Lost in translation west of Slough

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People with very unusual jobs indeed.

No 71: A man who subtitles films in West Country dialect.

"I was bilingual when I was at school. I spoke English and I spoke the local West Country dialect. They tried to beat the West Country dialect out of me but now at last I am putting it to good use."

The speaker is Brian Ackhead, who must be the only person in the world who is paid to subtitle films in West Country dialect. He does this for local film societies, for TV companies who are trying to pitch for a regional franchise in the West, for film preservation societies and for West Country folk societies who would rather watch, say, Gone With The Wind or Key Largo in a local dialect. (Key Largo is, in fact, known as Key Largol in the Bristol area, in accordance with the local habit of putting the letter "l" after final vowels. Other Bristol titles include Last Tangol in Paris and Cat Balloul ...)

"We have all been brainwashed into believing that American is the basic dialect of the English-speaking world. We all understand the way Americans speak in films, though it is rather a different matter if you actually go to America. But we forget that it doesn't work the other way round. Americans on the whole do not understand the way we British talk. The reason that they wanted to remake things like Till Death Us Do Part for American TV was not so much that they wanted to tone it down a bit, as that they couldn't understand a word Alf Garnett was saying. Americans sometimes subtitle their own films, especially when it is black ghetto dialogue. They sometimes subtitle British films. So why shouldn't we subtitle American films in West Country dialect?"

Yes, but ...

"I'll give you another example. The Scottish accent. Now, although I am British I find it difficult to understand a Glaswegian. Imagine how hard an American would find it. In fact, there is a well-authenticated story that when Bill Forsyth was trying to get Burt Lancaster to agree to act in Local Hero, he took him out to lunch to soft-talk him into the role, and a friend asked Burt Lancaster afterwards how they had got on, and Burt Lancaster said, 'I don't know - I couldn't understand a word Forsyth said.' So you see, we don't understand each other any better, do we?"

Yes, but ...

"Of course, you will turn round to me and say, quite rightly, 'Yes, but what is a West Country dialect? Is it Wiltshire? Is it Devon? Is it Bristolian?' Well, I haven't quite frankly got time to be too pedantic about that. Once you start looking at grassroots, you can find infinite differences. I mean, Bristol and Bath are only 15 miles apart, but you can quite easily distinguish the different ways the respective inhabitants speak. Now, I'm not going to go subtitling films in a different way for Bath and Bristol, so what I've got to do is find a generalised sort of Western way of speaking."

Yes, but ...

"I know what you're going to say. You're going to say: 'Where does the West Country start? Where do you leave Middle England and enter the West Country?' Well, it's a problem. Coming from London you pass signs saying 'Slough And The West', and you know very well when you are going to enter Slough but they never tell you when you get to the West. Nor, if you are going back to London, do you ever pass signs saying 'Slough and the East' As a result, I have to generalise a bit, which means my subtitles might end up looking a bit Marlboro'-handed."


"I'm glad you noticed that. It's an old word I'm trying to revive. Trouble is, most dialect words have died out by now, so I see it as my job to go through the archives and select the best for revival. One word I found in an old Wiltshire glossary was 'Marlboro'-handed', meaning 'cack-handed', on the grounds that the people of Marlborough were notoriously unhandy and clumsy. Well, that not only revives an old word, it also revives an old local prejudice, and the more of them the better."

Yes, but ...

"I know what you're going to say. You're going to say, if I think West Country dialect is so important, why don't I talk it? Why do I speak in this horrible Radio 4 voice? And the answer is, because you wouldn't understand I if I talked West Country."

Yes, but ...

Next in our series, People With Very Unusual Jobs Indeed - A Man Who Records the Wounded And Dying Noises for Sega Games ...