Posted in Television and Film

Lost in Translation: Watching Without Subtitles

This is admittedly one of my stranger habits.

Now I know a lot of people watch foreign films, myself and my friends included. These are modern-day classics: Pan’s Labyrinth, Amélie, and the like. With the popularity of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, it’s never been easier to watch internationally acclaimed movies without having to hunt down a version with subtitles(Plus, you get the added bonus of telling people you watched a foreign film the night before; the look on their faces always says, “Wait. You can read?!?!”).

This is the point where I wish I could write about all of the groundbreaking and influential things I have learned from watching international films and television.

But I can’t.

I deliberately choose to watch the cheesiest and most melodramatic content that I can find. On purpose.

Because to me, one of the best things about watching movies and tv shows in a different language is seeing how much they can do a budget of almost nothing.

Maybe it’s the theatre nerd in me. As someone who has always had to do a lot with a little, I can relate to the fact that their sound-stages can’t compete with ours. Most are unable to pull off the same endorsements that American TV thrives on, so nobody ever says, “Is that a Honda?!” in the middle of a car chase or comments on “my new Apple iPhone 6” (winks to the audience; sitcom-esque laughter ensues.).

So when someone’s identical twin comes to town, or a secret society bent on a main character’s destruction comes to power, I still laugh, but I’m also fascinated by the story structure. Many of these foreign shows and movies include so much more drama in their plotlines (excluding Degrassi, of course), that the dynamics of the story can change at a moment’s notice. Emotions run high: one moment, a character is in love, and the next, they’ve literally murdered someone.

Now that’s my kind of television.

But even in the midst of all this drama, there’s still one thing that makes my experiences even better.

I turn the subtitles off.

Again, I do realize how weird that is. My own parents can’t even watch a BBC production anymore without a line of text at the bottom of the television screen, and those are still in English!

And it’s not like I’m doing this to learn another language, either(though I have learned more than you’d think). Through all of the Spanish soap operas, the German thrillers, the Finnish boarding-school dramas, I was struck with one overwhelming realization.

Humanity, across all countries, languages, or any other barriers, is the same.

We are all interconnected on the same spectrum of human emotion. Everything, every gesture, grimace, smile, and sneeze, betrays our common compositions. The same stories resonate in our souls, the same wants and needs in each culture, regardless of where someone comes from.

When the subtitles are off, I can still follow the storylines(it’s not that difficult, especially if it’s a dramatic episode), but that isn’t the point. Now I can focus on each character, on how what they’re saying is conveyed far more through how they same something versus what they actually say. It’s a lesson in body language and reading faces, but it’s more than that, too.

It’s a lesson in compassion.

That’s why we watch things, isn’t it? Some of it’s about the entertainment value, sometimes we just want to unwind, but at the end of the day, we watch things because we care about them.

You want the characters to succeed. You want them to get the girl, or the guy, or whatever else they’re fighting for. Even for the characters you hate, there is still a dark fascination to know what drives them, what makes them who they are. It’s why we can’t stop listening to the villain’s monologue, even when we know they’re lying, or that their doom is nigh.

We want to understand. We want to empathize. And the truth of the matter is, words don’t mean as much as we think they do. Take any well-written show the critics talk about: Westworld, Mr. Robot, Atlanta, etc. Without emotions, they mean nothing.

Which brings me back to watching without subtitles. Because, like I said, words mean nothing without the emotions behind it. So here’s my challenge to you: go to Netflix, or Hulu, or Amazon Prime(you can even find something on YouTube if you want), and start watching something in a foreign language – it doesn’t matter what. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the characters and the basic plot, turn off the subtitles.

Sit back, and observe humanity at its finest: in the throes of raw emotion.

Maybe you’ll even learn something.


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