Friday, May 14, 2010

Subtitle silliness: ten were negritos, knights and indiecitos

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]


  1. I got "The Big Sleep" and "Red River" in this series, but I haven't really looked at the subtitles.

    My issue with the series is that the booklet doesn't tell you much about the film. THe one on "The Big Sleep", for instance, has a bio of Bogart, and some notes on Howard Hawks, but very little on the film.

    And, yeah. There aren't any special features, which makes the whole exercise a bit pointless.

  2. Yes, that booklet could be a superfluous add-on, bunged in to make the DVD package look thicker and more impressive. The one with And Then There Were None was a very sketchy essay on Agatha Christie. Won't be buying any more of these DVDs, unless they have a film that I badly want to own, which I absolutely haven't seen on DVD elsewhere.

  3. There's a lot that I don't understand about the legit DVD market.

    Take a company like Enlighten. Do you think they would have bought the rights from the several studios that own the copyright for each of these films? I suppose Fox owns the copyright for My Darling Clementine. I wonder how much it would've cost Enlighten upfront to buy the rights to distribute this film in India? Or is Fox entitled to a share of Enlighten's proceeds?

    Also, what about public domain movies? Suppose Criterion lifts a movie out of the public domain (Paisan for instance) and starts selling DVDs of the same for $25. Is the new Criterion DVD copyrighted? Or does the film remain in the public domain?

  4. It does seem strange that Criterion manages to command prices as high as $20-30 for a public domain movie, no matter how good a job they've done with it in terms of restoration and adding special features.

    In an efficient market, a DVD release of a public domain feature should struggle to fetch a price much higher than $0.

  5. There's clearly a lot not just lost in translation but muddied up as well. I've found the occasional language gremlin in ostensibly 'good' DVDs, so there's obviously little, or no, professional oversight on the matter. In any case, subtitles - and the hearing-impaired market - don't seem to be a primary DVD concern.

    I wonder if films that are subtitled for cable TV - often cringe-inducing work - find their way into DVDs with their subtitles intact.

    I'd written a blog on the subject -,com_mojo/Itemid,715/p,216/ - a while ago. Not that I'd expected something good to happen - and it hasn't.

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  7. Their subtitling for 'Rules of the Game' was pretty good. Hope Rene Clair was a one-off - they've released Pabst's 'Pandora's Box'. Have to get that, risk of crappy subtitles notwithstanding.

  8. Hi, interesting post. I found my way here through a friend's shared items on Reader.
    And Then There Were None is in the public domain, incidentally. ( You can even watch it on Youtube in a ten-part series, although the quality is not very good.