people with a hearing deficiency which marks almost 5% of global consumers. Many see subtitles as extra reading assignments for which they did not sign up. Subtitles are not compulsory for the viewing experience, yet it is necessary. Great content is delivered via subtitles; why should anyone reject that? Or are we afraid of adapting too well to subtitles, almost an evolutionary habit that will later render us completely helpless without them? For the love of Kdramas, let’s just binge for now.

Essay/Article commissioned by: TDLM Editorial
Written by: Ipshita Chakraborty [Bio – Content and Social Media Associate, TDLM; Jadavpur University; English Literature]Graphics/Art/Illustration by: TDLM Design Team

‘Lost in Subtitles, Gained in Culture’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on 30.11.2022


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