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Read my lips, basanti

Instead of sticking to the word, subtitles are trying to retain its essence. Cusswords, though, still can’t make it to the screen. Nivriti Butalia elaborates.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2009 23:13 IST
Nivriti Butalia

A ‘Piss off!’ flashes on screen as a street kid in Slumdog Millionaire shouts “chal kat le yahaan se”. A welcome departure from literal translations that plague the world of movie subtitles. The film’s glam-doll co-director, Loveleen Tandan, puts in a nutshell the mantra to subtitle: ‘retain the essence’. “You have got to be original when you translate dialogues,” she says. “Keeping it ‘real’ is important, but word-for-word translations don’t always work.”

Certain movie houses, though, will gladly suffer literal translations. A lot of them, in fact, do not want scripts tampered with at all, subtitles or not, because the big bad intimidating wolf — Intellectual Property Rights — comes in the way.

Agrees Amit Nagarkar, managing director of Streamline Entertainment, that handles post-production for TV channels (Star, NTDV Imagine) in Mumbai, “At times you are faced with Hindi proverbs, that when translated into other languages will make the serial a laugh riot.”

Take, for instance, the very-north-Indian, very-Punjabi-aunty exclamation, tumhare mooh mein ghee shakkar, that has been passed off as ‘may your mouth be filled with butter and sugar’. Sure, you’ve got copyright bases covered. It’s just the risk you run of sounding like a fool. And that’s not even the half of it.

Subtitles have been around for a while, but until not too long back, movie subtitles used to be horrendous. A lot of them still are — with bloopers like abysmal translations, spelling mistakes, incorrect grammar being the common spoilsports.
Only now, this niche industry or ‘language localisation’ has steadily been getting its act together.

It’s just that the Censor Board is still the proverbial stick in the mud. Clients make their preferences very clear: no swear words, ‘shit’ becomes ‘crap’, ‘junkie’ is cleaned up to read ‘drug addict’, communal references are banned, and the slang for homosexual is just not allowed. So when you hear cusswords in a movie, but read something entirely flavourless on screen, it’s no coincidence.

However, progress has been made at Mumbai’s Words Infocom — that handles the translations for Zee Studio, UTV’s World Movies, NDTV Lumiere and Fresh TV — that does subtitling work for both television and films.

Sanjeev Das, one of Words’s seven directors, explains his job — from translation to finally transferring the content onto the original — and the fun of watching movies for a living. “My friends don’t necessarily consider it work,” he grins.
But that comes only before he gives them the figures: Rs 35,000 - 40,000, for a masala Bollywood flick, excluding the now-familiar recession cuts. The price, he says, goes up with quality — where translating a simple ‘I am hungry’ to ‘mere peit mein chuuhe daud rahe hain’, instead of its literal translation, could make all the difference.