my visits home from New York, I often catch up on my movie-watching
-- exploring Dhaka's pirated film market. Clone DVDs are increasingly
sophisticated, with sleek, realistic packaging. One Dhaka friend
told me, "I look up movies on Amazon.com and then I go
buy them at Rifles Square."
this sophistication does not extend to the close-captions (subtitles
for the hard of hearing). Since the clones are illegal dubs
of promotional copies, there are no close-captions to copy.
This gap has been filled by enterprising Asian cloners who have
started inserting their own subtitles. One Chinese outfit hires
university graduates to watch the films and type in subtitles.
These efforts have often resulted in hilarious and unintentionally
subversive results. The Sean Connery blockbuster "The League
Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (LXG)" provides a case in point.
is an adaptation of an Alan Moore graphic novel, which focuses
on a "superhero" team of fictional heroes, brought
together to fight an evil genius. The team includes Allan Quatermain
(H Rider Haggard's swashbuckling hero), Captain Nemo (Jules
Verne), Mina Harker (Bram Stoker's "Dracula"), Invisible
Man (HG Wells), Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde) and all-American Tom
Sawyer (Mark Twain). The initial meetings of our intrepid heroes
prove to be incredibly distracting. The spoken dialogue tells
one story-- the closed-caption subtitles provide a completely
different, and often more interesting, subtext.
in subtitles start off as banal mistakes. A drunken sot's remark
to a visitor, "And I suppose you're another traveler, got
it in your head to sample the dark continent" becomes the
reverse: "And I suppose you aren't a traveler. Got it into
your head to stuff from the dark continent." Dire predictions
of an unstable world, "Baying for blood, it's a powder
keg." changes to "Being for blood, it's a powder cake."
The Invisible Man's jest, "I'm feeling a bit of draft in
my nether regions" becomes, "I'm feeling a bit of
drafted another agents." Individual phrases also provide
a challenge: "Thief" changes to "faith",
"boon" to "bone," "sick note"
to "sick knot," "as patriotic" to "the
speech" and "prerogative" to "perlocutive."
can still be made of the subtitles, until utterly nonsensical
constructions start to appear. "There is great unrest,
countries set at each other's throats" mutates to "That's
glad on rest, countries set each other throat." "These
attacks have every nation clamoring for the very weapons that
assail them" changes to "And he attached every nations
claiming very weapons to the sierra." Sean Connery's guttural
growl after a fight, "Wasn't there another one of these
buggers?" becomes "You guys sent another this baggage?"
Strangest of all, Quatermain's boast, "I don't know whether
to regale with how I found King Solomon's mines," becomes
"I know how to regret you with how I found to kick soloman's
mind." Of course, "kick" might actually be appropriate,
given the racism in old adventure tales.
the Asian subtitle creators look at the action and make a judgment
call about what the word may have been. Cultural references
are invariably botched in this process. Sean Connery demands
his gun by yelling, "Bruce, Matilda!" Here, Matilda
is the name of his gun-- but this makes no sense to the subtitle-maker,
so he changes it to "Bruce, wait for my order." When
Connery is congratulated for making good time to London, he
grumbles, "Not as good as Phineas Fogg." This "Around
The World In 80 Days" plug goes over the transcribers'
head, who guesses it must be a commentary on the awful English
weather we see on-screen. The subtitle then appears: "Not
as good as full as fog." Captain Nemo's assistant is a
"Moby Dick" character who says, "Call me Ishmael."
Baffled by this, the subtitle-writer cleverly notes the colour
of the speaker (he's white), and substitutes the phrase, "Tommy
Ishmael." During a shoot-out, Connery yells, "Automatic
Rifles! Who in God's name has automatic rifles?" His companion
replies, "That's unsporting, probably Belgium." This
mutates into, "That's unspotting, how embarrassing."
readers a taste of the total viewing experience, I include below
a portion of dialogue. The erroneous subtitle appears under
each line. In this scene, Allan Quatarmain (Connery) is crossing
swords with Mina Harker, in a replay of the battle of sexes.
Mrs Harker, I doubt if you measure danger, the way I do!
Subtitle: Mrs. Hacker, I doubt if you measure
of danger, the way I do?
Mina: And I imagine you were quite the librarian,
Subtitle: And I imagine was quite equilibrium,
…All those books you must have read just by looking at the covers
Subtitle: The books you must have read me by
looking at the covers
Quatermain: I've had women along on past exploits..
Subtitle: I had women along in past days
…And found them to be, at best…a distraction
Subtitle: And found them to be the best…of
Mina: Do I distract you?
Quatermain: My dear girl, I've buried two wives,
and many lovers..
Subtitle: A day ago, I married 2 wifes and
many of them…
…And I'm in no mood for any more of either
Subtitle: And I have no mood for more of idle
semioticians, there are layers of double meaning that can be
read into the errors. Some errors may be deliberate, thrown
in as sly double-entendre and commentary. The vampire Mina Harker
is asked if her husband is sick and she replies, "Sick
would be a mild understatement," which promptly appears
on screen as "Sick would be mild and stagnant." When
a campy, overdressed Naseeruddin Shah first appears (as Nemo),
Sean Connery gruffly says, "Rumor has it that you're a
pirate." The subtitle changes this to "When we had
the joke of Pirates." Finally, a visitor's announcement,
"I'm a representative of Her Majesty's British Government"
is promptly changed to "I'm the representative of His Majesty
of the British Government." Here, the DVD-copier is defiantly
changing genders of Queen Victoria's fiercely matriarchal rule.
this film was truly an extraordinary experience. Researchers
should experiment with other pirated DVDs, finding faulty subtitle
executions that might provide similar "meta" experiences.