Translation goes to the movies

March 25, 2012

I haven’t got round to seeing The Artist yet, but it’s definitely on my wish list. Who could have imagined that a film without colour or sound have such an impact? Watching a silent movie is like travelling to a foreign country. I remember I saw D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic Birth of a Nation at home a few years ago, and I have to say that it felt rather strange. I couldn’t lose myself in the film. Actually I fell asleep, but it was rather late Dialogue is such an important part of a film; I really don’t care too much about special effects. Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, William Goldman, Woody Allen, and the Coen brothers are the kind of people whose films have inspired me

But with the introduction of sound in 1927 something was also lost. Before that year cinema had a certain universal appeal. Cinema really caught on with immigrants whose mastery of the language was not enough to allow them to go to the theatre or read a book. There will probably never be another universal figure like Charlie Chaplin, whose humour could so easily cross borders – it was a similar experience watching Chaplin in New York, Paris or Tokyo Spoken language gets in the way. In those days all you had to do was translate the intertitles.

However after the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, countries had to choose which was the best way to render foreign films in their languages. The two rivals systems which emerged were dubbing and subtitling.. I have always been fascinated by this subject. And recently I have been reading David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Year, an engaging look at the world of translation. In one chapter he talks about the translation of movies. That is what I’m going to be blogging about this week

Subtitling is the process of providing synchronised captions for film and television dialogue. Subtitles are typical in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium,  Portugal,  Greece,  Israel  and throughout the Arab world.  The average moviegoer probably doesn’t give it too much though, but subtitling is a highly skilled form of translation. You are operating under a number of constraints. It is necessary to decide what dialogue is necessary, and what can be cut out so that it translates properly and fits on the screen in the time allotted. You are fundamentally restricted by the cognitive capabilities of the audience. Subtitles must generally compress all the information with a maximum of two lines around 35 characters for each one. The time available is generally between 0.5 and 1.5 seconds, depending on the speed at which the actors are speaking. Subtitles do not offer a translation of all the words spoken; they can offer only hope to offer a summary.

These constraints on film translation may well affect the makers of original movies, especially if they depend on foreign-language markets. They are very aware how little spoken language can actually be captured in the subtitles. Because of this they may voluntarily make their characters less garrulous so that the dialogue will fit more easily on the screen. There is even a name for this phenomenon – the “Bergman effect.” Bellos points out that the renowned Swedish director made two quite different kinds of films—jolly comedies with lots of words for the Swedish market and tight-lipped, moody dramas for international consumption.

In many countries, dubbing is preferred. Dubbing skills are much more widely used and appreciated in Spain, France Italy and Germany. Because the cost is greater it tends to be in languages with a large pool of speakers. The germanophone dubbing market (Germany,Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland) is the largest inEurope.Germanyhas the most foreign movie dubbing studios, both per capita and per square kilometre. Virtually all films, shows, television series and foreign soap operas are dubbed into German. Even the speaking parts of video games are dubbed.

There is an interesting political background to dubbing in Spain. On April 24 1941 Franco issued an order forbidding the projection of films in any language apart from Spanish. Dubbing was an essential tool for censorship; original voices had to be erased and access to foreign languages was out of the question. One of the most famous script changes was from Casablanca. “In 1936 he fought for the Republicans in Spain” had to go. And the Billy Wilder comedies The Apartment and Some Like It Hot were manipulated and substantially reshaped because of their supposed immorality.

Translators working on dubbing face a different set of limitations. The goal is to translate the speech in such a way that it matches the lip movements of the original speaker—measured in fractions of a second — no mean feat. They are, in the words of Bellos, “world-class gymnasts of words.“

In Eastern and Central Europe they have a variation on dubbing called lectoring. I remember being on holiday in Poland in 1994. We were at a hotel in Warsaw and they were showing Northern Exposure, the series about a doctor from New York working in Cicely,Alaska. I was shocked to hear a single voice speaking for all characters of both genders. And you could hear the original English-language sound clearly audible in the background. This is lectoring. The advantage of this system is that you can hear the original language. It is also much more economical than dubbing. There are some obvious disadvantages with this system. It must be quite confusing. How do you know which character is speaking? And I got the impression that the person doing the voice-over didn’t really capture the emotion very well.  Bellos explains out that this technique was used in the synagogues of Palestine some 2,500 years ago. Long before the Romans occupied the Holy Land, Biblical Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language among Jews. Aramaic interpreters would read out a translation of the words of the service sotto voce, just after or even simultaneously with the rabbi., who was speaking or chanting in Hebrew. The original was maintained because it was seen as a language of prestige. English has now become this language, a cultural asset and an object of desire.

Which is the best? Reading subtitles requires more cognitive effort when compared to dubbing. The dubbing process requires less compression of the message. It is less elitist; you tend to associate subtitling with the art house cinema.

Subtitling, on the other hand, has the feeling of being more authentic. The voice of an actor is such an important part of the performance. When that voice is hidden you are losing out on so much. Subtitling is also much faster and cheaper; dubbing can be up to fifteen times more expensive than subtitling due to its characteristics. Another problem with dubbing is what I call the Homer Simpson effect. This is when you are watching a moving drama and one of the actors open his mouth and you hear Springfield’s most famous resident. It is most distracting. The actor who does Homer  Simpson is one Carlos Ysbert, who also does Norm from Cheers, Tony Soprano from The Sopranos.  Obviously it would be impossible to have one dubbing actor for each Hollywood star. So, dubbing actors take on various roles. I found a list ranking the top Spanish dubbing actors. One of the hardest working must be Jordi Brau. Here is a list of the actors he dubs: Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, Sean Penn and Dennis Quaid. Does this man ever sleep? Here are a few more examples:

José Luis Gil – Hugh Grant, Patrick Swayze.

Luis Posada  –  Johnny Depp, Leonardo Dicaprio and Jim Carrey.

Luis Porcar – Hugh Laurie, George Clooney, Chuck Norris.

Ricardo Solans  – Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Dustin Hoffman.

What’s my conclusion? I prefer to hear the original voices of the actors. I have become a big fan of the Swedish and Danish detective dramas that are all the rage at the moment. My wife is always surprised when I turn up the volume, but I like the feeling transported into another world. We are dealing with two different kinds of translation, and there trade-offs to be made. Each method involves the loss of something. Of course I should really learn those Scandinavian languages. That way I wouldn’t miss out on anything – provided that I reached level C2. Alas, life is too short. The great thing these days is that with the new technology there is a much greater variety of choices available to the public.

The Etymologicon #2

March 25, 2012

Here is another selection from The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, book which looks at the unexpected connections between words. Here are some of my favourites:

Organic, Organised, Organs

Organic food is food grown in a church organ. Organised crime is crime committed by organists. Well, etymologically speaking.

Once upon a time, the ancient Greeks had the word organon, which meant something you work with. An organon could be a tool, an implement, a musical instrument or a part of the body. For the moment, let’s stick to the musical sense.

Originally, an organ was any musical instrument, and this was still the case when, in the ninth century, people decided that every church should have a pipe organ in it, for, as Dryden put it: ‘What human voice can reach the sacred organ’s praise?’

Slowly the pipe part of pipe organ got dropped and other instruments ceased to be organs (except the mouth organ, which, if you think about it, sounds a bit rude). And that’s why an organ is now only the musical instrument you have in a church.

Now let’s return to the Greeks, because organ continued to mean a thing you work with and hence a part of the body, as in the old joke: ‘Why did Bach have twenty children? Because he had no stops on his organ.’

A bunch of organs put together make up an organism, and things that are produced by organisms are therefore organic. In the twentieth century, when artificial fertilisers were strewn upon our not-green-enough fields, we started to distinguish between this method and organic farming and thus organic food.

The human body is beautifully and efficiently arranged (at least my body is). Each organ has a particular function. I have a hand to hold a glass, a mouth to drink with, a belly to fill, a liver to deal with the poison and so on and so forth. Heart, head, lungs, liver, kidney and colon: each performs a particular task, and the result, dear reader, is the glory that is I.

If you arrange a group of people and give each one a particular job, you are, metaphorically, making them act together like the organs of a body. You are organising them.

Thus an organisation: something in which each person, like each organ of the body, has a particular task. That shift in meaning happened in the sixteenth century when everybody liked metaphors about the body politic. However, crime didn’t get organised until 1929 in Chicago, when Al Capone was running the mob (or mobile vulgatus to give it its proper name – mob is only a shortening).


How did buffalo come to mean enthusiast? What’s the connection between the beast and the music buff?

To answer that, you first need to know that buffalo aren’t buffalo; and also that buffalo is one of the most curious words in the English language.

The ancient Greek word boubalos was applied to some sort of African antelope. Then boubalos was changed to buffalo and applied to various kinds of domesticated oxen. That’s why you still have water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). Any ox in Europe could once be called a buffalo.

Then the same thing happened to buffalos that had happened to turkeys. Explorers arrived in North America, saw some bison, and wrongly assumed that they were the same species as the European ox. Biologically they aren’t related, and to this day scientists will become all tetchy if you call a bison a buffalo, but who cares? The name stuck.

Now, let’s jump back across the Atlantic and take another look at those European oxen. They were called buffalo, but the name was often shortened to buff. European buffalo used to get killed and skinned and the leather that resulted was therefore known as buff, or buffe leather.

This leather was very useful for polishing, which is why we still buff things until they shine. When something has been properly buffed it looks good, and from that we get the idea that people who spend too much time at the gym running around like crazed gerbils are buff.

An odd thing about buff leather is that it’s rather pale and, in fact, looks very like human skin. That’s why naked people are referred to as being in the buff, because it looks as though they are dressed in buff leather.

Some people really did dress in buff leather, as it’s a good strong material. For example, in the nineteenth century the uniform of the New York firefighters was made from buff and the firefighters themselves were often called buffs.

The firefighters of New York were heroes. Everybody loves a good conflagration, and whenever a New York building started burning the buffs would be called and crowds of New Yorkers would turn out to cheer them on. People would travel across the city just to see a good fire, and schoolboys would become aficionados of the buffs’ techniques for putting them out. These devoted New York schoolboys became known as buffs. Thus the New York Sun said, in 1903, that:

“The buffs are men and boys whose love of fire, fire-fighting and firemen is a predominant characteristic”

And that’s why to this day you have film buffs and music buffs and other such expert buffalos.

Beastly Foreigners

The history of English prejudice is engraved in the English language.

These days the Dutch are considered inoffensive, charming even; but it hasn’t always been so. The Dutch used to be a major naval and trading power just across the North Sea from Britain, and so Holland and Britain were natural and nautical enemies. Even when the two countries weren’t fighting outright battles, the English would subtly undermine their enemies by inventing rude phrases.

Dutch courage is the courage found at the bottom of a bottle, and a Dutch feast is a meal where the host gets drunk before his guests. Dutch comfort is no comfort at all. A Dutch wife is simply a large pillow (or in gay slang something far more ingenious). A Dutch reckoning is a fraudulent price that is raised if you argue about it. A Dutch widow is a prostitute. A Dutch uncle is unpleasant and stern, and only tight-fisted diners insist on going Dutch. That’ll show them.

In 1934 the Dutch government finally noticed all these phrases. They decided that it was too late to change the English language and instead made it a rule that their ambassadors in English-speaking countries only use the term The Netherlands.

The Dutch probably invented their own equivalent phrases about the English, but nobody knows what they are, as the Dutch language is double Dutch to us. Anyway, the English were too busy thinking up nasty phrases about their other neighbours.

Welsh rarebit used to be called Welsh rabbit, on the basis that when a Welshman promised you something nice to eat like rabbit, you were probably only going to get cheese on toast. The English also used to believe that the Welsh were crazy for cheese. Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) records that:

“The Welch are said to be so remarkably fond of cheese, that in cases of difficulty their midwives apply a piece of toasted cheese to the janua vita [gates of life] to attract and entice the young Taffy, who on smelling it makes most vigorous efforts to come forth.”

By the same token, a Welsh carpet was a pattern painted, or stained, onto a brick floor; a Welsh diamond is a rock crystal; and a Welsh comb is your fingers.

When they had finished abusing the Welsh, the English phrase-makers turned their fury on the Irish, who made Irish stew out of leftovers. In fact, it was decided that the Irish were so nonsensical that nonsense itself was called Irish.

Yet the great enemy of England has always been France. We believed the French to be dishonest lechers, which is why a French letter is a condom and French leave is truancy, although here the French have got their own back by calling the same thing filer à l’anglais.

And when the English had got bored with just using the proper names of countries to insult them, they decided to think up nasty names for absolutely everybody.


Here are some pejorative terms for the European nations and their origins.

Frog Short for frog-eater (1798). Previously (1652) the pejorative for a Dutchman because Holland is so marshy.

Kraut From the German for cabbage. First recorded in 1841, but popularised during the First World War.

Hun meant destroyer of beauty in 1806, long before it became the pejorative for German. That’s because the Huns, like the Vandals, were a tribe who helped to bring down the Roman empire (the actual order was Vandal, Goth, Hun pushing each other from Germany through France to Spain and North Africa). Matthew Arnold called art-haters Philistines on the same basis of naming people you don’t like after an ancient tribe. It was Kaiser Wilhelm II who first applied Hun to Germans in 1900 when he urged the army he was sending to China to mimic the behaviour of their supposed Hunnish forebears and ‘Take no prisoners’, a phrase that’s usually attributed to him, although someone had doubtless said something like it before (‘I’ll be back’ is similarly attributed to the film Terminator). The word was taken up as a pejorative during the world wars as, though the Germans imagined their ancestors to be raffish and rugged, the British thought them beastly.

Wop (1912) American term, from Neapolitan dialect guappo, meaning dandy or gigolo.

Dago (1823) From Diego (obviously). Originally for either Spanish or Portuguese sailors.

Spic (1913) American term for anyone in the slightest bit Hispanic. Derives from ‘No speak English’. Or maybe from spaghetti via spiggoty (1910).