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.