Every moviegoer at the Cannes Film Festival is intimately familiar with the work of Henri Behar. Most have seen him as moderator of many of Cannes' high-profile press conferences, a gig he has maintained since the '70s. While Behar has worked as a journalist and critic for years, he makes his living as a translator for major auteur directors and newcomers alike. As Behar often points out, the challenge of creating effective subtitles is making them invisible to the audience. That goal calls for more than extreme humility.
Last week, Behar sat down with Indiewire to explain the painstaking translation and captioning process involved in creating the best possible subtitles for new movies, using his experience with this year's Cannes entry "Laurence Anyways" as a recent example. Once you encounter Behar's approach, you'll never look at subtitles the same way again -- or maybe you will, by not noticing them at all.
How the Subtitling Process Works
"The first thing you need when you go to subtitle a movie is the dialogue and edit of the movie. It has to be picture-locked. The first person who comes into the process is called a spotter, who spots the line as it is spoken. The subtitle is perceived to be wiped off the screen once the line is spoken. The key word is 'spoken.' If someone says, 'Well, hi, hon, huh?' you can stop at 'Hi,' or 'hon,' and if necessary you can include the 'huh.' The number of feet and frames give you the number of characters that you're allowed. You can go over by one, two or three characters, but that's it.
You rarely go over cut, because it's like something stable with something changing in the back. But if you do go over a cut, you don't go over a very bright cut to a very dark one. The subtitle can have maximum two lines and 40 characters -- less than one tweet.
The subtitler gets the spotting and the dialogue. Those are the two things you can't change and have to work with. If you work in dubbing, you can always say, 'The actor's going to say that line faster, because it's funnier.' In subtitles, you can't. If it's not read, you've missed the point, which is great in terms of mental gymnastics, because it forces you to read slower than you hear. It forces you to concentrate and go straight to the point: What makes this work? If it's a three-tiered joke, how close can I remain to the joke for it to work? If the director's not happy, fine. What's more important? The literalness of the translation or the fact that the joke works? It's a question of rhythm, tempo, and musicality."
Subtitling "Laurence Anyway" In Two Languages
"Xavier Dolan's film was an interesting challenge. I had to subtitle it from Quebecois French into metropolitan French, because some of the vocabulary is different and the accents are difficult. I was also subtitling it into English more or less at the same time. I worked with Xavier in late February and early March. Then he came to Paris to do his mixing, when stuff changed, the voiceovers changed. Some lines would slide up or down. That was part of the later process.
"It's a question of rhythm, tempo, and musicality."
The film takes place in Montreal and a province of Quebec. The leading lady and her family are locals. They have a very strong Quebecois accent and sometimes a specific kind of slang, particularly the way they swear. The male character is from Europe and says so in the film. He's from Belgium. Those two do not speak the same way. He teaches literature so he doesn't have as coarse a vocabulary as her. Then there's the mother, who has her way of speaking because she's a European painter. She would not say "you gonna" or 'you gotta.' It's not in her tone.
The lead character is very specific about not being gay. So you can't have words that belong to the crazy, flamboyant, queen, Quentin Crisp kind of language. He can't swoon. He's not a swooner. Anything Quentin Crisp-y is out.