An image of Russell Mccutcheon

I’ve long found it curious when producers decide a subtitle is needed; those of us in North America addicted to streaming Scandinavian detective dramas might be more than accustomed to reading the bottom of the screen these days (so yes, we now all know what “tack” means), but what about when you’re watching a Travel Channel host talk to someone speaking English in contemporary Scotland…?

Do we really need subtitles, just because it’s an accent that might be a little off our own English register?

Now, I’ll freely admit to occasionally having difficulty understanding some fellow-English speakers — such as the time, back in the summer of 1984, when I worked in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and spoke to an older gentleman whom I did not understand whatsoever. As I recall, he had what I would characterize as a considerably stronger accent that this woman, but for those unfamiliar with it, this might stand in as an example.

I remember panicking a little and doing nothing other than nodding my head politely and agreeing with whatever it was that he was telling me. I probably tried to look interested. So I’m not naive enough to think that languages stick closely to some local norm; no, they sometimes range widely, defying any simplistic notion of some essential identity (despite efforts to normalize any of them).

But I certainly knew what the Travel Channel person was talking about, so what sort of viewers were the producers of this show thinking might be watching it?

Deciding when to subtitle and when not to subtitle likely tells us a great deal about how someone imagines their audience to work — who they might be, how large their social world is, how willing they might be to entertain difference, etc. While I don’t want to assume that television or movies are pitched to the lowest common denominator (but the profit motive does suggest this as the best course of action, no?), I’ve sometimes seen subtitles for speech that strikes me as plainly understandable, causing me to wonder why the words were even appearing on the bottom of the screen.

So while this post surely isn’t earth-shattering, it occurred to me (while watching the host trace foods along William Wallace’s path) that much is going on in the moment when one scans to the bottom of the screen to read the text — from the producer’s decisions to our own abilities (or lack of) to grapple with variation, making subtitles a more interesting thing than might first appear to be the case. For, thinking back to that guy in St. John’s, my inability to understand him might tell you far more about me as a younger man, working far from home for the first time, than anything about the way he actually spoke.

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