Outside of film festivals, you usually don’t see Indians getting worked up over subtitles. Yet, a month and a half ago, this is exactly what happened. It started with a police complaint, and later, a court case, over a scene from the Netflix original series Sacred Games, in which former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi is described as fattu. This became “pussy" in the English subtitle, replaced later by the milder “wimp" in some versions.

The series threw up another subtitling conundrum, one that extended beyond the original Hindi phrasing and its English translation. In the first episode, there’s a restaurant signboard which reads “Satyanarayan Shukla Hindu Hotel Shudh Shakahari". The English translation for this was “Upper-caste Hindu Hotel – Pure Vegetarian"—a possible attempt to provide cultural context for foreign audiences (Indians would guess that it’s upper caste from the proprietor’s name and the “pure vegetarian" specification).

François-Xavier Durandy, a French subtitler of Hindi films, supplied a fascinating addendum, tweeting screenshots of the scene with different European language subtitles. The confusion may have begun with the word “hotel", retained in the English subtitle. The Italian subtitle reads “Hotel di lusso"—luxury hotel. Over Skype from Normandy, France, Durandy explains that this was probably a result of “bridge translation"—not using the original language as a source (“upper-caste" was likely interpreted as “upper-class", which then became “luxury").

Bridge translation, in Durandy’s eyes, is a cardinal, if common, sin. He gives another example, of an Indian short film which was shown at a major film festival. Because of a bridge translation, he says, aap became the informal tu in French and not the formal pronoun vous, thus confusing viewers who thought, incorrectly, that the characters were mother and daughter (the actual relationship was of employer and house help). “They see what they think is the daughter sleeping in the kitchen," Durandy says, “and they start assuming things."

I visited Durandy last year at his home in Normandy, complete with goats, sheep, geese, a cat, and a peahen and peacock named Laxmi and Narayan. We were chatting after dinner, and the conversation leaned towards films and his work. He mentioned that he was working on a small, tricky project he’d picked up for fun: a Hindi commercial for Indian retail store Big Bazaar. In this minute-long ad celebrating Ramzan, a doctor about to break her fast is interrupted by an urgent case; later, the patient’s mother invites her to a modest iftar with them in the hospital. Durandy was worried that French audiences wouldn’t pick up that the doctor is Muslim, and the patient’s family, Sikh. “Ads are incredibly challenging," he says. “It’s almost impossible to pack in all the information."

Sonja Majumder’s German subtitles for ‘Bajirao Mastani’. In the scene, Bajirao is telling Mastani that she won’t enjoy the same status (as his second wife) and that he’ll never be hers alone to love.
Sonja Majumder’s German subtitles for ‘Bajirao Mastani’. In the scene, Bajirao is telling Mastani that she won’t enjoy the same status (as his second wife) and that he’ll never be hers alone to love.

Invisible storytellers

Sonja Majumder, who subtitles Hindi films in German, agrees with a colleague who compared subtitling to the translation of poetry, because it involves working within confines. “If you translate a book," she says over Skype from Hamburg, “the German book can be longer than the English one. But a film scene is only that long."

Majumder says her job is to come up with subtitles you can read without losing sight of what is happening on screen. German words are usually longer than Hindi ones, so she often has to shorten what’s being said. This has to be done, though, without losing information or the essential flavour of the scene. It’s important to be ruthless, she says, because otherwise you’ll end up with the most beautiful sentence, a perfect translation, but no one will be able to read it because it is too long.

Subtitlers must know how to execute, or at least work with, what is known as “spotting". In its most basic sense, spotting is determining where a subtitle should start and where it should end in relation to the onscreen action. Durandy mentions two rules he follows. One is that a subtitle should never overlap with a cut. Another is that there shouldn’t be more than 15 characters per second—any more than that strains readability. Majumder echoes this, saying: “If you work against the editing of a film, it will be difficult to read the subs. We work with cuts, so we have to know a bit about filmic language, we have to have a sense of rhythm."

Given that they come between you and the film, as Durandy puts it, good subtitlers try to remain as unobtrusive as possible. “The best subtitles are invisible," Majumder says. “If at the end of the film, people think that they have not watched a film with subtitles, then you have done a good job."

Sometimes, though, invisibility isn’t an option. Majumder remembers puzzling for days over the crucial translation of the titular character’s name in PK (2014). Because it derived from peekay (drunk), they had to find a German word that both rhymed with it and conveyed the same meaning. In the end, they used the German word for drunk and added peekay in parentheses after it. Majumder admits, “It’s not as elegant as the original, but there was no other way."

Language, of course, can be a challenge. Majumder says she always has to work extra hard when translating lyricists who use difficult words, like Gulzar, or directors who set their films in a specific linguistic milieu, like Vishal Bhardwaj. Fujii Mika, who has been subtitling Hindi films in Japanese since 1999, cites Gangs Of Wasseypur as a demanding project because of its localized accents and slang. Sometimes just the volume of words can pose problems. Durandy says he finds masala films, with their rat-a-tat dialogue, tougher to negotiate than ones where the visual carries an equal or greater load. “The more that is left unsaid, the easier it is to translate. I think October would be a very easy film to subtitle. Or Trapped."

Fujii Mika’s Japanese subtitles for the trailer of ‘Mukti Bhawan’.
Fujii Mika’s Japanese subtitles for the trailer of ‘Mukti Bhawan’.

Translating a culture

For those who create subtitles, translation is just part of the job. A good subtitler will also act as a guide to a culture. A line of dialogue may only convey part of what is happening on screen; the subtitler must figure out whether additional, unstated information needs to be supplied. This could range from a mangalsutra to a hand gesture to a local festival—all the non-verbal information that we wouldn’t give a second thought to, but which would likely confuse a viewer who is not Indian.

Durandy mentions a famous line from Masaan (which he dubbed in French), spoken by Vicky Kaushal: “Ab toh hum friend ho gaye hain, na (we have become friends now, isn’t it)?" Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi) replies with a barely audible “Hmm" and a couple of head tilts—two on the left, two on the right—that would be interpreted as “yes" by any Indian. But a French viewer, Durandy says, would come away wondering if she was undecided. So they added a spoken oui in a frame where her face isn’t visible, even though Shaalu doesn’t say anything definitive out aloud. The choice, he says, was to cheat a little instead of having viewers think “she’s not sure, maybe not that much into the boy, and then jump to all the wrong conclusions".

Aleksandra Gonera works as a distribution manager and subtitler for Bollywood Europa, which distributes Hindi films in East Europe and Russia and provides dubbing and subtitling services in Polish, Czech, Russian, Hindi and English. Over Skype from Kraków, Poland, she says they sometimes come up against specifically Indian concepts—like jauhar in Padmaavat—which they either have to leave untranslated or find a comparable concept in Polish for. Curiously, when asked what else she finds difficult to explain to a viewer with scant knowledge of India, she mentions comedy. “With something like Golmaal or Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety, you have to know the culture very well to translate in a good way, otherwise it’s impossible."

François-Xavier Durandy’s French subtitles for a scene from ‘The Lunchbox’.
François-Xavier Durandy’s French subtitles for a scene from ‘The Lunchbox’.

Between the lines

One of the constraints subtitlers must operate with is dealing with clients (distributors, film festivals, language service providers) who are in a hurry—which is almost always the case. “You get one week to 10 days to do the subtitles," says Fujii. For Gonera, 10 days is a luxury—on occasion, she has had to turn over projects in two-three days.

All the subtitlers I spoke to said they would ideally want the film and the Hindi script before they start work—but this isn’t always possible. Sometimes they get the film and a script in English, sometimes just the Hindi script. Majumder says she and her partner, Gaby Gehlen, sometimes have to work without the film on hand. She recalls subtitling Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi without seeing the film, placing the German subtitles according to the time codes provided. “You have a film in your head but that may not be the same as the actual thing," she says.

Gonera faces similar problems when she translates from an English script and only gets the movie later (or not at all). “In Hindi, you know if someone is speaking to a man or a woman because it’s tha and thi," she says. “In English, there isn’t anything like that, but in Polish there is." Working from an English script or dub sometimes leads to huge mistakes—a fellow subtitler, Gonera says, once got an English script of Rang De Basanti which translated the title as “come to Basanti".

Durandy says he never works without getting the film and the Hindi script first. It might help that subtitling—while something he’s evangelical about, as even a cursory glance at his Twitter timeline will tell you—is a small part of his livelihood. He works in a voice-over department for TV, teaches translation to postgraduation students, and does “technical translation" for companies: not as exciting as the subtitling projects that take him to Cannes, but better at paying the bills. While he won’t divulge how much he makes on a typical project, Durandy says that the rate recommended by SNAC, the French union of authors, is €4.30 (around 350) per subtitle for a theatrical release. This rate, however, is rarely given in actual practice, he says.

It’s gratifying to know that subtitlers, too, worry about their work long after it’s published. Gonera says she would rather not see her films with an audience because she might find a mistake. Majumder feels the same way. “Seeing the translation up on the big screen is never fun," she says. “You think of every little thing you would do differently. I know of colleagues who had their subtitles shown at important festivals, who got so stressed they started crying after the screening was over." Durandy recalls watching Raman Raghav 2.0 at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. In his first viewing, he thought he saw a spelling mistake and panicked; in the second, he missed the line. To his relief, when he saw it a third time, he realized the subtitle was fine.

Aleksandra Gonera.
Aleksandra Gonera.

The weight of words

Subtitling is steadily gaining in importance as global audiences discover Indian films and series through streaming services, and lucrative new markets such as China emerge. It is already vital for directors whose films play at Cannes, Berlin, Venice and other major festivals. Durandy suspects a couple of recent Indian films might have made more of a splash on the art-house circuit had their subtitles been better. Neeraj Ghaywan, director of Masaan, which premiered at Cannes in 2015, was asked in a Reddit AMA what he thought the most underrated part of the film-making process was. He replied: “Subtitling. People ignore it thinking it is just translation. It is actually as important as screenwriting..."

Over the phone, Ghaywan—who has himself subtitled films from Hindi to English—says it isn’t just Indian producers and distributors who tend to ignore subtitling, but Indian directors as well. “For a non-Indian viewer, it isn’t a subtitle—it is dialogue. But the industry treats it like a checkmark." The way it’s supposed to work, he says, is that a film-maker sits with a subtitler and gives them context, the way he did with specifically Indian concepts like untouchability when Masaan was subtitled in French by Martine Armand. This, however, rarely happens. “I really think it should be treated with a little more dignity. You’re representing a film’s intelligence through subtitling." He mentions a French company he worked with, Titra Films, which calls the process “adaptation", not translation.

When Bong Joon-ho’s Okja released last year, Korean speakers pointed out a delightful joke embedded in the scene where, going by the English subtitle, a man tells a young girl (whose words he has already mistranslated): “Try learning English. It opens new doors!" In Korean, however, he has actually just told her his name. It’s a sly comment on Bong himself—an Asian director making his first Hollywood film—as well as on the essential trickiness of subtitles. As Ghaywan and Durandy both point out, unless you speak both languages, you’ll never know for certain if a film is being rendered accurately. Nevertheless, Okja is firmly on the side of subtitling. Later in the film, we see a fresh tattoo on the chastised interpreter’s arm. It reads: “Translations are sacred."

When words don’t come easy

Three subtitlers tell us about their most challenging projects

François-Xavier Durandy.
François-Xavier Durandy.

François-Xavier Durandy (France)

“The most delicate aspect of my job is certainly the translation of songs. Translators are writers and it takes a poet to translate poetry. Difficulties are related to both form and content. Not using rhymes will make your subtitles fall short aesthetically. Using rhymes and a proper metre drastically reduce your options and it’s so easy to end up sounding affected, or even pompous. The imagery also is so different. So from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Kya rang layi meri dua; lyrics by Sameer) to Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (More angana mein jab purvaiyya chali; lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni), songs have always required the most time, reflection and inspiration."

Sonja Majumder.
Sonja Majumder.

Sonja Majumder (Germany)

“It is always certain aspects that make a film translation tricky. My colleague Gaby and I had a tough time with PK as regards the name of the main character (it derived from the Hindi word for drunk, peekay). What do you do if that name has a meaning that is constantly referred to in the film? Obviously, you can’t change a name. We toyed with lots of ideas, even coming up with a semi-made-up word and conducting a survey among our friends to see if this would work. But that word turned out to be much too long."

Fujii Mika.
Fujii Mika.

Fujii Mika (Japan)

The most challenging Hindi film project for me was Gangs Of Wasseypur I and II for the Fukuoka International Film Festival. Although we do not have as much slang as there is in Hindi or in English, we have a lot of Japanese gang movies, so I could manage somehow.

As far as non-fiction is concerned, Final Solution (about the 2002 Gujarat riots) for the Yamagata International Film Festival was the toughest. I vicariously experienced the incident through translating. People’s cries and gun shots remained in my mind long after completing this project. The researching part was also very tough—I was lucky I had internet at that time.

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