Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Lost In Translation

I recently saw The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, based on the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a stroke and could only communicate by blinking his left eye.

Someone would read the letters of the alphabet and he'd blink when the letter he wanted was spoken. The film is in French, so it raised an interesting question for the translator. (Which reminds me, the letters are in descending order of popularity, and, unlike in English, which starts E-T-A-O-I-N, the first six in French are E-S-A-R-I-N--I assume they've adapted their version of Scrabble to this order. A "Q" probably isn't worth ten points in France.)

Anyway, the problem is as Bauby picks out each letter, should the subtitles say the letter he actually chooses, or the English letter that will help spell the word he wants in English? The film chooses the latter, which I found a bit jarring. I heard him say "M," why does the subtitle read "D"?

This reminds me of a translation problem I once had in a different direction. I saw a play that was set in France. The characters spoke English to each other but we understood it was actually French. No big deal until one asked another if the cousin he saw was male or female. In French, of course, they have a different word for male and female cousin, thus the question would never have been asked.


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