Lost and Found in Translation

A topic I’ve been meaning to return to: when a non-English language movie decides not to subtitle what otherwise can’t be understood.

It’s impossible to interpret what remains untranslated…unless the choice not to subtitle bears meaning.

A few examples, past and present:


1949’s Distant Journey starts with an archival montage full of speechifying Nazis, periodically accompanied by a historian voiceover commenting on the proceedings from an anti-Nazi perspective. The twist: only the voiceover is subtitled, while the Nazis pontificate away without any of their words being translated. This move quite literally undercuts the intention of the original footage by de-platforming their message (which reminds me of a totally un-subtitled Anthology Film Archives screening of 1935’s The Triumph of the Will, a way to appreciate the historic and historical filmmaking without perpetuating what it was used in service of, and probably still is (whether the technical history can/should be divorced from the film’s subject is a treatise for another day (and another writer))).


This year’s New Order chronicles an insurrection, yet shrouds the exact nature of the uprising and its political context in mystery. Early on, a main character hops in a car with urgent headline news blaring from the radio…and the movie does not subtitle the broadcast. This obscurity — which only “hinders” non-native speakers — enhances the lack of sociopolitical specificity, universalizing the story into a timeless “haves vs. have-nots” situation. How does our relationship to what’s depicted change based on these unknowns?


France‘s first scene takes place during a Macron media scrum. Politicians and the political press small talk in the hush immediately prior to the President’s arrival. The catch: the movie does not subtitle their murmurings. Because such public-private interactions are a bunch of nothing, all for show and for the performative spectacle of it all? Politics and political media are ostensibly about the substance of such conversations. And yet, these discussions are usually more about the appearance of having a conversation than what’s actually being discussed. Leaving their words un-subtitled directs our attention to the artifice on display, AND foregrounds the movie’s ultimate theme of how truth is manipulated, in politics and in art.

At least that’s my best guess. More often than not, I draw blanks in regards to why these pieces are left untranslated. Without knowing the content of what’s not subtitled, it’s hard to reach any conclusions by way of resolute interpretations. Instead, these aspects dangle there in my brain, constantly present, begging to be unpacked, without an ability to do so.

We don’t need to stray far to find a confounding example: midway through France, two characters serenade each other; the first song is subtitled, the second — a Latin opera — is not. Because our main character doesn’t speak Latin, strengthening our intimate connection to her?

Other recent instances that prove difficult to analyze:


In Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn‘s second act (yes, that’s the title), a Romanian word titling each section flashes on screen, subtitled into English. But then each of these sections subsequently include a bushel of English subtitles…completely unattached from any related Romanian text on screen! The English text does not translate a voice nor on-screen Romanian text, because neither is heard nor seen throughout. Are there Romanian letters on screen in the Romanian cut, that the American version edits out??


Year of the Dog doesn’t translate the non-English song lyrics that play over the Call Me By Your Name last shot (just a face and its expressions while the credits roll!), befitting the movie’s abstruse, oblique, elliptical nature.


And then there’s Jallikattu, which reverses the trend: when a camera pans past a communist flag, even though there’s technically no speech nor text to translate, a subtitle is inserted to identify the flag as communist iconography, just in case farther-flung audiences don’t recognize it.


So what’s my overall point here?

No idea! Need I one to make this pattern worth considering?

Just remember: most movies exist in multiple forms, depending on who’s watching.

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