Monday, February 20, 2006

Guardians

Ever since he was a child, Amerloque has had many hobbies. Among them are film and writing.

Several decades ago, in one of his professional incarnations, he was able to combine his keen interests in both subjects. After analyzing the Parisian cinema world as it was then (in the late 1960s and early 1970s), Amerloque located himself at the very beginning of the food chain – right at the front of the line, when everyone involved in a given film was optimistic and prepared to spend substantial sums of money to transform a wild idea into reality. Amerloque set up shop and worked feverishly for several years in the French cinema industry as a synopsis-writer-cum-script-doctor.

His primary task was to take an original French scenario and/or script and come up with an attractively written version in English. This version anglaise was destined to be placed in the hands of foreign, non-French speaking producers and investors, who were supposed to exclaim rapturously at the brilliance of the synopsis or script, rush en masse to pull checkbooks from their purses and pockets, and invest forthwith in the film with nary a qualm. In addition, not only was Amerloque's English version of the script used to recruit non-francophone actors and actresses, it would frequently find a well-deserved place on the set and act as the "shooting script" for those very same players - thus saving money for the producer(s), who could kill two birds with stone.

For several years, Amerloque had quite a bit of fun, traveled throughout France, and met a number of interesting people, some of whom were quite bizarre, indeed (stuntgirls and animal trainers headed the list of weirdos). He participated in numerous shootings in Paris and the provinces (quite a bit on the Cote d'Azur), working with unknowns, up-and-comings, and world famous actors and actresses, both French and foreign.

However, after several consecutive years of intensely productive efforts – intellectual, physical, emotional - the Paris film world had paled somewhat. First of all, there was quite a bit of stress involved. No one Amerloque worked for ever went as far as that apocryphal Hollywood mogul (Sam Goldwyn ? Darryl F. Zanuck ?) who allegedly said "We don't want it good, we want it yesterday !" but, at times, it was a close-run thing indeed. Second, Amerloque was increasingly unable to accept the then-consensual French viewpoint that film was inevitably and axiomatically an artistic medium. For him, cinema could be an Art, but not necessarily - more often than not, it was Entertainment, a business - just like professional sports. Amerloque found that such a definition of cinema was, sacré bleu, politically incorrect in most French "intellectual " film circles (Mais … mais … c'est le septième art, tout de même ! ). Finally, Amerloque wanted to be able to pick and choose which producers he collaborated with, and, most importantly, where. Working closely as he did with moneymanagers and casting agencies, he was told time and again that while quality was indeed important, cost was even more crucial. Amerloque pitched his remuneration at a level the producers could afford. Nevertheless, Amerloque was called on to travel more and more, and he became fed up with traveling and interacting with the cinema crowd (Nous nous sommes jamais vus à Cannes ?), no matter how glorious the cast or how fat the check.

So Amerloque gradually wound down his "career" in the cinema and moved on to other activities, in which he had even more fun and made an excellent living. Several not unconnected object lessons from those memorable years in his life remained with him, however. One was that the English language was to become increasingly important worldwide (this was the 1970s, remember). Another was that "the French" generally felt threatened by what they termed "American cultural imperialism". The final one was that human nature would always be human nature … and that genuine independence of thought and action were awfully rare commodities. The cinema world – at least the part that Amerloque dealt with - was populated by conformists: it was rare indeed for new ground to be broken. Imitation was not only flattery but the shortest and quickest way to the bank.

Thirty or forty years down the road, with the advent of the internet and globalization, it appears that English has taken the world by storm. Everyone seems to speak or write some variety of English: American, British, African, computerese, business English – or a distinct subspecies: Franglais, Jinglish, Globish. Amerloque likes to think that the Two Bills, William Shakespeare and Bill Gates, stand as symbols of that prepotency: the former as an embodiment of "entertainment", the latter as one personification of "technological dominance".

Nevertheless, much as the Loch Ness monster, the question of "English" comes back with annoying, depressing regularity. Questions are asked every day, particularly in France, about "the domination of English". While the existence of Nessie has yet to be proven, though, English is here, to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

Amerlque's view about speaking and using English was forged years ago, when he was hammering out summaries and pithy dialogues on an old Royal typewriter at all hours of the night and day. "English" is both a skill and a tool for communication. To succeed in the world of today – and tomorrow - one must be at the very least "operational" in English. However, this is a skill/tool which is fairly easy to acquire; it is not an insurmountable undertaking. Being operational in English can simply be compared to … having a driver's license. One does not lose one's ability to crawl, walk, jog and sprint when one has learned to drive a motor vehicle. Why should one lose one's native language when one learns English ? Coexistence of two or more languages is possible and, in Amerloque's view, desirable. At the very worst, English can and does act as a sort of metalanguage (for want of a better word !) which allows people of differing native tongues to communicate in a relatively efficient manner. At the very best, cultural elements, particularities and arts can be exchanged, too.

In this "best case" schema, this means that the French questions about the "preeminence of the American cultural model", heavily dependent on English, are not ill-founded or invalid. They are proper and appropriate. The USA's economic power enables its culture - including but not limited to music, cinema and science – to be exported throughout the world. Hence, if one is operational in English, one can experience firsthand the good and the bad of "American culure". If one's English is very limited or nonexistent, one cannot – and one must then inevitably depend on an intermediary, one whose English is allegedly operational, to communicate what the middleman - or woman - perceives as the salient points of the cultural message.

Several questions immediately arise: are the intermediaries competent ? Are they well trained ? Do they have enough educational and cultural background ? Are they well paid ? Do they have a hidden agenda ? Are they simply reflecting politically correct viewpoints, or are they thinking as the creator(s) of the original work thought ? Are they accurately conveying what is/was meant ?

Amerloque was recently reminded of the dependence on intermediaries, when he was sorting though his collection of DVDs. Ameloque loves to suspend daily life de temps en temps and boldly go into the Hollowod time machine. Since he feels that, by and large, cinema is "entertainment', many of Amerloque's DVDs are what the French call productions hollywoodiennes, those box office successes that won praise and audience in the USA but might have been the object of some ridicule, if not outright mockery, in France.

Take, for example, Sylvester Stallone. His "Rocky" series, which brilliantly retold for the upteenth time the "never give up, keep trying" morality play so dear to Americans, was certainly betrayed in the French market by the voice that was given to Stallone: the voice of a retarded, musclebound, uneducated idiot. Some might argue that such a voice accurately reflects the "Rocky" character - at least, the French perception of it - mais passons. That is not the entire issue, which is, succinctly: did the French version of the film reflect the all the artistic wishes of the team which made it ? Pas évident. The Sly Stone problem continues: the very same voice has been used in all the Stallone films, notably "First Blood" (known as "Rambo" here in France). Stallone was catalogued – by sheer accident, or by malignant design ? - as a musclebound idiot representing lowbrow, violent "American culture". The fact that "First Blood" was a pertinent, acerbic comment on American society and its treatment of Vietnam vets was occulted in France by Stallone's voice and by the "rewrite" carried out on the film in its French incarnation. Dialogues were changed, words misconstrued or expurgated – or just misunderstood.

In a similar fashion, the entertainment icon that is Arnold Schwartzenegger has sometimes been crudely betrayed. In his epic and exceptional "Conan the Barbarian", Schwarzy is considered by the French to be yet another musclebound American idiot; the film in French lights is without redeeming social value; Arnie's "French" voice is a reflection of this. The film was apparently shortened a bit for its release in theatres, thus ensuring that the magical world of prehistory so carefully and expensively crafted by the producers and director was irremediably shortchanged for the cinemagoer.

Furthermore, the "writer" of the French version seems not to have had enough mastery of English to differentiate between the modern vernacular and that used in the "heroic fantasy" genre. Subotai's Let me not die in hunger but in combat !, almost Shakespearian in inspiration, symmetry and resonance, becomes in French the quite pedestrian Je ne veux pas mourir de faim, mais au combat. The same warrior's My god is stronger – he is the everlasting sky is transformed into Mon dieu est plus fort - il est le ciel eternel. On a day to day basis, the French éternel is probably acceptable in most cases as a translation of "everlasting", but in heroic fantasy ? Mon dieu est plus fort – il est le ciel infini would obviously have been better and more in keeping with the message of the film – whether art ot entertainment.

Amerloque only shares here two of the more egregious examples: throughout his years in France he has seen and heard hundreds, perhaps thousands, in cinema, TV, news programs, documentaries, brochures, books, commercials. If one is French, non-anglophone, and uncomfortable with increasingly invasive English, one has to rely, alas, on intermediaries, the self-appointed guardians of language: translators and interpreters.

Quite bluntly … how does one know that the intermediaries are competent and … honest ? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes ? Who will guard the guardians ?


L'Amerloque


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque

6 Comments:

Blogger benoit said...

I always claimed that Conan the barbarian was one of my all-time favorite movies !!! But in fact, french people are serious people. Maybe not always rigourous, but serious. It could be the subject of a whole book anyway !! ;)

4:21 AM  
Blogger Stu "El Inglés" Harris said...

Did you ever work with Jean Seberg? If so perhaps you could apply your writing skills to her Wikipedia page, which is a bit wimpy as it stands. No mention of her final "husband," the algerian playboy who made off with the proceeds of the sale of her apartment on the Rue du Bac. In especes.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Pumpkin Pie said...

My husband gets upset with me because I refuse to watch an American movie in french...I am fair, I only watch French movies in french. I think the dubbed versions are not real and I like to hear the words as they were meant to be hear (even if I don't always understand the French movies).

2:05 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi benoit !

/*/ …/… Conan the barbarian was one of my all-time favorite movies …/…. It could be the subject of a whole book anyway !!/*/

It certainly could ! Why don't you write it ? (smile)

* * * * *

Hi Stu !

/*/ … Jean Seberg …/… Wikipedia …/… No mention of her final "husband," the algerian playboy who made off with the proceeds of the sale of her apartment …/…/*/

Nor is there any reference to the police investigation into her death, when many Americans in Paris – and French people - were asked to come into the station, where they were interrogated by the Police Judiciaire. Suicide as cause of death was finally decided upon, but apparently the police discovered elements which troubled them …

* * * * *

Hi Pumpkin Pie !

/*/My husband gets upset with me because I refuse to watch an American movie in french...I am fair, I only watch French movies in french. I think the dubbed versions are not real and I like to hear the words as they were meant to be hear (even if I don't always understand the French movies)./*/

Well, as watching French movies in French can be good for your French, perhaps watching American movies in English can be good for your husband's English. (smile) Just a thought. (wider smile)

* * * * *

Best,
L'Amerloque

3:08 AM  
Blogger Frania W. said...

These questions by L’Amerloque: “Are the intermediaries competent ? Are they well trained ? Do they have enough educational and cultural background ? Are they well paid ? Do they have a hidden agenda ? Are they simply reflecting politically correct viewpoints, or are they thinking as the creator(s) of the original work thought ? Are they accurately conveying what is/was meant ?” remind me of a paper I read a few years ago. Students of English in a language school in Paris had to translate into French (une version) an article published in the English press on the devastating effects of a general strike in France. The title of the article was “General Strike threatens France”. Within the first paragraph, that general strike was compared to the Sword of Damocles hanging over France, ready to destroy the country. Hypnotized by this military sounding “General Strike” threatening France with a sword, an “intermediary-to-be” gave a translation that earned him a round zero “pour une version à côté de la plaque”. Instead of writing of a general strike by French workers, the student had described the epic invasion of France by a certain sword-swaggering General Strike. After having had their laugh, the staff regarded this mistranslation as a jewel because, in spite of a total misreading of the article, the student had managed to write in French a text that made sense. It was a perfect example of how easy someone with a poor command of English could be led into the trap set by General Strike, and have the Sword of Damocles shut the trap over him. But the “pompon” goes to an American film (the title escapes me) with dialogue badly translated into French. In one scene, a girl complains that she is suffering from insomnia because a toothache is hurting her jaw. Translation into French has the girl say that she is having nightmares filled with sharks… On the other hand, it happens that an “intermediary” has more “educational and cultural background” than the author of the work he or she translates…

Frania W.

12:38 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Frania !

/*/On the other hand, it happens that an “intermediary” has more “educational and cultural background” than the author of the work he or she translates…/*/

Yes, it is certainly not infrequent ! (smile) There is probably an age/generational factor at work in some cases, too, since the educational systems have changed so much. Add that to "experience" and "worldly wisdom", and an older intermediary might definitely have more "cultural background" than the original author. (smile)

Best,
L'Amerloque

6:10 AM  

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