translator is a tracker, stepping in the tracks of the writer who came before, careful not to step on anybody's toes, alert to the direction the tracks are pointing, attentive to the scenery, the context, trying not to disturb anything. What happens when a translator attempts to walk in the tracks of a giant?
Just before Christmas, I got a call from a Montreal dubbing studio. The speaker wanted to know if I was free to write the French script of a film for dubbing. I said, "Sure, what is it?" "Oh," the woman said, "it's called Titus." An alarm bell went off in my head. I said, "Titus? The only Titus I know is Titus Andronicus, by Shakespeare." She said, "Well, I don't know about that. All I know is it's out as a video already, but it's not been shown in theatres in Montreal and there is no French version, and we want to make a French version to be distributed as a video."
So I went to my neighborhood video store, where I'd seen the box on the shelf, though I'd not yet rented it. And there it was! The blue face on the blue cover which said, in large Roman capitals, "TITUS, with Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and Harry Lennix, directed by Julie Taymor." Sure enough, on the back of the box, in the writing credits, I saw, "Screenplay by Julie Taymor and William Shakespeare." I had read the play Titus Andronicus as an undergraduate, but had never studied it and had never seen it performed. I rented the video so I could watch it before getting back to my client, Covitec, the big Montreal dubbing studio. I wanted to see how much Julie Taymor had adapted the play.
A film is a translation; written words are interpreted in images and sound. All films are a cinematic translation of a written script. But sometimes the script itself is the translation of a novel. In this case, a play. But what about this film? Were they going to be Shakespeare's lines, in verse, or was it a prose adaptation?
During the first six minutes of this 162-minute film, there is no dialogue, but such powerful images! Stylized violence with a sound track of TV cartoon lines, air raid sirens, the roar of bomber airplanes, explosions, a boy sobbing, then silence, then the cheer of a crowd, then drums accompanying the jerky ballet movements of Roman soldiers covered in blue dust. After six minutes, a camera-shot from below shows Anthony Hopkins slowly taking off his helmet and shouting: "Hail Rome, victorious, in thy mourning weeds!" I knew I was in the presence of giants.
I watched the film, riveted. Then I called the dubbing studio again to discuss this. How long were they going to give me to write this? The person I spoke to had not seen the film. I explained that it was a play by Shakespeare and that it was all in verse, and therefore must also be in verse in French. And I couldn't do that in a week. Luckily, the material I needed wasn't ready yet, and I had a few days to get ready. So while somebody was making a time-coded VHS version of the film, someone else was preparing a typed copy of the entire script, and another person was "detecting" the film, that is to say, observing all the mouth sounds, words, inspirations, expirations, yells, smacking of lips, and so forth produced by the screen actors and noting them with a lead pencil on a strip of white 35 mm film, indicating, synchronously with the image, precisely when the lips of the actors were closed to pronounce bilabial consonants like m, b, or p, or half-closed to pronounce semi-labials like f, v, w, or r. While this was being done, I read the original play by Shakespeare and all the critical material I could find, both on the play and on Julie Taymor's adaptation of it. I rushed to Montreal's largest public library and borrowed two translations of Titus Andronicus. One, in prose, by François-Victor Hugo, son of the great 19th-century French poet, and the other in verse, by J. B. Fort. The latter is a bilingual edition, with English on one page and French on the opposite page.
First, I had to read about the play. Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's first tragedy, and there are doubts about his authorship of the play. Indeed, for many critics, the patent barbarity of theme, the apparent crudity of workmanship, and the bloody succession of unrelieved horror place the tragedy among Shakespeare's doubtful plays, despite the fact that Titus Andronicus was published under his name and is attributed to him by his contemporaries.  Actually, there are four main theories of Shakespeare's authorship:
- that he had no hand in Titus Andronicus;
- that he is the author of the tragedy, probably an early experiment written under the influence of predecessors;
- that he put very little into the play; or
- that he touched up, more or less perfunctorily, an older play.
The author of this older play could be Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, or George Peele. Indeed, The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's first tragedy, may have been a rewrite of an older play by someone else. But internal evidence strongly suggests that Shakespeare did have a hand in Titus. There are too many parallels and correspondences between it and such classics as Macbeth and King Lear for it to have been written by anyone else.
I can imagine the actors of "the Right Honourable the Earle of Darbie, Earle of Pembrooke, and Earle of Sussex" going to the young Shakespeare one day and saying, "Hey, Bill, listen. We've got a play here we'd like to perform, but first we want you to read it over and make it a little more presentable and poetic. We'll give you a couple of weeks to do this, okay?" Something like the phone call from the woman at the dubbing studio who gave me a week to translate/adapt the film Titus for dubbing in French, without even being aware that the dialogue was in blank verse.
Julie Taymor is a stage director whose stature as film director became firmly established with Titus, her first feature film. She had directed the off-Broadway stage production of the play, which had been a success and was well reviewed, and she thought "it would make a great movie." Julie Taymor had also directed the stage production of The Lion King, which was a tremendous success on Broadway. She is presently shooting a film on the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, wife of the renowned mural painter, Diego Rivera.
Julie Taymor showed her script of Titus to Sir Anthony Hopkins, whose film career covers 95 feature films over a period of 40 years (who could forget the sinister Dr Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs?). He "liked the screen adaptation," liked her concepts, and agreed to play the leading role. Jessica Lange was chosen to play Tamora, Queen of the Goths; Alan Cumming was Saturninus; and Harry Lennix personified Aaron the Moor, as he'd already done in Taymor's stage production.
The story of Titus Andronicusthe fictitious Roman general who comes home victorious, but is straightaway immersed in a tragic succession of political schemes, human sacrifice, murders, infanticide, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, and regicidewas apparently inspired by a popular ballad of the Middle Ages. But major elements in the plot can be traced back to Ovid and Seneca. One also finds several anachronistic details, such as a reference to "popish tricks and ceremonies" in a speech by Aaron (V, i, 79). Hence, Titus Andronicus is a fictitious story that comes from the Middle Ages, is set in Ancient Rome, and contains references to issues that were contemporary to Shakespeare in the 16th century. No wonder Julie Taymor chose to underline this confusion in chronology by showing motorcycles and cars along with horse-drawn chariots, and soldiers in Roman costumes along with emperors in tuxedos. Shakespeare's 16th-century English, on the other hand, is consistently slightly archaic to the contemporary audience. In my translation I was careful to use only French words that existed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Strangely enough, though, French has not undergone as many changes as English has since that time, and the French version sounds more contemporary than the English.
Titus Andronicus is in blank verse, with an occasional rhyming couplet, and no prose. I felt it was necessary to render it in verse in French as well. And it seemed to me that the equivalent of the iambic pentameter was the classical Alexandrine line. Unlike English, all syllables count in French scanned poetry. So, whereas iambic pentameter is the alternating succession of five unstressed and five stressed syllables, for a total of ten syllables, the French Alexandrine is usually composed of 12 syllables in two segments with a caesura, or pause, at the hemistich, that is, after six syllables; sometimes it consists of three segments of four syllables each. But since in French only the last syllable of the last word of the utterance is stressed, the Alexandrine line has either two or three stressed syllables where the vowel is longer. In other words, the French line can be said more quickly than the English line. It is therefore possible to cram more syllables into a line in French than in English. This is a major issue when translating for the cinema, since the translated dialogue must be synchronous with the lip movements of the screen actors. Not only must the screen translator/adapter follow the original text stylistically and semantically, he or she is also subject to the additional constraint of its rendition. The lines have already been said, and the studio actor must follow the rhythm of the screen actor.
This is one of the major differences between translating for a book and translating for the screen. And it is illustrated perfectly with the first lines in the film Titus. Julie Taymor did a serious editing job on Shakespeare's play, deleting, re-ordering, and re-assigning speeches. Thus, the film begins at line 70 of the original play with Titus's opening speech:
Hail, Rome, victorious in thy mourning weeds!
Lo, as the bark that hath discharg'd her freight,
Returns with precious lading to the bay
From whence at first she weigh'd her anchorage,
Cometh Andronicus, bound with laurel boughs,
To re-salute his country with his tears. (I, i, 70-75)
François-Victor Hugo translates this as:
Salut, Rome, victorieuse dans tes vêtements de deuil! Ainsi que la barque, qui a porté au loin sa cargaison, retourne avec une précieuse charge à la baie d'où elle a naguère levé l'ancre, ainsi Andronicus, couronné de lauriers, revient pour saluer sa patrie avec ses larmes. (Hugo, 384)
J. B. Fort writes:
Rome, salut à toi, victorieuse en deuil!
Tel qu'un navire au loin a déchargé son fret,
Puis revient, les flancs lourds d'un précieux fardeau,
Au port même où naguère il avait levé l'ancre,
Voici qu'Andronicus, couronné de lauriers,
T'offre, Rome, à nouveau le salut de ses larmes. (Fort, 11)
This is where it gets complicated. I could not simply put either Hugo's or Fort's French words in Anthony Hopkins's mouth, because neither translation would fit. Indeed, Hopkins begins with a long open diphthong, Hail. So, the studio actor can neither begin with Salut, where the French vowel u is a closed vowel, nor with Rome, since the mouth would close on the m.
I chose to begin with:
Ave, Rome, victorieuse en vêtements de deuil.
Telle une barque qui a déchargé son fret
Et revient rapportant des trésors à la baie,
Là même où elle avait naguère levé l'ancre,
Ainsi Andronicus, ployant sous les lauriers,
Revient saluer sa patrie avec ses larmes.
The word Ave, readily recognizable as a Roman greeting, sets the tone. The vowel sounds are open and the word Rome falls in the right place. I wanted to keep Hugo's vêtements de deuil, because it is closer to mourning weeds than simply the en deuil in Fort's translation.
A close comparison of the English with the three translationsHugo's, Fort's, and minewill show that my choices were dictated by the need to fit either the screen actor's rhythm of elocution, or the position of labial consonants, where the screen actor's lips close and the studio actor needs to pronounce either a b, a p, or an m, or a semi-labial such as v, or f, and so forth. Thus, the second line in my translation closely matches the English:
"Telle une barque qui a déchargé son fret"
"Lo, as the bark that hath discharg'd her freight"
in contrast to:
"Ainsi que la barque, qui a porté au loin sa cargaison" (Hugo, 384) or
"Tel qu'un navire au loin a déchargé son fret" (Fort, 11)
The guiding principle, therefore, is to match the text to the screen. There must be a close correspondence between the actor's interpretation and the translation. Indeed, while recording in the studio, dubbing actors always carefully listen to and watch the screen actors, trying to imitate them, and following them as closely as possible, just as the translator attempts to walk in the author's tracks. Likewise, the screen translator must watch attentively and take his or her cues from the actors on the screen. There were a few cases in the writing of the French script for Titus where the actor's interpretation of the lines helped me understand the true meaning of the text, which had eluded the two previous French translators.
The Actors Rule
In Act IV, scene 2, Aaron the Moor confronts the racist nurse who wants him to kill his newborn son because she finds him "loathsome as a toad." Aaron replies:
Zounds, ye whore! Is black so base a hue?
Sweet blowse, you are a beauteous blossom sure. (IV, ii, 71-72)
This Hugo translates as:
Fi donc! Fi donc, putain! Le noir est-il une si ignoble couleur?... Cher joufflu, vous êtes un beau rejeton, assurément. (Hugo, 419)
Morbleu, garce! Le noir est-il couleur si vile?
Pour sûr, mon doux poupon est une belle fleur. (Fort, 119)
Obviously both Hugo and Fort, translating from the text, misunderstood the second line, thinking it was addressed to the baby. But watching Harry Lennix in the role of Aaron, I could easily see he was speaking to the nurse, and not to the baby. And the venom in his voice made it clear that his calling her a "beauteous blossom" was meant as irony. The same with "sweet blowse," which both Hugo and Fort interpreted as a term of endearment addressed by Aaron to his son, when in fact the word "sweet" is meant to contrast with "blowse," which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "a ruddy fat-faced wench"hardly a compliment.
Therefore my screen translation was:
Chienne éhontée! Le blanc est moins vil que le noir?
Tu te prends toi, souillon, pour une fleur, bien sûr.
Note how the labial consonant p of prends matches the b of blowse, and how pour une fleur, bien sûr corresponds to beauteous blossom, sure, where the p of pour covers the initial b of beauteous, the f of fleur falls on the b of blossom, and the b of bien masks the final m of blossom. Note also how, in the first line, I managed to put blanc (white) in the place of black, by phrasing the question differently.
Translation for the screen is dictated by the image and by the playing of the actors, which in the end must reign supreme, since it is the image and the acting on the screen that the translator-tracker must follow.
Back on Track
Translation, paraphrase, pastichehistorically, all have been means of creation. In the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, writers unabashedly copied from each other across cultures, across languages, across time. Early Italian artists and writers copied and translated the classics of Antiquity. And the renaissance they initiated in the arts was soon imitated throughout Europe. In the same way, translation is a learning experience as well as a transfer process across cultures and languages. The translator is the author's best critic, because of the in-depth knowledge acquired through the exercise of looking at the text closely, questioning every word and every punctuation mark.
The translator is also the author's best student, because, as a tracker, he or she is always trying to follow as closely as possible the marks left behind, careful not to disturb anything, stepping in the author's tracks and, in the process, learning to walk with the same gait. Translating the giants of literatureWilliam Shakespeare, for instanceteaches me to adjust and stretch my stride. It is a tremendously rewarding experience, because it takes me along new landscapes of poetic imagery. Working on this film by Julie Taymor, in the presence of such greats as Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, gave me new insights into the depth of Shakespeare's talent as a playwright. In addition, the dubbing director and actors who supplied the voices in the French version of Titus provided a lesson in observation, faithfulness, and sensitivity to nuances.