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/

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