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!

What I’m Digging Right Now – July Favorites

The month of July took one look at our calendar, looked at us, and laughed. It mocked us. It studied everything we had planned, and then it said, Ha! Plans, schmanz… I got something else for ya!

In my case, the “something else” included a doozy of a summer cold. But I have no complaints. It was still a fun month. It’s just that very little happened according to plan, and, well, we all know how I feel about plans. I can be a little neurotic about sticking to them. Partnering up with Callaghan has been a healthy balm for that tendency… he’s my opposite in many ways, and there’s nothing like living with your opposite to get you out of your comfort zones!

We only caught two of the six live music performances we’d planned to attend, with one of those no-shows being due to my cold. Also because of the cold virus, I couldn’t really hang out with our friends who were here for a few days, visiting from France.

And finally, the entire month was consumed by our unexpected plunge into an overwhelming exciting adventure of the nail-biting variety, which I’ll likely talk about in a near-future blog post. “Near-future,” as in, when it’s reached its successful conclusion (fingers crossed)!

Meanwhile, here are some little things that captured my fancy in July and made the month especially, splendiferously wonderful:

 

1). Night-blooming cactus.

 

Absolutely captivating night-blooming cactus flower!

Absolutely captivating night-blooming cactus flower!

 

Virgil across the way cultivates what’s probably the most diverse cactus garden outside of the Desert Botanical Gardens. The day he told us about this particular night-blooming cactus in his collection, we schemed to capture her in action. We went out there at 5:00am the next morning, and again at 6:00am, and again at 7:00am, and we got to enjoy her splendor at each stage. I’ve always loved desert blooms, but this one flower stole the entire 20+-year show! It was especially fun to find an ecstatic bee rolling around in her depths, covered so thickly in pollen that it looked like he was wearing a bright yellow fuzzy coat.

 

2). Songzaa (App)

 

Songzaa - my current favorite app for finding new music.

Songzaa – my current favorite app for finding new music.

 

This free app magically cranks out playlists according to your mood or whim of the moment… you key something in, and it presents all the possibilities. Since I started listening to Songzaa’s playlists, I’ve discovered lots of new music, and that’s always a plus when you have no idea what’s out there and you don’t have time to investigate for yourself. You can find playlists by keying in your mood, a specific scenario (i.e. “cleaning the house” or “road trip”), or specific artists. However you search, it pulls up a list of artists followed by a selection of playlists. What’s not to love?

Let’s talk about food!

 

3). Trader Joe’s “just a handful” of raw almonds.

 

Big bag of smaller, individually-wrapped portions of raw almonds... measuring not required. =)

Big bag of smaller, individually-wrapped portions of raw almonds… measuring not required. =)

 

So healthy! So convenient! I throw one of these in my bag as I’m running out the door in the morning, and it saves me when my mid/late morning slump hits… we eat breakfast at 7:00am, so I’m hungry again by 10:30am. This pre-portioned bag of almonds gets me through with the protein and healthy fat it contains, and you’re never going to hear me complain about eating foods rich in Vitamin E, either (it’s so good for the skin)!

 

4). Van’s Natural Foods Chocolate Chip Chewy Baked Whole Grain Snack Bar.

 

My latest favorite energy bar.

My latest favorite energy bar.

 

There’s nothing unhealthy in these all-natural bars. They’re vegan (if that matters to you), gluten-free (if that matters to you), they’re free of GMOs and corn (if that matters to you), they’re kosher (if that matters to you), and they’re whole grain, fiber-rich and free of artificial colors and flavors… not to mention, they’re amazingly good! These bars are just tasty and satisfying to nosh when you need a little something to get you through that annoying, stomach-growling 4:00-5:00pm hour.

 

5). Apples with peanut butter.

 

I've been on a serious peanut butter and organic apple kick lately!

I’ve been on a serious peanut butter and organic apple kick lately!

 

I’ve always enjoyed this classic combination, but lately, I’ve been really craving it. I cut the apple into wedges and smear them with peanut butter, and the whole experience of eating them is so intensely satisfying, it’s borderline weird. But I’m going with it, because it’s a delicious and ridiculously healthy combination.

 

6). Anchorman 2 (film)

 

thatasianlookingchick.com-Anchorman2_Poster

 

We finally saw this movie, and it totally cracked us up! It was a riot, and we weren’t expecting to find it as funny as we did. We actually thought it was funnier than the first one, which doesn’t often happen with sequels.

Moving on to the beauty/skin-care products…

 

7). St. Ives Lotion Spray in Soothing Oatmeal & Shea Butter.

 

St. Ives made a spray-on lotion, and it's lovely.

St. Ives made a spray-on lotion, and it’s lovely.

 

St. Ives – I’ve always loved this brand. Now they’ve come out with their take on spray-on moisturizer, and it’s perfection in a can. This stuff was made for people like me who are super lazy about putting on body lotion. St. Ives’ is a light formula in a light spray with a faint, pleasant fragrance, and it practically applies itself! It’s delightfully effortless, and I really have no excuse to not moisturize, now.

 

8). Olay Body Ultra Moisture Body Wash with Shea Butter.

 

According to Callaghan, the "Format Avantageux" is complete Quebecois... the French wouldn't say "value size" like that! It seems that all the French on the packaging of products in the States is Quebecois. Interesting.

According to Callaghan, the “Format Avantageux” is complete Quebecois… the French wouldn’t say “value size” like that! It seems that all the French on the packaging of products in the States is Quebecois. Interesting.

 

Here’s another wonder of a moisturizing product! We’ve actually been using this body wash since spring, and we’ve discovered that other moisturizing body washes just don’t compare. We keep coming back to this one; we re-purchased it again in July, so I thought I’d put it on the list.

Oh, and by the way, that St. Ives lotion spray following a shower with this Olay body wash results in the silkiest skin ever. Great combination!

 

9). L’Occitane en Provence Beurre de Karite (Shea Butter) lip balm.

 

L'Occitane en Provence shea butter lip balm... very simple, and very effective.

L’Occitane en Provence shea butter lip balm… very simple, and very effective.

 

L’Occitane en Provence was one of those little shops in the mall I always walked past and never entered; neither did I ever feel compelled to try their products when I lived in southern France, where the company originated and therefore has shops all over the place. Even after our friend Chantal gave me this little pot of lip balm, it took me a while to try it… she gave it to me in April, and I didn’t really start using it until June. In July, though, I found myself reaching for this product more and more as my lips became drier with the intensifying summer heat. This is a very effective all-purpose lip balm.

And hey, I just realized that all three of the skin-care products on my list this month feature Shea butter! Theme not intended. =)

 

10). Prescription sunglasses.

 

Driving legally again!

Driving legally again!

 

Did I ever tell you about the time I lost my prescription sunglasses in France at a gas station somewhere between le Vercors and Nice? Well, that happened, and I’ve been driving illegally ever since… until now. Oh yes! Now cops can pull me over all day, and they’re never going to cite me for driving without corrective lenses. Ha!

Happy Friday, Everyone! =)