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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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Conclusion The public face of film translation history

Conclusion The public face of film translation history

(p.291) 16 Conclusion The public face of film translation history
The Translation of Films, 1900-1950
Carol O’

Jean-François Cornu

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter goes beyond summing up the main issues addressed in the volume. It emphasises how its methodology was designed to foster an awareness of the significant stakes of film translation history for film history in general. It provides further leads to expand and deepen our knowledge of translated films as essential elements of film history and the film-going experience. A core element of the volume, key archival issues include the accurate identification and cataloguing of prints of translated films: silent films with localised intertitles, dubbed and subtitled versions of talking films. The editors remind the readers how they intend the volume to be a first step in identifying the material aspect of film translation history, and sharing the findings and related excitement with the general public.

Keywords:   Audience, archival issues, cataloguing, film-going experience, print identification, audiovisual translation history

THE CHAPTERS COLLECTED IN THIS volume are glimpses into a vast field of multidisciplinary knowledge and research. They explore a number of key issues: the early history of translated intertitles; the restoration of silent films involving searching for and restoring translated intertitles; re-editing and intertitle manipulation; music as a universal language substituting for the ‘universality’ of silent cinema; dubbing as a major film translation mode which involves dialogue, sound, and image manipulation; and subtitling as an alternative translation mode when dubbing was perceived as a failure, and one better suited to ‘art films’.

The chapters share a common interest in the industrial and technological contexts in which audiovisual translation developed. The traditional emphasis on the text is much less in evidence, but the studies in this volume underline how important a relatively small corpus of films was in the early sound period; the same titles recur over and over again across different chapters. This suggests that a promising future avenue for research would be comparative single-film studies. For example, despite the towering status of The Jazz Singer as the first feature film with synchronised speech, there are huge gaps in our knowledge of its international distribution. It is still unclear how this film was screened in non-English-speaking countries—with or without translation, with side titles or subtitles, or with film explainers. Similar studies could be undertaken of, say, Harry Beaumont’s The Broadway Melody or Frank Lloyd’s Weary River, as early examples of subtitling on an industrial scale. A first step would be compilation of non-film data, including press sources, from different territories. This, plus the comparison against actual prints, if they survive, could help us to understand, through analysis of a single film’s performance and distribution in different markets, which subtitling technologies were adopted when, in which territories. This research would also have larger implications: it would, for example, shed valuable light on how translation is implicated in the development of particular film genres or star personas across different markets. Having specific titles as a starting point (rather than, (p.292) say, mode of translation or particular subtitlers) is facilitated by the fact that archives catalogue their holdings by film name.

But it is also imperative to remain sceptical of a film-led ‘Great Works’ approach. Some films which are integral to our understanding of the history of film, and of film translation, are not in themselves noteworthy, or may not have gained traction in the canon (though we may usefully speculate about links between the release date of films in this early period of screen translation, and their later dissemination and critical reception, or lack of it). We are heavily dependent on non-film sources for much of what we know about this period, and we can take advantage of this to change the terms of our research, for example by mining press databases for statements about translation or links between studios and translation policy. This might also have the side benefit of foregrounding films which have been unjustly neglected in the canon.1 We must also remember the vast area of non-fiction film, which has been almost completely neglected to date.

The history of translation and distribution must be written from scratch in many regions of the world.2 In so doing, we should be careful about hasty conflations of language and territory: as Adrián Fuentes-Luque has shown in this volume, within the Spanish-speaking world there have been intense debates about how best to translate and distribute films for Spanish-speaking territories as a whole. Similarly, in English-speaking countries there may well be different patterns (the Irish market, for example, imported a number of foreign-language productions on Roman Catholic themes which had little visibility in other markets). We must ensure that this history encompasses ‘non-national’ or regional languages such as Catalan or Welsh. The experience of compiling this volume suggests that research into the history of dubbing may be better developed than research into the history of subtitling, perhaps because subtitling involves a proliferation of textual variants to an extent that dubbing does not. Archives do not tend to record the different subtitled versions in their collections; this is a gap that researchers will need to fill, and will require research in both source-country archives and archives of the target market, since translated prints tend to fall between two stools in this regard.

The contribution of film archivists and curators to this volume shows how crucial a role film archives play in the making of film translation history. Key (p.293) archival issues include the accurate identification and cataloguing of prints of translated films: silent films with localised intertitles, dubbed and subtitled versions of talking films. Rather than imposing an extra layer of information for archivists who might see this as cumbersome and unnecessary, such identification would provide a better knowledge of the provenance (in space and time) of prints3 and, consequently, benefit cataloguing, access, and exhibition. In some cases, identification may rely on significant information related to duration. For example, following a practice occasionally found with the multilingual films of the early 1930s, French-dubbed versions of that period could sometimes be shorter than the original films. Such shorter versions may be considered as ‘translations’ in a wider sense, not just as linguistic translations, but also in terms of editing and sound manipulation. From an archival point of view, such versions complicate the distinction between a film ‘work’ and its ‘variants’ and ‘manifestations’.4

Provenance and identification are essential when it comes to film restoration, one of the major activities of film archivists. From a film translation history perspective, restoration should also include evidence of original translation practices. This should be made clear by mentioning the dates of the original subtitled and dubbed versions with all their ‘metadata’: which subtitling/ dubbing process was used, names of translators, subtitling companies, and dubbing studios, when available. This is necessary for proper identification, but also for the public presentation of restored films in their translated versions. As Paul Cuff remarks about silent film restoration, ‘for archivists there is an ethical duty to remain open about this process of restoration, and to make spectators aware of the provenance of all exhibited material’.5 This ethical duty also applies to scholars and critics, as well as programmers and curators of film events, DVD editors, and online platform operators.

Ultimately, audience information and access are at stake. Research in film translation history can greatly contribute to provide better information on (p.294) which version of a film is seen, and heard, by the audience, whether in public presentations or private viewing. Younger viewers, in particular, do not have access to film in its material form.6 A typical example is a 2011 Gaumont DVD edition of Julien Duvivier’s 1932 French-and German-speaking film Allô Berlin? Ici Paris / Hallo Hallo! Hier spricht Berlin!, where new French subtitles can be read within a black box which presumably masks the original French subtitles translating some of the German dialogue. This prevents the viewer from having access to the original subtitles, which may be laid out in ways different to today’s usage and with different fonts, but nonetheless belong in their own right to the original film in its surviving prints. This is a clear case of how ‘the frequent manipulation of celluloid texts highlights the need to place informed spectatorship at the heart of preservation ethics’, as Cuff puts it.7 In a very welcome development, a print of Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan, 1931) with French subtitles by Colette was screened at the 2017 ‘Il cinema ritrovato’ film festival in Bologna.8 We hope this encourages further public screenings of historically interesting translations.

DVD publishers are beginning to draw on translated versions as interesting in their own right; for example, re-issues of Asian films sometimes include the poor-quality original English subtitles as a bonus feature.9 A number of DVD publishers have published parallel sets of multiple-language versions in recent years.10 In the prestige DVD market there is considerable scope to include original subtitled and dubbed versions of a film, when available in the languages it was translated into at the time of its first release. New subtitle tracks, in line with modern practices, as well as new dubbing (or ‘redubbing’) could be made available so that viewers are fully informed; this would also be useful for comparing original and contemporary translated versions, and their respective implications for reception. ‘The expanding commercial availability of film “content” has great advantages for scholarship but it demands a heightened scrutiny of the means by which historical material is mediated through digital technology,’ Cuff sums up, applying his argument not just to (p.295) silent cinema, but to ‘a much broader spectrum of film art’.11 Translated films definitely come under this broader spectrum, and the wider availability of film ‘content’ has advantages for the audiences too, provided they are aware of what they are offered.

Researching, identifying, and exhibiting translated films contribute to transnationalise the context of film translation history and take film heritage out of national confines, something film archives have done with remarkable consistency. Right from its inception, cinema was seen as a worldwide medium. The film culture of a nation has often been nurtured not only by its home production, but also—and sometimes to a very large extent—by films produced in other countries, the international influence of American cinema being one of the most striking examples of this. Subtitled and dubbed films are kept in national film archives outside their countries of origin and, when exhibition facilities exist, are shown to these institutions’ audiences. Viewers benefit from this through the use of translated versions of the ‘foreign’ films, and often consider such films as part of their own culture and, even, heritage. For example, writing about the foreign films kept in the Svenska Filminstitutet (Swedish Film Institute), curator Jon Wengström rightly acknowledges: ‘These prints form a rich part of the Swedish film heritage, since foreign films released in Sweden have influenced filmmakers, film culture, and society at large more than domestic productions have done. These prints also have Swedish subtitles, or—in the case of children’s films—Swedish soundtracks, which makes them unique archival objects.’12 We strongly believe that subtitled, dubbed, or otherwise translated films are indeed ‘unique archival objects’, not out of some misplaced fetishism but because, as this volume seeks to show, they are testimonies of specific practices which have important implications for the reception of these films.

Much research remains to be done on the history of film techniques (which film translation also belongs to), the archaeology of cinema, and the re-enactment of the original film experience. Such research would contribute further to highlighting the importance of the cinematic space for the filmic experience.13 This particularly applies to the screening of subtitled and dubbed versions. Making the audience aware of the specificity of this or that version or print is part of the viewing and listening experience in a (p.296) public presentation, whether in one-off events such as festival screenings or in commercial theatrical releases.

In this respect, this volume was designed to foster an awareness of the significant stakes of film translation history for film history in general. Our wish, as bold as it may sound, is for it to become a landmark, not unlike the 1978 Brighton FIAF Congress was for new perspectives on the exhibition and reception of early cinema. The Brighton event was ground-breaking because it showed a large number of films long unseen in public screenings, even by archivists. We wish to continue and expand scholarly research into the wider field of public exhibition and hope that a future stage of our project will include similar screenings of films in translation, as a first step in identifying the material aspect of film translation history and sharing the findings and related excitement with the general public.


(1) It has been pointed out that, from the archival point of view, films which were less successful may survive in better-quality copies, in that the elements may have undergone less duplication and therefore suffer less from information loss.

(2) The work of Jin Haina on audiovisual translation in China in the early 20th century came to our attention late in the preparation of this volume; her monograph is currently available only in Chinese but an English translation is in preparation at time of writing (see Select Bibliography, this volume).

(3) On the interrelated topics of provenance, identity, and reception of versions, see, for example, Paolo Cherchi Usai, ‘Same Film, Different Prints: The Case of Early Cinema and Its Multiple Archival Versions’, English section of the publication in Catalan, Esteve Riambau (ed.), Multiversions (Barcelona, Generalitat de Catalunya/Filmoteca de Catalunya, 2013), pp. 102–6 at 104 in particular. Provenance is currently a major issue for reflection among film archivists, and was the theme of the 2018 conference of Domitor, the international society for the study of early cinema.

(4) A variant is a version of a film which differs from its main version without changing its overall content; a manifestation is the physical embodiment of a film or one of its variants. For full definitions of these terms, see the entries in the filmstandard.org website (Metadata Standards for Cinematographic Works), http://filmstandards.org/fsc/index.php/EN_15907_Variant, and http://filmstandards.org/fsc/index.php/EN_15907_Manifestation. See also Natasha Fairbairn, Maria Assunta Pimpinelli, and Thelma Ross, The FIAF Moving Image Cataloguing Manual (Brussels, FIAF, 2016).

(5) Paul Cuff, ‘Silent Cinema: Material Histories and the Digital Present’, Screen, 57.3 (2016), 285.

(7) Cuff, ‘Silent Cinema: Material Histories and the Digital Present’, 286–7; Cuff also refers here to the enlightening discussion on image manipulation in Paolo Cherchi Usai, David Francis, Alexander Horwath, and Michael Loebenstein, Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace (Vienna, Synema, 2008), pp. 30–1.

(8) Festival catalogue Il Cinema Ritrovato XXXI edizione (Bologna, Cineteca di Bologna, 2017), pp. 95–7.

(9) See Carol O’Sullivan, ‘Subtitles for People Who Really Like the Film’ (blog post, 29 December 2013) at http://matsnews.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/subtitles-for-people-who-really-like.html, and Daniel Martin, ‘Subtitles and Audiences: The Translation and Global Circulation of the Films of Akira Kurosawa’, Journal of Film and Video, 69.2 (Summer 2017), 20–33.

(10) See ‘Multiple-language Version Films: The Ultimate Buyers’ Guide’ (blog post, 21 July 2015) at http://www.brentonfilm.com/articles/multiple-language-version-films-the-ultimate-buyers-guide.

(12) Jon Wengström, ‘The Coexistence of Analogue and Digital Strategies in the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute’, Journal of Film Preservation, 96 (April 2017), 63–74 at 68.

(13) We are referring here to statements made by film restorer François Ede and film curator Alexander Horwath at the film heritage symposium ‘Patrimoine et patrimonialisation du cinéma depuis les années 1960’, held at École des Chartes, Paris, 24–5 November 2016.