Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Saturday 19 November 2011


There's a small flurry of excitement about the launch of the new series of the Danish crime series The Killing ("this time, she's got a new jumper!").

Apart from the whole question of why we enjoy watching so much misery played out, I'm struck by the commissioners' anxiety about the acceptability of subtitles. I'm wondering how many people have to use them even for English-language films and programmes, now that a naturalistic sound ambience and styles of acting and [in]articulation can make it difficult to make out what someone's saying. I had to use them all the time for The Wire, and even occasionally for homegrown drama. (And no, it's not my ears: try listening to any replays of old programmes made in dead studio sound, or to His Girl Friday, of 1939, and see how they still manage to get the dialogue across, the faster and more manic it gets towards the end).

If there's a problem with subtitles, it's when you do have some knowledge of the original language, but not quite enough to keep up, especially if it's full of slang delivered at speed - as for example in Spiral (Engrenages in the original French), which also filled the same "cult" slot on BBC4.

I'm forever trying to translate back from what I'm reading to what I've heard, which tends to distract from following the plot, even if it does add to my knowledge of French police procedure and criminal jargon (let's hope there's no need for that to come in handy next time I go). Even in other languages, there's a temptation to pick out odd bits and pieces: the way Sarah Lund referred to her CV left me wondering whether what we think of in English as "estuary" vowels might actually be a relic of the Angles and Vikings all those centuries ago.

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