Saturday, 12 September 2015

Translating silent film: British Silent Film Festival, Leicester, September 2015

I've been blown away by the experience of attending the British Silent Film Festival. It's the first time I've been at the Festival, though it has a long and distinguished history (it's in its eighteenth year). This year's Festival is at the wonderful Phoenix cinema and cultural centre in Leicester (a most sensible place, where you can even buy a flat in the same building for easier cinemagoing). It was lovely to meet up again with some well-known faces from the Splendid Innovations conference too.

Other people more knowledgeable than I am are blogging the Festival (see e.g. Silent London) and so I will concentrate on things translationy (though I would love to rave about the wonderful sailing footage on Windjammer, or the brilliant slapstick of Buston Keaton in Steamboat Bill, or, or....).

A number of films were screened at the Festival in their original languages with a spoken translation. This worked really well and it was interesting how the different film explainers gave the films quite a different tone. Neil Brand did great accents for the Dutch titles on the only available print of The Man from Home (Fitzmaurice, 1922), which helped give an extra touch of entertainment to an otherwise ho-hum film. Bryony Dixon's narration added ironical notes to the very good Swedish film Den Starkaste [The Strongest] (Sjöberg & Lindblom, 1929), a story of romantic rivalry between two ship's marksmen hunting for seal and bear in the Arctic.

A gentleman whose name I unfortunately didn't find out heroically improvised a spoken narration to Tourjansky's Michel Strogoff (1926) - a task made extremely difficult both by the film's titles and inserts (often very wordy, rather cramped, lots of handwriting, varying formatting, and not long enough on screen) and by the sheer length of the film (nearly three hours). It gave a whole new tone to the film and made me very aware of every title and text insert - and nearly distracted from the amazingly beaux yeux of Ivan Mosjoukine:

Image borrowed from this excellent review of Michel Strogoff at Moviessilently, hoping the owner will not mind.

For more on the skill and resourcefulness needed for festival film interpreting, see this article on film festival interpreting in the USSR by Elena Razlogova (subscription only). Props also to John Sweeney for his thrilling accompaniment to the film (though in fairness, all the musicians I heard were marvellous).

Two films were screened for which Alfred Hitchcock designed the titles, way back in the day when he worked for Famous Players-Lasky British. One was The Man from Home; only one print survives, with Dutch titles, mentioned above. The other was Three Live Ghosts (also Fitzmaurice, 1922) which was thought lost, as Charles Barr fascinatingly recounted, until a truncated print was found in Russia. The image on the front of the Festival brochure above is from this film. This was for me the real treasure of the Festival because of the way it had been cut, recut, added to and adapted.

Translation Studies scholars have tended to follow pioneer scholars such as Jan Ivarsson on the relative simplicity of translating silent film: 'the original titles were removed, translated, filmed, and re-inserted'. I imagine that in most cases, this was quite true. But someone working from a more Descriptive-Translation-Studies point of view might ask: OK, it was potentially easy to translate intertitles, but were silent films, in practice, so straightforwardly translated? There's plenty of evidence to suggest that intertitles were subject to the same kinds of 'deforming tendencies' (Berman's phrase) as any other translation. There's also plenty of evidence that silent films were routinely recut as well as retitled (see my previous post on Adrian Brunel's work editing silent films for import to the UK, or those juxtaposed versions of the same Chaplin film in English and Russian that I would look up on Youtube if I wasn't currently on a train...). Intertitles also pose other problems with layout, typeface, production values, etc., and technical/material problems which affect their preservation - see Enno Patalas, for instance, on Nosferatu (paywalled).

I would argue that we shouldn't see this editing work as external to the translation of the film; editing, retitling, adjusting for the target market are surely all part of the same process. Admittedly, Three Live Ghosts seems like a spectacular case, including, as Charles Barr described to us yesterday, the changing of characters' names, backstories and motivations, as well as the likely addition of footage not belonging to the original film. I look forward some day to reading a full account of this particularly intriguing silent film translation.

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