subtitling

Linda Jaivin, who has written an interesting range of works, including Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space, The Monkey and the Dragon: A True Story about Friendship, Music, Politics and Life on the Edge, and Eat Me, discusses some of the challenges of subtitling — especially of Chinese movies — in Tanks! Tanks! (You’re most welcome) (The Age, December 31, 2005).

Among these movies she has subtitled are Farewell, My Concubine and Hero. (I seem to recall some controversy about the translation of the final line in the former movie, but I can’t remember anymore what it was. Something about the sword being “wood”? The latter film, lovely though it was, I loathed for its despicable politics and general fascist embrace of death; but that’s off-topic.)

Jaivin also brings up a recent book edited by filmmaker Atom Egoyan and scholar Ian Balfour, Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film (MIT Press, 2004). I was surprised to read in the book’s introduction (PDF file) that subtitles predate sound films:

The subtitle was actually introduced as early as 1907, that is to say, still in the era of intertitles, but it did not really come into its own until the age of the talkies and their international distribution. The era of the modern subtitle was ushered in with the screening of The Jazz Singer in Paris in 1929, two years after its American release.

As long as I’m on the subject, I might as well mention that in Taiwan and China almost all movies and TV shows — including those originally in Mandarin — are subtitled in Mandarin. I’d be interested in learning more about how much if any Cantonese is used in the subtitling of Hong Kong movies.

Also, as Joe Clark likes to remind people, subtitles and captions are not the same.

4 thoughts on “subtitling

  1. All Hong Kong movies are subbed into characters and English; I may be wrong but it looked like they wrote the subs word-for-character, so it was in Cantonese.
    Also, stop me I’m wrong, but isn’t anything written in characters essentially readable by anyone, especially if written in “Mandarin” characters? I know the differences between the different Chinese languages extend beyond pronunciation and into things that would be affected by characters, especially ways of saying things, but that the differences aren’t large enough to make the two mutually unreadable.

  2. People in Hong Kong who speak Cantonese and people in Beijing who speak Mandarin can read the same subtitles in Chinese characters not because Cantonese and Mandarin are “dialects” of “Chinese” (they’re actually separate languages) or because Chinese characters transcend languages in some unique way (they don’t) but because people in Beijing and Hong Kong are taught to read and write the same language: Mandarin. (This is somewhat similar to how long ago people did most of their reading and writing in Latin even though they spoke different languages.)

    Written Cantonese is a different thing, even when written in Chinese characters. A literate person from Hong Kong could understand some but not all of it without training in this form of written Cantonese. Someone from Beijing could understand some of it, too. But so, too, could someone from Rome understand much of, say, a newspaper printed in Madrid.

  3. Hi, I was under the impression that except for a few specific phrases, the written Chinese used by Mandarin and Cantonese speakers is the same. Of course, this is not to say that when spoken Cantonese is subtitled, it is very different from written Chinese and spoken Mandarin.

    P.s: I just took a look at the Cantonese wikipedia and compared it to the standard Chinese one and noticed very many differences. For example, even the search button is a different character. I am very very confused now, all this time I thought that people in Hong Kong could pick up a mainland Chinese version of the Little Red Book and understand most of it. Is this not the case? Is the variety of written language used in Hong Kong mostly unintelligible to mandarin-educated mainlanders?

  4. I was under the impression that except for a few specific phrases, the written Chinese used by Mandarin and Cantonese speakers is the same…. I thought that people in Hong Kong could pick up a mainland Chinese version of the Little Red Book and understand most of it. Is this not the case?

    Yes, that’s generally true. But that’s because Cantonese speakers are taught to read and write Mandarin (a language many of them do not speak).

    Is the variety of written language used in Hong Kong mostly unintelligible to mandarin-educated mainlanders?

    Mandarin speakers who do not know Cantonese will be able to make out some of a story written in Cantonese (with Chinese characters). But it’s important to also keep in mind that, for example, an Italian who does not know Portuguese would be able to make out much of a story written in the latter language.

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