ACS Crossroads 2012 talk, with sources:
When The Iron Lady came out in Russia in March 2012, many spectators saw instead a pirated version with a voiceover translation, depicting Margaret Thatcher as a working-class hating, Hitler-loving bloodthirsty imperialist. Three Russian critics mistook the pirated translation for the real thing and published film reviews of it in major Russian newspapers. A Guardian article reporting the story got 375 comments. Many readers actually found the Russian translation more accurate historically and demanded that it be translated back to English.
Here I will draw a genealogy of Soviet film translation that explains why today’s Russian viewers and critics find a vocal track of a film so easily fungible. This history goes back to pirated videotapes of The Star Wars with makeshift voiceover translations that circulated in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
But I would like to go further back. Between the 1960s and 1980s, Soviet simultaneous translators made foreign film screenings possible: at international film festivals, specialized theaters such as Moscow’s Illuzion, and tours of foreign films organized by cultural and propaganda agencies. They simultaneously observed and shaped the Soviet moviegoing experience. The improvised voice of a simultaneous translator was a key element of the foreign film soundtrack throughout the Soviet Union.
To understand the historical specificity of simultaneous translation in the 1960s and 1970s one only has to compare it to contemporary translation standards. Audio-visual translation manuals now focus on dubbing and subtitles. 1 The few practitioners who consider simultaneous screen translation specifically take the existence of subtitles or a script for granted, and recommended that translators prepare by previewing the film several times, reading and translating the script, and taking notes. “In eight years of experience of translating films at the Venice Film Festival,” David Snelling wrote in 1990, “I have never been required to interpret a film directly from the sound-track without either sub-titles or a copy of the script. I would in any case consider the task impossible for a variety of reasons.” Snelling and other translation scholars have also recommended a minimalist approach to interpreting: one should condense phrases to their essential meaning and rely on the visual context to convey local turns of phrase and passions of the moment. “The interpreter is not an artist,” Snelling declared, “he is an artisan…. a modest comprimario whose discretion and professional skills are best displayed when he least intrudes upon his listening public.” 2
Not so in the 1960s and 1970s, at least in the Socialist bloc. Translators more often had to interpret the film cold, without a preview, script, or even subtitles. A fully bilingual simultaneous translator from the German Democratic Republic reported in 1975 that in such cases he helped himself by imitating gestures and facial expressions of the movie character he was translating at the moment, to his listeners’ surprise. “It is hard for non-translators to understand,” he explained, “that my head does not produce automatically (as you have to with speedy translation) the perfect word if I translate two opponents’ heated discussion or self-conscious character’s meandering interjections in a boring steady voice, without tuning in to the ‘wave’ of the emotions of the phrases’ author.” 3 Far from advising minimalism, one Russian specialist insisted in 1978 that an oral translation must be nuanced enough to convey not just meaning, but the “spoken consciousness” of a people. 4 Hardly modest comprimarios, translators of that era aspired to be artists.
As mediators between foreign cinema and the Soviet public, translators resembled not so much the model interpreter of the present, but rather an “abusive translator” as defined by Markus Nornes: willing to experiment, to tamper with tradition, language, and expectations in order to inventively put spectators into contact with the foreign.” 5 Yet if Nornes’s abusive subtitlers played upon the visual elements and cultural context of a film, simultaneous translators of the 1960s and 1970s explored the aural and affective elements of film spectatorship.
Foreign film fandom in the Soviet Union rekindled after World War II. From 1947 until the mid-1950s, Soviet moviegoers for the first time encountered dozens of German, Austrian, Italian, American, and French films that were stolen from the so-called “trophy fund” during the occupation of Germany. These films, which were meant to provide funding for the then moribund Soviet film industry, were dubbed or subtitled and shown without credits; initially each copy began with the title “trophy film” but later even that title was omitted because many of the films shown were made by the Soviet Union’s allies in the war. 6 As the postwar Soviet Union opened up its cultural borders, it aimed to compete with the “First World” Western powers for the attention of the decolonizing and unaligned “Third World” countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 7 After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, international festivals came one after another: the Indian Film Festival in 1954, the International Youth Festival in 1957, the Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) in 1959, and the first Asian, African, and Latin American Film Festival in Tashkent in 1968.
The geopolitics of foreign film spectatorship depended on the practice of two-tiered simultaneous interpreting, which was unique to the Soviet Union. In Russia, simultaneous translation was first used informally, during the Sixth Communist International Congress in 1928. Systematic professional simultaneous translation of speeches and testimony dates back to the Nuremberg Trials, where each foreign delegation translated the proceedings into their own language, and the Americans translated into German. Two-tiered interpreting was a Soviet improvement on the Nuremberg system, which was first used during the 1952 International Economic Congress in Moscow. The system delayed the translation and exacerbated errors, but used fewer interpreters at once and did not depend on translators fluent in two foreign languages, which made it easier to cover more languages. Speeches at the Twenty-Second Communist Party Congress in 1961 were translated, using the latest equipment, to and from twenty-nine languages. 8
While the Soviet Union’s imperial ambitions shaped its simultaneous translation practices, they also shaped screen translation at film festivals. At the 1974 Asian and African Film Festival in Tashkent, each film was first translated into Russian, which played through the theater’s loudspeakers, and then into the languages of the various foreign guests, who listened through transistor headphones. American film critic Gordon Hitchens complained in Variety that his “second-order” translation came up to half-a-minute later than the original utterance. Yet he also noted that it made it easier to interpret the huge number of languages, many of them rare, represented at the festival. 9 In this respect, the Soviet interpreting setup also benefited foreign filmmakers in attendance. During the 1968 Tashkent Festival, Alpha Amadou Diallo, Secretary of State for Information of Guinea, lamented that because of the variety of local African languages a Senegalese may have to travel to Tashkent to see a film made in neighboring Guinea. Here the ungainly Soviet screen translation made audible the connection, pointed out by Natasa Ďurovičová, between tranlatio studii [transfer of learning] and translatio imperii [transfer of power] in a transnational cinematic landscape. 10
By the 1970s, simultaneous translation grew into a lucrative profession that benefited from unofficial relationships between various branches of the Soviet bureaucracy. Simultaneous translators could get five rubles per screening at Sovexportfilm, and seven-and-a-half rubles per screening elsewhere, including at Gosfilmofond (Russian State Film Archive), the archive’s official theater Illuzion and its affiliate working-class houses, festival venues, the Moscow Graduate Director’s and Screenwriter’s Programs, Dom Kino (House of Cinema, official headquarters of the Soviet Filmmakers’ Union) and houses of other creative unions, Goskino (State Committee for Cinematography), and other state agencies, including the KGB (Committee for State Security). The New Year’s season was the most lucrative, when every creative union and apparatchik organized a private foreign film screening, which was impossible without a 35mm print and a translator, who could demand a fee far above the usual rate. By comparison, a regular student’s stipend was thirty five rubles a month, and a salary for a white-collar worker, including an academic lecturer at Illuzion, was one hundred and twenty rubles a month. A translator could earn a student’s salary in a day. 11
The same Soviet bureaucracy that fed simultaneous translators also made screenings of foreign films politically risky. Party and security officials monitored most interactions with foreigners closely, including foreign film screenings. They selected only a small fraction of foreign films for general distribution and edited out politically incorrect scenes. 12 Illuzion’s program, controlled by Gosfilmofond and Goskino, escaped close state control–for example, the theater could show many “trophy films” that were never approved for wide distribution. Yet it too operated under close scrutiny. Former Illuzion director Zinaida Shatina remembers several unpleasant audits of her foreign film screening practices in the 1970s, brought about by a denunciation of an anonymous staff or audience member. One of these audits found that, in violation of state-imposed limits, more than 50 percent of all films screened at the theater were foreign; this finding led to her forced resignation. 13
In trying to connect with these audiences, simultaneous translators thought of themselves as self-aware practitioners of an improvisational sound art, invested in but not bound by the ideal of authentic viewer experience. Translator from Engilsh Grigory L. explained, “When you are watching a film with a simultaneous translation, you, the viewer, have to clearly hear the original soundtrack of the film. If the translator is a master of his craft, he will not ‘dominate’ the screen, speak on top of the actors. If he is a virtuoso, if he can feel the balance between the film proper and his own voice, after several minutes the spectator in the theater will forget about the translator, feeling that he himself can understand English, French, or Japanese.” 14 Soviet screen translators would reject the contemporary standards of dubbed translation, a “domesticating” mode, in Lawrence Venuti’s terms, that erases any traces of the original text. 15
To achieve a perfect performance, translators tested any jokes or turns of phrase with the audience. At Illuzion, one usually translated the same film six times in a row, and eight times on weekends. As Grigory L. explains it, “You’ll begin with one variant of translation and listen to the audience reaction. At the next screening, you’d use a different word construction–and again, test it by spectators’ response. By the evening, you’d work out the most precise Russian text and a perfect intonation that would elicit the strongest emotions from the audience.” In the mid-1970s, Grigory L. used this technique to render The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) each time to audience applause. 16 Most regular Illuzion patrons got tickets to a fifth or sixth film show of the day, to enjoy the version perfected during previous screenings. 17
Spectators from every strata of society viewed foreign films in the 1960s and 1970s. Illuzion opened in March 1966 with 369 seats, a translator’s booth equipped with wartime sound equipment. It was an official theater of Gosfilmofond (State Russian Film Archive)–a repository of Soviet film materials, copies of lawfully exhibited foreign movies, and all trophy films. Illuzion screenings started between 9:00-10:00 a.m., and the last show was at 9:30 p.m. on weekdays, while screenings ran from 8:00 a.m. to midnight on weekends. In the 1960s and 1970s, foreign film screenings, at fifty kopeks a ticket, always sold out. Illuzion mostly attracted intelligentsia, but anyone could come to the theater, and affiliated DK (Dom Kultury, or “House of Culture”), such as DK “Red Textile Workers,” showed the same lectures and screenings for workers. By the early 1970s, the International Moscow Film Festival used hundreds of screens, from Houses of Culture affiliated with factories to Houses of various creative unions, to large first-run movie theaters like Udarnik with 735 seats, and even the Palace of Sports with 13,700 seats. 18
Rather than ignoring the translators, Soviet foreign film spectators paid particular attention to them. Over the years, a cinephile would experience a range of translation styles, from painful to inspired. During a screening of the British film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz, 1960), the excited interpreter translated the character’s “That’s nice!” after a lovemaking scene, not literally, “Neplokho!,” but with feeling, “Khorosho-o-o!” (“[I feel] go-o-od!”). The audience burst into laughter. 19 A cinephile who frequented festival and club screenings became a translation art critic. During a 1965 MIFF screening of My Fair Lady (Cukor, 1964) at the largest festival venue, the Palace of Sports, every time the interpreter tried to speak over a musical number all 13,700 spectators “stomped their feet and screamed indignantly, ‘No translation!’” 20
Melodrama and epic film lovers expected dramatic inflections and serious renditions of exalted emotions. Elena R. once spent a day interpreting a French film she loathed, an adaptation of the Tristan and Isolde story that inspired New York Times critic Bosley Crowther to advise, “Whenever you find in a movie two persons who are solemnly in love and refer to this state as a ‘beautiful madness,’ brother, you’d better beware.” 21 While she translated every word of the film correctly, by the end of the day she pronounced the main characters’ repeated declarations of love in a bored monotone. As she was leaving the theater after the last screening of the day, she heard one weeping spectator tell her friend, “If I could only meet that translator, I would strangle her with my own hands!” 22 Each translator specialized in films compatible with their personalities and aesthetic preferences; still, it was difficult to avoid clashing with spectators’ expectations.
Imperfect audio technology also contributed to translators’ anxiety. Take, for example, Kira R.’s first interpreting job in 1966, a screening of François Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups [The 400 Blows, 1959] at a DK for workers at the outskirts of Moscow: in a theater with four hundred seats, she stood leaning against the back wall, without headphones or a microphone, screaming over the soundtrack, which could not be muted because she had to hear it from the loudspeakers to translate. “I only knew I succeeded in reaching the spectators’ ears,” she remembered, “when I saw that they stayed in their seats silently, listening to me.” 23 Although this is given as an example of the worst possible interpreting conditions, such arduous translation circumstances actually advanced Truffault’s attack on traditional narrative of cinema, further enhancing, for the interpreter and the audience, the disorienting effects of direct audio recording that produced French New Wave’s signature sound.
Ideal circumstances prevailed at Illuzion, which was equipped with a booth, mike, earphones, a sound board, and a way to see and hear the reaction of the audience. Wartime earphones with limited frequency range would have been terrible for music but worked well for hearing human speech. Still, many trophy films shown at Illuzion had damaged soundtracks. Grigory L. remembered how he had to improvise for the first eight minutes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)–luckily he had seen the film previously–because the print could produce nothing but whining noise. 24 The naturalistic soundtrack of French New Wave films was fully audible only on the fifth or sixth viewing. 25
Interpreters were often asked to translate non-Western films in languages they did not know from dialogue lists or subtitles. But these promised lists and titles did not always materialize. In such cases, screen translators were forced to assume the role of a benshi, who vocally interpreted films for Japanese audiences into the 1930s. 26 Occasionally, such festival “translators” did not know the language at all. Right before the screening of Onna hissatsu ken (Sister Street Fighter [translated as Lady Karate in Russian], dir. Yamaguchi, 1974) in Illuzion at the 1975 Moscow Festival, the usual translator from Japanese was suddenly called away to an official function. The eagerly anticipated sold-out screening could not be cancelled: this was the first martial arts film shown publicly in the Soviet Union. Illuzion lecturer Mark Kushnirovich saw the film before, but did not know a word of Japanese. He announced that the film would be translated from the dialogue list–expecting the audience, as usual, to attribute any errors to the list’s translator–and went on to make up the dialogue based on his memory of previous viewings of the film. Grateful spectators gave him an ovation at the end, and the only Japanese speaker who complained to the administration had to admit that Kushnirovich conveyed the general meaning of the film even though he mangled every single line in it. 27 The important thing, Kira R. claimed, was that the audience “felt that it had the experience of understanding the film.” 28
Just as they expected their audiences to intuit, together with the translator, what was said on the screen in the language they did not know, so did translators themselves plunge into the unknown in perceiving foreign speech. During tours to Soviet republics after the festival, each translator was usually given two films to translate live in a language they knew, and two films, for instance in an African or Indian dialect, to translate from a script. “I learned,” tells Elena R., “that when you translate such a film for the twentieth time you begin to soak in that culture and it was useful to not just experience the familiar European culture but something else. Often the dialogue lists were missing several scenes but by the fourth or fifth time I would invent translations of these scenes for myself.” 29 In that particular place and time, then, live simultaneous translation by a conscientious and invested commentator, whether by ear or sight, was as or more acceptable to audience than even an official written script or subtitles.
As interpreters fought against the imperfections in sound technology, the difficulties of live translation, and the grueling regimen of having to translate the same film six to eight times a day, they also experimented with and “abused” foreign films, though not always intentionally. Yet their aural and embodied trial–and-error method for understanding a different world may have been useful. Musicologist Ingrid Monson argued, “The human ear … has the capacity to reinstate sounds that have been masked by noise or other auditory interference and in the process create a more stable interpretation of the auditory landscape.” This ability to intuit missing sounds in music, which she terms “perceptual agency,” can be trained by repeated listening and interpretation. 30 Likewise, interpreters and their audiences developed their “perceptual agency” by struggling with the incomprehensible in foreign films. The same understanding, that film dialogues and meanings are fungible, made Russian reinterpretation of The Iron Lady possible.
Panel “Vocal Technologies,” Crossroads in Cultural Studies annual conference, July 2012. This paper draws upon personal interviews with translators, cited by their first names as delivered at the conference; full names will be available in the published version in 2013.
- Yves Gambier, “Screen Transadaptation: Perception and Reception,” Translator 9, no. 2 (2003): 171–189. One of the earliest works on the subject is Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour, eds., Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004). ↩
- David Snelling, “Upon the Simultaneous Translation of Films,” Interpreters’ Newsletter 3 (1990): 14; Mariachiara Russo, “Simultaneous Film Interpreting and Users’ Feedback,” Interpreting 7, no. 1 (January 2005): 1–26. ↩
- B. Shtaier, “O mekhanizme sinkhronnogo perevoda,” Tetradi perevodchika 12 (1975): 105. ↩
- V. P. Gaiduk, “‘Tikhii’ perevod v kino,” Tetradi perevodchika 15 (1978): 93–100. ↩
- Markus Nornes, Cinema Babel: Translating Global Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 230. ↩
- Maya Turovskaya, “Gollivud v Moskve, ili Sovetskoe i amerikanskoe kino,” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 97 (2011): 51–63; Maya Turovskaya, “Trofeinye filmy poslevoennoi Rossii” (paper presented at the Hybridität in Literatur, Kunst und Medien der russischen Moderne und Postmoderne, Universität Konstanz, Switzherland, June 2006). ↩
- On this, see, for example, Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). ↩
- E. Gofman, “K istorii sinkhronnogo perevoda,” Tetradi perevodchika 1 (1963): 20–26; Francesca Gaiba, The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation: The Nuremberg Trial (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1998). ↩
- Gordon Hitchens, “Dense Program, Annoyances at the Asian and African Festival in the USSR,” Variety, June 12, 1974. I thank Rossen Djagalov for making me aware of this article and other materials on the Moscow and Tashkent festivals. ↩
- Alpha Amadou Diallo quoted in Kirill Razlogov, “Stanovlenie,” Iskusstvo kino 2 (1969); Natasa Ďurovičová, “Vector, Flow, Zone: Towards a History of Cinematic Translation,” in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, ed. Natasa Ďurovičová and Kathleen E. Newman (New York: Routledge, 2010). On nation-building empires, see also Paul A. Kramer, “Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World.” American Historical Review 116, no. 5 (December 2011): 1348–1391, and Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge & the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005). ↩
- Grigory L., interview, April 12, 2012; Kirill R., interview, April 15, 2012; Elena R., interview, April 21, 2012; Natalia R., interview, April 15, 2012. ↩
- Vladimir Golubev, “Zapiski Kinomana,” Kinovedcheskie Zapiski 64 (2003): 303. ↩
- Zinaida Shatina, “Kinoteatr Illuzion v Moei Zhizni,” in Kinoteatr Gosfilmofonda Rossii Illuzion: Vchera, Segodnia, Zavtra, ed. Vladimir Soloviev (Moskva: RID Interreklama, 2008), 67. ↩
- Grigory Libergal, “Illuzion–shkola dlya perevodchikov,” in Kinoteatr Gosfilmofonda Rossii Illuzion, 143; several translators reported that the best compliment to the translator is if the audience exiting the theater discusses the film as if they heard it the original language. Natalia R., interview; Elena R., interview; Natalia N., interview, April 13, 2012. ↩
- Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility (London: Routledge, 1994). ↩
- Libergal, “Illuzion–shkola dlya perevodchikov,” 147. ↩
- Elena R., interview. ↩
- Maya Turovskaya, “Zritelskie predpochtenia 70-kh,” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 11 (1991): 92–96; Grigory L, interview. ↩
- Mark Kushnirovich, “Veseloe delo,” in Kinoteatr Gosfilmofonda Rossii Illuzion, 105. ↩
- Golubev, “Zapiski kinomana.” ↩
- Bosley Crowther, Review of L’Eternel Retour, New York Times, January 5, 1948. ↩
- Elena R., interview. ↩
- Kira R., interview, April 15, 2012. ↩
- Grigory L., interview. ↩
- Elena R., interview. ↩
- On the benshi, see Nornes, Cinema Babel. ↩
- Shatina, “Kinoteatr Illuzion v moei zhizni,” 65-66; Golubev, “Zapiski kinomana,” 303. ↩
- Kira R., interview. ↩
- Elena R., interview. ↩
- Ingrid Monson, “Hearing, Seeing, and Perceptual Agency,” Critical Inquiry 34, no. 2 (2008): 40. ↩