Recently, while watching a film with hit and miss subtitles, I was reminded of an incident that occurred, when I lived in West Berlin in the early 1970s. At the time, I spoke German fluently and was sometimes asked by the Arsenal Art Cinema (Kino Arsenal) to translate foreign films ‘live’ during projection – from English into German.
This was before most educated Germans spoke, or at least understood, English, but at a time when English had already become the language in which a transcript of the dialogue was provided by filmmakers and companies submitting films. The festival or cinema could then decide whether to pay for subtitling, or not. If not, in the Arsenal’s case, it gave a translator a copy of the dialogue transcript, a beer or two and a cubbyhole at the back of the cinema with a microphone. During the film’s projection, the translator translated – in my case, not always one hundred percent up to speed, but vaguely in sync with the action – and the audience listened on headphones.
One time (in the Berlin equivalent of an NFT all night screening) I was given the English dialogue transcript for a rare Japanese film – the title escapes me now – that had received a great deal of publicity and drawn a big audience to the Arsenal. All went well for a reel or two, though simultaneously keeping an eye on the written word and the screen action proved a nerve-racking challenge given that the viewers were dependent on me for their understanding of the film and its eminent director’s intent.
Half way through reel three, it dawned on me that I was translating dialogue for a romantic love scene (Japanese style) in the middle of a Samurai battle (Japanese style) on screen. The transcript pages had been mixed up and there was no way of knowing where I was. I had little option but to struggle on and, to begin with, the audience – used to ‘difficult’ art films – accepted the disparity between sound and image in a grave manner, diligently trying to fathom the meaning of the filmmaker’s daring audiovisual deconstruction and formalist sang-froid. But when, minutes later, the situation was reversed and a love scene (very Japanese) appeared on screen with dialogue (very Japanese) from the Samurai battle, giggles and titters began to surface. I decided to stop the film and announce over the loudspeaker system that I had lost my place. But, when I did, the audience shouted, “No matter! Go on! Go on!”
So I did, and, by the end of the movie, a serious art film had become a rip-roaring comedy with the entire audience rolling in the aisles. Luckily the filmmaker was not present, otherwise I am sure he or she would have been mortified – we do not always like our work to be laughed at for the wrong reasons! Now of course digital subtitling on digital copies of films makes the costly process of getting text onto celluloid redundant, but sometimes I think that the more we solve technical difficulties the less opportunities there are for spontaneous creative chaos based on honest human error.