What the Subtitles Say. Guest blogger Greg from Cottesloe

Here’s a popular generalisation. Subtitles or dubbing? Americans prefer dubbing of foreign films because it demonstrates that even Shaolin monks can speak English with a Bronx accent if they try hard enough. The fact that the lips keep on moving seconds after the voice stops merely adds to the mystery and allure of these foreigners. The smart set however likes subtitles because they add to the je ne sais quoi of the foreign experience of going to a film festival at the Cinema Paradiso.
Dubbing or subtitles, they provide both access to foreign films and to foreign news and opinion, albeit that the latter is observed more in the breach on Australian TV.
But our TV stations, including the ABC and SBS, have found another use for subtitles; helping us understand English that they believe we might find hard to understand in the middle of mainstream English programmes. The subtitles seem to be there to deal with strange accents, speech defects and loud ambient noise.
Ostensibly this helps migrants, the elderly and the deaf better enjoy their TV – all worthy stuff if it stopped there. But it doesn’t stop there; not only foreigners with thick accents but even our own aborigines get subtitled, have their version of our common language branded as inferior and barely intelligible to the rest of us. On the other hand, regional UK accents seem to be OK for migrants, the elderly and the deaf. Some of these brogues are so thick you could cut them with a knife but they nevertheless escape the sneer of the subtitle. Some are even heard from announcers on the ABC.
So what’s going on here? Is this an honest attempt to improve communication in a multicultural Australia? If so, let’s see more subtitles to help the migrants and others understand what’s being said by some non – Australian but native speakers of English with a rich syrupy accent. And I for one would strongly prefer to listen really, really closely and directly to what aborigines are saying without the patronising help of subtitles.
There’s another explanation of course, the idea that subtitles are a quiet assertion of white Anglo superiority. All white and Anglo speakers of English are by definition correct while a dark skin automatically puts you under the neon sign of subtitles.
Would this idea be news to aborigines and many migrants, I wonder?
Greg from Cottesloe

John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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2 Responses to What the Subtitles Say. Guest blogger Greg from Cottesloe

  1. margaret moir says:

    Sorry the only comment I feel is important re subtitles etc is if non English speaking programs are on then there should be subtitles provided.

    I have requested this especially for the news services on SBS but have been told it is too difficult to provide and or expensive.

    Accents no matter what nationality or group if you take the time to listen your understanding improves

  2. Nick Sharp says:

    I remember a spoof television interview with someone whose spoken English did not match the one-time BBC standard (exemplified by the insistance on wearing a dinner jacket to read the news).

    The victim’s words were sub-titled, and surrealistically he “saw” the sub-titles appearing and gave the interviewer a hard time for using them! Nice!

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