A Freelance Career, Found in Translation

For Subtitlers, Challenges of Meaning and Nuance

by Nicolas Rapold, The New York Times, June 19, 2014  

Andrew Litvack, who subtitles 12 to 15 films a year, at work at his father’s home in Jerusalem. He is one of many such translators based in Paris, a stronghold of subtitling. CreditRina Castelnuovo for The New York Times
The opening of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” memorably features credits translated by an overzealous subtitler. Tired of listing the cast, the unseen translator abruptly goes rogue with a tourism pitch: “Wi not trei a holiday in Sweden this yer?”

In reality, of course, subtitlers try to be a little more unobtrusive. Their work is visible from the first moment someone speaks, but the better the subtitlers, the less we notice what they’ve done. They do actually exist, however, and train-spotter fans of foreign-language cinema recognize their names, floating in the end credits after everyone has left the theater: Andrew Litvack, Lenny Borger and Linda Jaivin are among the best known in a little-known field that helps make possible the international flow of movie culture.

All of them, whether translating French or Mandarin (or Swedish), face the challenge of getting across meaning through the unwieldy medium of text over image.

“There’s nothing harder than making dialogue sound as juste as possible given the constraints of subtitling — having to do short lines, having to take out information,” Mr. Litvack said by phone, using the French word for, well, the “right” word.

In an industry that handles theatrical releases, festival screenings, home video, and more, translation is a freelancer’s profession that faces the common difficulties of global competition and quality control.

For the subtitler, the journey begins with the preparation of the movie at a lab, like Titra Film or LVT in Paris. First the original dialogue is broken up into lines and annotated with time codes in a transcription, in a process called spotting. The subtitler then does a translation, with an eye to length, timing and nuance. The resulting text used to be engraved onto film prints with little room for error; now, it’s done digitally.

Mr. Litvack subtitles 12 to 15 movies a year like this, including prominent productions like “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and Jean-Luc Godard’s coming “Goodbye to Language.”

He’s one of many such translators based in Paris. The city is a stronghold of subtitling, and it’s traditionally been practiced there with a care that he attributes to a respect for auteurism.

“Everyone is an auteur on some level, and they very much care about the subtitles of their movies,” Mr. Litvack said.

As is often the case with non-Hollywood films, he consults closely with directors, including Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis and Mr. Godard. “Working with him is a trip. It’s really fascinating,” Mr. Litvack said of Mr. Godard. “We did ‘Histoire(s) du Cinéma.’ We’ll only subtitle certain things, but it’s his choice, a choice I respect.”

Subtitlers face a number of questions beyond how much to translate. Slang and jargon are perennial tests, but so is humor.

Pascale Joseph, who specializes in translating from English to French, used to go to gun shops to find out certain arcane vocabulary; now it’s message boards on the web. But she still finds comedy a special challenge. “The most difficult is when it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s not, so you have to find the jokes,” Ms. Joseph said via phone. “Last year, I worked on ‘Grownups 2.’ That was a nightmare.”

For her efforts on the Farrelly brothers’ “Hall Pass,” this veteran translator won a prize from the Association des Traducteurs/Adaptateurs de l’Audiovisuel, a French group of some 200 professional translators. (“I’m beginning to be specialized in that kind of adult comedy,” she said, sounding a little surprised.) More recently, she handled HBO’s “Silicon Valley” series and the English sequences in Mia Hansen-Love’s coming film, “Eden,” which is set in 1990s Paris and New York.

Specific milieus and cultural contexts are also a concern in translations. The programmer and critic Tony Rayns, who has collaborated with Jia Zhangke and Hou Hsiao-hsien, has worked in a variety of languages, including Cantonese, Korean and Thai, each with its own demands.

“It is, in my view, the most important to key the speech to the character, age and background of the character who’s speaking. It’s absurd to have an elderly gent speak teenage American slang,” Mr. Rayns said, recalling a late film by King Hu that he had to help salvage.

The subtitler’s job typically takes a week, though some get as little as three days; Ms. Pascale recalled one rush job for a festival in which she had just 24 hours. Pressures, time and otherwise, only look set to increase. A recent petition by Anglo Subtitlers in France, a group of English-language subtitlers of movies and TV shows, protested lower wages. For a feature film, the fee is 3 to 4 euros per subtitle (an average film might have about 1,300), and less for lower-budget films.

“There’s a glut of people now who are trained but can’t find enough work,” said John Miller, a British-born French-based translator. “That has forced the prices down” — to 1 euro a subtitle or worse — “because there are people who are prepared to work for next to nothing.” His concerns lay with both the financial squeeze on his profession and with maintaining standards for nuanced translation.

Translating scripts for filmmakers and screenwriters before production is a common sideline, and closer collaborations with directors also occur. The Iranian translator Massoumeh Lahidji has worked with Abbas Kiarostami as an interpreter at screenings, a translator of subtitles, and even an adviser at the script stage.

The lasting importance of subtitles hits home with revivals of older films. Revising the translation can be a vital part of a restoration. In a demonstration of how priorities can change form one era to the next, many older repertory classics would skip racy language, or simply skip as much as possible to minimize text.

Bruce Goldstein, repertory programmer at Film Forum, has worked with Mr. Borger on scores of translation projects. In many cases, revamped subtitles can make a film newly intelligible, and therefore come that much closer to what the filmmaker intended.

Mr. Goldstein chuckled over a recent restoration of the Japanese classic “Godzilla.” That was particularly difficult, he said, in part because of the scientific jargon but also because of the hapless, sometimes short-lived victims: “For one thing, their sentences never end.”

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