Saturday, 14 June 2014

Seeing films in translation

I saw two films in the last two days which made me think again about how we can define a 'translated film'. The first was Song at Midnight (Ma Xi Weibang, 1937) which I saw last night at the National Film Theatre as part of their golden age Chinese cinema season. The second was Satyajit Ray's Devi (1960) seen as part of the event Bombay Talkies at Colston Hall, Bristol.

Song at Midnight is apparently sometimes referred to as the first Chinese horror film. It's an adaptation of the Phantom of the Opera story, with lashings of James Whale's Frankenstein, and for me it also strongly foreshadowed The Elephant Man (the horribly disfigured Phantom is good, kind and emotionally vulnerable). There's a subplot about communist revolutionary activity. It was great to have an opportunity to see it.

What about the translation? The subtitles were joyfully approximate - virtually no translation of the credits, no translation of most text inserts, despite the fact that some of them stay on screen a long time and are clearly significant, and a subtitle translation done by someone with commendable non-native English, fair to moderate grammar and an uncertain ear for register. The sun shined; at least one walord (sic) was mentioned (not surprising, since the Walord Era had only ended a few years previously); and the film featured a number of creative neologisms.
My favourite line was when Song Dan Ping and Miss Li meet on screen for the first time and we are told that something is very 'emergent' (urgent). The dastardly Tang is frequently referred to as a 'shit' and sometimes (not inaccurately) as a 'bullshit'. The Phantom refers to his young protégé Xiaoou tenderly as 'my pal'. Overall, the subtitles were somewhat distracting from the film itself; I longed to take a few screenshots with my phone but was, in the end, enjoying the film too much to risk being escorted from the premises. If the definition of Abé Mark Nornes' 'abusive' subtitles is that they constantly remind the viewer of the translated nature of the film, then these were abusivissimi. Did they convey some kind of sense of cultural otherness? Maybe, inasmuch as they kept the difficulty of cross-cultural communication in the front of your brain. They probably conveyed some of the challenges of Chinese-English translation, e.g. confusion between positive and negative polarity of sentences. I would love to see these subtitles as a bonus feature on a future DVD release. But overall, one had the sense that they were done by people who weren't really qualified to do what they were doing.

Devi was a completely different experience. The concept behind the event was the live improvisation of a new score for the film, looking back to the traditions of Indian screen music. The five musicians were led by Talvin Singh (celebrating his new OBE), and a truly amazing sitar player, Roopa Panesar. The live scoring of a sound film seemed odd; when I wrote to check, I was assured by Colston Hall that the evening included a showing of the film. This film showing turned out to consist of the film being projected with intermittent sound and no English translation except for a programme synopsis distributed to all audience members. Not so much badly subtitled, as not subtitled at all, not even a little bit. Slightly reminiscent of seeing old black and white films projected on a screen in a club for visual decoration.

Let me be clear - the music was glorious and worked extremely well against the rhythm and emotional arc of the film. But could one actually say that one was watching the film?* At intervals we would hear the characters speak, in Hindi, to which I have no access at all. Quite often, we would just see their mouths move. In an odd way, given that the evening was all about sound, the film was being 'silenced' again. The performance of the score against this untranslated and sometimes inaudible projection reminded me of going to see The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928) at the Watershed a couple of months back, accompanied by a new score performed live. That made perfect sense for a silent film. Less so for a sound film (though I see from the original Colston Hall programme that there was originally supposed to be a second film projected, the silent Raja Harishchandra (1913), which would make the whole event a bit more coherent). At the same time, I can quite see that a subtitled print would have been problematic - the translation couldn't have been switched on and off in the same way that the sound was, and the fact that there was no translation made me acutely sensitive to the other kinds of meaning-making that were happening as part of the performance.

The upshot of the evening was to make me feel as I imagine an audience member in the early years of sound might have - completely incomprehending of the language spoken on screen; slightly incredulous that the exhibitor thought the film didn't need translating; potentially riotous if the mood of the rest of the audience turned ugly. The use of a printed synopsis of the film was also in line with practice in the period, e.g. for the Film Society, who relied heavily on programme notes to translate films which were still being imported in untranslated forms.

So the question is: which of these films did I actually see?

Would I say I have seen Song at Midnight, despite the memorably approximate translation?
Answer: yes.

Would I say I have seen The Wind, despite the fact that the newly composed score hadn't been dreamed of at the time the film was originally exhibited in the late 1920s?
Answer: yes.

Do I feel that I have seen Satyajit Ray's film Devi?
Would I say that I have not seen Satyajit Ray's film Devi?
What might it really mean, anyway, to 'see' a film? To what extent has one 'seen' a film which one has seen in a language one doesn't understand, without translation?
I'll have to get back to you on that.

* Henri Langlois, who was very cavalier about translations at the Cinémathèque, to the extent that he would sometimes show films with subtitles in an entirely irrelevant third language) would presumably say yes to this question.

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