Subtitles should no longer be a barrier

Published 3:25 pm Friday, February 14, 2020

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“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

That’s a quote from South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho at the Golden Globes last month as he accepted the award for Best Foreign Language Film. His latest film “Parasite” garnered the honor.

“Parasite” made history later at the Academy Awards this month, taking home the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture, the first time a film in a language other than English had received the award. Bong Joon-Ho also racked up the Oscar for Best Director while he was there too. (Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the movie, but might have gone to see it if any nearby theater had been playing it.)

With all the online buzz about “Parasite,” I’ve also seen a lot of chatter lately about the old “subs vs. dubs” argument. That is, should you watch a film or TV show in its original language with subtitles or should you watch it with an English voiceover?

I, personally, am no stranger to subtitles. I remember watching Spanish movies in Spanish class in high school. One of my college roommates loved Bollywood movies from India, so we’d rent a couple from the school library and watch them in our free time. And, of course, regular readers of this column ought to know by now I’ve been watching anime (Japanese cartoons) for almost half my life.

I even cut on the subtitles when I’m watching things in English. It’s especially helpful when I’m watching something featuring a thick accent, and it means I don’t have to turn the volume up very loud. And, perhaps this is just a very specific personal thing, but I like that English subtitles also let me know the correct spelling of character and place names.

People who argue against using subtitles say they’re distracting, that it’s hard to read the words and focus on what’s happening on screen as well. But in my experience, the more you read subtitles, the easier it is. Half the time, I’m barely even aware I’m reading subtitles when I watch something. So yeah, maybe it takes a little bit of practice, but like riding a bike it’s not a skill you ever forget.

Another point in favor of subtitles: sometimes things get lost in translation. For example, I’ve watched Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle” movie several times (it’s a good comedy) in both the English dub and the original Cantonese with subtitles. At one point in the Cantonese version, a character says dramatically in English “what are you prepared to do?” to which another character in the scene replies “we can’t understand what you’re saying!” The joke gets lost in the English dub because they’re all speaking the same language.

There are certainly merits to using either method of subtitling or dubbing over in English. Subtitles are particularly helpful for people who are hard of hearing, while dubs are good for the visually impaired. So I think it’s kind of silly to argue over which one is better because ultimately both methods bring more media to your fingertips.

Back to director Bong Joon-Ho’s original point: there’s a whole world of films (and television) out there, and the fact that we need subtitles to watch them shouldn’t be a deterrent. It’s easier and easier these days to get access to movies from around the world, and I’m certainly grateful for that.

The next time you want to complain that there’s never anything good on TV or the Hollywood box office is full of boring sequels and remakes, try branching out to something with subtitles. Maybe you’ll find something new to love!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.