Friday, July 3, 2009

Rhythms of Text, Rhythms of Voice

I watch a lot of stuff with subtitles, but there are dub jobs I love, and there are dubs I will watch subtitled, because I love the sounds and rhythms of them, but do not understand enough of the language being utilized to get through without those floaty translations. Language is more than simply grammar or the enunciation of words; rhythms of enunciation are significant and variable intralingually, as well. Attitudinal and professional tones affect the aural experience perhaps more than the actual words do.

Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django is delivered in English, but even the actors who obviously can deliver with normative English pronunciation and rhythms (like the lone American performer, Quentin Tarantino) give their lines a flourish that dismantles the meanings of the words, until the dialogue becomes a delivery system not for the meaning of words and phrases, but for sound and rhythm solely. That subtitles are available on some versions of this film is absurd and pretty much misses the point.

Similarly, I don’t think you need to know anything about Tango and Cash to enjoy Stallone and Russell dubbed into Spanish. The pair simply sound cooler and smoother, and a gunboot is excellent in any language.

On the other end of the spectrum, the BBC Choice dub of Urusei Yatsura featuring Matt Lucas and Anna Friel - which is hilarious – significantly loses something, I think, if one were not at least somewhat accustomed to hearing British enunciation and conversation.

Somewhat connected to this, is the effect that subtitles have on the average American movie audience, which is to lend significance to the visual elements of the film while downplay the audio portion. There are parts visual conceits employed by John Woo or Robert Rodriguez, which are treated with a reverence that a film in American English would probably not receive, with exactly the same techniques used (as both of those directors films made in American English would pretty much demonstrate). This is not to say that there are not some brilliant flourishes and unique semiotic elements in these films, but somehow the American audience has been trained to reflexively respond to subtitled films as more thoughtful and meaningful than any other sort. Dubbed films are instantly a lower form.

When subtitles and a dub are employed simultaneously (as opposed to, at alternate points, as with the American release of Trainspotting) the result can be a jangling of the trained responses in the audience. The audience can lose its awareness, find its reflex intake at odds with the presentation.

I once saw a Chinese dub of Returner that slowly shifted the English subtitles to those meant for a cursing-heavy Return of the King. It was a nearly-religious experience, especially when lines would sync up and guns and rings would be confused, “betrayal” and “volcano”.

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