Book Review: The Translation of Films – reshaping the sound of silence

“What do you call the Pride and Prejudice film with subtitles?

L’Austen Translation.”

Translation is a tightrope walk. A teetering game of balance between staying true to the source and living up to the target, a treading-on-eggshells where words seem to slip through our fingers as we try to crack them open to get to the yolks of their meaning.

The Perfect Translation: a linguistic Nirvana that’s presumably ours once we’ve attained some sort of semantic Enlightenment, freeing ourselves from the endless cycle of hithering and thithering between synonyms that sound just as good as each other. But the Promised Land is missing from the map; the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow always just out of reach.

The real meaning, the right translation – these horizons recede into the distance the closer we try to get, like looking through the reverse-end of a telescope.

The misty horizon of the Right Translation.
Norham Castle, Sunrise (c.1845), by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). Find it here at the Tate.

The translator’s conundrum has long been acknowledged in literary circles, and has even worked its way into everyday Italian with the phrase traduttore, traditore (‘translator – traitor!’). But once we’ve wandered into the realm of films, we encounter the spectre of a post-Babel longing for universals: the idea that the language cinema speaks is a language understood by all, that its images are unburdened by the knots that need to be untangled by translators of words on a page.

It’s assumptions like these (plus sundry others) that a new book tries to tackle – and which I’ve given a good turning-over in my review of The Translation of Films, 1900–1950, published in the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation journal, which you can find here. Or, for the link-averse, here’s my review in full:

The Translation of Films, 1900–1950,
edited by Carol O’Sullivan and Jean-François Cornu

Reviewed by Daniella Schütze, University of Oxford

It has become, since the cultural turn, almost a truism to say that translation is a process of recreation rather than reproduction, a form of rewriting via which a text emerges like a reflection in a funhouse mirror, transmuted in more than words alone. Yet, moving from the field of translation studies to film studies, we find that the translational prism of language and culture has been largely overlooked, eclipsed by cinema’s fabled universality. It is this — and many other — surprisingly stubborn myths that The Translation of Films 1900-1950, a collection of fourteen essays, seeks to redress.

            In a comprehensive introduction, editors Carol O’Sullivan and Jean-François Cornu, a translation scholar and professional subtitler respectively, situate translation at the core of film’s development as an international art form, emphasising translation’s ‘crucial contribution not only to the worldwide circulation of films, but also to the art of cinema’ (cover copy). Film translation, for the editors, is a conceptually broad and ‘unique form of translation’ due to the medium’s polysemiotic nature (5), involving not just ‘language transfer activity’, but ‘interventions of all kinds’, such as re-editing, image manipulation, and censorship (8). Readers need not, then, puzzle over the inclusion of a long-snubbed party into the conversation on translation, namely silent cinema — an importantly accommodating gesture which this volume is the first of its kind to make.

            The most striking aspect of the collection, nonetheless, is its novel approach to the ground on which it treads. According to the editors, the volume traverses a new and generously multidisciplinary field, which they dub ‘film translation history’ (19). Despite the concerns shared with translation studies (changing norms; ethics; the interface of art and industry), the volume resists becoming mired in translation theory, with contributions coming not just from film and translation scholars, but from the hands-on perspective of curators and restorers. Collectively, they present a diachronic panorama of film translation that is rooted right in its fin-de-siècle origins: the opening chapters (2-6) explore the translation and restoration of silent films and the attendant aesthetic, commercial, and ethical conundrums, while the remaining chapters (7-15) trace the creative ferment in film translation effervescing around the transition to sound in the late 1920s and beyond.

            To suggest that the volume is structurally bisected, however, would do a disservice to one of its major achievements: debunking the fallacy of a clean break between silent and sound eras. The need for film translation, we learn, did not suddenly arise with the invention of the talkie, but predated it by decades, as distributors adapted silent pictures for audiences at home and abroad. In chapter 3, Claire Dupré la Tour discusses Pathé’s ‘full-scale international marketing strategy’ of producing intertitles in multiple languages by 1903 (60), while film historian Charles Barr, in one of the most engaging essays of the collection, explores an ingenious example of Soviet re-editing in which the fundamental post-war plot of a silent Anglo-American drama, Three Live Ghosts (1922), is — intentionally — lost in translation. Given the potential for moralising, Barr’s conclusions are pleasingly nuanced: the manipulation of images and the complete rewriting of intertitles (originally composed by a young Alfred Hitchcock), ‘does not constitute some kind of shocking aberrant case, a sneaky piece of Communist distortion’ (98). This is, rather, an exceptionally creative experiment in narrative construction that would have left Hitchcock ‘fascinated, rather than resentful’ (100), counting as just one among many of the ‘reshaping strateg[ies]’ operating in abundance throughout the world (82).

Poster advertising Three Live Ghosts (1922), directed by George Fitzmaurice. Alfred Hitchcock is credited as a title designer.

            These strategies have made cinema an international story, one that does not revolve on an anglophone axis. Though the editors acknowledge that ‘a book in English about film translation may seem a contradiction in terms’ (22), the provision of footnoted quotations in the original languages nods towards cinema’s linguistic diffuseness, while the essays themselves demonstrate the varied trajectories taken by film translation in different lingua-cultures. After the coming of sound, Carla Mereu Keating discusses how linguistic-purist ideology in Mussolini’s Italy became a motor for the dubbing industry, while conversely in Sweden, as Christopher Natzen explains, dubbing foregrounded ‘the technical procedure of film production’ (263), causing a ‘heightened media sensitivity’ which disrupted viewers’ immersion in the filmic world, thus paving the way for the success of subtitling (256).

            Rachel Weissbrod’s examination of the conflictual forces of politics and commerce within the ‘subsystem’ of translated films in 1930s Mandatory Palestine demonstrates that filmic texts, like literary ones, are enmeshed in a network of dialectical systems. It is characteristic of the collection that films are studied not in an aesthetic or theoretical bell-jar, but with a refreshingly non-abstracted approach to films-in-context. Comparative stylistic analysis of Hitchcock’s Waltzes from Vienna (1933) and its French translation is mobilised by Charles O’Brien alongside copious extra-textual material, such as contemporaneous press reports and cinematographers’ accounts, to explore the possible impact on film production after dubbing became the translational norm for Hollywood exports.

A scene from Hitchcock’s Waltzes from Vienna (1934), accessed here.

            Within the volume’s historic-contextual frame, film is treated not only as art, but as artefact. Indeed, many of the entries turn an archaeologist’s eye to their objects of study: in an entertaining contribution titled ‘Confessions of a film restorer’, Thomas Christensen offers a first-hand account of the ethical quandaries of restoring intertitles from other-than-original versions, admitting to inevitable losses on ‘the sacrificial altar’ when negotiating respect for original material and demands of contemporary accessibility (109). Restoration, it seems, could be counted among the interventional strategies subsumed by the editors under ‘translation’, and its complexity is only compounded by early film’s susceptibility to the sands of time, for it is often the case that only badly-weathered relics, if any, remain (15).

            With numerous printed stills providing vivid reminders of the volume’s ‘drifting, volatile, almost paleontological’ project (150), one wonders whether it ought to have been titled ‘Film Translation History’. Yet the authority exuded by a label of this kind would ill befit a volume whose thrust tends more towards destabilisation than postulation, driving a wedge — but not drawing a line — under many of the myths that beset film scholarship and preservation today. Thus the period under scrutiny remains in touch with the present: the collection’s sleuth-like attention to rewriting practices, whether explicitly translational or restorational, confronts our indifference to the provenance of the films that we — as scholars, curators, and cinephiles — ‘unthinkingly consume’ in the age of digital availability (4).

            In view of the volume’s laudable efforts in exploring a ‘still largely uncharted territory of scholarly research’ (xix), I am chary of nitpicking. I would, nonetheless, suggest that its paratextual framing could benefit from revision; despite its claim to offer an ‘international history of audiovisual translation’ spanning ‘across the USA, Europe, South America, and the Middle East’ (21), a cursory glance at the contributors’ biographies hints at what is set to be a Euro-centric survey, in which Latin America and Mandatory Palestine — though valuable inclusions — make appearances so solitary as to seem almost tokenised. Likewise the cover image, depicting a spot-the-difference misprint in the English-subtitled version of a 1946 V. Shantaram film, elicits some misleading expectations, for the only representation Hindi film receives is on the dust jacket. One book, of course, cannot cover everything. Yet, despite circumventing the honeytrap of making Hollywood the pivot on which all film history hinges, perhaps more reserve should have been exercised before attributing such vast intercontinental scope to the volume.

Filmmaker, producer, and actor V. Shantaram, known for his role in the introduction of sound and colour to Indian cinema. Find his biography here.

            Another weak spot is the somewhat dissatisfactory ellipsis on which the collection hangs as a whole: the ‘so what?’ towards which the essays head — ‘what does film translation say about the producing and receiving lingua-cultures?’ — is rarely addressed head-on. It must be said, however, that the volume presents itself as a venture, the essays being ‘the inaugural episodes of a new scholarly endeavour’ (xix), geared as much towards stimulation as to exposition.

            The collection’s comparative spirit of challenging and probing, of stimulating the contact zone between disciplines, does not cover new ground, but it does cover old ground in new ways: as essays from archive and academy shed light on each other’s disciplinary emphases, early film translation in all its incarnations is revealed at once to be an engine of international circulation, a site of artistic experimentation, and an inextricable part of the story of cinema. In foregrounding a film’s transformation through a translational prism, and in confronting the scholarly lacuna where silent film translation should be, the collection dismantles the myth of cinema as a ‘universal language’, and proves that translated films — those ‘neglected “orphans” of film history’ whose notionally inferior status leaves them subject to deliberate destruction (xviii) — are eminently worthy of preservation and study. Here, rather than in any individual essay, lies The Translation of Films’ accumulative potential to change how films are preserved, distributed, studied, and seen, such that the archaeological puzzle of film translation history, with all its missing pieces, may start to look more complete.

By Daniella Schütze, University of Oxford

Review originally published here in the OCCT Review.


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