If you are a fan of classic French cinema, you likely have unknowingly profited from the work of Lenny Borger. His subtitle translations for new releases and restorations from Rialto and the Criterion Collection and others refine the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the original language. He once went so far as to track down a former police chief to clarify some obscure police jargon from the ’40s. Borger, a former correspondent for Variety in Paris, has also made a pursuit of rescuing rare and “missing” French films from foreign archives, including the nitrate negative of Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player and an incomplete Czech distribution print of Monte-Cristo that led to the film’s restoration.
This year’s recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award—named after the legendary San Francisco exhibitor and bestowed upon an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema—is translator, scholar and film sleuth Lenny Borger. On May 3, join us for a conversationabout the hunt for “lost” films and the unsung art of subtitling with Borger and Variety’s Scott Foundas followed by a screening of the rediscovered 1929 silent masterpiece Monte-Cristo.
Scott Foundas on Mel Novikoff Award Recipient Lenny Borger
Without Lenny Borger, how many of the treasures of French cinema would remain unknown to us-or known only in inferior versions that fail to capture the tiniest nuances of what is being said, and how? For Borger is nominally a translator and subtitler, but really he is a kind of medium, channeling the linguistic spirit of a given film and making it live anew for English-speaking audiences the world over. Consider just one example: tasked with re-translating Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic 1947 police drama Quai des Orfevres, Borger spent weeks immersing himself in arcane police slang, even going so far as to track down a former 1940s Paris police chief who’d retired to Los Angeles (and who was himself stymied by some of Clouzot’s more florid inventions).
In addition to Clouzot, Borger’s resume includes entirely new or extensively revised subtitles for films by Jean Renoir (Grand Illusion), Jules Dassin (Rififi), Jean-Pierre Melville (Army of Shadows, Le Doulos) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Contempt)—many of them on assignment for the invaluable distributor Rialto Pictures, where Borger has been the house subtitling guru for the past two decades. It is a list that rivals, in literature, the work of Lydia Davis, who has done definitive English translations of Proust, Flaubert and Foucault. In movies, he has no equal.
Not bad for a kid from Brooklyn who taught himself French by listening to chansons francaises and turned up in Paris in 1977, ostensibly to work on his doctoral thesis, but with little idea of what he wanted to do with his life. Opportunity knocked first in the form of the Hollywood trade newspaper Variety, which hired Borger as its Paris-based film critic and correspondent (a post he held until 1990); and, a bit later, in the form of director Bertrand Tavernier, whose 1980 film A Week’s Vacation gave Borger his first subtitling gig. His services have been in high demand ever since.
Today, Borger is one of the great unsung heroes of one of filmmaking’s least understood disciplines. Indeed, if the average moviegoer ever thinks about subtitling at all, it is most likely in the context of titles that are difficult to read (white typeface against a white background), not on the screen long enough to fully digest or beset with some spelling or grammatical error that has somehow survived the copyediting process (it happens). In other words, we only notice subtitles when something goes awry, and never give any thought to the people responsible for putting them there. We do not think about the thousands of infinitesimal yet crucial decisions the translator has been forced to make: how to convey regional dialects and accents that, when heard in the original language, reveal important information about the characters; how to rephrase idiomatic expressions which, if translated literally, would lose their meaning; and what to do about grammatical rules (such as the dueling formal and informal second-person pronouns, tu and vous, in French) that do not exist in English. And, above all, how to do all of that in the limited number of characters available in the on-screen subtitling space—an even more constrained field than the 140-character limits of Twitter.
Yet, time and again, Borger has risen to the occasion. It is thanks to him that we now have English lyrics for the song sung by Cartier, the vaudeville performer played by Julien Carette in Grand Illusion (and left untranslated in earlier English versions), as well as an inspired English approximation of the untranslatable wordplay at the end of Godard’s A Woman is a Woman (“Je ne suis pas infame. Je suis une femme.”) There are countless other examples in a career that has spanned 35 years and more than 100 films.
That would be laudable enough, but Borger is also a critic and historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of French cinema and a passionate desire to see lost classics return to the screen. In recent years, he has programmed a survey of little-known French films made between 1915 and 1929 for the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, and co-curated a massive and long-overdue retrospective of director Julien Duvivier for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In San Francisco, he brings us Henri Fescourt’s magnificent silent epic Monte-Cristo (1929), the greatest screen version of the Alexandre Dumas novel, believed to be lost for decades, now newly restored to its original glory.
“They say a great novel should be translated every generation and great films should be, too,” Borger has said. To that, one might add that every generation gets the translator it deserves, and we are most fortunate to be living in the era of Lenny Borger.
Scott Foundas is the Chief Film Critic for Variety. Prior to joining Variety, he was Chief Film critic for the LA Weekly and The Village Voice. From 2010-2012, he was Associate Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and has been a programming consultant to the Cannes Film Festival and the Walker Art Center.