The Inaudibility of the Translator – originally submitted to the BFI Women in Film Reporting Competition.

9 May

Aren’t you a lucky bunch! This is an article I wrote for a reporting competition run by the BFI. Unfortunately, it didn’t cut the mustard (boo) because it’s an ‘essay’ rather than a piece of investigative journalism. Never mind. I’ll know for next time. Anyway, I put quite a lot of thought in to it so I figured I’d rather put it somewhere than let it go to waste.. so here it is, for your delectation and delight.

(Here we go)

There’s no doubt amongst critics, audiences and creators that film is art; a celluloid tapestry of complex interwoven threads. There’s no less doubt that film is also invariably a commercial product, and a covetable one at that. To the varying chagrin of some, worth is measured not only by artistic merit but also by revenue.

Given that films are often produced to be successful on a global scale, they must be relevant – or at least available – to a global audience. Just as a book or poetry collection would be translated were it to venture beyond its home borders, the same is true of films.

However, just as literature has been subjected to a maelstrom of debate about what constitutes a ‘good translation’, it seems only fair to ask if cinema has been spared this, and why, and whether this is justified.

Considerable scholarship has been produced in about the last 40 years when it comes to translated literature. Translation theory argues, these days – though not all critics agree – that translation is ‘generative’ – it creates an entirely new work, in and of itself – and that the process of translation ought to make the translator ‘visible’. The author of the translation should be just as eligible for stylistic accolades as the author of the source text. The rest of the world is only slowly getting to grips with this.

When a film script is translated, what is it the translator must keep? What can they lose? How do they balance a fixed visual setting with a fluid linguistic one? Are some films written with subtitles in mind, or do they jar uncomfortably with the viewing experience?

Consider the two versions of the adaptation to film of Stieg Larsson’s crime thriller, known in English as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, released in 2009 and 2011 respectively.

Some were mightily dismayed by Hollywood obtaining the film rights for what they considered an already excellently-made movie. The original won awards and praise on a global scale for its Swedish-with-subtitles presentation of the book. Why oh why, then, did it need remaking? There’s a short (and cynical) answer here: Hollywood wanted a film that they owned and they wanted it to appeal to a big audience. That meant a) casting Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomqvist and b) producing it in English. Subtitles, clearly, do not cut the mustard.

Subtitles create a certain atmosphere to a film that it isn’t easy to disregard. That said, they can be an incredibly effective and clever manipulation of generic conventions. The 2010 Norwegian film Trollhunter, shot in a documentary style, is prefaced at the start with a screen declaring the footage to have been anonymously sent to the Norwegian authorities. The subtitling of the film adds to the sensation that the material may be incendiary; that it is important that every word is caught and understood for reasons of national and possibly international security. Documentaries frequently subtitle speech uttered too low to be easily heard, even if spoken in the language intended for transmission. Subtitles make sense; they don’t just render this film intelligible, they add another level to it.

So in this context, dubbing the film into English seems somewhat unnecessary. Why would three English-speaking, Norwegian college students be tracking trolls in Norway and submitting their material to Norwegian authorities?

One may similarly ask why a Swedish journalist would suddenly find himself investigating a case where everyone involved, including the people who aren’t supposed to be, speaks English.

Asking these questions can help us understand what exactly translating a film does. What we want from film is an integration of the audible and visual experiences, so closely interwoven that they speak to a level beyond what can be conveyed simply by ‘language’.

If you can create a world on film which is realistic, it doesn’t matter, in the end, what language the characters speak. Nobody really quibbles about Brad Pitt’s Achilles in Troy not speaking in Homeric Greek, after all. It’s as if the directors have slipped a Babel fish in your ear. You can understand because the visual experience is so seamless that you can’t not understand. Location-specific films, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, can be tackled in this way – again, you’re not supposed to notice that they’re not speaking Swedish. They’re just speaking, and you’re understanding. Trollhunter could have been done in this way – it’s not beyond the realms of possibility – but, as described, why waste such a great opportunity to play on some generic conventions? It’s a lot cheaper and deliciously effective.

If there’s such a covetable prize for the audible experience, we ought still to ask why there isn’t more credit given for the translated script. Is a script-translator expected to assume the same ‘invisibility’ as a translator of literature? They may not have come up with the concept, but that doesn’t make them any less creatively important.

On the continent, there is far more recognition for the voice actors who help turn English-language films into French or Italian or German critical successes. Surely it should not stop there? No translator’s name appears on the credits for the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yet somebody must have written the subtitles. Were they so wholly divorced from the film creation process that they deserve no acknowledgement at all? And even if they were – what they have done is still part of the viewer’s experience. We should at least be offered their name. We have Steven Zaillian’s.

It’s a small point, perhaps, but it applies more widely, too – not just to translation, but to totally reworking a film, or a book or play or symphony or poem. Every reinterpretation has value in and of itself. Instead of bemoaning ‘another’ adaptation or version, take a step back and think about it from the point of view of the translator. Since every film is an exercise in adaptation, maybe it’s time to give some more credit to the ones most obviously engaged in it.


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