Alfonso Cuarón’s highly acclaimed black-and-white movie Roma entered the Oscar race this Tuesday, putting it in the running to be the first non-English language feature film to win an Academy Award.
The Mexican director, who has just picked up a Golden Globe for Best Director and Best Foreign Film for Roma, shot the film in a mixture of Mexican-accented Spanish and Mixtec – a local dialect from southern Mexico – and was surprised when it was released in Spain with subtitles in, well, Spanish. Castilian Spanish, that is.
Linguists are questioning the need to subtitle a character saying the word “enojarse” with “enfadarse” – both of which mean to become angry
The move by the film’s producers Netflix, who declined to comment, has sparked controversy among film buffs and linguists who are questioning the need to subtitle a character saying the word “enojarse” with “enfadarse” – both of which mean to become angry and both of which are perfectly understandable to any Spanish audience.
The fact is, instead of the subtitles transcribing what the characters say, they are adapting it in what is generally held to be a common language.
Cuarón himself joined the debate, telling EL PAÍS: “It’s provincial, ignorant and offensive to Spaniards themselves. One of the things I most enjoy is the color and texture of other accents. It’s as if [the films of Spanish director Pedro] Almodóvar needed to be subtitled.”
In the wake of the controversy, Netflix opted on Thursday to remove the Castilian Spanish subtitles, leaving only the “Latin American Spanish” version. The theatrical version of the movie is currently only showing in the Verdi and Conde Duque Aguilera cinemas, both of which are located in Madrid. A spokesperson for the cinemas told news agency Europa Press that they would not remove the subtitles, given that they “facilitate understanding.”
“Colonizing the dialogue”
The Barcelona-based Mexican writer Jordi Soler voiced his opinion this week after watching the film when it was released in December in the Catalan capital. “Roma is subtitled on the Spanish peninsular, which is patronizing, offensive and extremely provincial,” he tweeted.
Soler offered examples, such as changing mommy to mother and “gansito” a Mexican Twinkie-style cake to “ganchitos” – an orange cheesy corn snack in Spain. “This is not being used to understand the dialogue; it’s being used to colonize it,” Soler added.
The author’s tweet was met with an avalanche of responses justifying Netflix’s decision, the following among them: “I think there are idioms, dialects and other neologisms in Mexican culture that it’s good to put in context;” “Our countries have a very different way of talking;” “In Mexico, they subtitle Spanish films in Mexican Spanish. Some accents you just can’t understand.”
I expect there was no ill-intent but the important thing is to not set a precedent
Javier Pérez, general secretary of the Association of Academies for the Spanish Language
Another person who deemed the subtitles unnecessary was Javier Pérez, a Venezuelan who is general secretary of the Association of Academies for the Spanish Language. “It makes no sense,” he says. “There are regional accents – colloquialisms, some of which are familiar and others not – but at no point does this stop us understanding what we are watching. They even put subtitles with the exact same thing they are saying, which is doubly nonsensical. I expect there was no ill-intent but the important thing is to not set a precedent.”
Meanwhile, the academic Pedro Álvarez de Miranda says that he was very surprised by the move. “It’s the first time I have seen a film translated from one kind of Spanish to another because the subtitles translate what the characters are saying, they don’t transcribe it.”
As an expert on the history of linguistics, Álvarez de Miranda is against any measure that could create a rift between Spanish speakers. He adds that the subtitles are strange because you hear something you understand perfectly, but then you read something else. “It even seems like a lack of faith in the audience and their powers of comprehension,” he says.
This is not the first time controversy has arisen over the subtitling of Latin American films in Spain. In 2000, when Arturo Ripstein’s comedy La perdición de los hombres (or, The Ruination of Men) was shown at the San Sebastián Film Festival, the producer José María Morales noted that the Spanish audience didn’t laugh while the English audience, which was supplied with subtitles, did. The film won the Golden Shell – the Concha de Oro – and Morales stayed with the subtitled version when it was released in Spanish cinemas.
Roma is being shown in Mexico without subtitles – except the parts spoken in Mixtec. According to a spokesman for the distributors Amarok, when it comes to films made in Spain, only the bits that are difficult to hear are subtitled for the Mexican market. Hit Spanish movie Ocho Apellidos Vascos (Eight Basque Surnames) was subtitled in this way, while Campeones (Champions), from director Javier Fesser, has no subtitles at all.
A book is about to be released on the use of Spanish compiled by the journalist Álex Grijelmo and the academic José María Merino, the title of which is 555 million people can read this book without translation. Within its pages, experts write about the Spanish language’s leverage, with the Mexican researcher Raúl Ávila stating that only 20 out of every 10,000 words are not in general use.
English version by Heather Galloway.