Less is More: A Conversation Without Subtitles




Watching Bombay Rose (2019) at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), I found myself thinking about the silent but irreducibly formative role of subtitles in film festivals. As a postcolonial scholar, I understand that translation is such a complex task, and was keen to find out more about the nuances and practices in the world of subtitles, which must form a bridge without compromising cultural meaning or patronising audiences.
Amazing then, to have a conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir, the UK based documentary filmmaker and author of 18 books on Indian cinema, who has also subtitled many Hindi films and also curates the annual Indian film season for Channel Four. She was in Panjim for the NDFC Film Bazaar this year.

What was it like when you first started to write subtitles?
At first, I thought creating subtitles was easy, but the more films I did, the more I appreciated how absolutely difficult it is because subtitling is an art and it has many different aspects.The translation, readability, using spoken language and not archaic phrases are the basic requirements, but there are also other considerations. I remember seeing Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), which is set in Lucknow at the turn of the century, and when Johnny Walker says “ammayaar,” the subtitle read “Hey, dude!” Now that’s not respecting the film’s period at all, and introducing Americanisms in the most foolish way, trying to make it “hip,” For me this just ruined the scene. Respecting cultural differences is key. For instance, if a Hindi line says, “She’s like Katrina Kaif ”, as I know many non-Indians may not know of her, I write: “She’s like the star Katrina Kaif.” This is far better than saying “She’s like Julia Roberts.” This pleases no one. The songs are a challenge too and it’s good to avoid being too clever or too flowery. I always avoid rhyming lines as they make the audience follow the rhyme and not the action on screen.


What has been a particularly interesting project for you?
I liked working on many films, including Andhadun (2018), and this year’s Article 15 and War. I’ve done over 700 films, but I’m still learning because working across genres is a challenge. For me it is very important to work with the director when possible. Their guidance allows the “intention” of a scene to come through the dialogue translation. They live with a film for years, while I have to deliver the subtitles within a few days.


What are your thoughts on how subtitles are being used in India?
The quality of translation is very uneven in India. Usually there is too much text and the translation is too literal, and perhaps even distracting from the film itself. There is in fact this website called “paagal subtitle” which has hilarious examples of Indian subtitles gone wrong.


What have you learnt through your engagement with subtitles over the years?
It’s good to be less wordy. You must trust the intelligence of the audience, and make sure the vocabulary of the translation reflects the mood of the film itself.


Which of your subtitles has stirred any debate?
None, really! Perhaps that’s a good thing. I always say “bad subtitles can ruin a good film, but good subtitles cannot save a bad film.” So the less attention my subtitles grab, the more the audience is with the film.



Read more from The Peacock: Issue 9 (2019) here: