Lost in Translation

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Subtitles are not mere interpretations of the speech in movies. They are non-vocal verbal means of rendering the on-screen action. Subtitles have been employed in movies where persons with auditory impairment and non-speakers of the language in use are part of the target audience.

It is needless to add that Nigerian video subtitles have fallen short of these artistic functions. More often than not, the motivation for providing subtitles in Nigerian home videos is found to be borne out of commercial concerns.

A film producer wants the video produced to be marketable. For instance, many non Yoruba-speaking fans of Yoruba home videos have said that subtitles are key to buying or viewing. It is most probable then that many indigenous filmmakers, in their quest for satisfying popular taste for cross-over appeal, plunge into hastily-prepared, poorly-edited subtitles for human consumption.

This careless job of translation done by the movie makers defaces the industry. For a sparsely-informed foreigner who tunes to AfricaMagic, the impression the substandard subtitles give is that Nigeria is a country full of illiterates who have English as the official language but lack the mastery of the language.

Every time one sights an incredible rendition of conversation in the subtitles, it is a sort of national embarrassment knowing that the world may be watching. The movies throw the subtitles-dependent viewer into the wilderness of oblivion when incantatory poetry is used.

All that the screen shows may just be “chant”, whereas the viewer watches helplessly as the actor launches forth mumbo-jumbo of words that are far from comprehension.

Recently, an international symposium was held in Lagos where the issue of subtitles surfaced in the discussion. A lecturer at the Department of English, University of Lagos, Emmanuel Adedun pointed out in his paper titled, “ From Yoruba to English: The Untranslatable in Selected Nollywood movies” that English subtitling of Yoruba films contain linguistic and cultural inadequacies which cause a gap in communication with the audience.

Adedun attributed the low standard of subtitling to lack of professionalism using slides from three Yoruba movies, Ipinle Wa, Apaadi and Aba as examples. Examples of subtitle blunders in Nigerian home videos abound.

Many even find it relaxing to read these grammatical inaccuracies and laugh them off but the humour is dark for any who desires to see Nigerian movie industry grow. One video is enough to illustrate the subtitling blunders.
In the 2008 production of Yanmu Yanmu, subtitles such as “When do you said that you coming?”, “I have partake from your success”, “But who is injures will let go of the knife” are typical errors associated with the subtitles in most Nigerian indigenous videos.

The same video has location shots taken in “Johanesburge”. Sometimes, the flawed subtitle reveals that the contextual meaning has been lost in translation. That is one reason why every movie producer who knows the worth of his onions will not neglect the task of translation in the hands of “vulcanisers” or whoever it is that does the sloppy job of giving tragi-comic subtitles.

Our movie industry downplays a very important function it serves in national branding. To belittle the subtitles is to belittle our image as a people beyond our shores. Many videos that kick-started the Nigerian movie industry in the early 90s’ had readable subtitles.

Of course, the standard has depreciated over time to a point where viewers frantically remove subtitles from the screen to reduce the semantic noise. Without attempting to exaggerate, it is better to keenly and closely watch the expressions on the faces of the actors than to rely on some outrageous and meaningless subtitles for understanding.

Yes, the movie industry may lack professionalism. Nigeria does not lack professionals who can tidy up the messy movie industry. Arguably, Nigeria is the country with the highest number of graduates in the continent.

Out of these graduates, there are those who are versed in the study of languages and linguistics. Still, the standard of Western education in the country has been shamed with the aid of our substandard subtitles.

Movie-makers can tap into the wealth of knowledge of the Nigerian intelligentsia and the difference will be sparkling clear. In most Opomulero films, it is observed that efforts are made to step-up the standard of subtitles.

This may be due to the fact most Tunde Kilani films feature university lecturers as self-respecting cast members who would not tolerate such demeaning translations to be plastered on their images on world’s screens.

Also, it is common for lack of fund to be readily borrowed as the excuse for the state of the movie industry. But what would good subtitles cost film producers? If only the movie-makers in Nigeria can show some measure of jealousy for the remarkable revolution in our music video production, then that may stir up some healthy competition in the movie industry.

If the Nigerian video and film censors board recognised the role of videos in national orientation, then movies with countless, head-pounding subtitling errors would have been given the same treatment as those with gross sexual scenes and violence.

Additionally, when the target audience for the videos include the lettered in the country as well as the international community, more care will be exercised in crafting subtitles that are holistic in content.


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