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.