Thinking about subtitles

25 April 2013

Last night I visited the Oxford Playhouse to watch the Spanish play La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream). It is a philosophical play that brings out the ideas of destiny and fate with the concept that reality could just be a dream world. I wouldn't be too much of a stretch to call it Spanish The Matrix of its day.

One of the challenges of the play was that it was all spoken in Spanish and my Spanish is non-existent. Fortunately, alongside the handy Wikipedia summary I had read, the play was surtitled. This is like subtitling a film, the narrative is projected above the stage enabling the non-Spanish speaking section of the audience to read along with the actors.

I've watched a couple of films with subtitles, notably Pan's Labyrinth and Spirited Away, however I noticed something new by doing it in a mixed-lingual setting; as the narrative progressed the audience were reacting at different times to what was being said. For example the Spanish speaking all the jokes (not that there were many) at the same times, whereas I, and all the other English readers, were getting the joke at different times depending on how fast we read. In certain cases where I had read ahead of the actors delivering the lines it was the reactions from the rest of the audience that aided in the interpretation of the line - was it supposed be shocking? funny? etc.

It made me ponder about subtitles more generally. Subtitles have the potential to ruin a major build up, as a bit of the narrative is read before it is acted out of screen, or a sound effect indicates a major change, before the audience has had a chance to catch up reading.

I don't have any solutions, just questions at the moment, I'll have to think about it a little bit more. I am certain though that subtitling is much better than dubbing.

Back to all posts