Sunday, September 21, 2008

I Don't Like Rhyming Subtitles

In the "things I complain about that normal people don't and shouldn't care about" category: why is it that most English subtitle translations render song lyrics (and rhyming dialogue, like in Cyrano De Bergerac) in rhyme? Watching foreign-made musicals with the subtitles is, for me, extremely annoying because instead of just giving us a literal translation of what they're singing, the subtitles always twist the meaning around in order to make it rhyme. Les Demoiselles De Rochefort is almost unwatchable with the subtitles for that very reason. Same with the Gerard Depardieu version of Cyrano De Bergerac, with the rhyming subtitles by Anthony Burgess.

It would be one thing if the subtitles were "singing" translations that we could sing along with, but for the most part, they don't fit the music, either (or in the case of Cyrano, the scansion of the original French verse); they just rhyme because the subtitle translator decided we had to know that the song/dialogue is in rhyme. But we can hear that the thing rhymes; we're looking at the subtitles just to get a clear idea of what they're saying. It doesn't help to look at the rhyming subtitles and try to figure out the difference between what's being sung and what the subtitler came up with in order to create these lame rhymes. (Though I admit it has helped my French, because it forces me to listen more closely to the lyrics, since I can't depend on the subtitles to tell me anything.) Just give us the translations and forget about trying to make it rhyme, please.


Marissa Skudlarek said...

I find the Burgess translation of Cyrano de Bergerac very effective onstage when spoken by actors who know how to perform verse drama, but I can see how it would be annoying to read as subtitles to a French-language movie.

My personal pet peeve about movie subtitles is when the lyrics of a song played in the movie (underscoring a montage sequence, say) are very important to the story or theme, but the subtitles don't even attempt to translate the song. Recent example of this: "La Vie En Rose." Even lame rhymes are better than nothing!

Victor said...

I translated a Russian cartoon version of The Musicians of Bremen for fun once. I made the translation rhyme and be singable, and I think I did a pretty good job. I had to lose a certain amount of meaning to get even a literal translation to make sense in English, and not that much more is lost if you try to make it rhyme and fit the music. So I'm with you on that.

However, I've also translated horrible Russian TV shows and movies for money, and once you do that, and they start singing, you suddenly care a lot less about getting everything just right. So, I assume that's the case with rhyming subtitles that don't fit the music, at least sometimes. I mean, I imagine Criterion hire pros to do their subtitles, and pay them accordingly. But a lot of other people don't, and so you get the results that you get.

For instance, when someone was quoting Mandelstam in one of those horrible Russian movies, I can't say I put too much effort into it.

Anonymous said...

If you think that that is bad then check out the last thirty seconds or so of the English sub-titled version of this year's French box-office smash Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis, where the translator has just given up on what is being said and pulled a random joke from thin air.