Diligent members of the Academy have spent many hours reading over the past few months. Not reviews or press packets — but subtitles. This year’s Oscar list contains more than 20 nominations for films in languages other than English — without even counting the noms for best foreign language film. To ensure that little was lost in translation, filmmakers have gone to unusual lengths.
“A bad translation or an awkward rhythm in the subtitles can destroy dialogue and any sense of mood,” says Director Guillermo del Toro, whose fantasy-filled Spanish-language film, “Pan’s Labyrinth” scored six Oscar nominations, including foreign language film and original screenplay.
Del Toro learned the importance of good subtitles the hard way. Like most directors, ready to be done with their pic once it’s sold, he did not bother to review the captioning firm’s work on his 2001 supernatural historical drama, “The Devil’s Backbone.” By the time he had read the “awkward and cold” subtitles, the film was already showing in American theaters.
For “Pan’s” he refused to take any chances, so he created the English subtitles himself with the help of his writing partner, Mathew Robbins.
While filmmakers have traditionally treated subtitles like inconsequential afterthoughts, a growing number – like del Toro – are realizing that they matter to audiences, critics and ultimately box office numbers overseas, subtitling firms say.
“Filmmakers are starting to take notice of subtitles and the importance they play in conveying the message and flavor of their movies,” says Craig Pepe, president and GM of Visual Sound, a subtitling firm based in Hollywood that has worked on the captions for films by del Toro and Taylor Hackford, among dozens of other directors
By getting more involved and communicating with the people writing subtitles for their films, filmmakers can help to ensure that little is lost in translation. “You can have a literal translation, but if you don’t have the nuances of what’s being expressed – it can be dry, like reading a newspaper,” Pepe says.
Directors of “Pan’s'” two foreign language competitors for original screenplay, “Babel ” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” were also unusually involved in the translation process.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu handed over a complete English script for his multilingual pic “Babel” and “went over the [Spanish] translation himself to make sure it was up to his standards” according to Elena Barcia who wrote the subtitles.
Meanwhile, Eastwood not only supplied his captioning studio with English subtitles for “Letters” as “part of the original vision,” according to Dave Margolis, general manager of Cinetyp, which was responsible for the captions, he also offered input regarding the film’s translation into other languages.
Subtitles for “Letters,” however, were the least of Eastwood’s translation concerns. Eastwood, up for best director, does not speak Japanese. To communicate with his actors, he had to rely on on-site interpreters. To ensure the accuracy and authenticity of the dialogue, he turned to perfectionist script consultant Joy Nakagawa.
“Clint goes for performance. He would say: you can say whatever you feel like, don’t worry about the actual words on the script too much,” Nakagawa says. But if an actor strayed too far or used a word that was too modern, it was her responsibility to report the matter to Eastwood.
Sometimes the error was as seemingly simple as using the wrong version of “I.” (In Japanese there are more than seven versions.) “Small things like that have no effect on non-Japanese audience,” says Nakagawa, “but for Japanese audience, it’s a big deal.”
In general, little things are a big deal when it comes to translation, because the end-goal, according to experts, is invisibility. Dialogue – written and spoken – should flow so well that viewers forget that it was translated at all.
“It’s a craft and an art,” says Barcia, who has written the Spanish subtitles for “Borat, ” “Dreamgirls,” “Blood Diamond,” and “Babel” among dozens of other prominent pics. It takes “a writers’ soul,” she says to deal with challenges such as re-inventing phrases along the lines of “making a sexy time” and effectively translating slang for Spanish-speaking audiences.
“Ultimately I think that film is a visual medium,” Barcia says. “I think [subtitles are] an aid more than the essence.”