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This is probably going to be my last kick at the sub-titling can:
The "***international*** discussion list" thread has generated
considerable, heated discussion. There is a feeling that North
Americans and our concerns and interests dominate Screen-L,
and that at least part of the problem lies in poor distribution of
foreign-language films here. Needless to say, this problem is not
going to be addressed by asking distributors to cater to the desires
of small academic elites and cineastes, wherever they may hail
from. The problem is one of developing a large enough market to
*commercially* support the distribution of foreign-language films.
This is not of course a mass market, but a market niche.
'Foreign-language films in North America' needs to be analyzed as
a product which, on a certain level, competes head-to-head with all
the films available.
I propose the following meta-message for 'foreign film':
'Foreign film' is a film genre that presents the world and local
views of diverse foreign societies, as seen through the eyes, lan-
guages and personal histories of its authors.
This is the main appeal and selling point for foreign-language films
*as a genre*.
The issue of sub-titling of dialogue vs. dubbing has been thoroughly
aired on this list, with general agreement that sub-titling is
preferable insofar as preserving the speech inflection and cultural
flavor of a foreign-language film, and therefore respecting the
meta-message of the genre. I would go so far as to say that prints
of films that have had the soundtrack dubbed into the host language
are no longer foreign- *language* films. And, we may note, the
promotions of films that have been dubbed often play down their
foreign-ness, or even treat it as a Disneyland-style (non- threatening)
presentation of foreign culture, replete with the usual
inane stereotypes.
The spectrum of sub-titling treatments that I have seen suggests
there is enormous scope for improvement in this area. It is evident
that competent typographers (i.e. the designers who make reading
matter legible and pleasing to read) have not been involved in the
development and production of sub-titling. Sub-titling has been
relegated to an afterthought performed by technicians
And here (finally) is my point: bad sub-titling limits the potential
audience for foreign films in North America. Film production is
an extremely expensive business. It seems remarkable that pro-
ducers and distributors of foreign films are willing to cripple their
potential returns, by continuing to overlook the importance of lan-
guage accessibilty for their products.
I feel that until sub-titling is taken seriously by film producers,
we may not ask significant numbers of North American film
consumers to watch, or discuss, foreign-language films.
I am proposing a system of analzing the dialog, sound, visuals and
semantics of a film, and optimizing the sub-titles on a shot-by-shot
basis to reflect this analysis. It could include consultation with
with the film director, cinematographer and script-writer, where
this is possible.
I would like to know how other Screen-L subscribers feel about
the significance of language accessibility for foreign-language
films generally, and whether they feel the system I have proposed
is appropriate, workable and adequate. Can anyone cite a film that they
would uphold as an example of especially good sub-titling?
Has anyone who has been involved in a project that was subtitled,
or worked on the subtitling, have any thoughts about it?
David Smith
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