A Taste of “Bitter Coffee”: Subtitling a Contemporary Iranian TV Series

Join me and Nima, the bumbling history professor who travels back in time to an undocumented period in the 18th century in the Persian court at Tehran, for a glimpse into “Bitter Coffee,” a hilarious modern Iranian comedy series. The series is a bit like the film trilogy “Back to the Future,” only much further back in time, to the point that Nima meets the great-great-grandmother of one of his research students. Stuck keeping the dangerous company of kings, Nima uses his knowledge of history to “predict” events, and ingratiates himself to the king. He is eventually appointed Mostashār al-Molk – Royal Councillor, a position which mainly entails flattering the king, playing games with him, warming his bed, blowing on his tea, and other ridiculous tasks.

Though quite entertaining, “Bitter Coffee” is not without elements of social and political critique. The entire series takes a harsh look at the practices of the Qajar dynasty, who are remembered in Iran today for incredible wastefulness, inbreeding, and stupidity. One of the characters, Balad al-Molk, is a not-so-subtle allegory for Reza Shah Pahlavi, the military commander who reigned over Iran from 1925 to 1941. As for social criticism, the series pokes fun at the manners of extreme deference before royalty and the treachery of many a two-faced, self-interested character.

For this month’s post, I decided to try my hand at subtitling “Bitter Coffee,” my current favorite Iranian TV show, instead of translating a piece of Persian literature as usual. Subtitling presents its own set of translation challenges. How do you capture things that are said really fast? What about when two people are speaking at once? (That happens way more than you would imagine.) A lot of what is said has to be drastically reduced or simplified, just in order to fit the words on the screen in time. Oh, and did I mention it takes a really, really long time? I’ve subtitled for your viewing pleasure here about the first 20 minutes. You’ll have to enable the subtitles by clicking on the box next to the little clock in the bottom right-hand corner. Then select English (Default Track). You may have to watch it on YouTube rather than embedded here for it to work. That should do it! Happy viewing.

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