July 7, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
Lost and Found in Translation
A couple of months ago I had dinner with a professional translator who produces subtitles for film and TV. The conversation led to the complexities of the process. There are difficult judgments to be made all the time, as with any form of translation. Does the word in language A really mean the same as that in language B? Does it convey the intended meaning of a character’s words? Sometimes a literal translation doesn’t. It made me realise what an art translation is: an art that can be practised only when at least two languages have been completely mastered.
I’ve had reason to recall that dinner conversation many times since as I’ve started watching Ingmar Bergman films, which were made in Swedish. Spoken Swedish has many similarities with Norwegian and my working knowledge of Norwegian is enough that I can often spot discrepancies with the English subtitles. Occasionally, the translator annoys me. A girl says her boyfriend is big and strong and will grow to 3 metres tall (in Summer with Monika) but the English subtitle changes that to 10 feet tall. Why? That struck me as a completely unnecessary concession to English culture. Even when reading subtitles, we still want that the film is set in Stockholm, don’t we, and we want to feel the Scandinavian culture.
One might think there is no real problem and that the translator should just translate as accurately and literally as possible. But that wouldn’t work. Take Norwegian swearing. English subtitles might translate a Norwegian swear as ‘black devil’ for instance. The fact that I can say that in a University of Nottingham official blog illustrates my point that the phrase has no effect at all in English. Swear words are meant to be taboo and the phrase has that feature in Norway. To convey the script’s meaning in English, one is therefore forced to adopt a completely different word. One should look, for instance, for a word that has comparable power in the reader’s language.
In another of my favourite Scandinavian films, Anders Thomas Jensen’s Adam’s Apples, the subtitler does a fine job on this issue. One immigrant character speaks Danish badly, which then has to be conveyed in subtitles. Included among his linguistic peculiarities is his swearing. He (wrongly) sticks ‘pule’ in front of everything, and constructs the sentence badly. And given the challenges this creates, it’s one of the best set of subtitles I’ve seen.
A couple of other issues have also come to mind recently. What if a film is set in the past and uses archaic language? A subtitler has to be careful not to make their translation too contemporary because the filmmaker’s intention will have been to convey a sense of the past through the language. And there could be an even bigger challenge. Sometimes one person is slightly bemused by the words another uses. They might not fully understand or perhaps need plenty of context to do so. A translator has to be very careful not then to make things too clear – and I can see that there would be a temptation to do so, so as not to look like a bad translator.
Subtitling is just one area in which we find translators are needed. For many of us, it opens up new worlds of foreign film and culture. There are of course other arts we enjoy through translation. Poetry has always struck me as especially difficult to translate, especially if one seeks to preserve a rhyme. But one could of course always learn the language. My enjoyment of Bergman has certainly been enhanced by understanding some Swedish and the more I learn the more I enjoy. I’m grateful to the subtitler for assisting me, though, and I can forgive the errors.