And we take it for granted that foreign language films will have been sensitively, accurately translated, and that the subtitles will be cued delicately and precisely around cuts and camera moves. We assume that if something (like a song) is not translated that is because it doesn’t matter. We assume that these are decisions have been taken taken by thoughtful, informed people who grasp about just what the makers of often complex and multilayered works have in mind.
Of course standards have varied greatly. Watching Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublyov on 35mm in the late 70s and 80s was once an ordeal: subtitles on the only print available were mistimed, placed almost randomly, and worst of all mixed up between reels so that the audience had to memorise the gist and wait for a later reel when the translation would be helpful.
- Translations could be poor or plain wrong at times. In that case, pedants have had fun picking apart translations.
For example, Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket opens with a roller-caption, that begins, “Ce film n’est pas du style policier”. The subtitles give, “This film is not a thriller”. A change of meaning and a shift in cultural reference has occurred. Unavoidable perhaps but not exact. Later, the Pickpocket diarist writes: “Je sais que d'habitude ceux qui ont fait ces choses se taisent ou que ceux qui en parlent ne les ont pas faites. Et pourtant je les ai faites”. Literally, “I know that usually those who do such things do not speak of them, whereas those who talk of them will not have done so. Yet I have done them”. The subtitling gives: “Such deeds condemn people to silence. Those who talk haven’t done them. Yet I have done them” (the translator was Ian Burley). The subtitler must contract a complex meeting of text and image. The diarist’s hand is writing, speaking of deeds that perhaps should shown not told, a contradiction made apparent only by virtue of the image of the writing hand. The diary entry is also readable as a statement of Bresson’s philosophy of film-making, and a summary of the existential choices of an on-screen protagonist. All this has to be conveyed in concise readable English for our flying eyes to catch.
I first met John when I worked at the BBC. I had found holiday-relief work in editing rooms dedicated to the preparation of feature films for broadcast on television. Prints had to be sourced, specially made to a low-contrast specification, and prepared for live play out on pairs of machines that looked like projectors with a TV camera built into them – Rank Cintel Mark II machines to be precise. Pairs were needed because films came in reels, and when one reel was done the feed switched to the other machine, just as in cinemas of old.
Cintel was founded in 1927 by John Logie Baird, was consumed by the Rank Organisation, and has now become part of Blackmagic Design. So users of Blackmagic kit can see themselves as heirs of Baird.
In due course, the subtitles were supplied on discs, programmed to come and go according to a frame count from a standardized point at the head of each roll of film.
John invariably delivered films he had worked on by car, unloading heavy cans in the BBC car park, wearing a corduroy jacket, and without pause for formality would launch into a series of comments about cinema – sometimes invectives about the enemies of cinema (the ignorant, the ill-informed and the uninterested), or else the marvels of great film-making. Happily I was l was always ‘mate’ because I was on the right side, admiring as I did Mizoguchi, Renoir, Sirk and so on. And I admired professionalism, his professionalism above all else.
This scene was set in the car park of BBC Lime Grove, where Hitchcock had once shot films. It seemed as if the past present and future of cinema coalesced in that car park. John's fevered love of cinema was perfect in that location. Lime Grove is now a set of bijou flats.
He knew the countries behind the Iron Curtain well and reserved special love for the films from Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. He ha the kind of knowledge of those cultures that made his subtitles subtle and nuanced.
But his best work was done surely with Tom Milne – who had studied at the Sorbonne and who then worked under Penelope Houston to become a pillar of the editorial staff at the Monthly Film Bulletin, the indexical sister publication to Sight & Sound. Tom translated (I have read) 391 films. Together they made sure that French cinema was brilliantly and lovingly presented for us here in the UK. For John, Tom and others of this generation, film was a matter of scrupulous attention to detail, and of dedication to an art form that they regarded as the greatest of all forms. They were literate and historically brilliantly well-informed.
Proof of this attention to detail invariably came as a set of hand typed notes typed up by John on flimsy duplicate paper that he provided with every completed subtitling job: a series of footnotes as it were, detailing the agonies of translation and of contextual issues that seemed important to the reading of the film. Thus, for example, a scene set by Andrzej Wajda in an unidentified street in Warsaw was given a note: ‘this is the street in which the unmarked secret services headquarters was to be found, as any Pole would know’. Or in the case of Pickpocket, details on the relationship between the script and the Dostoyevsky story on which it was based.
John had all the subtitle sets he ever supplied and so could resupply. A business that sustained him was built on that. But he never rested on his laurels – he was constantly revising and tinkering. I hope very much hope his son has kept his notes and will donate them to the National Film Archive. They will be a vivid reminder of how film was once a matter of the utmost seriousness. And they surely will provide for much scholarship.
Adam Roberts 16.1.17
'Thanks to Paul Minchinton for the photos'