The time has come to show you the world of my work. Friends who have been following me all these months already know that it’s subtitling, I’m talking about. Still, whenever I meet someone new and I tell them I’m a subtitler, they look up curiously and ask what’s that. So, here’s to all those wanting to know more.
Let me tell you first how I found this sky. Having bid a bye to my five-year-old career in software, I was trying out many things. But at the same time, I was doing something without even giving it a thought. I was translating Madhan Karky’s lyrics for his website. Just for him. Sometimes what you are desperately searching for is right under your nose! I realised that this was a love for languages and words, which went a long way back to my childhood, when I couldn’t wait to vanish into the world of yet another book. A window opened and I could see where I wanted to go. Just because my spouse is in the movie industry, I didn’t dive right in and start churning out subtitles any way I wanted. I wanted to learn all about it, first. I found the right person to teach me the art of subtitling. Bartho Kriek, founder of Subtitling Worldwide, is a certified teacher of subtitling and has been working on this field for decades. I spent three months and more than 200 hours of practice, working on Subtitling Worldwide’s course to understand what good subtitling is.
‘Subtitling? Isn’t it about putting some words on the screen? What’s the big deal?’ – These thoughts may have crossed many minds. It may not be rocket science but I can tell why it is fairly challenging. In a given time frame of so many seconds, here are some of the many constraints, a subtitler faces:
1. You have to say what’s being said in a maximum of around 86 characters.
2. Not reveal a comic punch line or suspense pointer.
3. The time window must not be too short or too long to disturb the viewing experience.
4. Ensure that the sentence is grammatically correct.
5. Present the essence of what’s said to be read in the blink of an eye.
First of all, a subtitler must pack up his/her ego. Subtitles/ Translations are not about you. It’s about a creation and you are just a medium through which it reaches a larger audience. You may have the skills to rhyme like a rapper, but that’s useless and rather harmful if you are going to distract the audience from visuals that was created with so much effort. Hundreds of people have left the comfort of their home to stand in the rain and shine, to create something for the viewer to relish. If you, as the subtitler, are going to put complicated words to cater to your ego, you are not being true to the ethics of your work. A subtitler just needs to know where to talk, what to talk and more importantly, where to stay silent.
In the movie Thangameengal, which I had the good fortune of subtitling, towards the end of the movie, there is the scene when the father saves the daughter from the pond and shows the gift he has fought for and brought for her. As the child fondles the puppy with so much love, music from the mesmerising ‘Ananda Yazhai’ plays in the background. At this time, the little girl, calls out to the puppy with some endearing names. I didn’t subtitle the words that the little girl calls out to that puppy right then, because at that moment what I felt was more important was that delightful expression on the child’s face and that heavenly music playing.
There is justice in this world. Your hard work will surely find its reward. Thangameengal is travelling to many, many places today. On a personal note, I was so touched to read these words by Director Ram, saying how the audience in the International Film Festival in Goa, laughed in all the places where they laughed here in Tamilnadu and they clapped in all the places, where they clapped in Tamilnadu. To a subtitler, there is no greater compliment than to have a non-native speaker relish a movie like a native speaker!
Subtitles are for people who speak other languages, for them to savour a story in your language. When people who are Tamil speakers congratulate me on the aptness of my subtitles, I feel good that they have taken the time and effort to acknowledge my work. Still, my true happiness is in touching the heart of a non-native person, who has understood the beauty and meaning of what a creator is conveying. I received many appreciations for my work in ‘Irandam Ulagam’ but most precious of it, is the one accorded by a film school student in the UK, who does not know Tamil but is a fan of Tamil Cinema. He wrote to me saying,
“And thank you SO MUCH for the subs! Clear, concise, readable, and with all the Selva essence in tact! It is due to your work that I enjoyed the crazy dialogues (Anushka’s friend analysing every part of Arya’s body was my personal favourite…hilarious and strange!). I hope you have many more projects in the future and that they all make it to UK screens. This was my subbed first film of yours I’ve seen, and I loved the lack of over-complicated flowery language that the characters obviously didn’t say (I’m too used to that!!) and the very readable formatting. Glad to see all the songs subbed as well!”
It’s their appreciation of a movie, that’s the best possible appreciation I could receive.
Then again, you have the complicated task of subtitling comedy movies. Anyone trying to elicit a laugh from the audience will appreciate how difficult the task is. Now compound that to the fact that it’s in another language. Your jokes are not their jokes. What would tickle you may make them feel icky! So, it’s challenging and interesting too, to do translations of comedies. Subtitling movies like ‘Itharkkuthane Aasaipattai Balakumara’ and ‘Sutta Kadhai’ gave me an opportunity to experiment with the comedy genre of movies.
In ‘Itharkkuthane’, anyone who has watched the movie would remember the following exchange between Sumar Moonji Kumar and Rombha Sumar Moonji Kumar:
To which Vijay Sethupathy replies
“Annachi enna kulandhaiyaa da thookarathukku?”
A Tamil speaker understands that this is a comic play on the word, ‘thookirathu’, which means both ‘to finish someone’ and ‘to lift something’. A literal translation would fall flat here. So I worked to find a right equivalent, which went like this,
“Shall we take out Brother?”
The reply is in the image below:
Coming to songs, which are the quintessential part of Tamil movies. I see songs as the quaint bridges that connect shifts in the movie. Songs written well, convey much more than many scenes put together. The songs are ploys used by our directors to quickly present the emotions, which are shifting gears in the actors. Movies go to foreign locales, work on intricate choreography or in the case of montages, have a lot of events unfolding on the screen.
To truly enhance these visuals, you need to work as much as possible on the beauty of language, but definitely not at the cost of distracting the viewer from those intricate emotions and painstaking visuals. In all my songs, I try to do that tightrope walk between beauty and meaning. With the nuanced and fine visuals that our directors create, the subtitler just needs to present the words as poetically and as simply, as possible.
What do I want for myself in this career? Do I want to do 100, 200 movies? I have never been a number person. It’s not about how wide I go, just how deep! Each movie I accept, I give it my best. I take it as a challenge and a responsibility of taking what I have relished to many more people on this planet. If for every movie, even one person somewhere in the world has understood something because of my subtitles, I will consider my work well done and life well spent here.
I call upon anyone interested in this field. It’s a fascinating world. If you love movies, have a flair for languages and most importantly, if you can empathise, welcome to the world of subtitling. Equip yourself. Learn the art of subtitling like I did, from people who know what they are talking about. There’s a huge need for quality subtitling in Tamil Cinema. Hone your wings and come fly in this sky of subtitling!