Language forms an integral part of our culture, and our tongues tell a personal story about our experiences. One’s socio-economic status, the kind of company one keeps, one’s education; all of this can be gauged by one’s language, from minute variations in vernacular.
Films, being a mirror of our times, should also reflect this richness of our language. The human condition can only be perfectly presented on screen if the language of the people being represented is preserved. Without an authentic depiction of the language of the
characters, the story may become more accessible, yet this loses a lot about the background of the character being depicted. For example, the popular Netflix show Narcos uses authentic Latin American actors to portray the characters, using the native tongues of the characters. The Colombian Spanish dialect of Pablo Escobar tells a story about his background that may have been lost if the show had been made in English (like perhaps the jarring combination of Russian and English dialects in HBO’s Chernobyl).
Granted, subtitles can also be badly translated, but the emotion and the local flavour are
lost without the original dialects. For example, in Japan, different prefectures have different variations of Japanese, which reflect the local history of that region. Therefore, by the slightly different dialects, one can surmise a lot about the character already. This
background information about the character would be lost entirely in English and therefore would dilute the work of the writer. In the Indian arthouse cinema, the focus is shifting towards stories about the struggles faced by the majority of the population, who live in abject poverty and are ostracised by the higher socio-economic strata. Their stories can only be told in their own language, and anything else would just be a disservice. However, not all translations are necessarily bad. In particular, Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli seem to have gotten the hang of retaining the spirit of the film, even after translation, by employing talented voice actors and keeping true to source material. Moreover, dubbed movies help make cinema accessible to people with reading or learning issues, and will always have a place.
The way we speak says a lot about who we are, and in order for cinema to speak to us, it
needs to speak in our tongue. Filmmakers are realising this, and as regional cinema
continues to develop, the push to make films speak locally is growing, and more and more people are opting to watch films foreign to them with subtitles rather than the often jarring, dubbed versions.
[Gautam Gupta – he/him – @9gcity]