Courtesy of CJ Entertainment

October 14, 2020

YANG | Subtitles Are So Political

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In the age of surveillance capitalism, there is not merely a feeling of being watched when streaming platforms know you all too well with their recommended content. There is also a feeling of being included when you find out that the movie you want to watch happens to be on the streaming platforms you’re subscribed to. Do we want to be ruled by these platforms that function as gatekeepers? Probably not. But for the marginalized, being featured on the platforms is merely the first step toward the subversion of the normativity dictated by the technocratic institutions.

As someone who is subscribed to the “Big Three” –  Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video – I still have a hard time finding the non-English-speaking films I want to watch on these platforms. As the streaming market is closer to saturation in the United States, in recent years, these American-based platforms have been eyeing on other markets to expand their global presence. This is for the ultimate capitalist pursuit of profitability, of course. Facilitating some forms of cultural exchange is merely the byproduct of the process. Even for Netflix, which is the most international out of the big three, the effort of diversifying its content and outreach still falls short as mere gestures of inclusion.

In recent years, Netflix has been working on localizing their content to cater to different audiences. This is done by providing subtitles and voiceovers in languages other than the language of production. Nonetheless, their editorial decisions still fundamentally reflect an Anglophone-centric, heteronormative and ableist mindset. Netflix is yet another technocratic company based in Silicon Valley that loves touting its diversity and inclusion initiatives on Linkedin, after all.

 

Scene from 'BPM' (Beat Per Minute) (2017)

Scene from ‘BPM’ (Beat Per Minute) (2017)

 

Scene from 'A Portrait of A Lady on Fire' (2019)

Scene from ‘A Portrait of A Lady on Fire’ (2019)

 

When I was trying to entertain myself without leaving my room this past weekend, I was elated to find that both BPM and Portrait of a Lady on Fire are on Hulu. As pleasant as these discoveries made me feel that subscribing to Hulu is at least somehow worth it, it was particularly devastating when I realized I couldn’t actually enjoy the films I had finally decided on watching for the night. After spending half an hour reading film reviews on finding the movie for the night, I felt betrayed.

The films are not in a language I fully understand. This is absolutely okay. I personally found it to be particularly rewarding and enriching to dedicate additional attention to appreciate something I’m unfamiliar with. But oftentimes, such cross-cultural appreciation can be only done with further assistance provided. And in the case of these two films and Hulu, neither subtitle nor dubbing is provided. I couldn’t grasp any part of the dialogues, and I closed the tab in sheer disappointment.

Without subtitles and dubbing, these non-English speaking films are nonetheless confined in their language-specific silos. This inaccessibility holds true despite being featured on streaming platforms that tout their global outreach. In the case of Hulu, the lack of dubbing and subtitles for its non-English-speaking films is a blatant example of an illusional gesture of inclusion.

And even when platforms do provide subtitles and dubbing, their editorial choices are inherently political. In many cases, only English subtitles are provided for non-English-speaking films. Despite the increasing diversity of its content, Netflix’s emphasis on English subtitles reflects its inherent favoritism toward people from the Anglophone world. As for people from other parts of the world, please just watch English-speaking films and TV shows, said Netflix. To a certain extent, these “foreign” films are featured merely to spice up the viewing experience of English-speaking audiences with some exotic content.

In particular, the specific content of subtitles and dubbing is what draws the most criticism. In 2017, Netflix was accused of ableism with its closed caption subtitles for the reality TV show Queer Eye. Ace Ratcliff, a fan of the series, tweeted, “I really wish Netflix captions for Queer Eye 2 weren’t bleeping profanity AND changing the profanity used in the captions. They continued “It fundamentally changes the experience of the television show for anyone who is d/Deaf or hard of hearing, and it does so without their consent. That’s seriously ableist, Netflix.” While Netflix has since apologized and taken actions to improve the accessibility of its content, the incident sheds light on the omnipotence of streaming platforms’ editorial power.

Comparison of subtitles for Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) provided by a fan on Twitter. The left column is the original version of English translation, and the right column is the version initially by Netflix, which has since been modified after drawing much criticism.

Comparison of subtitles for ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ (1995) provided by a fan on Twitter. The left column is the original version of English translation, and the right column is the version initially by Netflix, which has since been modified after drawing much criticism.

 

Another example is Netflix’s re-translation of Neon Genesis Evangelion, a Japanese anime classic. In light of copyright issues, Netflix didn’t use the original English translation of the series produced by the Japanese studio Gainax. Instead, when Netflix rereleased the 1995 anime masterwork, the platform translated the content on their own. This has drawn vehement backlash from the fans, as they believe the new English translation downplays the homoerotic subtext between the protagonist, Shinji, and his close friend Kaworu. As shown in the screenshots, the word “love” has been replaced with more euphemistic phrases like “like” and “worthy of grace.” (Let’s be honest, who would actually say “you’re worthy of my grace” to their crushes?) Many fans take these editorial decisions as a form of erasure that diminishes the series’ queer undertone. In this case, the original intentions of a non-Western creator have been ruthlessly misconstrued by an American tech giant in the name of promoting diversity and inclusion.

And the choice between subtitles and voiceover is itself political, too. This debate can be traced back to the discourses among anime fans back in the 1980s, but it is Parasite that really pushed the discourse to the forefront in popular culture. When the film made history by becoming the first foreign-language film ever to win a best picture Oscar, many Americans expressed their unwillingness to watch it because it is not in English. “Does Parasite have subtitles? I hate subtitles. I don’t go to movies to read a screen for two hours,” tweeted someone on Twitter. Such a sentiment reflects Americans’ general aversion toward subtitles.

Everyone but Americans knows this all too well. Boon Jonh-Ho, the director of Parasite, personally advocated for the acceptance of subtitles at the Golden Globes with his winning speech. “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” said Boon.

Compared to subtitles, Americans generally have a higher tolerance for voiceovers. This American predilection also speaks to the expectation for everything to be Americanized. It is crucial to note that production-wise, voiceovers are significantly more costly than subtitles. With Hollywood manifesting and exporting American cultural imperialism, how many film production companies overseas can afford to hire voice actors to localize (primarily Americanize) their content, anyway? The majority of non-English-speaking films will be out of plain sight on these platforms, and even for those that “made it” to the platforms, they will nonetheless be buried and siloed as they are dubbed as inaccessible without English voiceovers. In the end, these films almost always conveniently serve as valuable data points that feed into these companies’ self-fulfilling prophecy of diversity porn.

Subtitles are so political and powerful. I am acutely aware that the very architecture of proprietary platforms will almost always silence marginalized voices in a techno-capitalist fashion, but at the present juncture, we could at least reframe subtitles as the responsibilities of the platform giants. If they want the markets overseas, they have to serve the communities first. If they want to be platforms, they should be platforms for all and serve all.

 

Stephen Yang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at sy364@cornell.eduRewiring Technoculture runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.