At a time when post-production labs and service providers are focusing more and more on artificial intelligence tools that are alleged to assist faster and less "expensive" subtitling, it is worth recalling what machine translation looks like. Contrary to what some people claim, it is far from perfect.
The 46th Deauville American Film Festival, held (with face-masks) from September 4th to 13th, 2020, provided a perfect illustration of this. Rarely have so many botched subtitles been on display in a single festival. Except for a handful of movies in competition, which were professionally subtitled, the French subtitles of the films screened were at best difficult to read and full of errors, at worst totally absurd and incomprehensible.
Festival-goers were treated to translations that were obviously generated by machines, or at least written without taking the image into account, alternating the feminine and masculine and the polite and familiar forms of the second person without any logic in relation to the characters on screen.
Let's take a few examples. Whoever (or whatever) produced the subtitles for Emma Seligman's Shiva Baby, they clearly do not master the French language well enough to know the meaning of the very basic words "bon" and "bien", used indiscriminately, as in the barbarism "Ils vont bons" (which should be "Ils vont bien").
In Eleanor Coppola's Love is love is love, all of Chris Messina's grunts and groans are brilliantly subtitled as "Grrr... grrr..." and there is a wonderful dialogue subtitle between two characters laughing:
- Ah ah ah!
- Ah ah!
One of the ground rules of subtitling is to avoid cluttering the image unnecessarily. No one subtitles a laugh! Another equally absurd dialogue subtitle consists of the end of a sentence on the first line and, on the second, as an "answer", the translation of the poster that the character is talking about. Everything flashes too quickly across the screen to be readable anyway. Not to mention that, systematically, the verbs are incorrectly conjugated.
The subtitling of Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole often makes no sense ("That goes for you too, fan" translated as if "fan" were the imperative form of the verb "to fan") and goes so far as to leave encrypted codes at the beginning of a sentence.
Critical Thinking by John Leguizamo features chess games where "check" is translated by a synonym for "verify", "pieces" by the French word for "parts" (body parts?) and "moves" by the word for "movements". And a game that ends in "a draw" turns into a "raffle" or a "tombola".
However, it was April Mullen's Wander that took the prize for the worst subtitles seen at the festival, combining absolutely every mistake imaginable:
- three-line subtitles that no one could possibly read and which are out of sync with the original dialogue;
- absurd word-for-word translations that make no sense in French;
- typos that would have been easy to correct (agreement errors, a car described as "blanhe" rather than "blanche");
- serious mistranslations: "It's all on you" translated as if the person had to foot the bill rather than take the blame, "Wipe the computer" as if they were doing the dusting, rather than actually erasing the hard disk;
- scenes where the characters switch incoherently between the polite and familiar forms of the second person.
In short, it is clear that no human being produced or even proofread these subtitles. Needless to say, the translation of the more complex sentences and rapid exchanges was both incorrect and illegible. We wonder how the audience could have possibly followed the story. And, unfortunately, this was not the only film to offer such an anthology of linguistic horrors.
Even when it was not catastrophic, most of the subtitling was not up to French professional standards. The same was true of the video presentations by the directors screened before each film: the translations were full of Anglicisms and did not respect reading speeds. And, of course, the name of the subtitle translator was missing from the credits of most films.
On their website, the organizers of the Deauville festival boast that they "promote artistic excellence" and "put the defence of films and filmmakers at the heart of all [their] action". However, the majority of subtitles seen in Deauville did a clear disservice to the works presented.
A film's dialogue is as important as its lighting, framing or editing. It would never occur to anyone to screen it by changing the aspect ratio or distorting the sound. A sloppy translation of the dialogue alters the characters' interactions and thus presents a misleading version of the film.
How would the selected filmmakers react if they learned that the dialogue that they so carefully polished has been totally neglected, or even mangled, for their movie's first screening in France? Given the cost of festival passes and badges, along with the backing of high-profile sponsors, the Deauville organizers could at least offer audiences proper subtitles that respect both American culture and the French language. A minor investment given the financial stakes of this prestigious festival.
Translated by Ian Burley