Friday, April 3, 2009

Translation vs. transliteration

I was re-watching Julian Schnabel's absolutely wonderful The Diving Bell and the Butterfly the other day, and it reminded me once again of the true function of subtitles.

They aren't to give us the exact translation of the words, as some choppy (and hilarious) Engrish subtitles from Japanese movies would have it. Rather, they're there to tell us what the characters meant. And more than anything, not to trip over themselves in adherence to the literal.

Even if you've never taken a single French class, you'll probably realize there's something wrong with the subtitles in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But we'll get to that in a minute.

The true story concerns Jean-Dominique Bauby, a former editor of the magazine Elle. After suffering a stroke, Bauby (or Jean-Do, as his friends call him) develops an extremely rare disorder called "locked-in syndrome." The syndrome paralyzes everything in Jean-Do's body except his eyes, leaving blinking as his only method of communication. As if that weren't bad enough, the doctors must sew up his right eye in order to prevent it from becoming septic. A fully functioning brain, and only a single eye as its outlet of expression.

In order to maximize the potential of that fully functioning brain, a speech therapist develops a system to help Jean-Do "speak," as it were. She reorganizes the letters in the alphabet according to their frequency of use in the French language, and then reads the letters off to him. When she reaches the first letter of the first word Jean-Do wants to say, he will blink. Then she'll start over again with the second letter of the first word, until it's obvious what word it is. Then on to the next word. And so on.

Well, Schnabel et al encountered a slight problem with this on the translation side. Namely, do you maintain absolute fidelity to the dialogue, and translate the letters that are actually being spoken, or do you fudge the translation in order to spell out the English word in the subtitles?

They opted for the latter. I think it's the right decision, but it still leaves the viewer in the unusual position of watching Jean-Do blink over the letter M, and have the letter D appear in the subtitles. Then on to the letter O, and have the letter E appear. Then on to R, and have an A appear. Jean-Do is spelling the word "mort." But we're seeing the English word "death."

Did they have an alternative? Well, not a good one. The only other thing to do would be to spell "mort" as it's being spoken, then maybe include the English translation in parentheses. It'd look something like "mort (death)." But that would tend to blunt the impact, wouldn't it?

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly also called to mind a second issue I have with subtitles as they are used generally. And on this one, I'm not sure I agree with the approach.

Namely: How come songs sung in foreign languages seem to also rhyme in the English translation?

Jean-Do's children sing him a song to lift his spirits, and I noticed that the words were sounding right in French, and looking right in English. But most words that sound the same as other words in French aren't the same words that sound the same as the same other words in English. The probabilities are just not favorable. (I tried to find the nursery rhyme sung by Jean-Do's children on the internet, to truly test my theory, but I had no luck).

Yet there's some perception by the subtitlers that we English audiences would consider that song less pretty, less song-like, if its words did not appear to have a rhyming English translation. Even though logic tells us that it would be impossible to rhyme in two languages at once and still keep your meaning, thereby forgiving the failure to rhyme in the translation.

Well, the conclusion seems obvious: Instead of the actual words of the song being sung, words that mean a similar enough thing are what we're seeing in the subtitles. At least, let's hope the words have a similar meaning. If the meaning is not very similar, aren't you subtly changing what's being communicated by that song? Sure, a lot of the time, the exact meaning of a nursery rhyme is unimportant. But sometimes, it sure the hell is.

I don't know, I like to think I'm mature enough as a viewer to get that the song rhymes in some language, even if it's not the one I speak.

I hardly think The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the only film guilty of this, which is why I'm just meaning to discuss a phenomenon in general rather than point an angry finger at this terrific film.

And it is terrific -- no matter what your native language. In fact, it's such a unique story, so uniquely told, that even people who hate reading when they're watching movies will love how it communicates the act of communication.

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