I got in a movie line once just because the line was long. “Something good must be happening,” I thought to myself. It was dark and cold outside, winter in Chicago, and I took my place, alone and shivering, Polish-speaking people in front of me, Polish-speaking people queuing up behind me. The Village Theater marquee said only “Welcome to the Chicago Film Festival.”
It turned out that the movie was SEX MISSION (or SEKSMISJA, as originally — phonetically? — titled), and I fell in love with this sci-fi/political satire comedy. If only the subtitles had done the movie justice for this lone English speaker in the room.
To be sure, I laughed as the two fumbling male protagonists awaken, after having been left in a cryogenically suspended state for 50 years. They come to consciousness and discover a world of women living in a post-apocalyptic underground compound. The story, the surprises, and the sight gags all work. Hilarity definitely ensues.
While I chuckled out loud, the Polish-speaking crowd roared, and I mean roared, with that kind of knee-slapping, tear-inducing laughter. More than a few times, the audience erupted with laughter when the simplest declarative statement appeared in English at the bottom of the screen. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, much like the hapless male characters in the movie. Oh how I wished the subtitles would have captured what the Polish speakers understood. Even though I missed most of the jokes, I still recall the sheer pleasure of being in a theater with such a connected and happy crowd.
A recent article by Anthony Paletta in The Wall Street Journal referenced the book, Is That a Fish In Your Ear?, by translator and author David Bellos. Bellos refers to English translators as “among the least-loved and least-understood language athletes in the modern world.” Their job is an art, and it’s a hard one. Not only do they translate dialogue, but they also must capture a character’s essence, create subtleties in meaning, and communicate authenticity. In addition to that, they have the added challenge of adhering to restrictive guidelines, especially in terms of space limitations that dictate the size and length of the subtitles on the screen.
We’ve all experienced the humorous slip up with a subtitle. When there’s a mistake we understand, we smile and forget. Some are classic bloopers, like the one cited in the article of the amusing French translation gaff from Peckinpah’s CROSS OF IRON. The “exclamation of ‘Tanks! Tanks! appears in subtitle form as “Merci! Merci!’.”
Mistakes will be made, as they say. How many times have we been unintentionally fooled or misled?
The future brings us a potential slippery slope. Thanks to today’s technology, there are now open-source subtitle platforms emerging, like Amara, which provide for on-line collaborative subtitle creation.
In our global village, access to translation of videos will open doors of communication like never before. But if subtitling done by professionals is such a painstaking, nuanced, and challenging task subject to errors and failure in interpretation, what will actually be lost in translation when amateurs and volunteers provide the lexicon? What will happen in a brave new world when translation may not be quite right, when the wrong, and possible incendiary words, are added to images?
It took me years to find a copy of SEX MISSION. It became a sort of obsession. Every time I met someone Polish (which is easy to do in Chicago), I would feel a need to explain the incredible way the audience responded to the film that night.
At long last, I got a lead. A friend of a friend of a friend who operated an auto repair shop might have a copy. What luck! I remember wandering into the garage and introducing myself to a man who didn’t speak English. He was bored with my eagerness. Gripping a filterless stub of a cigarette between his oil-stained fingers, he casually handed over the tape as if it were nothing. I was thrilled to tuck the black plastic case into my purse and hurry home, anxious to sit down and watch the movie again, just to see if it was as clever as I had remembered it.
Unfortunately, the tape had been recorded off of another tape or broadcast, and only about the top third of the letters of the subtitles appeared on the screen.
I watched the movie anyway. I longed for the laughter.