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Subtitles Are Great—and Not Just for Foreign Films

Song Kang-ho in Parasite

CJ Entertainment/Neon

A subtitled film just won Best Picture at the Oscars. That’s amazing. What’s not so amazing is that someone thought that occasion was a good time to publish the take that subtitles are … bad? And dubbing is better?

This is … wrong.

The author of this piece (which I don’t suggest clicking through to, trust me I’ll cover it all for you) claims first off: “It’s hardly just Americans who don’t like subtitles. No one likes subtitles.” This is so horrendously silly. For one it completely dismisses those deaf or hard of hearing people that need subtitles, but more so, it’s just not true. I am not hard of hearing but I love subtitles. Love them.

I almost always have my subtitles turned on. Not just for foreign movies or shows, but for all shows and movies. They improve my viewing experience! Especially in movies or shows with loud music and complicated fantasy language or accents, it helps me with the dialogue. (I think I would have liked The Witcher better if there had been available subtitles for the version I watched ahead of the premiere).

In my house, we always have the subtitles on. I don’t like things very loud, especially if I have a kid sleeping while I watch grown-up shows, and I find it helps me concentrate on and understand whatever I’m watching. There’s so much that gets lost when you’re just listening to a show—and often looking at your phone at the same time. Subtitles make me concentrate, which is hard sometimes. Subtitles can even help us learn other languages. Overall, they are magical, and it’s wonderful to have more of an option to turn them on on many services these days.

I know there are people that don’t like reading subtitles. I read very fast, and often finishing reading before the line is done which can undo some suspense or spoil a joke; however, the clarity I get from having the subtitles on is worth it. I will always take subtitles over nothing. And when it comes to foreign film, I will always go subtitles overdubbing.

This is the second, and much more horrendous point the linked Mother Jones piece makes: First that subtitles are “only common in countries too poor to afford a dubbing industry.” YIKES. But the author also completely misses why subtitles work. The author claims subtitles in foreign films “eliminate one of the key aspects of the acting craft: reading lines. It is faux sophistication of the highest order to pretend that this shouldn’t—or doesn’t—matter.”

Dude. DUDE. It’s the opposite. When you dub a movie, no matter how good, you are putting a vocal performance on top of a physical on by another person and covering up half their work. Subtitles preserve actors’ work. And to claim they don’t and that other countries are too poor to afford them is incredibly ignorant and wrongheaded.

We don’t need bad takes about how hard it is to read (from a guy who didn’t even see Parasite before writing about how subtitles are bad!!!). Americans need to normalize subtitles in foreign and domestic films. Because not only does getting over the phobia of subtitles open you up to amazing non-English films, adding them to your regular viewing experience can make it better and more accessible.

So, be quiet, person who has bad opinions on subtitles. Or yell. I don’t care because you are wrong and I can still keep track of my movie even with your yelling because I have the subtitles on.

(via: Mother Jones)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.