Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The return of the translating dissolve

In my book Translating Popular Film I talked about the device of the 'translating dissolve' which was so common in the 1920s and 1930s. Here's an example from the wonderful Frank Capra film The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), with the wonderful Nils Asther in far-from-wonderful yellowface as the eponymous general:

The translating dissolve is also described by David Cairns on his excellent 'Shadowplay' blog, and at more length by R. John Williams in a very interesting and lavishly illustrated article from 2009, 'Global English Ideography and the Dissolve Translation in Hollywood Film'. Cairns uses the example of Daughter of the Dragon (Corrigan, 1931). In my book I argued that the 'translating dissolve' represented a kind of perceptual 'point of view' shot where the viewer gets to see from the point of view of a character who understands the source language:

Odd it may have been, but it was a standard way of making foreign-language written texts 'processable' for American viewers and thus contributed in an important way to linguistic realism in film.

I came across another interesting example this evening leafing through Daisuke Miyao's book Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom, where a translating dissolve from the film The Typhoon (Barker, 1914) proves to be more than it seems (the relevant bit starts at the bottom of page 70):

This underlines how long-lived this particular device was; from the 1910s to the 1930s and beyond. It also made me wonder how early this device was used. I'd be delighted to hear from any readers with earlier examples, or with examples later than the 1930s.

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