As a provider of German to English translation services I do get excited when German language films or television programmes get broadcast on a British channel. With the success of Scandinavian crime dramas in recent years there have been quite a few. And then I can’t resist on reading the subtitles to see how things were translated. But what are some of the problems you face when you translate foreign language films? And how does it work when you only have a limited amount of words for the subtitles, yet you need to express cultural metaphors that also tell the story?
Sorry, what was that you said? German to English Translation Services
Last year Deutschland ’83 was very popular on Channel 4. It follows a young East German soldier that is being recruited for the East German intelligence service to be planted under cover into the Bundeswehr, the West German army. People asked me afterwards whether the story line was realistic. In many ways it was. But the elephant in the room was the accent of the main character. In Germany regional accents are very strong. And while all people can speak and write in High German, as it is called, they are nevertheless not able to completely hide their accent when attempting to speak it without speech lessons. So transplanting a 24-year-old native East German without any prior training or knowledge into West German life, overnight, would have most likely shown in their speech. And that is the thing with accents. You can’t translate them or transcribe them into subtitles. Sometimes I notice an Austrian or Swiss dialect and it is not represented in the subtitles, although it may be significant to the story line.
Good Bye Lenin!, having been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Baftas and the Golden Globes, is an interesting example too. It tells the story of East Germans Alex and his mother Christiane and starts when Christiane has a heart attack and falls into a coma, just before the Berlin Wall comes down. Christiane had sympathised with the East German regime and, upon waking up a few months later, must be spared any excitement to avoid another heart attack. Therefore to hide the news of the state’s collapse from her, Alex begins to recreate East German life in their tower block flat. Hilarious. In terms of translation in the subtitles, there are some notable scenes. When Alex visits his siblings in the West, they talk about the fact that in East Germany astronauts are called cosmonauts. Very touching. But one of the funniest scenes for me will absolutely pass anyone who doesn’t know much German history. It is one that gets translated in the subtitles, but which will never be successful in this. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Alex’s sister Ariane has a new boyfriend, who happens to be from West Berlin, and who has no knowledge of East Germany. He gets prepped for meeting mum Christiane and wants to impress her, but nerves get the better of him and he mixes round the words for his school achievements, using words of the Nazi Era instead of East German socialism. It is very funny if you get the joke. But if you don’t speak German and rely on the subtitles then that is a different thing. When the notions he uses are translated into English, they are very similar to each other, yet they have their distinctiveness between both political contexts only in German. So no matter how hard you try as a translator, and with the limitations of only two lines of subtitles on the screen, you have no opportunity to explain them and let non-natives in on the joke.
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But there is also the problem of lyricism and beauty of some translations. Recently the German drama “Babylon Berlin” aired on Sky One. Halfway through the first series, there is an iconic cabaret style performance and song To Ashes, to Dust which also serves as the theme song of the series. There are a number of lines in the chorus that are beautiful in German, but they completely lose their lyricism when translated into English. This is part due to the fact that some words simply don’t exist in English and that, on top of that, the phrases they are wrapped in don’t exist in English either. Double-trouble. A shame really. Interestingly it is sung by the Lithuanian actress Severija Janusauskaite. I wonder whether she would have the same problem if she wanted to translate them into Lithuanian? “Es ist wohl nur ein Traum, das blosse Haschen nach dem Wind. Wer weiss es schon genau?” You face the dilemma of translating as close to the original as possible and lose the beauty, or to change it to something completely different but to something that draws the same lyrical metaphor as in the German. Personally I prefer the former, because I feel you owe the original writer their words. So it will always be It’s probably only a dream, trying to catch the wind. Who knows exactly. Yes, not that articulate at all.
But having the opportunity to watch foreign films and television programmes is great. Just that window to a different world is so great. After all, the world is so beautiful and rich, let’s explore it.
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