Hurdling the one-inch barrier: Why subtitles just don’t matter anymore

When ‘Parasite’ cleaned up at the Oscars earlier this month there was much excited comment about whether or not its victory marked about a breakthrough for foreign-language movies. Comments made by the film’s director about how “overcoming the one-inch barrier” of subtitles opens up a vast new world of content have led in turn to a debate about their use, with the BBC asking this morning whether it is better to “dub or sub” when it comes to enjoying films in another language. For me, this debate feels weird and redundant.

Why? Because subtitles have already won. They won when teenagers started watching content on their smartphones; anyone with teenage children will know that they are now so used to subtitles they often put them on when watching regular TV with the sound on. What teenagers started we all then picked up; how often do you see commuters watching clips and whole programmes on the train with subs on? They won too when Narcos taught us to switch effortlessly between Spanish and English dialogue, and when Daeneyrs first met the Dothraki and none of us could understand a word.

In other words, thanks to Facebook, YouTube and Netflix, we’re all very used to subtitles. So it is a bit of a surprise that this is still a revelation to media pundits or, for that matter, to Bong Joon-ho. And it’s not just that subs have one: dubs have lost, surely, after we’ve all seen so many horrible examples over the years. It always takes me back to the prudish ‘melon farmer’ days of 1980s television movies (shudder). Subtitles are so much better than this.

So Director Bong is right: there is a rich and diverse array of content from all over the world just ready and waiting for everyone to see. But he and all the commentators filling their column inches are wrong that subtitles are in any way a barrier; they are more of a gateway, and one that a lot of people have already taken.

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