Lost in Translation

This essay, entitled 'Cultural Ventriloquism,' is an edited excerpt from Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, an anthology of essays, photos and other items edited by Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour and designed by Egoyan and Gilbert Li. The 548-page book - both 'intriguing' and 'chock-a-block with interesting ideas,' according to The Globe and Mail - is in stores now, via Toronto's Alphabet City Media and copublisher The MIT Press. Henri Behar is a writer, radio and TV producer, and a subtitler of movies.

This essay, entitled ‘Cultural Ventriloquism,’ is an edited excerpt from Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, an anthology of essays, photos and other items edited by Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour and designed by Egoyan and Gilbert Li. The 548-page book – both ‘intriguing’ and ‘chock-a-block with interesting ideas,’ according to The Globe and Mail – is in stores now, via Toronto’s Alphabet City Media and copublisher The MIT Press. Henri Behar is a writer, radio and TV producer, and a subtitler of movies.

It is World War II. The soldiers in the trenches are exhausted – dazed, confused, their faces covered with mud (courtesy of Max Factor). It is the last moment of calm before the climactic battle. Suddenly, a whirr. Faint at first, but growing stronger. One soldier takes a peek: ‘Tanks, tanks!’ he shouts. At the bottom of the screen, the French subtitles blare: ‘Merci, merci!’

It happened in Paris to Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron; it is a subtitler’s ultimate nightmare.

I am a subtitler, among other things. Since I was hired for Woody Allen’s Zelig in 1983, I have subtitled more than 100 French- and English-language films. Mostly from English into French, since, despite the enormous success of films such as Life Is Beautiful and Il Postino (Italian), Diva and La Cage aux folles (French), and all of Almodovar (Spanish), subtitled movies account for less than 1% of the total U.S. domestic box office.

From Bull Durham to The Hours and Chicago (including songs), Good Will Hunting, Plenty, Shakespeare in Love, Menace II Society, The Apostle, American Buffalo, The Sweet Hereafter and Boyz N the Hood, it has been my task to convey to the French, via subtitles, what it is that these English-language films try to express, be they British, Irish, American or Canadian.

Somehow, Zelig had set the tone: in hindsight, my specialty has been the literary and the linguistically idiosyncratic. I was born in Cairo, grew up in Paris, and have bounced back and forth between Europe and North America for longer than I can remember. I am a Jew. Although, intriguingly, an inordinate number of subtitlers worldwide are Jews, I don’t know if Jewishness has anything to do with preparing you for this job, except that we have been expelled from so many countries that we speak a lot of languages. Perhaps it is in our genes that we learn languages quickly, or that each time we move, we have to – and actually want to – learn a culture from the ground up.

At home, we spoke French, English, Arabic and Italian. My parents spoke Ladino when they didn’t want ‘the kids to understand.’ (Needless to say, ‘the kids’ – my brother and I – learned it really fast.) Later, as an adult, I also became relatively fluent in German and modern Spanish.

At school we were taught to have fun with languages, and I still fondly remember the day our Latin and Ancient Greek teacher came in and said: ‘Today, we will speak only Latin in class.’ The feat is not speaking 17 languages, but to enjoy playing within and between them. Subtitling is like playing 3D Scrabble in two languages.

A large part of the basic process of subtitling is about as seductive as plumbing. The film, transferred onto a time-coded VHS video, goes through the spotting process. The dialogue (a printout of which is provided by the filmmakers) is broken down into sequences whose lengths determine how many words can be printed across the screen. Rules apply, some iron-clad: one character per two frames, less than 40 characters per line (spaces and punctuation included), no more than two lines per subtitle, and never go over a cut, unless absolutely forced to.

The spotter is a true artist: spotting requires a strong sense of language and extreme sensitivity to the rhythm and flow of a film. With bad spotting, the subtitler’s difficulty increases tenfold – with good spotting, it’s almost a breeze.

The lines are then translated, adapted to conform to spotting constraints, and reconciled with the time codes. The subtitles are synchronized with the dialogue and action, and tested in simulation (a trial run, so to speak). Refinements are made – the simulation is actually the last rewrite. Eventually, the final text is laser-etched on the print.

As Carrie Rickey, the Philadelphia Inquirer film critic, once put it: ‘Subtitling is a complicated tango during which [the subtitler] dances with the film until both are equal partners.’ You first watch the film a couple of times and make a few notes: In scene 12, ‘Get out of here!’ is used not as ‘Leave this room at once!’ but as ‘Are you kidding?’ Then, setting the tape aside, you grab the dialogue list and start working on the text itself, trying to make sure you get it all right, checking out the puns and other jeux de mots, focusing on the translational problems. It is crucial that the dialogue list must be absolutely accurate.

This is not always the case.

Whoever transcribed the dialogue of Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy was probably partly deaf (at best) and definitely puritan; anything that had to do with the fuck word was transcribed as ‘inaudible.’ A sentence, therefore, might read: ‘(inaudible) you, you (inaudible) piece of (inaudible)! Where did you put the (inaudible) stash?’ At some point, it begins to feel like a game.

More disturbing was the transcriber’s deafness. One line read: ‘And God made a bet.’ Intriguing line, but it didn’t make sense. Could it be poetry? After all, Beat Generation luminary William Burroughs is in the movie. Contacted by phone in Oregon, where he lives, Van Sant said he had ‘no idea what you are talking about. Give me the context.’ Matt Dillon, James Le Gros and the two girls walk into a motel room. ‘Oh,’ said Van Sant, ‘the line is, ‘No hat on the bed!” He was urged to correct the entire transcript at double-speed.

At the other end of the spectrum, you may get too many explanatory notes. ”Bro’: short for ‘brother” is fine, but is ”Shit’: vulgar expletive, used here to indicate surprise’ really necessary?

Perfecting the dialogue list is the most labor-intensive stage of the process but also the most addictive and culturally enlightening. This is the stage where you go to the library – for Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, I reread the Bible, in English and in French – or you pick up the phone and call your circle of expert friends.

For Rounders, I contacted a Parisian gambler who insisted that he be barred from every casino in Europe (and some in Las Vegas): ‘If you were to play such and such a type of American poker game [with which the French are not familiar], what would the calls be?’

For Obsessed, I called my doctor: ‘Given that the French for ‘spinal tap’ is ponction lombaire, would ‘PL’ be acceptable as an equivalent to ‘ST,’ which is commonly used in English?’ (The answer was no.)

For Forest Whitaker’s gang-related film Strapped, I consulted a gang member from Los Angeles who had already helped me on Albert and Allen Hughes’ Menace II Society and John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood. He took one look at the dialogue list and said: ‘This is Red Hook lingo’ – leaving me utterly crushed at the prospect of having to deal with… what, Marseilles slang? Then I called a young hooligan from the Paris ‘zone’: ‘How would you say this… this week!’ Yes, slang changes that fast.

American slang has become another tongue of mine. In particular, black vernacular requires some astute handling on the part of the subtitler. In 1991, while preparing Boyz N the Hood for Cannes, I was shocked to hear blacks calling each other ‘nigger.’ Was it an epithet? A term of endearment? An epithet used as a term of endearment? Did we have an equivalent in French? Did I have the space to explain it? (Mercifully, I didn’t.) By 1993 and Menace II Society, the word ‘nigger,’ when it was synonymous with ‘friend,’ got subtitled as copain or mec – ‘pal’ or ‘guy’ – or even ‘man’ (in English). But by then, French slang had caught up.

It becomes even more intricate when you get into what could be termed the American equivalent of Cockney rhyming slang. At the end of Boyz N the Hood, Ice Cube decides to leave the neighborhood. ‘Five thousand,’ he says, as he turns and walks into the sunset. Cinq mille didn’t make sense and, pressed for time (and helped by the fact that the line was just muttered and the action was quite explicit), I decided, for the Cannes presentation, not to translate it. A few months later, by the time the film came out, I had learned that ‘Five thousand’ stood for ‘Audi 5000,’ meaning ‘I’m outta here.’ And by then, I had added the missing subtitle: Je me casse.

Some references may never be fully translatable. In Boyz, Laurence Fishburne upbraids his son, Cuba Gooding, Jr., for hanging out in bad company by using a pejorative reference to African-American comics: ‘What are y’all, Amos and Andy? Are you Stepin and he’s Fetchit?’ Amos and Andy and Stepin Fetchit are not part of French culture and I needed a reference the French could understand. The subtitle reads, Vous jouez a quoi, Laurel et Hardy? Il est Abbott, t’es Costello? The racial element was lost. Ten years later, I haven’t found a better alternative (Robinson and Friday?), but I am still working on it.

Because of the technical constraints, speed is the subtitler’s enemy. From this point of view, David Mamet is a greater challenge than Shakespeare. Mamet’s dialogue is extremely fast, and the overlapping dialogue and editing can drive you nuts. That, plus the staccato rhythms and Chicago slang, made subtitling American Buffalo one of my most difficult assignments.

Add to that the inescapable fact that English is one-third more compact than French and you soon realize that subtitling is an exercise in frustration. Word-for-word transcriptions are out of the question; your job is not that of the literary translator, it is to give the Cliffs Notes to a movie. Or, as critic Carrie Rickey put it, ‘condensing sonnets into haikus.’

Since minimalism is the watchword, everything counts. In Alain Cavalier’s Therese, which I subtitled in English, the young nun who was to become Sainte Therese de Lisieux had an unfettered, juvenile passion for Christ, and her ‘beefs’ with Jesus had the flavor of a lovers’ quarrel. I decided (with Cavalier’s consent) to keep all references to Christ in the lower case (‘he’ instead of ‘He,’ ‘thine’ instead of ‘Thine,’ etc.).

One American critic who saw the film in an advance preview thought the director was ‘showing disrespect and reduced the dialogue between Therese and Jesus to a lovers’ tiff.’ Which, of course, was the whole point. When the eye and ear are not in sync, the filmgoer senses something is wrong, without knowing exactly what. In this case, the eye was able to alert the language-impaired ear to the point being made, and the lower case stayed.

Subtitling is a form of cultural ventriloquism, and the focus must remain on the puppet, not the puppeteer. Our task as subtitlers is to create subliminal subtitles so in sync with the mood and rhythm of the movie that the audience isn’t even aware it is reading. We want not to be noticed. If a subtitle is inadequate, clumsy, or distracting, it makes everyone look bad, but first and foremost the actors and the filmmakers. It can impact the film’s potential career.

During a trip to Bulgaria to (try and) select films for the Toronto International Film Festival, the late David Overbey was shown what he generously called ‘a Bulgarian western, sort of – actually, the epitome of the western cliche: you know, This-town-ain’t-big-enough-for-the-both-of-us, good-guy-wears-white, bad-guy-wears-black, and ingenue-a-flowing-flowery-skirt.’

At one point, he recalled, Bad Guy barges into Ingenue’s faux Wyoming datcha. As he grabs her and threatens her with a fate worse than death, she beats his powerful chest with her tiny little fists, uttering a torrent of protest. ‘Unless this was a Monty Python-type movie – which it definitely wasn’t,’ Overbey recalled, ‘no way what she said could be translated as ‘Don’t prank with me, you doddler!”

In the end, the film never made the festival circuit. But no one could blame the subtitler for that – could they?

(Subtitles is the ninth in Alphabet City’s series of hardcover magazines on current topics in culture and public policy. Number ten, Suspect, edited by Alphabet City director John Knechtel and also copublished with The MIT Press, is due out next fall.)