Thursday, March 1, 2018

What I Do

Nuance Titles is an LLC I have formed as the mechanism through which I solicit work as a writer and an editor.

One of my strongest skills sounds boring: quality control. But it isn't. Here's how it works. I receive the translation of a film into English, and before the subtitles are laid onto the film, I need to make sure they are perfect. Almost everyone that I tell this to responds in the same way: "But you speak all those languages?" They confuse translating the subtitles with editing the subtitles that have already been translated into English.  Most people don't realize how difficult the art of translation is--in direct proportion to how different the language is from English. (Korean or Chinese, say, instead of Spanish or German.) Monolingual producers often budget for subtitling almost as an afterthought, and learn the hard way how destructive to their creative vision it can be to have non-colloquial or literal rendering of their words on the screen.

The reasons this line of work is so right up my alley are several.  First, I do speak French fluently, and have extensively studied Spanish and Italian, as well as taken a semester of Portuguese and two semesters of German. On top of this--or perhaps because of this--I have a finely developed sense of when something is mistranslated. A simple example is the verb "to control" in English and "controler" in French. In French it is related to auditing, or double-checking -- we see it in the noun form in English, "controller," or "comptroller" which is a financial officer. But if you want to say "he is very controlling" in French, you would say: "il est tres directif" -- which isn't so far off from what a director is. But we just don't say: "he is very directive" in English - although that's exactly the kind of translation from French to English I often need to correct. It's not a mistake a good translator would make, but the truly bilingual translators (meaning educated in both languages) are often considered too expensive for filmmakers, many of whom think this can mostly be done by Google Translate and someone who took a few years of the language in college. This mindset is particularly toxic in the era of globalization, where telenovelas get shipped down to Mexican freelancers who deliver a sludgy English along the lines of "But what a face you make to me!" (which I would instantly know should read: "Don't look at me that way!") And don't even talk to me about Chinese.  It turns out to have a completely different use of tenses, not to mention pronouns.  I don't know that because I speak Chinese, but because I understand by now how variant national grammars can be, from how different the formulations come to me in English.

For example, the verb often goes at the end in German -- the kind of linguistic quirk George Lucas took full advantage of when "lines for Yoda he composed."  I don't speak Russian, but I've noticed they don't use articles the way we do. "We go to hospital now" is exactly how they say it in Russian, no "the" required.  All this to say that I have very good ear for when something is not quite right, and why. And as an experienced screenwriter, I can give an extra gloss of creative fluidity to any rewrite, to boot.

So what I did as a tool to market my skills is to take stills from films that have already been subtitled --even subtitled well--and show how they could be subtitled even better. For this first entry I'm going to choose an example from the movie Yves St. Laurent and explain how, exactly, a line of dialogue could have been rendered more skillfully in English. On days that follow I will offer up more examples that I've been gathering.

Film: Yves St. Laurent. Original Language: French

The preceding scene is the reading-out-loud of a lyrical passage written by Marcel Proust. He is not identified as the author, but his autobiographical paean to neurotics would be familiar to most Frenchmen, and it clearly resonates with the reader of it, Yves St. Laurent. His partner says to him, “ça chante dans tes oreilles” – literally, “it sings in your ears, ” which is just awkward enough to have been changed by the translator to “that gets your ears buzzing.”  A better subtitle would be one that fills in the authorial reference for the English speaker, but still acknowledges Laurent’s emotional reaction to the passage.

Now, isn't that better?

When deciding on what kind of post-production facility to use to render your work in other languages, choose one with editors who know how to think through each subtitle to make it as faithful to the original as possible, without being too literal.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Encore Yves

You will note that I am purposely choosing films that were, on the whole, very well-subititled. My entire "brand" is showing how "A" work can be "A+" work.

These are two more examples from the film Yves St. Laurent.

Example 1:

Taking place in a loud discothèque, the line is hard to make out, but it does indeed sound as if the actor says: “Vous êtes longue. He can only be referring to her physical appropriateness as a model, but “you’re long” is not a sentence that an English speaker would use.

This would be my solution:
Of course, ideally you have a relationship with the director or the screenwriter that you can consult to confirm original intent, but often by the time it's in post-production, they are into other projects.

Example 2:

In this scene (the line is said off-screen, with is why [Yves] is bracketed) St. Laurent is actually lamenting that the mainland French have started to marginalize the French of colonial North Africa returning from Algeria in 1962 by calling them “pieds-noirs” (which literally means “black feet,” a derogatory term implying those forced to leave after Algerian independence were somehow racially tainted.) In French, he uses “on,” which is translated here as “we,” but literally means “one,” as in: “One never used to hear pied-noir before.”  This change in pronoun would somewhat clarify the subtitle, but pied-noir is still a term most English speakers would not understand. 

My solution involves finding a different term that at least still conveys the alienation of French nationals (like Laurent’s family) who were now perceived as slightly foreign in both countries they had previously considered home. Hence:


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Children of Paradise

Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis is a classic of French cinema, all the more remarkable for being filmed in 1945, when France had only recently been liberated and conditions across the country were bleak. The dialogue is mostly well-translated, but several examples can still easily be found that illustrate why an editor (particularly one who deeply understands both language and film) can be just as essential as a translator in creating perfect subtitles.

First the original, followed each time by suggested improvements.


In this scene, this unsavory character has just acknowledged with a kind of perverse pride what a "penny-pinching cheapskate" he's considered. At the end of his monologue, he doesn't actually say he is as "mean" as a rat. He uses the French word "avare," from which is derived the English word "avaricious."

The more accurate translation is: "because I'm stingy like a rat." ("Greedy" would also work.)


 "Don't say no," is perfectly understandable, but not quite the phrasing we would use in English.

  We would say: "Don't deny it."


This does not copy the phrasing of the original, which is posed as a question.  It is easy to read this almost as a direction, perhaps even an indirect order.

This is actually how he says it in French. Such a stark suggestion is far more sinister when asked so casually, almost as an afterthought.


The original French is literally, "If people who lived together would only love each other..."  This is not meant to refer to couples, but rather urges all people to treat each other more humanely.

This translation is truer to the spirit of what he is saying.  He also says "brillerait" in the original French, and using the English "brilliance" is more in keeping with a character who is a mime, and tends to speak poetically when he speaks at all.


She addresses him by name in the original, and the translator probably left it out because it interrupted the rhythm of the contrast between "hot-headed" and "cold-hearted." After making this observation, the character elaborates:

In French, the word for "draughts" (British spelling - we would write "drafts") is "courants d'air," literally, "air currents." This formulation conveys the contrast in his behavior in a way not captured by "drafts." We can fix it accordingly, while also "cheating" slightly by bringing his name to the title from where it was omitted in the previous one.

The use of his name is important because it makes her rejection of him both more personal and more diplomatic, as she finds a way to distance herself from this intemperate suitor by characterizing his mercurial moods as a mere style of personality. From her body language and forced smile, it's clear that she is trying to extricate herself both verbally and physically, and given the man, she has to be careful about it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Schlussmacher (German)

Schlussmacher literally means "The Endmaker" and it was a popular German comedy about a man who is hired to do the dirty work of a breaking-up for his clients.  (If ever there was ever a movie screaming to be remade into an American comedy, it was this.)

Here are few changes I would have made in the subtitling.

Example 1:

“Realize” is overwhelmingly used in English in the sense of understanding something for the first time, rather than to express the idea of getting something done. There is a better way to translate how it is meant in this context:

 Alternatively:"The client makes a decision, and I carry it out," would work fine as well, but I liked the repetition of "make" here.

Example 2:
One of the first "jobs" we witness Schlussmacher do entails him explaining to a jilted wife why her husband wants a divorce:

"Choleric" is a perfectly good word, but hasn't been used in English much since the 19th century. The subtitler should have kept it simple.

After the ‘I’m-not-angry’ spurned wife has a fit of fury with a pillow, our protagonist comically encourages her to "let go:"

But in English, he would probably use a different word than “scope.”

If I had a relationship with the director in which he or she really encouraged the dialogue to be written as it would have been in English, I might suggest: "Don't hold back. Really."  Making these kind of proposals is always a judgment call, of course, but I'd like this blog to give potential clients an idea of what it would be like to use a subtitler who understands how comedic translation should entail an entire extra step in the thinking process.

Comedy is much harder to translate effectively than drama.  And one job I will always turn down unless there's enough money to pay for a genius translator is the work of a stand-up comic.  (Professional discretion, unfortunately, prevents me from telling the story of the particular nightmare job that led to that vow.)

Monday, January 22, 2018

Generation War (German)

This German mini-series, Generation War, tracked the fictional experiences of a group of friends before and during the Second World War.  One of them is a Jewish tailor who is lovers with a Gentile girl, an up-and-coming singer. At one point they go over the possibility of his getting an exit visa, and this is what he tells her:


I would have made two changes:

"Quotas" is more accurate than "figures"- it refers to the number of visas according Jews to emigrate by the various countries who accepted them in limited numbers. "Getting out" emphasizes the aspect of escaping from genuine peril much better than "coming out."


 A pair of the group of friends are brothers, in the same unit during the invasion of Russia. One is a reluctant warrior, disliked by his fellow soldiers for his tepid support of the war. After being ordered to kill a partisan, (he secretly lets him go) he is finally commended by one of them:

 This is obviously a typo not caught in quality control that should have read:

This emphasizes the importance of a sharp eye.  The translator - who was probably a German native slightly stronger in his maternal tongue than in English - may have actually thought the expression was a "notch in your butt." But since we know that Winter didn't actually kill the partisan, the false congratulation should be poignant, even dangerous. The viewer certainly doesn't need to be instead  chuckling at a mistake.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Velvet (Spanish)

Velvet is an ongoing Spanish series about the heir to a Madrid Fashion house trying to keep the business alive after the death of his father. It stars the very up-and-coming Miguel-Ange Silvestre (Sense8) and is a little soapy, but very visually pleasing with all the sharp early 60s fashions and gorgeous actors.

Ex 1.
In this scene, our hero, Alberto Marquez, asks a simple question:

We expect, in the next scene, there will be models showing off his father's latest fashion line. But in the scene that ensues, what we see are the new dresses themselves, on body form mannequins.  Therefore, the question he was really asking was:
"Modélos" does not just mean "runway models" - it means "designs." I happen to know about this quirk because only in the past two decades have both French and Spanish imported "design" into their languages.  (Anglophiles would often say "dessin" in French, which means "drawing" -- now its perfectly okay to discuss "le design" at a Parisian dinner party.)
Ex. 2

There is nothing grammatically wrong with “they have to do work,” which is probably why it wasn’t picked up as incorrect in QC. But the character in this scene is trying to explain away some incriminating telegrams to her nosy daughter, and the missing preposition is absolutely crucial. It should read:

Big difference in the meaning of "They have to work," and "They have to do with work."

Ex 3

The actress on the right, in the glasses,  is talking about cutting a dress pattern for a full-figured woman – the translation is literal and grammatically incorrect (it should be “ship at sail” not “ship in sail.”) In either case, it’s not an expression an English-speaker would use.  We can rethink it by taking note of the personality of the character. She is nervous and easily flustered, a compulsive talker prone to malapropisms. With that in mind we can use a similar nautical expression to imply a boxy woman, then add to it to evoke the image of billowing fabric. 

 Notice I didn't write "tugboat with sails." Because the way the character speaks is full of choppy afterthoughts. She would blurt out "tugboat," and then try to somehow soften it with "sails."

What I Do

Nuance Titles is an LLC I have formed as the mechanism through which I solicit work as a writer and an editor. One of my st...