Translation goes to the movies

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.

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2 Responses to Translation goes to the movies

  1. Nickdg says:

    There is another advantage with sub-titling – it might just help you learn the language the film was made in!
    Well, at least you might get to learn how to say good morning or thank you in Swedish or Danish.

  2. Alberto says:

    Whai I’ve observed when in Nottingham is that people from countries in which movies are subtitled have a much better English accent.

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