The subject of the 2019 Berlinale Retrospektive section was “Self-Determined. Perspectives of Women Filmakers”, were focusing specifically on East and West German women filmmakers between 1968 and 1999. In collaboration with these films, there was an event focusing specifically on the translation of films and the effect subtitles have on audience perceptions.
Film historians Carol O'Sullivan and Jean-François Cornu began the discussion by providing historical context on the development on subtitles in early cinema. There is much that we now take for granted, such as the placement and color of subtitles on the screen and accuracy and pacing of the translations. After sound synchronization, there was some pushback against direct translation, with many distributors favoring poetic translations more akin to the intertitles of the silent movie era. However, over time, more accurate translations became popular and nowadays there are many industry standards, though some license is still left up to the subtitler.
After gaining a suitable understanding of the history of subtitles in film, the focus of the discussion shifted towards analyzing the new subtitles in the digital restoration of Elfi Mikesch’s “Ich denke oft an Hawaii” (I OFTEN THINK OF HAWAII, 1978) which was shown in the Retrospektive section. Elfi Mikesch went on stage along with subtitler Rebekah Smith and Julia Wallmüller, the head of digital restoration of the national film heritage for the Deutsche Kinemathek. In the instance of “Ich denke oft an Hawaii”, the original subtitles were difficult to find and new subtitling work on the restored edition had just begun when an archival version of the original was discovered. While it is often important to retain original subtitles for its historic value, in the case of this film, it was discovered that the subtitles were greatly lacking in content and accuracy so the decision was made between Mikesch, Smith, and Deutsche Kinemathek to create new ones.
In order to show the differences, a monologue scene was shown, first with the original and then with the new subtitles. In the original, the subtitling was sparse and used some poetic license to get the main points across. For every three or four sentences, there would be one sentence in English. In the restored version, the subtitles keep up with the monologue with direct translations of what was being said. Elfi Mikesch defended the original version, preferring its poetic styling over accuracy as she felt it was a closer fit to the meandering and thoughtful style of her film. Do subtitles have to be exact or can they be more of a representation of the dialogue instead of direct translations? The question was discussed between the guests and the general consensus was that there is an expectation these days for more accurate translations, regardless of the preferences of the filmmaker.
Who knew there was so much finesse and analysis in the field of subtitling? The discussion makes it clear that in many ways, subtitling is an art itself, with the power to change the understanding audiences have of the films they are seeing. So the next time you are watching a subtitled film, take a moment and think about the thought that went into those translations… and if maybe some things were left out.