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Wishing for a Babel Fish
by Christa Greiff

At the Hamburg Filmfest, you can immerse yourself in a wealth of films from foreign countries. That’s an exciting experience and a chance to broaden your horizons. There’s just one small catch: movies from foreign countries tend to be in a foreign language! When you’re trying to follow the action on the screen and read the subtitles for a dialog-heavy film, some even white on a light background, that’s when you wish you had a Babel Fish!

Babel Fishes were in short supply at the Hamburg Filmfest, but other efforts were made to help out those movie enthusiasts who hadn’t managed to squeeze in extra French, Japanese or Spanish language classes, to name only a few. The Filmfest movies were either simultaneously translated or subtitled.

Simultaneous translation is the next-best thing to dubbing. It’s a great solution for kids (and that’s where it was used – in the children’s film section) who don’t speak the film’s language and might not be able to read subtitles. On the other hand, simultaneous translation can also grate on the nerves of those who do understand the language and would like to listen to the original dialog. Hearing all the characters in the movie using basically the same voice also takes getting used to.

Subtitles come in several different forms. White subtitles on a light background can lend a whole new dimension to your movie experience — now you see them, now you don’t!

Trying to follow the story can become a guessing game. White on-screen subtitles in two different languages are even more of a challenge. In fact, some find them impossible to read — especially when the subtitles for both languages are the same size. It’s better when the subtitles for one language are smaller and in a separate box. The best solution for bilingual subtitles seems to be using different colors and font sizes for each language. You pick your preferred language, and after a while you won’t even notice the second set of subtitles.

Of course, even perfectly visible, legible subtitles don’t mean you can just lean back, relax and enjoy the movie! If there’s a lot of dialog in a language you don’t understand, you may have to make a tough choice between watching the pictures and reading the subtitles. For true movie enthusiasts this is a perfect excuse to watch a movie twice.