Making dreams and stuff

Yesterday Tyler Schnoebelen posted an important warning to anyone who thinks translation is simple, by going through various translations of the quote “the stuff that dreams are made of” from the movie the Maltese Falcon.  Unfortunately it’s even worse than he says, because the official French translation, at least, is not very good.

One spring evening when I was in college in Paris I went out to see Casablanca.  I had liked it in high school film class, and noticed all the references to it that pervade Anglo-American pop culture.  When I watched English-language movies in Paris I always checked the subtitles to pick up some good French expressions.  The lobby was full of French people excitedly chattering about how much they loved “Casa” too.

Well, if these French people loved “Casa,” it must’ve been for the visuals, or because they understood the English dialogue, because it sure wasn’t for the French subtitles.  I got to read one famous, poetic line after another rendered in dull clichés.  There were two that I remember most vividly.

There’s the line, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” that Rick says to Ilsa four times in the movie. I’ve never heard anyone say it when they weren’t referencing the movie.  It’s a toast, but it’s clearly a very affectionate toast, and Rick repeats it even when they’re not drinking, instead of something more direct, like “I love you,” as fits the conflicted nature of their relationship.  How did our subtitler render these complex nuances? With the most standard and formulaic French toast, “To your health!”

The other line that really struck me is the last one in the movie. [Um, SPOILER ALERT!] Police Captain Renault, who has demonstrated a lack of morals throughout the movie, has just allowed Ilsa to escape, shielded Rick from prosecution for killing a Nazi officer, and offered to flee to the Congo with him. As the two men walk off into the dark, Rick says, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

By hedging with “I think” and explicitly referencing “the beginning,” Rick emphasizes that this is a turning point for them, and that he has been impressed with Renault’s actions. How did this come out in the subtitles?

Maintenant, nous sommes amis!

They didn’t even translate the whole thing! It was just “Now we’re friends!” with that silly little exclamation point on the end. No thinking, no beginning, not even a friendship, just “friends!”

I’m not necessarily faulting the subtitler. I don’t know when it was translated, and how famous the movie was at the time. The people who pay for subtitles are often in a hurry, but don’t want to pay for quality, so they get what they pay for.

Casablanca deserves better, of course, and for the seventieth anniversary DVD they got it. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” is translated as “À vous, mon petit !” and then finally, “Bonne chance, mon petit.” The last line is rendered as, “Louis, je crois que ceci est le début d’une merveilleuse amitié !” which is very literal, but a lot better than the first version.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the original subtitles for the Maltese Falcon were just as bad as those for Casablanca, and if they haven’t been updated for a seventieth anniversary release, they may still be bad. “L’étoffe dont sont faits les rêves,” isn’t horrible, but as Tyler points out, étoffe is a very concrete noun, usually indicating some kind of fabric or stuffing. The noun matière (also feminine) is much closer to the sense of “substance” that I think the Maltese Falcon screenwriters were aiming for, and it is in fact frequently used to translate the original Shakespeare quote, as in this 1882 translation: “Nous sommes de la matière dont on fait les rêves.”

My overall point is that translation is hard. Even the best translators get stumped regularly, and mediocre translators can put out some real howlers. More importantly, translation is not a repetitive and precise task like statistical analysis where computers can improve on the job that humans do. It requires knowledge, subtlety and art, and if this is the best that people can do, computers aren’t going to get anywhere close.

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