On the Craft of Translation (or, Fun with Subtitles)

Up until recently, Callaghan knew what he was getting himself into when we’d sit down to watch a French movie with English subtitles. He knew it would be a matter of moments before I’d hit “pause” and turn to him, exasperated.

“He said blah-blah-blah, but the subtitles said that he said blabbity blah-blah,” I’d complain. “Why?”

Callaghan saw what I meant, and he didn’t know why, either.

 

Me and my three-ton French-English dictionary.

Me and my three-ton French-English dictionary.

 

It used to irritate me a lot when subtitles didn’t reflect the spoken word. It didn’t matter that most of the time, I understood what was being voiced, because that wasn’t the point. The point was hearing and understanding the spoken French while reading the written English and THAT’S TOTALLY NOT AT ALL WHAT THEY SAID.

I mean, okay, there’s a wide range. There are literal, word-for-word subtitles. There are ballpark translation subtitles, where the meaning is basically the same, but the words are different. And then there are subtitles that have nothing to do with what was being said in French, and we’re both just, like, Huh? What were they smoking when they wrote these subtitles? We’re talking completely out of left field subtitles.

But my attitude toward the matter of subtitles changed the other day when an interesting task crossed my desk at work. I was asked to help our German artist/professor write the English subtitles for the short film he’d made.  Suddenly, I was on the other end of the issue. I had to write the subtitles.

Herr Z. and I went through the dialog line by line, starting and stopping so he could tell me what had been said in German. He’d paraphrase what the guy said, then he’d ask, “How would you get that across in English?” Or, “How would you express this in English?”

And there it was… my duh moment.

NEWSFLASH TO SELF: “How would you get that across in English?” and “How would you express this in English?” are NOT the same questions as, “What is the literal translation of this sentence in English?”

Turns out that throughout the German footage, I offered very few instances of literal translation. At almost every turn, I wrote the subtitles based on how American English speakers would most typically say it. I got the meaning across accurately, but often not literally. Distinguishing between “accurate” and “literal” was the key… that, and the realization that translating is as much a creative process as it is a linguistic one.

There are a dozen or so literary prizes out there for translations; it would go to follow that, as in anything, some translators who write subtitles are more talented and skilled in their craft than others. A good translator can deftly exercise creative muscle to capture the meaning of words using other words in order to give the other-language-speaking viewer the essence of what’s being said.

I knew this academically before I helped to write English subtitles for German film clips, but I didn’t connect personally with the craft of translation until that moment. Until that moment, I was too busy hitting “pause” after every line in my angst-filled bursts of self-righteous That’s not what he said! Why doesn’t the subtitle say what he actually said?

I was indignant because I was trying to learn, but in focusing so hard on trying to improve my French, I was allowing myself to get confused by any deviation from the literal. I was missing the forest for the trees, so to speak.

I was also overlooking the simple and obvious fact that translation is an art, and, like any other art form, it’s as much about expression as exactness, if not more so. There are a myriad of ways to say any given thing, so if the literal translation isn’t as impactful as the original… if the mood, tone, energy, or emphasis of the original version starts to fall away in the literal translation… artistic adjustments can be made without losing the essence or integrity of the expression.

Furthermore, when writers of subtitles make artistic decisions in their translations, they can do so because there’s more to communication than the actual word. You have the idea, itself, and then you have disposition, emotion, psychological state, body language, etc., altogether creating a rich, multi-dimensional expression, a nuanced expression. I imagine there’s more room for authenticity to slip in when a holistic approach is taken, anyway, especially when there’s depth and complexity in the original writing.

Another aspect to consider is the fact that sometimes, there is no equivalent for an expression in the other language, which creates a whole new challenge for the writer of subtitles. There are some idioms and ways of saying things that are simply unique to their original language, so the best you can do is approximate. Again, doing this well requires talent and skill.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, it could be that some people are just poor translators, or they really were smoking something when they were writing the subtitles. These are certainly possibilities, too!

(Callaghan just remarked that he’d like to see a film in Quebecois with French subtitles, which threatened to start a whole new conversation about how pure Quebecois is virtually incomprehensible to the French, though “people in Quebec know how to speak more French to the French so we can at least kind of understand them.”)

At any rate, thanks to Herr Z and his German footage, I was able to gain a new perspective on the craft of translation and the art of writing subtitles. I’m guessing that the next time we watch a French movie, the subtitles won’t irritate me nearly as much as they have in the past.

On that note, Happy Friday, All!

How to Swear in French, New Car edition.

Sadly, we had to give up our 1999 Toyota 4-Runner, Stevie. She was sweet and quite amazing for her age, but a few months ago she’d started stalling while idling, just at random. Even more disconcerting, the frequency of the stalling episodes was increasing along with the intensifying heat. The day Stevie stalled mid-turn, we knew we had to replace her with something reliable, because the REAL heat hasn’t even hit yet! I wasn’t feeling confident driving her, and I didn’t want to find out how she would react when the temperature climbs up into the 110-115 range.

You don’t mess around with potential car trouble in the summer in Arizona. That is one of life’s absolutes.

Such as it was that we found ourselves at a car dealership a couple of weekends ago – a Chevy dealership, because I’m predictable like that. What can I say? I learned to drive in a Chevy truck, and my last vehicle was a Chevy truck. From Corvettes to trucks, I love Chevrolet. So does Callaghan. After a full day of deliberating and negotiating at the dealership, we leased a new (very pale, silvery-blue) Equinox and drove her off the lot.

Since then, we’ve been bouncing names around, trying to decide what to call her. My first idea, “Samaire,” caused Callaghan to burst out laughing when I suggested it. Of course, in that same second, I realized why.

“Samaire” is pronounced like the French sa mère, which constitutes the second part of Putain de sa mère! – Callaghan’s favorite expletive to yell when other drivers on the road annoy him. “Samaire” would be a terrible name for our new vehicle. If we were to call her “Samaire,” Callaghan would always be yelling that she’s a whore, because “putain” is French for “whore.” Her feelings would be hurt.

“‘Sa mère!’ means, like, ‘F*ck!’ – you know?” Callaghan said, launching an elaborate discourse on the versatility of the expression.

And here I always thought that since mère means “mother,” putain de sa mère was somehow the French equivalent of Samuel L. Jackson’s trademark word, even though that’s not what it actually means… putain de sa mère translates as “his mother the whore,” according to Callaghan.

Well, all that aside, I’ve never had trouble naming a car before we brought this girl home. After two weeks, we still had no idea what to call her. Yesterday, just as we were discussing names such as “Libbets” (after Katie Holmes’ character’s name in The Ice Storm), “Jorie” (after Jorie Graham, a postmodern poet whose work I particularly like), and “Persephone” (the Greek Queen of the Underworld, and also the Goddess of spring/vegetation), we went to get the mail. In the mail was a large yellow envelope from the Motor Vehicles Division, and inside was obviously a license plate.

“Yay! Let’s play the license plate game!” I said when I saw it.

“What is that?” Callaghan’s education in American culture is an ongoing process.

“It’s that game where you look at a license plate and quickly say the first word it spells or brings to mind.”

“Maybe it’ll be her name!” He said it just as I was thinking it.

We opened the envelope. The license plate read:

 

New license plate for the new girl.

New license plate for the new girl.

 

“BUGSY!” We shouted at the same time, cracking up.

See how that works? Just as we’re talking about how we don’t know what to name her, her name arrives in the mail! Et voilà.

Happy Friday, All!

Callaghanisms

I’m coming at you at 2:10AM because weird schedules are weird. Alors, bonjour, mes amis Français! Ça va bien? Il est onze heures dix du matin là-bas… vous avez fait de beaux rêves?

I’ve said this before: Callaghan’s English is excellent, and his French accent is so slight that I usually don’t even notice it. But every once in a while, he makes mistakes, and when his accent does reach my ears, it’s often to amusing effect. For instance, he says “fuckus” instead of “focus” (I think I’ve mentioned this in the past), and “bitch” instead of “beach.”

The examples I’m providing below all came directly out of Callaghan’s mouth verbatim, and in complete seriousness. I wrote them down after he said them. Yes, I’ve been keeping a file of the Callaghanisms. They’re priceless.

Let’s get started!

 

Focus:

“My friend Christopher had a Ford Fuckus.”

“I’m tired today. I can’t fuckus.”

 

Beach:

“When we’re in Antibes, we can go see the bitch.”

“Tomorrow we’ll visit the bitch of Normandy.”

 

And other words with the long ‘e’ vowel sound, such as…

 

Sheet:

“I need a shit of paper.”

“Let’s put the shits in the laundry.” (my personal favorite!)

 

I’ve started picking up on some patterns. Here are three, with examples:

 

1). Combining non-American word usage with a French accent results in dialogue like this:

“In high school, my nuts were great!”

“Your NUTS?”

“Haha! My notes. My grades.”

“Oh.”

School grades in France are called “les notes.”

 

2). Direct translations don’t always work:

“That spider is waving at us with its paws.”

“Paws? Haha! That’s so cute!”

“Spider paws.”

“Spider legs.”

The French call spider legs “les pattes,” which is also their word for “paws.”

I love this mistake. I wish we said “spider paws” in English.

 

3). Some words are easily confused:

“Sorry I’m eating like a pork.”

I giggle.

“What’s so funny?”

“The expression is to ‘eat like a pig’.”

In French, the word “le porc” refers to the meat of a pig, just like in English… but it can also be used as slang in reference to a person. Unlike in English.

After I wrote this post (which pretty much wrote itself, since I had all the Callaghanisms saved in a file), Callaghan decided that it was lacking a drawing of a French superhero, so he offered to whip one up for me:

 

French superhero Super Dupont in progress!

French superhero Super Dupont in progress!

 

And now, a bonus! I’ll sign off with a French film recommendation for your weekend… because I’ve been glancing up at this DVD while writing about humorous French-to-English accent and translation goofs, and the two things somehow go together. This film is a quirky black comedy, and I think it’s brilliant. It’s been my favorite French black comedy since I first saw it back in the 90’s.

 

My favorite French black comedy. Notice I've leaned it up between Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe.

My favorite French black comedy. Notice I’ve leaned it up between Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe.

 

Delicatessen was directed and co-written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who directed and co-wrote the more well-known film Amélie about a decade later. Both comedies are off-beat, but Delicatessen is quirky and dark where Amélie is whimsical and light. Both are quite funny in their odd little ways. Hey! These two complimentary Jean-Pierre Jeunet films would make for a great movie night double feature, n’est pas?

Bonsoir, et bon weekend à tous!