Subtitles aren’t in the way, but you might be

Hannah Holliday | Cartoonist

Subtitles are tiny. With such good movies filmed in languages other than English, it’s time for the American audience to get over the little-word hump.

“Parasite” won the Oscar for best picture. It’s the first foreign-language film to win in the category in the 92-year history of the program, and it’s a major milestone for the foreign film community.

When “Parasite” won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, director Bong Joon Ho got on stage and said once Americans get over the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” there is a massive number of amazing films they can enjoy.

Take “Roma,” last year’s favorite for Best Picture, which came from Italy and soared to great success on Netflix. “Dark,” a TV show from Germany aired on Netflix, is dubbed into English, but has had massive success in other non-English-speaking countries as well.

In spite of the newfound appreciation for foreign films and subtitles, the Oscars paid a tribute to its dubbing audience with a rendition of “Into the Unknown” from “Frozen 2.” The performance featured Idina Menzel, the English actress for Elsa, alongside several singers who acted the part of Elsa’s voice in other parts of the world.

Dubbing, however, reduces the cinematic experience. So much of the movie is lost when the original actor’s vocal intonations and expressions are robbed from the film and replaced with a different voice in a different language.

Dubbing also takes away from the culture associated with the movie. It takes away what the director and actor intended when the line was originally performed. So if people care about the movies they watch, and they want the show they’re watching to be whole and true, they will turn on the subtitles and pay attention to the achievement in storytelling in front of them.

As the Best Director winning director said, they’re 1-inch-tall obstacles. If nothing else, they drive engagement with the movie or show and force viewers to pay attention to what they’re watching.

Tim Smith, an associate professor of cognitive psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, said just that in a New York Times piece about the rise of subtitles.

“When you’re watching a subtitled movie,” Smith said, “you have to be engaged with the screen and be more attached, but once you engage with that, you can have as rich an experience as if it were your language.”