Subtitled For American Consumption

I’ve recently discussed the work of filmmaker Ken Loach with longtime commenter Ed. Loach is one of the few filmmakers I recall who commits to featuring local accents in all his films. He often casts non-actors in his movies, resulting in some of the most authentic and consistent native regional speech in British cinema. Of course, this can result in dialogue baffling to outsiders, as with Loach’s Yorkshire-set film Kes:

Loach also directed one of the few English-language films I’ve seen with subtitles for its American theatrical release, the Glasgow-set My Name is Joe:

I saw that film at age 19, long before I developed my accent bug. I found it incomprehensible at the time, but fairly easy to understand as an adult (although some of the scenes of overlapping dialogue, like the one above, are trickier). Loach’s film isn’t unique in that regard. I found Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth equally inscrutable as an adolescent; nowadays Cockney is as tricky to decipher for me as a Walter Cronkite news broadcast. One’s ear changes.

My Name is Joe is not alone in requiring some sort of translation device for American audiences. But I’ve never quite figured out how frequent such occurrences have been over the years. I vaguely recall reading a British voice and speech guide asserting that Americans need translation when watching British television, but I don’t remember Eastenders being subtitled on PBS when I was growing up. I do remember, on the other hand, seeing a copy of the notorious “American-dubbed” version of Mad Max in our local video store. But even in the 1980s Americans made fun of that lunacy.

It also seems like the point of Americanizing that film was to ingratiate Americans more than help them understand the rough-hewn dialect of the Oceanic post-apocalypse. So I’m not sure if there ever was a golden era of “subtitles for Americans”. It seems that would require something like a Golden Age of social realist foreign cinema in American theatres, which never seemed to have happened.

How often subtitles would be necessary these days? I’d like to think all English-speaking audiences are somewhat more accustomed to different Englishes. But that might just be optimistic.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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24 Responses to Subtitled For American Consumption

  1. léo woodland says:

    I’m a native speaker of southern British English and there have been times, although not many, when I haven’t been understood in America. Considering that I used to be a BBC announcer, it’s unlikely I was mangling my words.

    And the same happens in reverse. There are American films in which I struggle to understand all the speakers. Not all the time and not all the characters but, just because we in Europe hear more American accents than Americans may hear British English, and more often, it doesn’t mean we understand everything. The first six or seven minutes of the James Brown biography film went by as linguistic fog.

    We understand each other more and more. But it’s still far from complete.

    By the way, you were lucky to have the chance to hear Cockney. It’s all but died out, more’s the pity. I don’t need to tell you, I’m sure, that Cockney isn’t traditional London and nor is it Estuary, the newest accent.

    happy days


    • Ed says:

      It seems as if “Cockney” has a very narrow definition, so that one non-Cockney pronunciation is enough to disqualify you as a Cockney. Compare this with the definition of a “Yorkshire accent”, which can mean anything from Billy Casper in “Kes” to William Hague.

      • David says:

        Yorkshire to most in SE England is anywhere oop noorth (up north in an affected mock Yorkshire accent). Geographically from Watford gap to the Border.

      • Ed says:

        P.S. I was in the Isle of Dogs today. This seems to be an area of East London where Cockney is still quite common.

  2. David says:

    It’s possibly not the accent per se, but the idiom or turn of phrase which confuses. Non-Americans are brought up on a rich diet of American film, TV and music which means we understand all the the most obscure American English dialects. As you rightly say – there has been no golden age of Australian, New Zealand, South African, Philippine, Indian-English film, television or music widely seen in America. As a result Americans, while not unfamiliar with other accents, are typically novice when it comes to our various turns of phrase. I was shocked when some American friends admitted to understanding only 80-90% of what we say in Australia – mostly because of our colourful idiom which takes time for them to become used to.

  3. bill says:

    Slightly off subject here, but there’s an Italian crime TV series called Gomorrah (based on the film of the same title) which is set in modern-day Naples. It’s sort of The Godfather meets The Wire – “Gomorrah” being a pun, I assume, on Camorra, which is the name of the Neapolitan mafia.

    Anyway, highly recommended, if you get a chance to see it. In the version seen in the UK it has English subtitles, as you’d expect. What I didn’t realise until recently was that in Italy it also has (Italian) subtitles, because of course it’s all in the Naples dialect.

    Needless to say, this is dialect, not accent, but it’s still nice to know that some Italian dialects are still incomprehensible to outsiders.

    • Ed says:

      Sometimes Swiss German is subtitled on television in Germany.

      • HKlang says:

        Doesn’t Swiss German count as a language, not a dialect (though called Dialekt)?

        • Ed says:

          No, it’s not considered a separate language.

        • HKlang says:

          Do you have a source for that? I am only going by what I see on Wikipedia. There, I was surprised (and somehow pleased) to see that Plattdeutsch was given its own branch like Dutch and friends, English and friends, and German and friends. Is it because the Swiss don’t have a navy?

        • Ed says:

          See the Swiss constitution here. There is a Swiss standard for written German (e.g. they don’t use the ß character), but this has a similar status within the language as the American or British written standard has within the English language.

          Germany only became a united country in 1871. Historically, the dialects of the southern parts of Germany (e.g. Bavaria) would have had more in common with Switzerland and Austria than they would have had in common with the northern parts of Germany, but I’m not sure if that’s the case any more.

        • HKlang says:

          I agree about the British/American comparison for the Swiss-hued version of Hochdeutsch: there are discrete vocabulary differences (allfällig, Kaffeesahne, parkieren and so forth) and an accent, but that’s it. Incidentally, this is the language that’s an official language of Switzerland, and indeed, it’s German.

          What I’m really interested in is what you touched on in your second paragraph: the range of Alemannic dialects spoken in Switzerland and close by, known as Swiss German. It’s quite different from German, and treated differently. It seems different enough from German that I would call it a separate language, even though it has no standard language, and even if there is a continuum of dialects in Germany that link it to standard German. I guess I’m giving all the weight to linguistic distance between two points rather than to internal unity or the presence of a “gap” around the language. But that’s just my own view — I’m wondering what linguistics have to say. Do they actually call it a separate language, or do they hem and haw and tell you that there’s no real answer?

        • Ed says:

          I don’t know, to be honest. I do know that German linguists do take dialectology seriously. There’s probably a lot of literature on it, but I’m not sure how much of it is translated into English.

        • HKlang says:

          I found this funny video on youtube. The Zurich girl sounds exactly typical and very funny. She is speaking Zuritüütsch, a kind of Swiss German. If she were speaking Swiss-toned Hochdeutsch, it would sound similar on the surface level (the up-and-down pitch, the strong chi sound, the full-stop geminate consonants in the middle of words, general slowness), but the vocabulary and grammar would be normal German, with isolated vocabulary differences. These are listed in German dictionaries, which serve all 3 countries. The true Swiss German vocabulary is another matter; there are thousands of words that are different or new, plus grammar differences such as no future tense, different sounding prepositions, different conjugations in some cases. But I see now that the languages heavily overlap in that Swiss German can always use any German vocabulary.


  4. David says:

    Yes. In English we have few dialects but many accents. Scots and Yorkshire being obvious examples. My (Australian) wife, when teaching in a posh Edinburgh suburb found the children incomprehensible in the playground until they transformed in the classroom to speak English with a Scottish accent. Most middle class scots now like to pepper their standrard English with a few well chosen scots words when they want to add emphasis or humour in their regular speach – a bit of colour – but otherwise typically speak English with a Scottish accent. It is interesting how the dialect still lives in childhood and in very intimate domestic situations. Like the Irish, the highlanders of Scotland, for whom modern English is an introduced language simply speak with an accent. Italian dialects are quite different languages in some cases.

  5. Around 2006 I began watching BBC drama and at first had a terrible time understanding the dialogue and couldn’t tell the difference between any of the Brit regional accents…that’s how befuddled I was.
    I have since watched so much British telly I can almost pinpoint the neighborhoods where certain regional accents emanate.
    I think it’s just a case of hearing things often enough and tuning your ear to subtle changes in sounds.

  6. Ed says:

    There are some interesting comments by Ken Loach on page 6 of this paper.

    If you ask people to speak differently, you lose more than the voice. Everything about them changes. If I asked you not to speak with an American accent, your whole personality would change. That’s how you are. My hunch is that it’s better to use subtitles than not, even if that limits the films to an art-house circuit.

    However, I’m not sure how much I trust this paper. It has a large number of mistakes in the description of the dialect and the history of South Yorkshire.

  7. bill says:

    I wonder if, apart from the nice frocks, the American fascination for Downton Abbey is based on the fact that almost all the characters speak with nice RP accents? No subtitles here, thank you very much! Of course, we do get a bit of cod-Northern and cod-Irish thrown in, but hardly the full Ken Loach treatment!

  8. kit says:

    What’s worse to me is that several excellent British films and TV shows had to be completely remade for America, presumably because American aren’t interested in non-Americans. What does that tell us? It would be ridiculous to think that Friends had to be remade and set in London for British people to be interested in it.

  9. Aidan says:

    We just binged the whole of “Breaking Bad” and I was extremely impressed by the English used by Walt, Skylar and Marie. I cannot remember ‘whom’ having been used so often in spoken English exchanges in all of my life. Of course you do get very particular exposure to the characters’ dialects when you watch all of the episodes of a show in a short span of time. Jessie’s California dude argot also stood out and was maintained very consistently through the seasons.
    We have since moved on to ‘The Wire’ and I have to say that it is the first time that I can ever remember having trouble following some of what is being said. There are exchanges between the gang members in their slang that I don’t catch even when I rewind and there are also cop phrases that I don’t grasp. I don’t know if it is just me. I am Irish and I have never had any problems understanding American shows, I go to Chicago at least twice a year and I spent five weeks in Canada in the summer and I never have any communication issues. Am I getting old or was “The Wire” notable in this respect?

  10. Deborah says:

    My mother is from Baltimore, where The Wire is set, and said she had to watch it with the subtitles on. So don’t feel bad.

  11. HKlang says:

    Don’t forget the thick, subtitled dialect in “Letter to Brezhnev”.

  12. Listening and watching through this clips, one can certainly feel the air of authenticity in the spoken languages in some parts. However, for someone who is not used to such thick accents, subtitling is a great help for understanding such beautiful films.