Saturday, March 13, 2010

New pastime

I have a new pastime, which is keeping me busy these days. Back in December, I was invited to join an online group of rare movie collectors. It's because a few years ago, I translated from French to English the title cards for Ivan Mosjoukine's 1926 film, "Michel Strogoff". I'd corresponded with the movie collector who'd sold me the film (he's a great Mosjoukine fan) and since he had only a French-language print of the movie, I offered to translate it for him, so he could add the English as subtitles. A member of the movie group eventually discovered that I'd done the translation, and invited me to join the group, which works on a bitorrent file-sharing basis. They have the most amazing collection of silent movies, but it's not restricted to that; basically, it's ANY rare or important film right up to the present that's added to the collection.

I was thrilled to discover this site, but I'm not that good at file-sharing. With 4 computers in the house all running from a wireless router, there are so many firewalls to get through, it's really difficult to share files with anyone else. I can download for myself, but other people have great difficulty downloading from me. And since you have to maintain a positive ratio (download to upload) to stay in this group, I wasn't sure how long I'd last.

Until I realized that I have one "marketable" skill: translation. There are hundreds of French-only movies on this site, begging to be translated into English so they can reach a wider audience. And it so happens that points are awarded for people who can translate and subtitle movies. So I found a good subtitle program (DivxLand Media Subtitler) and taught myself how to make .srt files, and got started.

It's worked out wonderfully! So far I've translated and subtitled the following movies:

Mauprat (1926) - a silent film by Jean Epstein, based on a novel by George Sand. It's sort of a "Wuthering Heights"-type story, but not nearly as morbid.

Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune (1930): The Mystery of the Yellow Room, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux (who also wrote 'The Phantom of the Opera). This was a classic "locked-room" murder mystery, and it's been very popular in France - they've made several film adaptations of it. The sound was difficult to hear, as it was an early talkie, and there's a fair bit of humour in it, which is very fast and hard to translation (I swear, one actor, Léon Bellières, was adlibbing his dialogue half the time!)

Le Parfum de la dame en noir (1931): The Scent of the Lady in Black, sequel to "Chambre Jaune", with the same cast and director (Marcel L'Herbier). This one had even worse sound, but the most stunning Art Deco sets. I read the novels both these movies were based on - this one departed a fair bit from the original story, but actually improved it. Leroux's plots were nothing if not far-fetched.

La mille et deuxième nuit (1933): The Thousand and Second Night. A Mosjoukine film! One of his few talkies, because his heavy Russian accent ruined his career in French film once movies went to sound. This is a rather frivolous Arabian Nights-style movie, where Mosjoukine plays the good prince who fights against the evil Sultan, and loves the beautiful blond Sultana. Sound was atrocious, and the film itself has deteriorated badly, maybe even too much to restore. But with English subtitles, fans of Mosjoukine can at least follow the story.

Le Drame de Shanghai (1938): Shanghai Drama, by G.W. Pabst. Pabst was a German director (best known for the silent "Pandora's Box), but he went to France during the '30s, as so many German film people did. (Oddly enough, he eventually went BACK to Germany before the war!) This is an espionage story, set in Shanghai as China and Japan were edging into war. It has the great Louis Jouvet in it, playing a Russian assassin working for the Japanese. He's hard to translate, because he has his own way of speaking French - very fast, and his inflexion goes up and down, sort of like a sewing machine changing speeds, or a boat bobbing up and down on the waves. Very unique, but with a resonant baritone voice that makes it very hypnotic.

Now I'm working on Sortilèges (1945): The Bellman, a very weird movie about a bellringer in a remote mountain village who turns to murder and robbery, with a fair amount of black magic thrown in. The photography is deliciously sinister.

I'm very happy to have discovered this work, because I was actually trained as a French-English translator in university, but never worked in the field. In Canada, the demand is really for English-French, and the main employer is the government, so I was out of luck. If I'd ever thought of translating movies, I'd never have wanted to do anything else! But it's only now, because of computers, that this sort of thing is now available to people outside formal studios. Now anyone with a computer can do it at home; 25 years ago, it would have all been done in a film production company. Just like the internet, with blogs and Twitter, have blown up the old-fashioned news and opinion distribution industry, it's moved another industry from tightly-controlled professionals to amateurs.

The way I work is probably not the most efficient, but it works for me: after I've watched the movie on TV a few times, I do a rough first draft straight from the TV, while the dvd plays. Then I make a .wav file of the soundtrack, and go back over my rough draft, carefully listening to and altering the sound to pick up the parts I missed the first time. I slow down the tempo, change the pitch, remove background noise - anything to clarify the spoken dialogue. Then I type it all up in a regular .doc file, and set about turning the translation into subtitles.

Special rules govern subtitles: they can be no more than 2 lines on the screen at a time, and each line much be 40 characters or less. So often I have to compress the translation to match it to the spoken words - a viewer has to be able to watch the movie, and not just read text non-stop. So there's a fair amount of pruning and editing to eliminate the extraneous, but still leave the meaning and create the same effect in English that was in the original French. Oh, and the subtitle should not be on the the screen more than 6 seconds - 8 at the absolute outside, because any more and the viewer starts to feel uncomfortable.

When that's done, I open DivxLand Subtitler, plug in the .doc file, open the .avi file, and the fun begins: I play the movie while slotting in each subtitle so it matches the spoken dialogue. This is where having watched the movie over and over helps - you don't want to anticipate the spoken words (especially in a mystery movie!), but you also don't want to have words on the screen when the actor has finished speaking if you can possibly help it. So timing is essential. It's a bit like conducting a symphony, only with words.

So this has been keeping me quite busy. In return for this work, I've downloaded a number of very interesting old movies, and I've also become acquainted with more French film than I'd ever seen before. My interest was chiefly in German silent movies, but the French were very good filmmakers, and that's quite apart from Mosjoukine. Right now, I'm using my ratio to acquire all the seasons of MST3K, as they are all on the tracker. I'm being disciplined, though; so far I've got seasons 9 and 8, and I will go on down the list as I can afford them. One day, I will have them all, but who knows how many translations it will take to pay for them?


Blogger Priscilla said...

Well, so that's why you haven't been posting much of late. I've missed your comments. Glad you've found your niche! Bonne chance

2:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should try captioning some of those MST3K episodes. :) I have a deaf friend who would kill for an .srt of Manos: The Hands Of Fate.

1:06 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Aargh, closed-captioning an MST3K episode would be REALLY difficult! You'd have to subtitle both the movie AND the commentary, and be able to distinguish the two. I guess you could use italics for one and regular font for the other, but how to indicate who is speaking?

I'd try to invent some sort of little icon of a silhouetted Tom, Crow or Mike to put at the beginning of their lines, so you'd know who was talking.

8:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right, frequently (though I suppose not always) you'd need to attribute a wisecrack to Mike/Joel/Tom/Crow. Especially when they dialogue. A small captioning font would be helpful. :)

To separate movie and commentator texts, different colours (yellow/white) would be sufficient. Italics might work, but in caption-world, they are usually reserved for off-screen speech. Consistently placing movie text above synchronous commentator text would also help. Would definitely be a time-consuming process (though captioning anything 2 hours long is already a time-consuming process).

1:47 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Yes, different colours would work quite well. I've also seen subtitles that were placed on the left AND right of the screen, I suppose for back-and-forth dialogue, but if one could find that program, it would work well too; the movie on the left, and the riffing on the right. I'll have to get a lot better at the computer stuff before I can tackle a job like that!

9:36 pm  
Blogger dwhite said...

Hi. I came across your blog on accident - believe it or not, I was searching for someone that had made subtitles for L'Herbier's MYSTERY OF THE YELLOW ROOM! I wonder if you might e-mail me at

8:17 pm  

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