Scribes break language barrier

Writing for translation offers new experiences

A host of notable 2007 pix were lost — and ultimately found — in translation.

In the wake of Iris Yamashita’s Japanese-language screenplay for last year’s “Letters From Iwo Jima,” a trio of A-list scribes have seen their English-language scripts, by choice or circumstance, brought to the screen in a different tongue.

“One of the oddest things is going back and realizing that in a film you helped write, there’s a great deal of stuff you don’t understand,” says James Schamus, collaborator on four Chinese-language scripts with Ang Lee, including their latest, “Lust, Caution.”

David Benioff’s impossible dream of having the Afghan-set “The Kite Runner” spoken in Dari (a Farsi dialect) came true when helmer Marc Forster made language authenticity a precondition for signing on, sure that an all-English policy would undercut the story’s shift across two continents.

“Were the characters going to speak broken English in Afghanistan, and then speak broken English when they come to America as well?” Benioff posits. “It would’ve been distracting for the audience. Also, we didn’t believe any of the English-speaking auditioners were credible as Afghans. Now I can’t imagine it any other way.”

Benioff’s draft was turned into Dari by novelist Khaled Hosseini’s father, which “kept it all in the family” and contributed cultural flavor.

Scribe describes the foiling by hero’s father Baba (Homayon Ershadi) of a Russian soldier’s assault on a woman. “Her husband thanks Baba, and I had him reply, ‘You’re welcome.’ Our translators came up with other ways to say the same thing in Dari, and one was ‘It’s not worthy of a thank you.’ There was something old-fashioned and courtly about that; it sounded much better to me.”

Studios have traditionally balked at subtitled movies as offputting to theater auds and TV sales, but Ronald Harwood reports a studio’s insistence on bilingualism helped get “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” off the ground. After Kathleen Kennedy and Universal greenlit his original draft, years of silence followed.

“Then Kathleen phoned me and said, ‘We’re going to do it; Pathe (is) coming in, and we’re going to make it in English and French.’ That’s one reason why we chose these actors, because they’re bilingual. But I was always suspicious of that, because I thought it would be too expensive to do a two-language version. Then she phoned again and said it’d be done just in French.”

Nervousness about handing over his lines was intensified when the usual Parisian translator of his stage plays proved unavailable. But Harwood heeded a lesson from his English-language experience with “The Pianist” by making the diction “neutral, not too English or too American.

“What we tried to do is keep out colloquialisms that would too much suggest England or America. So when the French actors came to it, they made it colloquial for themselves.” Mrs. Harwood, a fluent French speaker, was on hand to provide reassurance.

“Diving Bell’s” paralyzed protagonist blinks out his memoirs while an alphabet chart ranking letters by frequency of use is read aloud. Harwood recalls, “I used the English chart in the script, but then I met the actual physiotherapist and asked her to say the alphabet they used. … She said it very quickly. It was beautiful in French, but not so beautiful in English. There’s something about hearing ‘ay – ess – ee’ (in English) that didn’t sound as good as ‘ah – ais – ey.’ ”

“Lust, Caution” was intended for Mandarin Chinese at the outset, yet as Schamus reports, “Lost in translation wasn’t a phrase for us, it was a lifestyle.” Script was developed in Chinese over a year by Lee and Wang Hui-ling from Eileen Chang’s short story, then translated into English for Schamus’ rewrite — and then back into Mandarin, along with brief snatches of English and the Shanghainese dialect.

Schamus, who “can order beer in Chinese,” cites “the enormous power that accompanies pure, unadulterated ignorance. But I had pretty instantaneous feedback from Ang on where I went wrong, both in structuring dialogue exchanges that might not be appropriate culturally, as well as the deeper mysteries of working in genres that were often quite foreign to my formation.”

Chang’s spare fiction is much expanded in the film, and concern for her worldwide audience caused “an initial, almost panic on Ang’s part when I would propose things that were expansions.” Yet it wound up “probably the most Chinese movie ever made, ecstatically received in the Asian world.”

A screenwriter’s power over his words is often tenuous, but even more so when language is a barrier. Benioff cleared the barrier on “Kite Runner” by making sure he’d be the one writing the subtitles. A kite store owner who was to greet Baba with, “Welcome to my shop,” instead issued a torrent of words, 10 lines’ worth.

“I’m used to actors coming up with their own lines, and if it’s Edward Norton, who’s one of the great improvisers, it’s OK. But this was different, this was too much. Usually you don’t have any power, so in the subtitling it was kind of nice to whittle down all those words back to ‘Welcome to my shop.’ I guess the actor might be mad when he sees it, but at least his friends’ll know everything he’s saying.”

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