Rightwing Film Geek

It’s shite bein’ subtitled

I didn’t mention this in my NEDS review, because the capsule was already long enough and had enough personal diversion. But several times during the film, I became quite annoyed by a practice that’s aggravated me every time I’ve seen it — subtitled Scots, specifically subtitled Glaswegian.

Now I’m not gonna pretend there’s not a small element (OK, a large element) of personal pique in the fact that nearly every time I’ve seen my native English dialect used in movies, it’s been subtitled as if it were a foreign language that needed translation. And this is compounded by the fact that for the most part, films set elsewhere in Scotland or among Glasgow’s upper-classes — SHALLOW GRAVE, all but a couple of scenes in TRAINSPOTTING, LOCAL HERO, COMFORT AND JOY — don’t get subtitled for US exhibition.

While obviously I am by definition the perfectly worst judge of whether subtitling Glaswegian is necessary for American audiences, I really think there are gradations. I didn’t think the accent/dialect in RED ROAD or ORPHANS was nearly as thick as in RIFF RAFF, SWEET SIXTEEN, MY NAME IS JOE or NEDS. At least those first two movies, so says my memory, were not unintelligible to anyone paying attention after maybe 10 minutes, the amount of “ear adjustment” time I need to get accustomed to a working-class English or Australian dialect. Yet those movies all were subtitled … grrr.

Still I try to be a clear-eyed realist, and so I have to acknowledge that Glaswegian seems to pose more difficulties for other Anglophones than other English dialects do. In fact I can “code-switch” into Glaswegian upon command (or the impetus of another British accent) and lose Americans within five seconds.

But … if you’re going to subtitle on the assumption that Glaswegian needs translation — actually “translate.” Several times during NEDS, I couldn’t believe what I was reading, thinking “how would this subtitle help anybody for whom Glaswegian is too foreign to follow in the first place?” Very early on, there is a line that sounds like “doant start greetin own meh,” which the subtitles render, accurately enough, as “don’t start greeting on me.” But, for the non-Glaswegian who doesn’t know that the verb “to greet” means “to cry,” that subtitle would just be mystifying, especially since “to greet” is a verb in standard English, but with a very different meaning. Other slang terms go untranslated throughout. You can probably figure out what a “cheeky wee sod” is or the meaning of “brainbox.” But I’m not sure the same is true for calling someone or something (and which of the two it is matters for meaning) a “stoater” or referring to a bunch of “eejits” (which is not its own word, but a colloquial pronunciation of a standard English term, “idiots”).

At other times, you just have to scratch your head wondering how familiar the subtitler actually was with Glaswegian speech. Late in the movie, there is a line that sounds like “gawen away aggen thamawrra,” which the subtitle translates (hilariously) as “going away again the mawrra.” I snorted and giggled at the same time — even Glaswegians don’t *write* “the mawrra,” however we may pronounce the word we and everyone else spell “tomorrow.” Again … for whom can “the mawrra” be clearer? On another occasion, one character says to another what sounds like “ahll gie ye a coalcarry” and the person addressed leaps onto the speaker’s back for a ride, what Americans call a “piggyback.” The subtitle translated that line as “I’ll give you a co-carry.” I’m aware that in actual speech, syllable-ending l-sounds like that are often ellided or unvoiced. But if you’re going to spell out the word, it’s a “coal-carry,” so called because of how coalmen used to deliver bags of coal to Glasgow tenements by carrying them on their backs, slung over the shoulder. Maybe coal is now used so rarely that the term’s origin is lost to today’s Glasgow youth and the “l” sound has been dropped entirely. But I know I *heard* “coal-carry” right away, and the movie was set in the 70s when coal was still widely used for home-heating.

This probably sounds a little dyspeptic and is obviously about more than NEDS. I know and appreciate that Peter Mullan has done more, as a director and actor, to portray working-class Glasgow in feature films than any man alive. But … Peter … subtitle idiomatically or don’t subtitle. Dae it rit or no attaw.

October 4, 2010 - Posted by | Peter Mullan, Scotland, Uncategorized


  1. If I remember correctly, the novel of TRAINSPOTTING is written “in accent”, and it took some time to adjust to. I don’t usually have too much trouble with what you describe, but in my experience, I have more of an ear for it than others I know. Also, it often can depend on the theater. Since arthouses I’ve frequented don’t always have the most impeccable sound, subtitles can be essential for keeping up. But yes, if you’re going to subtitle, translate the expressions that aren’t familiar.

    Comment by Mark Pfeiffer | October 4, 2010 | Reply

    • Welsh’s novel is written in slang/dialect. Even for me who speaks Scots, it takes some effort, because of the gap between speaking and writing. At least in the 1970s at the start of my schooling, standard English was the only written norm, so Scots writing always looks “off” to me.

      When my senior English class got to some Robert Burns poems (not the epic “Tam O’Shanter,” but anthology-friendly lengths), our teacher asked me to read a couple of them aloud. I could do it, and everyone applauded afterward, but it took some getting used to “reading” Scots and I stumbled over a couple of things.

      Comment by vjmorton | October 4, 2010 | Reply

  2. I triple dog dare you to watch RATCATCHER sans subs. I’m generally pretty Scots savvy and that one still twisted my ears.

    Comment by ptatleriv | October 4, 2010 | Reply

    • I’ve never seen RATCATCHER, but I almost certainly can’t take you up on that dare, since I have the film, but on VHS tape where I can’t turn subtitles on/off. I will almost certainly have to watch it with them.

      Comment by vjmorton | October 4, 2010 | Reply

  3. If memory serves, THE ACID HOUSE did translate at least some expressions; I seem to recall that when one character said “the wee bairn”, the subtitles said “the little baby”.

    Comment by Peter T Chattaway | October 4, 2010 | Reply

  4. I dunno. I’ve seen subtitles that “translated” English into English (I think it was MY NAME IS JOE that transformed “kipping” into “sleeping”), and found it annoying beyond belief. Jamaican Patois is much further from my own dialect than Glaswegian, and I need the subtitles there far more than for something like RED ROAD, but only as captioning — I still prefer figuring out the meaning on my own. There’s usually plenty of context.

    For that matter I’ve read lots of books overflowing with Glaswegian slang — Christopher Brookmyre in particular really throws you in at the deep end — and never really worried about it.

    Comment by Matthew B. | October 21, 2010 | Reply

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