There's a new series of classic-film DVDs out in Indian music stores. It's by a company called Enlighten (official website here), the discs are nicely packaged and include a short booklet about the film or the director, and there are many great titles available. (Samples: John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, Howard Hawks’ Red River, Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai.) The price – Rs 399 – is much too high for my liking, and predictably there are no special features, but I picked up a DVD of Rene Clair’s And Then There Was None because I wanted to see the film again for a future Yahoo! column. (It's a solid, well-produced if occasionally static version of Agatha Christie’s novel, featuring a cast of fine character actors: Walter Huston, Barry Fitzgerald, Judith Anderson among them.) The English subtitles were on the screen by default when I started playing the disc; I was about to switch them off when I chanced to read some of them. Truly astounding stuff.
The film’s opening credits are preceded by the handwritten title “Ten little Indians went out to dinner”, a reference to the poem (also known as “Ten Little Niggers”) that is integral to Christie’s plot. Now you could reasonably point out that this opening shot doesn’t require a further English subtitle at the bottom, but a subtitle there is (maybe it’s for people who can’t read the cursive version?). And this is what it says:
“Ten were negritos to dinner.”
A few more samples:
When the butler Rogers says “If you gentlemen will be good enough to follow me, I’ll show you to your rooms,”, the subtitle reads: “If I keep the Knights, I’ll show them the rooms.”
(This substitution of “Knights” for “gentlemen” continues through the film.)
“Tell him we are quitting” becomes “Tell that renounced.”
When the cook calls out “Here!” to the butler, the subtitle says “Takes!”
“I think a weekend will be enough” is changed to “I think an end of week will be enough.”
Non-English words frequently occur. “Don’t stand there gawking! Get them up” translates to “Do not stay there stationary, levantalos.” The word “botero” is used for boatman, and “indiecitos” is used for the little "Indian" statuettes. “I tell my patients fairytales” becomes “Les fairytale story.”
And so it continues. A hearing-impaired person reading these subtitles would think of this film as Chico Marx meets late-period Bunuel. I'm not sure what’s going on here, but I suspect the original English was first translated into another language (Spanish, French or a mix of both) and then clumsily translated from that language back to English. Very strange and, I’d like to think, highly avoidable too. If the subtitles on the rest of the Enlighten DVDs are of this quality (and there are many non-English films in the catalogue too), all that fancy packaging doesn’t amount to much.
[An earlier post about problematic DVD subtitles here. Given recent experiences, I’ll probably have more on this subject soon]