Ahh, subtitles!

During a recent exchange with Ramsu, it occurred to me that I devote a lot of time and attention to subtitles—both while watching and while writing about Hindi movies. They are integral to my Hindi cinema experience, the overriding thing being of course that I NEED them. I wish I didn’t, but I do. I have learned to understand basic Hindi, but my brain is such that I will never speak it and understand it fluently unless I live in India for a while.

Believe me, if I could find a practical way to do that, I would—in a heartbeat!

The quality of subtitling in Hindi cinema varies widely, to say the least. At their worst—when subtitles lag behind what’s happening on screen, or are missing for long periods of time, or appear randomly—they can render a movie practically unwatchable. If the film seems otherwise like a good one, it can really enrage me: after all, something I could have really enjoyed is inaccessible. Ditto for movies which don’t even contain subtitles—sadly, there are plenty of those.

At their best, subtitles reflect nuances of dialogue and elegance of language which make the film experience even richer. A great example of this is the Munna Bhai movies. I don’t know who subtitled them, but the subs are good enough to make the difference between Munna and Circuit’s way of speaking clearly different from the other types of people they interact with. The first time I saw MBBS, I was acutely aware that the subtitles were helping me laugh at the same things an Indian audience would laugh at. Maybe not with the same depth of understanding—but close enough!

Part of the humor of course is the dialogue delivery and body language of the actor, but when you don’t understand the subtleties of accent—the final frontier of fluency!—a lot can be lost. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke is a good example of that for me. Since a great deal of the humor lies in the way the characters speak, it’s not as funny for me. I’m not saying that all non-Hindi speakers will feel the same way; some (like Carla) are clever enough to hear the difference between Urdu and Hindi, for example. But try as I might, I cannot.

The majority of movies naturally have subtitles which fall in the middle somewhere between excellent and horrible. That middle ground is quite vast and it’s full of potholes. Sometimes subtitles miss the mark in an extremely funny way. There is no way I can stop myself from laughing and wanting to share it, but condescension is not my intent. It’s just funny! and part of the charm of Hindi films for me.

I would likely do no better!

When I met Boman Irani he asked me if I knew any filmi dialogue, so I jokingly said that all I knew was “Bhagwan ke liye, chhod do mujhe!” Unfortunately my pronunciation was such that I said “For god’s sake, f**k me” instead of “For god’s sake, let go of me.” Now Boman was polite enough not to fall off his chair laughing (at least in front of me) but he did smilingly correct me (thank goodness)—and although a little horrified, I did find it funny too.

One of my biggest problems is song subtitles (specifically, the lack thereof). They are largely missing from older films, and were even more necessary back then than they are now. Songs these days seem to be largely mindless filler (I know, I sound like an old person); but older films contain songs with beautifully poetic lyrics that carry the story narrative forward, and I know that I’m missing a lot without song subs.

Reason enough to work on my Hindi! I am trying!

One of my favorite product lines is that of Anne Taintor. She has taken old advertising images from the 1950’s (picture-perfect happy housewives) and put her own captions on them.

What a difference the subtitles make!

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30 Comments to “Ahh, subtitles!”

  1. LOL at the Boman Irani comment =) I undergo similar experiences with my Swahili!

    Kabhi kabhi, depending on who I am watching films with — when we watch with subtitles, I cant help but feel in some cases they take away from the dialog. They really should not be that difficult.

    Definitely agree on the songs in the past carrying more significance, and being more integrated into the plots. The worst is when a song exists for the sake of existence. Should be unacceptable, but most seem immune to it for its perceived promotional value, which really sums up the priorities in most cases. Compiled a list of my favorite chaand songs recently. The best of them, by far, are from the classics. You might already have read it, but here is a related Times of India article is interesting (here are my thoughts.

    You might find the Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na soundtrack interesting. It has more Hinglish than the average modern-day soundtrack, but it’s organized. And each seems to contain mini-stories from the plot, which is why I’m really looking forward to the film. I think the overall music product is excellent. I’m trying to translate each song at my site this week, if you’re interested…

  2. oh my God, memsaab! your blog is extremely unsafe for work! :-D I was reading your Boman Irani comment.. and I was cracking up so much that other people were staring at me!!!! lol……..

    while I don’t speak Hindi, my mother-tongue Bangla is pretty close to it.. so I watch Hindi movies without subtitles. In fact, it is through blog like yours I’ve discovered the *fun* of subtitles. I have a request for you.. will you please make a post just with screencaps of funny subtitles–like the first one you’ve in this post? It’ll be a riot.. and I’ll read that one from home!!

  3. I was v.v. embarrassed, but it WAS funny.

    I usually post the particularly funny ones in the post about that movie, although sometimes they are so numerous that I can’t fit them all in :-) I used to write them down (before I started the blog) but I’ve got no idea where that notebook might be! If I find it, I will definitely track the screen shots down :-)

    • That Boman Irani incident was just too much!!! RFLOL. I have to close shop now or my colleagues will wonder what I am enjoying so much on internet!

  4. Maybe it’s because I watch so many (poorly) subtitled things that I don’t really mind the mangled English. What I find amusing are attempts to translate cultural relationships into English that don’t exist in the West.

    This can confuse things too like when ‘bhai’ is translated as brother when the characters may just be friends.

    Of course when you go the opposite route, like the subtitles for “Salaam Namaste” which inserted every single ‘yaar’ uttered, things become too cluttered to read.

  5. Part of good subtitling is definitely knowing where to draw the line. I don’t need my hand held anymore, but I find it easy to ignore what I don’t need and I still remember when it was helpful sometimes—like mausi translated as “aunt (mother’s sister)”—for figuring out relationship nuances. I figured out pretty quickly that “bhai” could equal friend as well as brother, and when a female says it to a man it signifies a platonic relationship rather than a romantic one (pretty useful for fending off unwanted advances!).

    Translating things like “Shah Rukh Khan” into “Brad Pitt” (yes! I’ve seen it!) or “Laila and Majnu” into “Romeo and Juliet” I do find unnecessary. Let me figure out who Laila, Majnu and Shah Rukh are instead, if I’m curious enough! Part of the joy of watching Hindi films is learning about Indian culture.

    And translating what is already English into different English seems singularly pointless! :-)

  6. Hmm… Watching hindi movies in cinema halls in North America, I have become aware of the subtitles too – and they are mostly a scream! Perhaps we should all get together and devise our own subtitles for the good of Bollywood? ;-) It is hard to subtitle songs though, especially the older ones that are very poetic. It would require a poet to translate those. I have tried unsuccessfully to translate them for my friends. “Your face looks like the moon” (tera chaand sa mukhda), “your moon face smiled” (chand sa mukhda muskaya), “horse like gait and elephant like walk”(ghode jaisi chaal haathi jaisi dum), “snake like hair” (naagin jaisi zulfi) – sound so funny in English and beautiful in Hindi/Urdu. Guess, there are numerous career opportunities for quality translaters in Indian and other film industries. :-)

  7. Excellent points, Bollyviewer! Good translation really requires equal facility with both languages, and that’s a pretty rare thing. Plus you need to take some liberties in guessing intent—for instance “tera chaand sa mukhda” is probably better translated as “your face is as beautiful as the moon” or even “you shine like the moon”…being a poet would definitely help!

    My brother-in-law is Austrian but speaks impeccable English; even so, he asks me to help out with translations sometimes because I’ve grown up with the language and my vocabulary and grammar (thanks to my English teacher mom) is better for adding that final “polish” to the translation.

    Maybe we should collaborate and do subtitles! :-)

  8. Memsaab,

    Your blog is definitely NSFW on the laughter count – I laughed out loud at work as well, to some strange looks :-)

    Ah Subtitles! Is there any way of finding out which company does the subtitles on movies? I assume there are only a couple? And offering to work for them?

    One interesting thing we’ve found – newer Hindi movies have subtitles in other Indian languages. We tried out Tamil subtitles on Bluffmaster, Swades and Dhoom2 and they were excellent. A couple of other Indian language subtitles were also good – I saw a lot of European languages on there – maybe you could try the subtitles in any of those languages (if you know any of them, of course! :-))


  9. I should try to find out. Maybe it’s my ticket to living in India for a while so I can become fluent in Hindi!

    I don’t speak anything but English (yet!) :-) I could rope my sister in on German though! She gets annoyed with German dubbing on her DVDs…she says she’d trade bad subtitles for German coming out of SRK’s mouth any day. I have to agree that I’ll take subtitles over dubbing myself!

  10. It’s a problem we face even in everyday life sometimes. I have a friend who would used to come up with some wierd phrases in English, which would make sense only if you realized that he thought in Tamil and then translated his thoughts to English in real time while speaking :-)

    I suppose there’s a quality spectrum in subtitling firms as well. The litmus test would be old song translations, as you said. If they can deal with all those metaphors, they can handle pretty much anything else.

    Given Bollywood’s recent interest in taking its products to international markets, it might be reasonable to expect good quality subtitling in the future. Since there is a push for more corporatization of the industry, and production houses like Yash Raj and Rajshri put more emphasis on packaging, this will most likely happen soon. Then again, memsaab, some of the more obscure movies you favour might still slip under their radar :-)

    Absolutely loved the Ann Taintor posters, by the way. I think I’ve seen one of them somewhere.


    ps: Please tell me your exchange with Boman Irani was not aired on prime-time television :-)

    pps: Now that you’ve covered this topic, how about a follow-up post on songs that managed to work for you despite the subtitling, simply because of the power of the message? Like Kitna badal gaya insaan in Nastik, for instance?

  11. Sign me up as well to do subtitles! :)

    Attempts at translating from Hindi/Urdu to English can be confusing (especially the songs), not always because of the content that is often specific to cultures and subcultures, but also because of the redundancy inherent in retaining the number of syllables in the lines, which is considered characteristic of good quality shaayari. For example:

    Dil ki yahi khataa hai,
    Dil ko nahin pataa hai,
    Ke dil chahta hai kya.

    The word ‘dil’ is repeated in each line. So when we translate it, would we say, ‘the heart’s mistake is that the heart does not know what the heart desires’, or use ‘it’ for the second and third instances of the word ‘heart’?

    Sounds straightforward, but as a student of Urdu poetry (in high school), I find myself hesitant to omit what might be perceived as the unnecessary instances of ‘dil’. Replacing ‘the heart’ with ‘it’ would imply ‘usay’ in the original, which is not the case. Aah the details…

    In the bigger picture, the more that can be conveyed in fewer words, the better; it’s probably best to stick to that rule to ease the flow of the language used (as opposed to literal translations, which might be better suited for learners of the language). Thoughts?

  12. I think the most difficult thing in translating is not just translating the meaning, but translating the feeling. And to get the feeling one has to know both languages like a native. Which makes it such an amazing thing when done well. Sometimes things do have to be changed. I assume Dil is repeated for specific poetic reasons. My question would be do those poetic reasons make sense in English? If not, what would be the equivalent? This is a fascinating topic actually, wish I could speak two languages fluently enough to translate, but alas, speech is not one of my talents. I’m much better at voicing opinions.

    The most hilarious subtitles I ever saw were for Bunty aur Babli in German. Luckily I had already seen it with English subtitles so I knew what was going on. I watched it with a 14 year old who only speaks german. The subtitles were obviously taken directly from the English ones. I think maybe they used an automatic computer programs. There were strings of nouns and then a preposition, two minutes later another noun. Sentence? what’s that? A bloody idiot doesn’t sound good in German ‘blutiger idiot’, what, has he been stabbed? Or just not cooked thoroughly? ‘Would you like to name your mother?’ Poor woman, doesn’t she have one yet? Maybe you should give her a call.

  13. Ramsu: Subtitling is getting better, for sure—at least for newer films :-) Now someone needs to go back to the vaults and a) restore some of these old ones with new technology (sometimes the picture is so dark that you can’t even see what’s going on) and b) fix the subtitles.

    And no—my faux pas was luckily committed backstage :-) and Anne Taintor is my hero. Wish I’d thought of it first!—friends and family are always giving me her stuff (magnets, calendars, etc.) because (they say) they think of me when they see it! I’m complimented by that.

    BollywoodFan: Now see, I learned something from this post (via you), namely that shayari tries to retain the number of syllables in each line! You’re signed up for the old song lyrics :-)

    Marta: Am laughing v. hard over the bloody idiot who hasn’t been cooked thoroughly et al!!! God bless you for speaking two languages badly. You will still do better than most :-)

  14. Ugh I’ll get all worked up. There are so many bad ones! I thought Guru’s were awful, actually, and I felt like I didn’t really see the movie as a result. What I don’t understand is why it seems to be difficult to get someone to read over the subtitles before they’re produced – it’s not like English is an unusual language in India. Haven’t we all read how movies are mostly developed in English anyway? The lack of quality control when surely it would be so easy to do a better job is what gets me.

    My copy of Duniya Meri Jeb Mein has some flat-out grammatical mistakes, which I don’t think I’ve noticed before. Usually the things that make me laugh are like Memsaab’s. Or like this one:

  15. PS oopsy – I meant to say that of recent movies I’ve seen in the theater, Guru stands out for bad subtitles. It’s not the worst I’ve ever seen (that goes to Trishul), but for a new and lavish production, the quality really surprised me.

  16. It’s kind of similar to how (Carla and I were talking about this) a company will produce a bad master, not check it, and then make millions of copies of that bad master and sell them worldwide. How hard is it to check the master??? I have stacks of DVDs that won’t play properly, and it’s exactly the same if you buy another one.

  17. You know, I doubt the people who work on these things get paid very well. Imagine watching Hindi movies for eight to ten hours a day and translating the dialogue, including the songs, five days a week. Imagine doing this armed with just a decent understanding of both languages. Furthermore, imagine having to do this for a whole raft of bad movies.

    And when you get home and want to watch the news or something refreshingly non-filmi, you find that your wife wants to watch never-ending mega-serials about large, unhappy families, your son wants to listen to hip-hop on VH1 and your daughter wants to watch some movie on Zee Cinema.

    Frankly, if I had that job and someone gave me a beautifully lyrical number by Sahir Ludhianvi on the last Thursday of the month, it wouldn’t seem like the best things that’s happened all month. I’ll probably just go, “Aw, crap! Can’t even copy-paste stuff here from other movies!”


    ps: Too much? :-D

    pps: Despite that little melodramatic rant above, I agree with you folks. They really should check the master DVDs once again. But as with most other things, economics will rule, and the ones that get checked would mostly be the DDLJs of the world. Fakira would probably continue to do someone’s thighs.

  18. OMG Ramsu! I am laughing so hard although probably I should be crying for those poor souls. You are probably right.

    Despite my complaints I would miss the craziness of some subtitles. They do render a bad film good sometimes!

  19. Hilarious post and discussion! On the BollyWHAT? forum (from where I found my way to this blog today, there’s a thread about funny subtitles, too, with lots of examples and some screenshots: http://www.bollywhat-forum.com/index.php?topic=494.msg3921#msg3921

    The best (or worst) subs ever are those in other languages than English. I’m from Germany, and whenever there are German subtitles on a Hindi film DVD, I have a look at them just for fun, before I go back to English because they’re very coherent… …in comparison.
    The German (and French and others, too) obviously are made with a computerized translation program, without any attempt at understanding the language. So you get lots of fun with sentences like “but never wear chewed betel leaf”, but very little help in understanding what the movie is all about…

    Oh, and Memsaab – I loved your Boman Irani story. To imagine you saying “Chod do mujhe” to him – you just made my day! :D

  20. Hi Anamika :-) Thanks for the link to the BollyWHAT! thread, I think I missed it somehow!

    Yes, you could talk with my sister probably for hours about German subtitles :-) She says the same thing: done with a computer, and just nonsensical (see her comment above). Love the “never wear chewed betel leaf” example!

    And yes, I am sure Boman laughed quite hard behind my back on that one!

  21. Speaking of subtitles…They sell kits in some craft stores with a battery-operated clockworks and a set of hands. So one can easily turn unwatchable DVDs into clocks.

    Can you tell I’ve bought too many DVDs in my life?

  22. Great idea!—I think I told you that I turn my unsubtitled or unplayable DVDs into coasters…but you only need so many coasters! At least usually the artwork on the DVD is lots of fun!

    I know what all my friends are getting for Christmas this year :-)

  23. I enjoy the variation in subtitling. I agree with your statement, “At their worst—when subtitles lag behind what’s happening on screen, or are missing for long periods of time, or appear randomly—they can render a movie practically unwatchable.” I think the worst case of this I’ve witnessed so far is, “Nigahen: Nagina Part II, 1989,” which was missing about 45 minutes of subtitling in the middle of the film. I didn’t understand until much later in the movie that Sunny Deol’s character was trapped in a basket as a snake for 8 or maybe 15 years or something. Had I understood that earlier, the movie would not have been any better. :) I also think the original “Don” has some bad subtitling if I remember correctly. The only upside subtitling that lags behind, is that it makes me feel smart, because I already know they said that a few lines back. I also enjoy when even me, with a 2 year old’s or less sophisticated understanding of Hindi, know when the subtitling is inaccurate. I too miss it in the songs when we need it most! And when the subtitling is beautiful and poetic, I think that in Hindi it must be even more lovely. When the subtitling is bad I wonder about who is doing it. Is it a group of drunk guys? Is it someone who fully understands the language they are translating the Hindi into? Did they get bored and take a dinner break, but forget to stop the film while they were eating and just picked up when they got back? Maybe we can start a the Bollywood Board of Accuracy in Translation: BBAT. But that may take away the charm of quirky translations.

  24. i am hereby banning myself from reading u at wk- my facial expressions are highly circumspect as I try myy best to look like I am working :D

    of course I am not going to actually stop… heeh

  25. ROTFL @ “Chod do mujhe”.. HAHAHA

  26. Subtitles! r god enough to describe a movie.Hindi is a simple language,try to speak and i think u will able to speak hindi fluently in 2 months.

  27. OMG, that is too funny. I would’ve died of embarrassment but I’m glad you survived to tell the tale! You know what drives me nuts, is when they try to “translate” the song lyrics to rhyme in English subtitles. WTF, dude. Part of the reason I love Hindi movie song lyrics is because of the beautiful meanings. I don’t need things transfigured into nursery-rhyme caliber ditties.

  28. This is one of the most hilarious posts + set of comments I have read here. ROFL.

    But I can understand how the fun of enjoying a movie can be lost if the sub-titling is poor. It is one thing to have silly sub-titling (that can be fun, since you get the meaning anyway). It is quite another if the sub-titling is lagging behind the movie or suddenly disappears.

    Personally, I would love to sub-title any Hindi movie. Or translate songs. I think I am OK at both Hindi and English and, since I absolutely love lyrics and poetry of old songs (I am singing all the time – badly – much to the irritation of people around me ;-) ), I am sensitive to the meaning of the text.

    If there is any specific song you would like me to translate, just let me know.

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