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Unlike most books about film, this actually takes the shape of one. Its unusually squat, wide format shares the horizontal aspect ratio of most movies (1.66:1), and surveying the interplay of text and image on the pages of Subtitles is reminiscent of watching a subtitled film, which is appropriate given the subject. Edited by filmmaker Atom Egoyan and York University professor Ian Balfour, Subtitles is a provocative collection of essays, interviews, and artwork that all touch on the subject of how movies are translated (and misunderstood) as they travel between languages and cultures. As the editors write in the introduction, "Subtitles are only the most visible and charged markers of the way in which films engage, in direct and oblique fashion, pressing matters of difference, otherness and translation." Egoyan himself contributes two pieces. One culls together unused publicity stills from his movie The Sweet Hereafter that have been augmented by new subtitles written by the author of the original novel, Russell Banks. The other is an interview with fellow director Claire Denis: they discuss how a conversation in her film Vendredi Soir that was meant to be largely inaudible to French viewers was fully subtitled for the English audience, changing the nature of the scene entirely.
Throughout Subtitles, the notion that subtitles are neutral translations of what the characters are speaking gets tossed out the window. In "Cultural Ventriloquism," Henri Behar relates some of the dilemmas he's experienced translating films like Boyz 'N the Hood into French. Perplexed by Ice Cube's climactic line--"Five thousand"--Behar decided not to offer any translation. Months later, he learned that "five thousand" was short for "Audi 5000," as in "I'm outta here." (Behar added the subtitle: "Je me casse.") In two other essays, B. Ruby Rich and John Mowitt reveal how foreign films get designated as such by the American industry and Oscar voters. Moving beyond issues of language to issues of culture, Negar Mottahedeh's "Where Are Kiarostami's Women?" examines how the much-celebrated work of director Abbas Kiarostami is influenced by the officially mandated marginalization and absence of women in Iranian cinema, something most Western critics have failed to note.
Though Subtitles is rarely a breezy read--some pieces are so laden with academic jargon and Deleuze references, they nearly turn English into a foreign language--it contains many valuable insights about films and the cultural baggage they carry. Veteran subtitle-readers will find much to relish between these widescreen covers. --Jason Anderson [via]