Translating Film Subtitles from French to English by John McKeane

I recently completed a project translating the subtitles of a French film, and thought it could be of interest to current and prospective language students here at the University of Reading. In this blog I’ll give details of the film and talk about the challenges facing translators in this format. The project was a collaboration with the excellent translator Sam Ferguson and funding was generously provided by Reading’s Centre for Film Æsthetics and Cultures.

I had experience of translating philosophical books from French to English, but not previously a film. However, I was lucky enough to meet film-maker François Lagarde and his collaborator Christine Baudillon. So when I heard they were making a film about Alexandre Kojève, I really wanted to get involved! The film’s French title is Alexandre Kojève: en connaissance de cause, which we translated as Alexandre Kojève: Knowingly.

Who was Kojève? He was an influential figure in 20th-century French philosophy, who thought that there was no human nature but only the gradual unfolding of history. But he fascinates people mainly because he abandoned academia after WWII, going on to become a major figure in the trade agreements that laid the groundwork for the European Union.

Hopefully this sets the scene for the first of the three translation issues I want to concentrate on. I have been calling this person Kojève, which is the Gallicized version of his original surname Kozhevnikov. But while ZH and J are pronounced the same in the film, when it came to adding written subtitles, we had to decide how to spell the original Russian name. Should we go for Kojevnikov, as is written on his gravestone shown in the film, and giving greater visual identity with Kojève, the name by which this figure is most widely known? Or Kozhevnikov, which is the standard English transliteration? We chose the second option.

Second, we were dealing with his speech and writings from the 1930s to the 1960s. Language changes over time, and so we had to decide whether to use today’s English, or that of his period. One example is the French sentence ‘J’étais assis […] réfléchissant à ce qui a été écrit sur les deux cultures, l’Orient et l’Occident’. Should the last part be translated as ‘East and West’, ‘the East and the West’, or ‘the Orient and the Occident’? Translators often try to make their work sound as natural as possible. However, we wanted to give a flavour of the English Kojève might have spoken, and so we went with the old-fashioned sounding, final option.

The last translation issue was a general one, insofar as we knew that the words in our translated subtitles had to a) fit on the screen and b) align with what was being said, when it was being said. In respect of a), we went for brevity wherever we could, producing 10,600 English words as a translation of 12,200-word French transcript. We also had to rearrange some syntax, which is a normal and legitimate part of translation, but we pushed this a bit further than normal so that the subtitles matched the words as they were spoken.

If you have made it to the end of the blog you may be interested in viewing the film and attending a roundtable discussion of it! This will be held at an online conference on 2 September 2021, you can register for free here.

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