Sunday, 20 May 2012

Reading between the...subtitles

I, like so many, have been swept up in the craze that is Scandinavian drama. 'Borgen' kept me going through the harsh winter months, whilst 'The Bridge,' (T'Humber Bridge in my mind), through all its adrenaline inducing, Danish- Swedish hybrid angst has been a vital marker during the week. My addiction to these dramas doesn't feel like a guilty one, however, like TV obsessions can sometimes become.  It feels almost....intellectual, and I am fairly certain this is because of their use of subtitles.

What is it about subtitles that seems to make great television? Perhaps it is that the non-English speaking programmes that make it on to our British screens have to be really rather good indeed to sneak their way in to our living rooms.

Perhaps, however, it is the actual subtitles themselves which have an effect. The sheer act of reading the subtitles means we concentrate to an extent we don't necessarily with English speaking programmes, especially in this day and age (yes, I am 80 years old) when one can merely listen passively, whilst simultaneously looking at phone/checking twitter/generally having scarily short attention spans.We become far more involved ... because we have to be.

I wonder to myself further,  is it the notion of reading subtitles, itself, which naturally instils an air of 'Oh yes, this is an intelligent thing to be doing', (smug face, smug face) in the same way that reading a book generally carries intellectual connotations beyond those associated with sitting in front of the television for hours? Both create similar effects. We are cast in to another world, empathising with new characters, engaging with the psychologies of others. Yet one, I suppose, is considered more active. Reading involves a sort of subconscious 'thinking' because we are processing information so much more noticeably and generally so much more privately, too. Subtitles mean we  may share this private reading experience with others. Further still, the private visions conjured up by reading are visually and instantly delivered on to our screens.

 I can't help but feel it is possibly the idea of 'reading in to things', which further adds gravitas to subtitles. Quite literally reading characters' lines, almost in a way that an actor does with their script, means we form a deeper connection with these characters as their words must travel through us as much as they do through them. As subtitles allow us to scrutinise the language on a screen, tangibly before us, we can analyse events perhaps more easily. Or, feel, at least, that we can.

Sometimes, however, I worry I am missing something vital by reading the subtitles. Of course, after a few minutes, it doesn't feel as if I am consciously reading them, but that distraction is always there. Reading a character's emotion through their facial expression is as important as reading their words. Further still, I never find myself thinking 'what terrible acting' during non-English speaking performances, as I might do more generally, because, I suppose, unable to understand them,I have no idea how they are really delivering their words. My engagement is shaped by whatever the subtitles are telling me. Maybe, as a consequence, I make less judgement of my own on characters. The subtle nuances of tone and intonation are lost.

 I warble on about all this, because it intrigues me. I love subtitled programmes, but I love many more that are not. Curiously, I can admit however, that my absolutely favourite thing about 'The Bridge' has nothing to do with its acting, script or subtitled, er, '-ness.' It is its ahhhhh so incredibly powerful and emotive theme tune. It resonates through me every single time. Shivers galore. In music, it seems therefore, we have the most universal language of all. No subtitles necessary.


  1. I in 1987 read the _Collins field guide to trees_ from cover to cover. I notice nature far better with subtitles!