A popular sentiment exists among many Australians – a trait we probably inherited from the States or the UK, and it is summed up by the following phrase: “io odio i sottotitoli”.
That’s Italiano for “I hate subtitles”, but I assume it’s not a common phrase over there.
Over here, you could basically split the TV-watching population into two groups: those who have a problem with subtitled programming and those who don’t.
Reason 1: I don’t want to read a movie
Devils advocate: Not many people do. In fact, not many people would even know what a screenplay looks like, let alone want to sit down with one. That’s reading a movie.
And don’t forget: Many iconic English-language films include entire scenes underscored by subtitles – Kill Bill Volume I, Traffic, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the Lord of the Rings series, Avatar, The Revenant, as well as a particular TV show a few people are into called Game of Thrones.
Do these anti-subtitle-ites have a problem while watching any of the above?
Reason 2: Subtitles distract from the movie’s visuals
Devil’s advocate: I don’t know about you, but a foreign film without subtitles is far more distracting than one with them.
And don’t forget: The more you watch subtitled films, the more your brain becomes accustomed to them and the more they become part of the visuals: an integrated peripheral gaze. Granted, this takes some time, but our brains are fairly amazing at forming new pathways.
Also, don’t forget that film is a visual medium, and unless you’re watching the foreign version of a Kevin Smith film or an Aaron Sorkin TV show, there will be many moments of purely visual action, which means subtitles aren’t running every second of the film.
Reason 3: Why should I watch a subtitled film or TV show when I can watch something in English?
Devil’s advocate: Foreign content expose us to cultures and ways of life removed from our recognisable English-speaking worlds. They also compensate when you’ve run out of quality content that targets your own tongue.
And don’t forget: All the modern foreign-language films widely watched by modern English-speaking audiences - Oldboy, Let the Right One In, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and basically every second fantastic horror film of the last 20 years, whether Spanish, Korean or Japanese. Would you really want a world where these aren’t available to us?
Reason 4: I can just watch a version dubbed in English
Devil’s advocate: English dubbing turns any drama into a comedy, strips the thing of genuine emotional resonance and usually ruins the entire viewing experience.
And don’t forget: These voice dubbers get paid by the hour and churn through dialogue as if on an assembly line. We’re not witnessing a genuine performance, we’re watching something you’d probably find on YouTube.
The only time it kinda works is in martial arts films, but once again, this turns every important exchange of dialogue into a comedy.
Reason 5: If it’s that fantastic, the Americans will remake it
Devil’s advocate: Once in a blue moon do we get a film like The Departed or a show like In Treatment – both based on foreign content and arguably better than the originals.
But look at the American versions of The Grudge, Godzilla and Oldboy; the Nic Cage/Meg Ryan middle-finger to the classic German film Wings of Desire with City of Angels; the ridiculous hack-sawing of the Spanish Abre Los Ojos with Vanilla Sky; and even remakes of English-langauge films such as The Wicker Man or Psycho.
In other words, remaking a foreign film is usually the most unnecessary choice a director can make, unless you’re Scorsese and you notice how setting the core story in Boston would make for a great gangster epic.
And unfortunately, most creators are not Martin Scorsese.
Additional benefit: Subconsciously, the more you watch films in other languages, the more you pick up various words and phrases. Learning without knowing it is the best type of learning.
The only thing I will say is that it sucks when the subtitle appears before the actual line of dialogue, but that usually occurs with closed captioning rather than foreign subtitles, so no excuse there either.