Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Snippets from film translation history: the subtitle turners

Following on a very interesting paper by Rachel Weissbrod at the Splendid Innovations conference in May 2015 at the British Academy, where Rachel talked about the beginnings of film translation in Mandatory Palestine, I have been reminded by Sam B. of this story by Israeli film producer Menahem Golan, from an interview in Cinema Scope:

Cinema Scope: You became involved with movies as a child back in your Israeli hometown of Tiberias, when one of your first jobs was as a subtitle-turner.

 Menahem Golan: At that time the subtitles were not on the film, but projected on the side. So you needed someone to turn the wheel. And already as a child I wanted to see every movie, but my father didn’t give me the money to go to the cinema three or four times a week. So I made a deal with the projectionist that I would turn the film subtitles for free, as long as I could see the movie. But it often happened that I got so caught up in the film that I forgot to turn the wheel. And the whole cinema would start yelling: “Menahem! Menahem! Subtitles!!!”

Saturday, 11 July 2015

"Sub-titles inept, sub-titles abominable": a Russian film in the UK, 1935

I made a long-awaited trip back to Southsea this weekend and popped in to my favourite bookshop in the world, Adelphi Books on Albert Road, where I acquired (among other trifles) some 1930s issues of Sight and Sound. The autumn 1935 issue contains a review by Arthur Vesselo of Petersburg Nights (Roshal & Stroyeva, 1934) (referred to in the review as St. Petersburg, known in France as Les nuits de Saint-Pétersbourg). (I note that the film was nominated in the same year for the Mussolini Cup for Best Foreign Film at the Venice Film Festival, but otherwise seems to have had an undistinguished career.)

(image borrowed from Encyclocine)

Vesselo isn't happy with the film, or the translation:
The film as a whole has little real solidity: its movements are feeble, its climaxes crude. The propagandist element lacks both purpose and subtlety, and the nineteenth-century setting is infinitely less convincing than the customary Russian treatment of present-day conditions. What virtue remains is ruthlessly massacred by the sub-titles.
   This question of sub-titles needs long and deep consideration. They meet us at every turn: sub-titles misplaced, sub-titles mis-spelt, sub-titles inept, sub-titles abominable. They throw out the composition of shots, ruin their photographic quality, and break up their continuity - sometimes they seem to swamp the picture completely. (Sight and Sound 1935, vol. 4, no.15, p.124)
There were very competent subtitlers working in London in this period - Mai Harris, Julia Wolf - so one suspects that these abominable sub-titles may have been produced in the country of origin - well, we'll see, if a copy can be tracked down in the archive.

It's worth noting by the by that Vesselo doesn't seem a big fan of dubbing either: in the same section he reviews a Czech film, Volga in Flames, and complains that the dubbed English dialogue
was hardly a success. the lack of correspondence between words and mouth-movements can be ignored, but the vast unsuitability of Western tone and accent is another matter. Cossacks and Cockneys have little in common; and at moments of tension the formal intonation of the studio reduces the action to bathos. Choice of language also provides its problems. Wherever, in fact, the dialogue ceased for a space to be predominant, and the film was left to rely upon its original sounds, the story was lifted bodily to a higher sphere.
Interestingly,  Vesselo doesn't note that the film was in fact dubbed from French (thanks to Sam B. for pointing this out) as the film was a French-Czech co-production with Danielle Darrieux and Albert Préjean, also known as Volga en flammes:

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Doctoral seminar: Practice-led research in translation, Bristol, 23 June 2015

We are delighted to announce our final translation event at Bristol for this year, which is a doctoral seminar on practice-led research. The emphasis is on translation studies, but the event should also be of interest to PhD researchers and their supervisors in other areas of the Arts and Humanities.

Translation@Bristol presents:

Doctoral seminar: Practice-led Research in Translation 

23 June 2015


Lecture Theatre 3

Arts Complex, 17 Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1UP

(access for external visitors via 3-5 Woodland Road)


2.15    Welcome and opening remarks

2.30    Round table on practice-led research in the Arts and Humanities:

     Dr Katja Krebs, Senior Lecturer in Theatre and   Performance, University of Bristol

     Simon Jones, Professor of Performance, University of Bristol

     Dr. Chantal Wright, Assistant Professor of Translation as a Literary Practice, University of Warwick

     Dr. Angela Piccini, Senior Lecturer in Screen Media, University of Bristol               

3.45    Coffee break

4.15    Keynote lecture:

           Professor Jean Boase-Beier, University of East Anglia

            Theory and Practice in Translation Studies Research”

5.15    Final questions and remarks

5.30    Wine and mingling


Speaker bio: Professor Boase-Beier taught Literary Translation, Linguistics, German and Stylistics at UEA since 1991 and set up UEA's MA in Literary Translation in 1993. An Executive Committee member of the British Comparative Literature Association, member of the Advisory Panel of the British Centre for Literary Translation,  and former Executive Committee member of the Translators Association, she is also a translator between German and English and the editor of the Visible Poets series of bilingual poetry books (Arc Publications). 

The event is free and all are welcome. 

For further details, please contact carol.osullivan[at] 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Adrian Brunel redux: on subtitling and dubbing in the early 1930s

I mentioned Adrian Brunel's autobiography Nice Work in a recent post, as he observed the transition from the silent to the sound period from close up. On reading further we learn that he also worked as a subtitler some time in the early 1930s.

It is not very promising that the chapter where he describes his work in audiovisual translation is entitled 'Slumming':
I picked up a few little interesting jobs titling foreign films - interesting as jobs but deadly dull financially. After having been paid £250 for titling a silent foreign film, the maximum I could get for doing a foreign talkie was £40. As I [...] naturally gave part of my fee to Roy Lockwood, Reggie Beck or whoever was assisting me, it was hardly worth our time after we had learned what we could of the job. One think I learned still applies to-day [at time of writing in the late 1940s] - that the super-imposition of translated titles is a neglected art, probably because it is very badly paid. Most foreign film so titled are spoiled by not having had enough time, invention and skill expended on grappling with the problem of condensing eighteen spoken words into six printed words, of finding just the right place to superimpose the title, of judging when no title is necessary, of how to avoid unnecessary overlapping of a title on to two scenes and so on. (p.162)
It's interesting to see how little the basics of subtitling have changed in nearly a century, though subtitles were sparser and more selective, still, at the time Brunel was writing. Brunel himself felt that dubbing was superior to subtitling: 'superimposed translations [were] disturbing', while 'with care, patience, time and intelligence, almost perfect results can be obtained' in dubbing. He was involved in dubbing the Guido Brignone film La Wally, made in 1932, but found that the translation did not go far enough:
we did a fine job [...] but unfortunately my detailed and urgently stressed advice on how to edit the film for England was ignored, so that it was ruined by the inclusion of several passages which I knew would be regarded as ridiculous by English audiences. (p.165)
If you are interested in hearing more about these problems of audiovisual translation in the early years of sound, you may still (just about) be able to register for our conference 'Splendid Innovations', which takes place this Thursday 21 and Friday 22 May at the British Academy, London:

Only two more sleeps until the conference! \o/\o/

Friday, 1 May 2015

Talk by Serena Bassi on online activism, translation and cultural work, 13 May

We are delighted to welcome Dr Serena Bassi to the University of Bristol on 13 May. She will give a talk on

Bringing the Message to LGBTQ Youth Around the World? 
Online Activism, Translation and Cultural Work

 Dr Serena Bassi
Cardiff University

Wednesday 13 May
Lecture Theatre 3, 17 Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1TE
(entrance via 3-5 Woodland Road for external visitors)
Wine to follow.

This research seminar will also be part of an Open Day for postgraduate study (taught and research degrees) in the School of Modern Languages. Prospective applicants are welcome to come and see what life in a postgraduate university programme is about, and meet staff and students. Everybody welcome, venez nombreux!

Full details (including open day registration) below, or see 

Matthias Politycki in conversation, 19 May, University of Bristol

We are delighted to announce the visit of German novelist Matthias Politycki to the University of Bristol. On Tuesday 19 May, he will give a reading from his 2013 novel Samarkand Samarkand in an English translation by Anthea Bell. For a review of the novel from New Books in German, see:

The reading will take place on Tuesday, 19 May 2015, at 6pm in Lecture Theatre 1, University of Bristol, School of Arts, 43 Woodland Road. Please note this is *not* the Arts Complex, it's the building further towards town. No knowledge of German is necessary to enjoy this event. 

The reading will be followed by a conversation with the author about his travels in Central Asia that inspired the novel, and his experience of being translated. There will also be a wine reception. Entry is free, but spaces are limited, so it is recommended that you register in advance by emailing Dr Margit Dirscherl at margit.dirscherl at

Even fuller details are below: