Saturday, 7 June 2014

Reviewing translated films in the mass media

In an excellent article in the latest issue of L'Écran Traduit, Anne-Lise Weidmann looks at how/when translation gets talked about in film reviews, and concludes, unsurprisingly, that it doesn't.

There are several salutary points made in the article. One is that screen translation is much less visible than book translation or even than theatre translation, in that order. In a year of reviews from the radio show Le Masque et la plume, Weidmann finds that the translator was named in 100% of reviews of print translation, 50% of reviews of translated plays, and an impressive 0% in the case of translated films.

Weidmann is looking at France, specifically, but I'm not sure that there would be any great difference in the Anglophone world. If we just look at subtitling, part of this probably has to do with the fact that in most cases the subtitler is credited (if at all) at the end of the credits. Almost everyone will have left the auditorium or paused the DVD before they get there. It hasn't always been that way, at least for successful subtitlers. The example below is from a VHS edition of Visconti's 1954 Senso, subtitled by the great Mai Harris, whose subtitling career lasted from the 1930s to the 1960s; by the time this film came out she merited a line of her own in the opening credits (the word you can't see because it's drowned out by the dress is 'Version'.

Another point Weidmann makes is that when screen translation is addressed in film criticism, it tends to be in derogatory terms. When was the last time you read a review which said 'the subtitles were exceptionally well done'? For me, it was in 2008 in David Cox's review of Welcome to the Sticks [Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis] in the Guardian, where he said
The subtitler succeeds in matching French mis-speaks with plausible English equivalents in a tour de force which merits the creation of a whole new Oscar category.
Even then, Cox doesn't name the subtitler, Michael Katims. And fun fact: apart from two pieces of academic writing on translation, this article seems to be the *only source of the phrase 'The subtitler succeeds' in the whole of Google. (I also tried 'The subtitlers succeed' and 'The subtitles succeed': nowt.)  This example is an outlier; I agree with Weidmann that subtitlers and dubbing scriptwriters don't get even the passing mention of the 'fine, fluent translation', etc., which fellow translators of print literature would usually hope to have.

By contrast, Weidmann gathers evidence of lively interest on the part of reviewers in the 1930s. Just after the translation revolution that followed the advent of sound, reviewers quite often commented on the new technologies of dubbing and subtitling. One reviewer of a French subtitled version of the Mae West film She Done Him Wrong (aka Lady Lou, 1933) finds that the film is excessively translated. The subtitles are 'trop nombreux, trop longs et tenant trop de place, plus gênants pour suivre l'action que ne l'étaient ceux du film muet [...]' [too numerous, too long and taking up too much space, more annoying for those trying to follow the plot than the titles of silent films]. Too much translation! Stop!!! We would like our film underdone, today, pls thks.

I jest, but in my own searches I've also found the odd example of early reviewers objecting to over-translation. A reviewer of Pabst's Kameradschaft in the Christian Science Monitor of 12 November 1932 grumps that "one rather deplores the wordy English titles that are too frequently superimposed upon the film".  Of course, they were only just getting used to having English titles on films at all, after a translation dry spell of several years - and, even in the era of intertitles, there had been a heated debate about how densely titled films should be.

Now, reviewers seem to think there's nothing to talk about. I concur with Weidmann that there is a really bad visibility problem with audiovisual translators. Reviewers and critics seem pretty bent on pretending that they are not there.

There is, of course, one big difference between print translation and screen translation, which I touched on in a recent post, 'What does it mean to 'translate' a film?'. Dubbing, subtitling and voiceover translate some, but not all of the codes which make up a film. Subtitling translates using a supplement in the form of a condensed translation in lines of text on the screen. Films for dubbing have 'international versions' which consist of the images and the sound effect and music track, which can then be supplemented by a rerecorded dialogue track. Speech is usually translated; written text in the image is often translated; music and images are (as a general rule, with exceptions) not translated. Films consist of translated elements, and invariant elements which need no translation.

Print translation doesn't have these 'invariant' elements. Words are all, or at least most, of the meaning of a printed text, and translators are named as the authors of those words. But, one might argue, stage translators are also named as authors of their translations, as a rule, and in theatre translation translator are responsible, again, for translating only part of the codes which go to make up a play. They translate speech, stage directions, perhaps text that is used on stage, but they are not usually responsible for the target-language production's mise en scène, costumes, lighting, set etc. So one might ask why screen translators and stage translators cannot enjoy similar levels of recognition.

Weidmann gives four possible hypotheses for the invisibility of screen translators: translation is always 'invisible'; everybody's got so used to AVT that they don't notice it anymore; translation has a bad reputation; general lack of interest. I wonder whether the answer lies partly in different ideas of authorship? It is a play's author, not its director, who is credited with the lion's share of its creation; but it's the director of the film, not the screenwriter, who is credited with the main creative input. Screenwriters have often had a rough deal; for decades, the Writers' Guild of America has fought for  better recognition for them, and I think the current agreement that screenwriters should be credited immediately before the director on opening credits is only about ten years old. But the WGA's website shows how complex the issues around screenwriting credit are. So perhaps the low recognition that screen translators receive is a side-effect of the low status and multiple authorship of screenwriting in general.

That doesn't mean things have to stay that way. The status and recognition of screenwriting have changed over the years. Where your name appears in the credits of a film is important, and if the place where your name appears changes, then your status changes with it. When book translators gained the right to a credit on the title page and a credit on the copyright page, it was an important step. Occasionally, one may even see the name of a translator on the front cover, or on the spine - usually with less commercial publishers. These are important aids to visibility.

Another place of recognition is in reviews. There's been a flurry of comment in recent years by distinguished translators about how translations should be reviewed (Nicky Harman; Jo Balmer; Susan Bernofsky here (offering a set of guidelines for translation reviewing) and here; Words Without Borders, including a post by Daniel Hahn here). Balmer argues that 'Reviewers need 'an understanding that translation [...] revolves around the act of choice – and that such choices are not necessarily compromises, as often assumed, but informed judgements, both technical and creative, made after careful consideration'. (This presupposes a willingness to envisage that translations may not simply be a 'filtered copy' of the original which is, perhaps, not so present in film reviewers.) Daniel Hahn is characteristically fair and sensible. He argues that in a 500-word review there may not be space to mention the translation, but if the review comments on the quality of the writing, then that's the translator's work they are commenting on and the translator should be acknowledged accordingly.

To paraphrase Hahn, is it so unreasonable to expect professional film reviewers to have some understanding of what the job of a translator entails, and what the translator’s contribution to the film might be?

[Post updated with corrections and staircase thoughts on 8 June 2014.]

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