Let's take a break from politics to talk about one of my favorite subjects, the movies. As a writer, I'm fascinated by the various methods of transition from words on a page, whether from a bestselling book or that hot new screenplay some Hollywood upstart typed into Final Draft on his laptop in Starbucks, to thousands of video screens all over the world. I follow a huge stack of beloved novelists, but I also track the work of such reliable screenwriters as Frank Darabont, Lawrence Kasdan and Steve Kloves. They've succeeded at something I was never able to do, which is break out as a professional screenwriter. That's a triumph, yet one that all too often goes unsung.
But what about those words that can't be shaped into cinematic or televised images? What about movies imported from countries where English isn't the primary language? What about languages spoken by non-English-speaking characters in American movies? Today we're going to talk about the subtle art of turning non-English words into video communication.
Subtitles in movies are almost as old as movies themselves. They evolved organically from the intertitles used to display dialogue between the live-action clips in silent movies. But until fairly recently, the technology used to inscribe subtitles onto moving images made them hard to read, hampering American's interest in and enjoyment of foreign films. I still remember watching The Bicycle Thief in a grad-school film history class. I gather it's a masterpiece but, thanks to the ghostly subtitles on black-and-white backgrounds, I still have little idea what that movie is about other than, apparently, some kid gets his bicycle stolen. Ideally, one should come away from a film viewing knowing more than what he could've gathered from the name of the movie.
Maybe that's one reason the subtitles in Star Wars (1977) are so effective. Keyed in bright yellow rather than the standard white, they're easy for even young moviegoers to take in. Yet for some reason producers' fondness for white lettering persists, albeit sometimes with thin, black borders or wider, black boxes around the white letters. Hey, movie studios: Any chance you could give those plain, white titles a rest for, like, ever? I think many of us would appreciate that. And by the way, subtitles need to be bigger. I know, I know, the middle-aged guy is griping the letters are too small, but hear me out. Titles that read perfectly well on a movie screen are almost impossible for most of us to make out on even an HDTV across the room. I'd love to be able to watch foreign movies on Netflix without having to scrabble around for my glasses.
Better yet, a few recent filmmakers and distributors have gotten truly creative with the banal art of subtitling their movies. Hopefully by now you've seen the Russian vampire thriller Night Watch  (2004), but if you haven't, get on that. Its international cut not only subtitles the movie in readable English, it even plays with the layout of those titles to reflect what's happening on screen. They're not just consistent sentences at the bottom of the screen. Instead, they might be red letters that dissolve like blood underwater. They might be revealed in a wipe as a vampire slides across the screen. It's a fun movie, and for once, the subtitles are almost as much fun to watch as the action. It's more expensive, sure, and requires more creativity, but it helped Night Watch and its sequel earn millions in the U.S.
Even American filmmakers sometimes get to play with fancy subtitles in their own, primarily English-language movies. When Egyptians speak their own languages in the 1999 Mummy starring Brendan Fraser, the subtitles appear to be in the Papyrus font. See, papyrus is Egyptian! And they're speaking in Papyrus! And it's Egyptian! Get it? I suspect somebody took a victory lap around the office that morning.
There have even been movies in which the characters appear to notice the subtitles with which they share the screen. In The Impostors (1998), a character hiding under a bed can understand a foreign, non-English-speaking character by simply reading his subtitles. This joke echoes one in Fatal Instinct (1993), in which spies can follow a Yiddish conversation by reading. Other similar jokes include a subtitled horse in Men in Tights, subtitled conversational subtext in Annie Hall and a bar conversation amplified via subtitles in Trainspotting. In both Riff Raff and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, standard-English subtitles are used to clarify characters who are speaking English but in impenetrable accents. And in an episode of the sitcom Green Acres, Lisa (Eva Gabor) is not only able to read the English subtitles when she converses with her mother in Hungarian, she complains they're not accurate: "No, no, no, I said you hadn't changed a bit. We have a lot of trouble here with subtitles."
Sometimes subtitles are used to translate languages that don't even really exist, as when Greedo speaks "Huttese" to Han Solo in that Mos Eisley cantina. This proved so compelling that Star Trek was obliged to up its game. When the opening scene of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was shot, its Klingon characters spoke English dialogue to each other despite the fact that no Terran-English speakers were present. Actor James Doohan, the Canadian who played engineer Montgomery Scott, volunteered to create "Klingon" phrases that sounded plausibly alien but also matched the shape of the actors' mouths as they spoke. In some cases, the English subtitles were then rephrased so the overdubbing wouldn't be as noticeable to moviegoers with any facility for lip reading. A few years later, when the script for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan included an elevator conversation between aliens, linguist Marc Okrand (then working on closed captioning for the Oscars) was recruited to turn the actors' English-language lip movements into a plausible Vulcan sound library. That gig led to Okrand designing the Klingon language for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a task complicated by the need to incorporate the few phrases Doohan had already devised for episode I. Obviously, nitpicky Trekkers would have noticed any possible discrepancy. Interestingly, Okrand complicated his own job by deliberately excluding forms of the verb "to be" from the Klingon language, purely as a private linguistic challenge to himself. Imagine his dismay when the script for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country included an extended riff on Shakespeare's "To be or not to be speech" from Hamlet ("You have not experienced Shakespeare," one alien character boasts, "until you have read him in the original Klingon").
Now it's standard practice for filmmakers to devise self-consistent languages with complex vocabularies and syntax for fictional races and alien species. Consider, for example, the "Dothraki" language devised by linguist David J. Peterson for Game of Thrones. If you find this stuff as interesting as I do, allow me to recommend the book In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent, a fun read by an author who not only teaches linguistics at the University of Chicago but has also earned her first-level certificate from the Klingon Language Institute (an actual thing). She's not to be confused with Marc Okrand, however, whose Klingon Dictionary was featured prominently on my bookshelf until the year I realized it was scaring away potential girlfriends. In point of fact, I only know a handful of Klingon words and phrases, including the standard greeting "nuqneH" -- "What do you want?" Friendly!
A special storytelling challenge occurs when characters speak to each other in a language that isn't English, conveying story points that English-speaking viewers still need to understand. It doesn't make sense to imply, for example, that all the Russian seamen aboard the Krasny Oktyabr in The Hunt for Red October (1990) would speak to each other in Russian-accented English. Director John McTiernan got around this problem in a memorably clever way. On page 15 of a screenplay draft  by Larry Ferguson, a Russian character is reading from Revelation chapter 22, verses 12 and 13. McTiernan swaps that passage for Revelation 16:16, which refers to "a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon" (King James Version). Since that place name is the same in Hebrew, English and Russian, McTiernan's camera closes on actor Peter Firth's lips until he says the word, then backs away. At that point, the movie shifts from spoken Russian with English subtitles to spoken English (except in later scenes in which Americans share their environment). Even better, the movie's international cast members speak, for the most part, in their own accents: Sean Connery in Scottish, Stellan Skarsgård in Swedish and New Zealander Sam Neill in — well, Russian. I admit I've never figured that one out.
McTiernan was inspired to do this by a scene in Stanley Kramer's 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg. In that movie, Maximillian Schell plays German defense attorney Hans Rolfe. There's quite a bit of business in early scenes to establish how the plot's trial is being conducted in both English and German, including translators and translation headphones. (Ironically, there's also some business with translation headphones in Star Trek VI.) Soon, however, the camera closes on Schell's lips as he speaks German, then backs away as he switches to English. We know he's actually speaking German, the other characters on screen "hear" him in German, but we get to hear him in English. This saves the audience the trouble of reading hours' worth of subtitles, something American audiences are notoriously loath to do under the best of circumstances.
My wife prefers it when foreign-language films have been dubbed into English. I do, too, but only when that's been done exceedingly well, as in the Disney re-releases of Japanese-language films animated by Hayao Miyazaki. Otherwise, I feel I'm getting only part of the movie, because I'm missing the vocal performances of its actors. I'm an actor who believes the way I say something matters at least as much as how I look when I'm saying it, and I don't necessarily trust another actor to translate that for me. For my money, creative solutions are always the best ones. I hope American film directors and distributors will continue to look for new ways to address these challenges, making the cinema produced by increasingly wealthy and well-crewed studios in countries all over the world more accessible to movie lovers right here at home.