Film in Translation

By Patrick Harford

Subtitles. For years, the mention of the word sparked one of two emotions in my fellow filmgoers: curiosity or hesitation. I first became curious about films with subtitles because they were from foreign countries and in different languages, but many people are hesitant for the same reason. 

Reading the subtitles of a film or a television series sounds as if it betrays the essence of the medium itself. Film and television should show their stories through visuals, not tell them through dialogue. When we read subtitles, it can feel as if they are telling us how the narrative unfolds. 

On a practical note, it can be hard to read while trying to watch at the same time. In the past, when I have read subtitles, I have sometimes missed key moments onscreen that confuse me when that element of the plot comes up again. 

On the other hand, people can struggle with subtitles because of the speed at which they appear. This can sometimes relate to the language or dialect spoken at a fast pace. Out of all the non-English films I have seen, the two languages I find the most difficult to keep up with are Italian and Mandarin. 

The Chinese crime-thriller “Drug War” from the director Johnnie To, for example, is easy to follow when you pay close attention. That is, if you can read the dialogue fast enough. Mandarin can sound fast to Western ears, and this means the subtitles have to change as quickly in order to match up with the characters’ dialogue. After a while, I had to skim the film’s subtitles to get the gist of what the characters said. Although not much talking happens by the film’s end in a fantastical shootout to rival Michael Mann’s “Heat.” 

The issue is the same in regard to Italian cinema. Whether it is Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” or Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” Italian films require fast readers as much as avid viewers. Even if hard to follow, both films are worth experiencing, subtitles or no. 

With these subtitle challenges, why do I watch as many foreign films as I do Hollywood blockbusters? The answer is simple. I want to have different experiences onscreen.

When I turned 14, my love of film and television grew and my expectations became more demanding. At a certain point, I wanted something different. While on a search for that new experience, I came across the South Korean thriller “Oldboy” from Park Chan-wook. I discovered a DVD copy of it at my public library. To this day, I have no idea how the librarian allowed me to check it out, given its R rating, but to this day I thank her for doing so. 

When I first watched “Oldboy,” it was dubbed into English. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t know any better, so what can you do? 

Based on that terrible experience, since then I have never watched another foreign film dubbed into English. My problem with dubbing is that it takes away from the original actors’ performances. English voices can overshadow the hard work the actors put into their roles. It can also be a distraction when the English voices do not synchronize well with the actors’ lips. To be honest, it baffles me that there is still an audience for dubbed films. 

When I say I hate dubbing, I refer only to live-action films. Animated features and shows are better suited for different voice-overs. When it comes to anime, however, I prefer to watch it in the original Japanese for authenticity. (Unless it is “Cowboy Bebop.”) 

Every once in a while, you find a film that touches you, a film that changes your life. For me, it was “Oldboy.” It not only made me want to become a filmmaker, it also made me appreciate what the rest of the world had to offer in storytelling. 

So, the next time you’re watching a foreign film on Netflix, maybe you’ll be able to read the subtitles and enjoy the film at the same time. If not, I hope you at least get a glimpse of the cinematic offerings from the rest of the world and learn something about new places and their cultures. If the subtitles still bother you, however, I suppose you could watch it dubbed.

Or, better still, you could learn the language.


Patrick Harford has a master’s degree in screenwriting. He spends summers at his family’s house in Springs.