Monday, March 1, 2010

Translating money

Do you think we should be translating money in foreign films?

I was watching the 2005 film 13 Tzameti on Friday night. I have trouble deciding whether to consider it a French film or a Georgian film -- the primary language spoken in the film is French, because the action takes place in France, but both the director (Gela Babluani) and the protagonist are Georgian, some Georgian is spoken, and "tzameti" means "thirteen" in Georgian. Which led to a bit more confusion -- I can't decide if the film is really supposed to be called either 13 or Tzameti, and in fact, some places it is listed as 13 (Tzameti). But on wikipedia and several other places it's called 13 Tzameti, so I've decided to go with that. I do know that the Hollywood remake, due out this year, is called simply 13.

Anyway, the movie is about an underground game of multi-person Russian roulette. In this particular instance of the game, there are 13 participants. Men are lured to a secret location -- it's hard to tell what percentage of them know what they're getting into -- and play several rounds of Russian roulette, all pointing their guns at each other in a circle. Some are obviously killed in each round, but some survive because the man who was pointing his gun at them either had an empty chamber, or was killed before he had the chance to pull the trigger. I won't say how many are ultimately killed, but the idea is that one man is declared the winner, and he walks away with a huge sum of money. The rest of the money is shared by gamblers who watch the proceedings, who bet on which ones will survive.

The large sum of money is what I want to talk about today. I don't recall the total size of the pot actually being mentioned in the movie, but I was watching the movie mostly after midnight (and it was in French), so it's possible I missed it. I did see it listed as 850,000 Euros on wikipedia. But there are smaller amounts of money mentioned throughout the movie, and each time someone mentioned one of these amounts -- which I wasn't totally sure were Euros at first, either because I'm stupid or because it was late at night -- I thought, "Is that a lot?"

And that made me ponder the function of subtitles, as I have at different points in the past. Subtitles are not meant merely as a literal translation of the words being spoken, because sometimes that would leave the viewer confused by turns of phrase that have a meaning only to native speakers of that language. What's intended by the phrase is what's really important.

So if you want to extend that, you could say that subtitles are intended to provide foreign viewers with the same perspective a local viewer would have. Therefore, just translating a sum of money as however much money it is in that part of the world is not really doing the whole job, is it?

Euros are not necessarily a great example. As one of the most prominent currencies in the entire world (outside of the U.S. dollar, I would argue), the Euro has a value that most viewers in any country should be able to approximate. And I'm okay with the filmmakers giving us some benefit of the doubt, crediting us with having a certain level of intelligence.

But let's take a more extreme example. Let's say the movie is set in Ethiopia, and it's about an Ethiopian goat farmer. The currency in Ethiopia is called the Birr. What if there were a crucial scene in the movie where the goat farmer fought with a prospective customer over the price in Birr of one of his goats? Wouldn't we benefit from having this conflict translated to us in English dollars? Maybe there could be brackets after the words 15 Birr (I have no idea what a reasonable number of Birr would be to spend on a goat) that said something like [$150]. It might get clunky, but it might help us understand better whether it was the goat farmer or his customer who was being unreasonable. And that might actually be really important for us to know.

I don't know, these are the things I think about.

No comments: