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The Translation of Films, 1900-1950$

Carol O'Sullivan and Jean-François Cornu

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266434

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266434.001.0001

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Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

(p.25) 2 Titles and translation in the field of film restoration
The Translation of Films, 1900-1950

Bryony Dixon

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

Between the last years of the 1890s and roughly 1929 when full talkies arrived, films were generally a combination of picture and title cards, or intertitles, which began to be used in the early 1900s. As the film trade was international in nature from its earliest days, intertitles needed to be translated. This chapter offers a brief chronology of the intertitle in film, highlighting the difficulties of translating and adapting title cards with decorative backgrounds and sophisticated animated sequences, either at the time the films were made or today for restoration. It also provides three case studies based on restoration projects conducted at the British Film Institute, showing how language and translation issues play their part in the complex reconstruction process.

Keywords:   animated titles, film trade, history of intertitles, multilingual intertitles, silent cinema, silent film, film restoration

FILMS FROM CINEMA’S SILENT ERA — that is, between the last years of the 1890s and roughly 1929 when full ‘talkies’ arrived — are generally a combination of picture and title cards. For a full-length feature film the titles could constitute as much as a reel of picture — somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent. The long credit titles that we are used to now developed later in the sound era, so we are mainly concerned here with a relatively concise main title and credit sequence and the intertitles. These were rostrum-filmed cards added to the picture to locate the viewer in space or time, to describe or comment on the action and characters, or to supply dialogue. A number of interesting and unique translation issues arise from silent-era film intertitles.

One advantage that silent films had over talkies was the ease with which they could be distributed in any language. Intertitles could be translated and inserted into the picture without much expense or trouble. From its earliest days the film trade was exceptionally international in nature, particularly between the major film-producing nations — France, the USA, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and Italy and others such as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria-Hungary in smaller numbers. Language presented few barriers as film slotted into well-developed trade networks for equipment and entertainment outlets such as the great city music halls, touring fairs, and lecture circuits. There was a surprising range of business models. The Lumière brothers kept tight rein over their cameras during the first year, refusing to sell them but instead training operators to travel the world to work with local exhibitors to make and show films on their Cinématographe. From America, Edison, already supplying moving image viewers, added projectable film to his catalogues and British equipment manufacturers like Birt Acres and R. W. Paul were supplying projectors, cameras, and other equipment to clients in Europe and the Empire, along with their own films. Initially the films were sold outright so that anyone could insert their own titles. Around about 1905, as film became commercialised, renting became the norm and translation became a matter for local renters or distributors. Initially exhibition tended to be a (p.26) performance akin to a magic lantern show with commentary provided by the projectionist or a lecturer. As film became more and more popular and more complex, title cards were added so that films could be shown without the need for commentary or extra mediation. Once the projector was removed from the hall by fire regulations, its operator could no longer be the personal presenter of the show and films had to be self-explanatory.

When title cards came to be used in films in the early 1900s it was an obvious matter to translate them for different markets in much the same way as any product now, say mobile phones, would be produced to cope with different languages and alphabets. There are collections of films from these early days of the industry, such as the Joye Collection at the BFI National Archive in London and the Desmet Collection at EYE Filminstituut in Amsterdam, which were supplied for exhibition in theatres and touring fairground shows that have all kinds of translated titles: British films with German titles, French films with Italian titles, and so on. Following from this, across borders tariffs were levied on film by length and so negative films being sent to different countries were often supplied with just one frame of each title, which could be printed up at a local laboratory in the desired language. These we call ‘flash frames’ and they often crop up in negatives of films from this period in all kinds of languages. They may be cut in backwards to alert the printers that they need to make up a filmed sequence running long enough for the audience to read (which might or might not involve translation). This is useful in restoration — to supply wording for remaking original titles or telling us something about translation into other languages (see Figure 2.1).

Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.1. ‘Flash’ title card inserted backwards from Champagne (Alfred Hitchcock, 1928).

(p.27) International distribution continued in this relatively flexible way until the arrival of the talkies in the late 1920s when for a short time European film studios, unwilling to sacrifice their cross-border markets, experimented with films shot back-to-back in multilingual versions. This never really caught on and distribution between different language areas more or less ground to a halt. Films in different languages imported into Britain from France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere by distributors or by bodies such as the Film Society routinely in the silent days now had to be subtitled — an additional expense reserved for only the most popular films. But that was to come; during the silent era intertitles developed in all kinds of inventive ways. They are a significant creative part of any silent film and are worthy of serious attention.

A brief chronology of the intertitle in film

In the 1890s, when commercial film projections first appeared in the world’s theatres, there were no titles — films were generally very short and the views portrayed were sufficiently clear as to require little explanation. If they did, this was achieved by the exhibitor, or showman, who might embellish the screening with some kind of patter or lecture. The first titles appeared in the 1900s by which time the number of film shows had expanded exponentially. Films were shown in many different theatres, church halls, fairground shows, and converted shops. Arguably George Albert Smith’s How It Feels to be Run Over (1900) is the first film to include a title, with a few frames at the end spelling out ‘Oh, Mother Will be Pleased!’ although words incorporated into the film — such as Charles Goodwin Norton’s Good Night, in which the words are written on the pull-down shutter of a shop front — appeared as early as 1898, and had essentially the same function. By 1901 titles were appearing more regularly with films such as R. W. Paul’s Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost, which had explanatory intertitle cards with part numbers and some idea of the coming action — for example, ‘Scene II, Marley’s Ghost shows Scrooge Visions of himself in Christmasses past’ (see Figure 2.2). These effectively stand in for the kind of chapter heading we might expect in a Victorian publication and represented a convention that had been in use in magic lantern shows for many years.

As an adaptation of a well known literary product this makes sense and the ‘forward facing’ intertitle, in which action to come is introduced, survives for a long time before the more immediate and immersive dialogue title came to prevail in the 1920s. In the meanwhile all sorts of different variations on the title card were tried. The first animated title I can find is from a Mitchell & Kenyon film in 1902 in which letters rearrange themselves to form a new sentence (Figure 2.3). (p.28)

Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.2. Title card from Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost (R. W. Paul, 1901).

Titles and translation in the field of film restorationTitles and translation in the field of film restorationTitles and translation in the field of film restorationTitles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.3. Animated title from Trip to North Wales on the St Elvies (Mitchell & Kenyon, 1902).


Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.4. German title for the American film C. Q.D. Or, Saved by Wireless (Van Dyke Brooke, 1909).

The intertitle shown in Figure 2.4 is from the BFI’s Joye Collection which is a large collection of films from the 1900s that were found in Switzerland, the collection of a Jesuit priest and educationalist, Abbé Josef Joye. It is a cache of over 1000 films, from all the countries that were producing films, so from the USA, England, Italy, Germany, and particularly France. Generally speaking the intertitles are in German because they were translated for the German-Swiss market. The significance of this particular one is the company logo from Vitagraph, which tells us that this was probably done by the company, or by its agent with access to the logo, rather than by a local printer.

Non-fiction films use a range of title styles which can be as simple as a single word indicating a location, to the more elaborate imagined ‘speech’ delivered by a character ‘tour guide’ for films such as travelogues. In fiction, humorous titles are common, as in Figure 2.5, taken from a Florence Turner film. More old-fashioned and prolix titles are associated with genre fiction (see Figure 2.6).

The ‘voice’ of intertitles can vary; it might be literary, passive, direct, associated with class, in dialect, witty, arch, imperative, or ironic. The volume can be varied by increasing the size of characters (see Figure 2.7). (p.30)

Titles and translation in the field of film restorationTitles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.5. ‘an openwork that comes from long wear’ from East is East (Henry Edwards, 1916) and the shot which follows.

Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.6. Prolix title from The Sheik (George Melford, 1921).

Art titles can have simple illustrated or decorative backgrounds or be sophisticated animated sequences. Graphic design was called into use expressionistically— the animated titles from Sunrise (1927) are justly famous (see Figure 2.8).1 (p.31)

Titles and translation in the field of film restorationTitles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.7. Intertitle from Grandma’s Boy (Harold Lloyd, 1922).

Titles and translation in the field of film restorationTitles and translation in the field of film restorationTitles and translation in the field of film restorationTitles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.8. Animated title for Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927).

Bad or pretentious titles can spoil a film and racist language is always a problem. We have to leave it in — it would be unethical to airbrush history and audiences need to know how people spoke and thought — but as a curator your heart sinks when you come across a title of this kind in an otherwise (p.32) fascinating film. Occasionally we find titles that are just carelessly wrong. One unidentified film clearly shows dancers performing at Angkor Wat in Cambodia whilst the intertitles (see Figure 2.9) quote Kipling’s famous poem about Burma, a completely different country over 1000 miles away.

Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.9. Unidentified British title from Pathé Frères film of dancers at Angkor Wat.

Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.10. Title from Turksib (English titles by John Grierson) (Viktor Turin, 1929).

(p.33) It is important to be aware of the context of any given work. The intended meaning of some aesthetic choices may not always be obvious years later, for example the block capitals of a Soviet film such as Viktor Turin’s Turksib (1929) or Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Some people ‘hear’ this as an imperious, shouty, single voice — we are meant to ‘hear’ this as the triumphant shout of the masses in unison (see Figures 2.10 and 2.11).

Dialect titles such as the one shown in Figure 2.12 from The Sentimental Bloke (1919) are really untranslatable. The film is based around a poem written in ‘Strine’ (Australian English dialect) that is the principal attraction of the piece.

There are examples of multiple language intertitles such as in The Legend of the Willow Pattern Plate (William H. Jansen, 1925) made in Shanghai for the British market, which also carries advertising on every frame from the film’s sponsor.

Translation and intertitle restoration — three case studies

There are many issues in film restoration to do with intertitles. I would like to examine three particular cases, which illustrate some of the problems archivists encounter relating to language in particular, over and above the perennial

Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.11. Typically bold title from Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925).


Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.12. Dialect title from The Sentimental Bloke, Australia (Raymond Longford, 1919).

concerns of lack of time, expertise, and funding to do really good translations. Many of these problems will be familiar to translators of modern sound film.

In restoration terms we are concerned with correctly representing an original artefact as well as producing a satisfying viewing experience for a modern audience which includes the correct rendering of the language as it exists in the surviving copies of a film. So we may choose not to translate at all, add sub-intertitles (translated titles added to the original intertitles on the actual film print), work with soft-titling (where the translated titles are projected onto a small strip below the main screen), or replace intertitles completely with translated ones. This latter option might be appropriate for something like a restored silent film published on DVD/Blu-ray. Occasionally, where material has been restored in another language, it may be appropriate to add translated titles underneath as remaking the entire intertitle would be to interfere with the integrity of the print and would of course cost rather a lot. Associated with this are aesthetic choices about how to represent the original layout, fonts, and artwork associated with the intertitle.

The three cases I discuss in the remainder of this chapter cover what the project to restore the nine silent films of Alfred Hitchcock revealed about translations of titles and film-making practice in the 1920s; how to approach (p.35) the restoration of ‘art’ titles; and a British feature from the 1920s with Dutch titles that do not reflect the original style of the dialogue.

These are three recent examples I have encountered in restoration work pertaining to translation of silent film intertitles where translation is problematic, in terms of rendering a British-produced restored film back into English, or informative, in terms of telling us something about international distribution of films and laboratory practice in the silent era.

1. The case of Champagne

In 2012 the BFI archive undertook its biggest restoration project to date, restoring the nine surviving silent films of Alfred Hitchcock. As a curator, this meant getting up to speed with Hitchcock’s film-making practice very quickly in order to make correct choices about the inclusion of pictures and titles from some quite poor surviving elements. It soon became apparent that several of the films survived only in the form of second negatives, that is negatives made from alternative shots that were used for export versions to Europe. The presence of titles in French was a key indicator of this. This was important because these second negatives often contained slightly different shots — occasionally inferior — and we might make deductions about Hitchcock as a filmmaker from this version that are not correct. Working with the nine surviving silent Hitchcocks led me to believe that if the continuity or shot composition felt clunky, it was due to inadequacies of these second negatives or missing shots, not to any lack of attention on Hitchcock’s part. So in this way the process of translation in the film business in the 1920s informed our curatorial choices when it came to the restoration project.

Other problems concerning language and translation arose where we had to use parts of two source negatives for which we had titles in different languages (English and French). As an example, in Champagne (1928) there was a sequence for which the continuity was problematic. It involves the hero and heroine separately making their ways to the cross-Channel ferry from France to England. The cross-cutting from scene to scene led us to think there were missing shots. We did the best we could but struggled to position one French title (Figure 2.13) from the export negative.

There may be a way to render this title elegantly in English (it eludes me) but the sense seemed to be duplicated by two separate English titles, which we were able to source from another copy. The girl asks, ‘What are you doing here?’; and the boy says, ‘But what are you doing here?’ Although we were restoring the film almost completely from the French version, so we would usually respect the position of the intertitles in the picture, this particular French title seemed clunky. I left it out in the end in the interests of comprehensibility and flow. This is just one of many such instances where the original translation process helps and hinders the restoration work. (p.36)

Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.13. Stray French intertitle from negative of Champagne (Alfred Hitchcock, 1928).2

2. The scary title

Animated art titles are a real problem if they have to be translated. In this example we have the main title sequence of The Ghost Train — a premier Anglo-German production of 1927 directed in Britain from Arnold Ridley’s play by the supremely international Géza von Bolváry that now only exists in French. It is a great film, very funny and, I think, the humour translates well between languages. To produce a restored version in English, its original language, would be expensive, requiring the reanimation of the sequence in which the eye sockets of a skull dissolve into the twin train tunnels out of which the smoke from an emerging train forms very beautifully into the title, LE TRAIN FANTÔME (see Figure 2.14). Here the only practical solution is to add a subtitle, compromising the artwork and adding little in the way of clarity — there can be few people who would be confused by the phrase. In other parts of the film there are animated titles, including a parrot squawking ill-timed repetitions in French, which again would be time-consuming and scarily expensive to remake in English. This would entail completely remaking the picture by somehow deleting the original lettering, which, because it is not (p.37)

Titles and translation in the field of film restorationTitles and translation in the field of film restorationTitles and translation in the field of film restorationTitles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.14. An animated title from The Ghost Train (Géza von Bolváry, 1927).

stationary but animated, would have to be done pixel by pixel, and then new translated lettering would somehow have to be inserted. This would take hours and days of work and would likely never look convincing.

3. Double Dutch Love Life and Laughter (1923)

The third example concerns a more straightforward translation job. Love, Life and Laughter (1923), directed by George Pearson, is/was a famously ‘lost’ film (long on the BFI’s most wanted ‘missing believed lost’ film list). It was discovered, to much media fanfare, in the Netherlands in 2014. The film is a vehicle for the biggest female star in Britain in the 1920s, Betty Balfour, who was also very popular with Dutch audiences. One of her best-known roles, which launched a three-film franchise, was called Squibs; she was identified so closely with this character that the Dutch titles carry the name through to this film despite this film having nothing to do with the Squibs character. The print, found in a small town cinema, is a unique copy with Dutch titles (see Figure 2.15). There are no surviving business records for the film company in Britain where a script might have survived to give us the wording of the intertitles. (p.38)

Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.15. Dutch intertitle from Love, Life and Laughter, UK (1923).

What we do have is a pressbook, a marketing pack sent out by the distributors to the press and exhibitors. This gives an example of the intertitles, which appear to be in Cockney dialect (Figure 2.16) where we have a quote from the balloon seller who is the landlord of our heroine’s tenement building: ‘The ’opes of young people is like the air in balloons. The more ’ope, the higher you goes. Too much ’ope: bust!’

It condenses the central theme of the film, which is about optimism and the perils of aiming too high. So the problem is working out how the colloquialisms necessary to be convincingly ‘working-class London’ translated into Dutch. I understand from a Dutch expert who attended the conference where this chapter was originally presented that there seems to have been no attempt to render the titles in anything but standard Dutch, so that at least removes one impediment to the translation back into English — the idea of dealing with double sets of dialect expressions would be daunting.

Curatorial decisions about restoring titles in silent films can be tricky, and these are just a few recent examples I have come across. Archivists and curators in many other countries must be wrestling with similar issues. As more films are brought out of the vaults and are presented to the public, more of these issues will emerge. The essential tool that the curator has when making decisions is, of course, knowledge. You have to have seen thousands of silent (p.39)

Titles and translation in the field of film restoration

Figure 2.16. Page from pressbook for Love, Life and Laughter, UK (1923).

Courtesy of BFI Special Collections.

films to know what the usual practice was at a particular time. You need to know about the whole subsequent history of the materials from which you are making a restoration. Film prints have rarely come down to us in pristine complete prints or negatives with all their titles. Often we have the bits that were left in corners of the laboratory — a can of titles for cutting in, assorted reels, export versions, or collectors’ prints made from much copied, re-edited and re-titled versions. Language and translation issues play their part in this complex reconstruction process. (p.40)


(1) The titles for this film are credited to Katharine Hilliker and H. H. Caldwell, and it is speculated that Hilliker may also have been involved with the creative decision-making on this particular title. See Katharine Hilliker’s profile on the Women Film Pioneers Project at https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-katharine-hilliker/, accessed 4 February 2017.

(2) Literal translation: ‘I boarded this liner … I had just heard that you were on board yourself …’.