Subtitles: The Limiting and Essential Gateway to Appreciating Foreign Films


I spent my last weekend binge watching foreign films with my friends. I’m the type of person who elects to have subtitles even if dialogue is in a language I understand, so I never had a problem watching foreign films and television shows unlike other people. Aside from learning that Korean films can make one bawl like a baby, our foreign film marathon brought up an insightful discussion between my buddies about the buddies.

We talked about subtitles for a good hour or so from those wacky subtitles you get from fake copies to relying on them to be able to watch a foreign films. We watched films from Korea, Philippines, Japan, and France. Discussion began when some of us were watching films wherein we were familiar with the language. We noticed that the subtitles paraphrased and simplified what was being said. Therefore, the rich metaphors and wit from the dialogue is stripped away. While people who are unaware of the language might miss this, subtitles are important for them to access the film.

Read on for more about my foreign film weekend and my thoughts on subtitles.


One of the films we saw was the recent film On the Job from the Philippines. I am fluent in Tagalog and can understand the language, but I had the subtitles on anyway. It’s basically about prisoners who are hired as contract killers by politicians. It is inspired by true events and a phenomena that I can attest to. Anyway, I started to notice halfway through the film that the subtitles weren’t translating what was being said verbatim. It was kind of peculiar to me because it was always the opposite case when I was watching films in English with subtitles. The translation wasn’t wrong since it did convey the essence of what was said. It just felt like it simplified the script and the characters.

For example, I do believe that people perceive others in a certain light based on their word choice. In the film, one of the characters was quite an eloquent speaker who masked his intentions with metaphors. You would get the idea that he is a refined and educated man, but people who are unaware of Tagalog might not see it because the subtitles paraphrased what he said in the most simple and direct form. It was puzzling why they did that though since the metaphor wasn’t really exclusive to Filipino culture.

However, I do see why there is a need for this especially when the dialogue uses terms and concepts only its local audience will understand. I thought I was the only one who felt this way until my Korean friend started voicing the same sentiment when we were watching Korean films. We still enjoyed the films like On the Job, but I feel that we appreciated them a lot more since my friend would lay out the context for particular lines from time to time.

Anyway, the foreign movie marathon actually inspired me to learn more languages. I plan to watching all the foreign movies I’ve seen and see whether or not I’ll appreciate it a different light once I am fluent in its chosen language. If I keep relying on subtitles to tailor the dialogue to American audiences, I’ll never notice that subtle cultural hints embedded in them.

To sum it up, yes we do need subtitles. Sometimes they can be a word for word translation or a simplistic paraphrase. The style chosen largely depends on the context of the dialogue so there’s no clear right choice. If the appropriate one is thoughtfully chosen, I think that foreign audiences could appreciate films on a whole different level. Wouldn’t want audiences to ignore a brilliant script just because it could not be translated properly. I am just thankful that films I saw didn’t have anything as bad as this:


I don’t know if he actually meant that in the anime, but I assume that this was mistranslated.

Here’s a list of the films we saw just in case you are interested:

On the Job (YouTube)

Blue is the Warmest Color (Netflix)

Sunny (Netflix)

The Host (Netflix)

A Moment to Remember (Netflix)

Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Netflix)

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  1. I think French films like Blue is the Warmest Color would probably benefit from more cultural knowledge. When I see a French person speak in English in real life, they seem more full of life than the characters in a French film. In the movies they seem kind of bored. Is that because the language itself is more expressive and I don’t pick up on it or is it an stylistic choice?

    I wonder about people who refuse to watch subtitled films. They have no problem with American shows like Breaking Bad that utilize subtitles regularly, and Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds were like half subbed, so I get the impression it’s just good old fashioned American xenophobia. It’s kind of funny that people seem to prefer I think they are illiterate rather than admit they are one of those people who boycott Coke because they had a commercial with foreign languages in it.

  2. Nice article. Kind of reminds me of an interview I read recently about the localization of Metal Gear Solid 2 to the US, where Konami’s stubbornness turned a simple translation job into a crazy mess for a very unlucky translator. (It’s on Hardcore Gaming 101, if your’re interested. Or try Googling “Agness Kaku”.)

    I also remember watching animes on a local cable channel as a kid where, even though I was just slowly starting to pick up on basic Japanese phrases, the subtle disconnect caused by the English translations was very palpable. This was especially noticeable when watching Ruruoni Kenshin, where a character would speak less than ten syllables of Japanese, and the corresponding translation would require two entire lines and would disappear as soon as the other guy started speaking, leaving me unable to read the entire translation beforehand. (This was “Samurai X” on AXN, by the way — over here in the Philippines. I wish they never made Animax and used English dubs…)

    All seriousness aside, though, my favorite thing about subtitles is the unintentional humor they cause, as illustrated by your image choices. My personal favorite is “Backstroke of the West”, an impossibly hysterical mistranslation of “Revenge of the Sith” (the entire movie!). (By the way, in the Naruto image above, the guy is just referring to the bone he pulled out of his own body, which he uses as weapons.)

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