subtitles and the future of reading 02.22.2006, 6:57 PM
posted by ben vershbow
After enduring a weeks-long PR pummeling for its dealings in China, Google is hard at work to improve its image in the world, racking up some points for good after slipping briefly into evil. Recently they launched Google.org: a website for the Google Foundation, the corporation's philanthropic arm and central office of evil mitigation. Paying a visit to the site, the disillusioned among us will be pleased to find that the foundation is already sponsoring a handful of worthy initiatives, along with a grants program that donates free web advertising to nonprofit organizations. And just in case we were concerned that Google might not apply its techno-capitalist wizardry to altruism as zealously as to making profit, they just announced today they've named a new director for the foundation by the name of -- no joke -- Dr. Brilliant. So it seems the world is in capable hands.
One project in particular caught my eye in light of recent discussions about screen-based reading and genre-blending visions of the book. Planet Read is an organization that promotes literacy in India through Same Language Subtitling -- a simple but apparently effective technique for building basic reading skills, taking popular visual entertainment like Bollywood movies and adding subtitles in English and Hindi along the bottom of the screen. A number of samples (sadly no Bollywood, just videos or photo montages set to Indian folk songs) can be found on Google Video. Here's one that I particularly liked:
Watching the video -- managing the interplay between moving text and moving pictures -- I began to wonder whether there are possibly some clues to be mined here about the future of reading. Yes, Planet Read is designed first and foremost to train basic alphabetic literacy, turning a captive audience into a captive classroom. But in doing so, might it not also be nurturing another kind of literacy?
The problem with contemporary discussions about the future of the book is that they are mired -- for cultural and economic reasons -- in a highly inflexible conception of what a book can be. People who grew up with print tend to assume that going digital is simply a matter of switching containers (with a few enhancements thrown in the mix), failing to consider how the actual content of books might change, or how the act of reading -- which increasingly takes place in a dyanamic visual context -- may eventually demand a more dynamic kind of text.
Blurring the lines between text and visual media naturally makes us uneasy because it points to a future that quite literally (for us dinosaurs at least) could be unreadable. But kids growing up today, in India or here in the States, are already highly accustomed to reading in screen-based environments, and so they probably have a somewhat different idea of what reading is. For them, text is likely just one ingredient in a complex combinatory medium.
Another example: Nochnoi Dozor (translated "Night Watch") is a film that has widely been credited as the first Russian blockbuster of the post-Soviet era -- an adrenaline-pumping, special effects-infused, sci-fi vampire epic made entirely by Russians, on Russian soil and on Russian themes (it's based on a popular trilogy of novels). When it was released about a year and a half ago it shattered domestic box office records previously held by Western hits like Titanic and Lord of the Rings. Just about a month ago, the sequel "Day Watch" shattered the records set by "Night Watch."
While highly derivative of western action movies, Nochnoi Dozor is moody, raucous and darkly gorgeous, giving a good, gritty feel of contemporary Moscow. Its plot grows rickety in places, and sometimes things are downright incomprehensible (even, I'm told, with fluent Russian), so I'm skeptical about its prospects on this side of the globe. But goshdarnit, Russians can't seem to get enough of it -- so in an effort to lure American audiences over to this uniquely Russian gothic thriller, start building a brand out of the projected trilogy (and presumably pave the way for the eventual crossover to Hollywood of director Timur Bekmambetov), Fox Searchlight just last week rolled the film out in the U.S. on a very limited release.
What could this possibly have to do with the future of reading? Well, naturally the film is subtitled, and we all know how subtitles are the kiss of death for a film in the U.S. market (Passion of the Christ notwithstanding). But the marketers at Fox are trying something new with Nochnoi Dozor. No, they weren't foolish enough to dub it, which would have robbed the film of the scratchy, smoke-scarred Moscow voices that give it so much of its texture. What they've done is played with the subtitles themselves, making them more active and responsive to the action in the film (sounds like some Flash programmer had a field day...). Here's a description from an article in the NY Times (unfortunately now behind pay wall):
...[the words] change color and position on the screen, simulate dripping blood, stutter in emulation of a fearful query, or dissolve into red vapor to emulate a character's gasping breaths.
And this from Anthony Lane's review in the latest New Yorker:
...the subtitles, for instance, are the best I have encountered. Far from palely loitering at the foot of the screen, they lurk in odd corners of the frame and, at one point, glow scarlet and then spool away, like blood in water. I trust that this will start a technical trend and that, from here on, no respectable French actress will dream of removing her clothes unless at least three lines of dialogue can be made to unwind across her midriff.
It might seem strange to think of subtitling of foreign films as a harbinger of future reading practices. But then, with the increasing popularity of Asian cinema, and continued cross-pollination between comics and film, it's not crazy to suspect that we'll be seeing more of this kind of textual-visual fusion in the future.
Most significant is the idea that the text can itself be an actor in a perfomance: a frontier that has only barely been explored -- though typography enthusiasts will likely pillory me for saying so.
Posted by ben vershbow on February 22, 2006 6:57 PM
tags: animation, books, cinema, digital_literature, ebooks, film, flash, google, google_video, india, language, literacy, reading, russia, subtitles, translation, typography, video
Jesse Wilbur on February 22, 2006 10:32 PM:
I think typographers with a conservative notion of type treatment may be upset with it, but hopefully only for missed opportunities for better execution rather than for the idea of playing with the text. Comic book artists have been playing with the text for ages. BIFF!, Pow!, SHAZZAM! - they don't have the effect unless they're red, italic, and in an exploding text bubble. Playing with the text is integral to the comic reading experience - it's nice to see that becoming a part of film in a practical, rather than merely decorative, way.
Sally Northmore on February 23, 2006 9:51 AM:
I haven't seen Nochnoi--were the animated subtitles also included in Russian theatres? I love thinking of the text as another player in the performance. I haven't seen that in film, but it brings to mind puppet theatre. There is a lot of creative play in puppetry right now that also approaches every element in its performance as an actor.
Pursuant to dinosaurs upgrading to remain literate, I overheard this phrase in publishing speak of the new generation of readers: "digital natives".
Tova Reich on February 23, 2006 11:28 AM:
Another good use of subtitles in the same language that is spoken on the screen is also to improve language learning. I use it all the time in Israel for example, where almost every television show includes subtitles in Hebrew -- I think for people who are deaf.
Jason Boog on February 23, 2006 12:02 PM:
The Peter Greenaway film, The Pillow Book used lots of crazy subtitle innovations: sideways scrolling, intricate cursive, and a jumble of languages. The film obsessed over the places where books and cinema intersect, but it offered too much information to process as a viewer or a reader. I remember most people in the theater left frustrated with the whole product.
I think it's great that Nightwatch is using these techniques in service of the action film. When used more sparingly, these technical innovations create a whole new experience. I really enjoyed watching Nightwatch in the theater. These techniques eased the subtitle-reading lag time that can spoil a foreign thriller.
dan visel on February 23, 2006 5:56 PM:
You know, I was thinking about this recently, if coming at it from a slightly different angle. The French Institute/Alliance Française has been showing a series of the films of Marguerite Duras. Two of them were particularly interesting in this context: Agatha et les lectures illimitées and L'homme atlantique are related films (material from the first was recycled in the second) consisting of a series of shots of a deserted seaside town to the accompaniment of voices reading texts by Duras. For probably about a third of the length of the first and two-thirds of the length of the second, the screen is entirely black.
Presumably, Duras intended the blank screen to focus the viewer's attention on the texts being read - there's nothing to look at. But when it's shown with subtitles, the resulting experience is profoundly different: instead of looking at a black screen, you're looking at a black screen with type on the bottom half. The experience is different again if the viewer doesn't understand French and thus has to read the subtitles. (It makes a difference seeing the film in a theatre: unlike on a DVD, there's no way to turn the subtitles off.)
The subtitles (which were handled reasonably well) become a major part of these films, even when there is an image on the screen: Duras uses a lot of static shots (of seascapes, for instance), and often the subtitles are the most active thing on the screen. They change far more frequently than anything else on the screen and the eye is inexorably drawn to them.
It's an interesting experience, certainly, but it's almost certainly an experience different from what the filmmaker intended the audience to be having. Certainly Duras's films are something of an extreme case. But I think that they highlight that unless titles are handled directly by or in collaboration with the filmmaker (Greenaway's a perfect example of this), it's not always an equitable collaboration.
Maybe now people will start thinking about this more? Certainly there's no longer any technical reason why any old viewer shouldn't be able to edit and remake the subtitles in a DVD, though nobody's gone out of their way to make it easier . . .
sol gaitan on February 24, 2006 10:37 AM:
Having grown up in a country where most films you watch are subtitled, and a being a lover of opera, lieder and other forms of music that require supertitles or reading notwithstanding that you understand the languages in which they are sang, I am quite comfortable with subtitles. Even when I watch films in languages I understand, I have to make a conscious effort not to read translations that often infuriate me for their imprecision and distract me from the film. A lover of images, I'm always surprised at the preeminence of the written word when it shows up on the screen. I have not been particularly attracted to the artistic use of the written word in supertitles. Lost Objects is an example, where I felt they stole my attention away from the actual singing or from what was happening on the stage. However, I am experimenting right now with the use of same language subtitles for the teaching of Spanish to young children using e-assignments created in TK3. I am planning on making a transition from subtitled to non-subtitled videos to see how this affects learning.
Greg McCall on September 11, 2006 2:08 AM:
Hi --I have been using a similar format for rehearsed readings/reading fluency instruction with SPED students. Check out attached website. Approach works well with DVD musicals.