Bollywood’s French Subtitler Who Speaks Better Hindi Than The Average Indian
During an afternoon feast at a literary event, a corner table was engaged in a discussion on translation. More uninhibited, frank and animated than the panel they were just part of. A doctor with notable literary skills and ambition, unsurprisingly, came up with a surgical analogy. “It’s like a transplant. A heart transplant,” he said. Then after some hesitation: “The beauty is, it’s a heart that clones itself. So, if you are able to reach it, it clones and you get a clone, exactly like the previous one.” (Full disclosure: there was a lot of wine.) “What about the blood…for a pound of flesh,” whipped a wisecrack, and the talk drowned in rapturous laughs. Later, in the sombre winter evening, the poet from the group caught hold of me and said, “Unlike our anatomical bodies, languages separate and allow access to seeker. There is blood, and sweat, but dear god! There is no violence. No cutting please.”
Translation is a human need, in practice since centuries. It’s a necessity for religion; it spread when scriptures were translated. It is how cultures communicate. Perhaps it is this existential quality that makes translation a fertile subject for philosophers. French philosopher Jacques Derrida put a daunting question mark on translation by stating, ‘In a sense, nothing is untranslatable; but in another sense, everything is untranslatable….’ Thus plaguing an already insecure artiste’s mind with the idea of the impossibility of translation. (Derrida has also published a 28-page paper titled What is a “Relevant” Translation?) What is it about a translator that incites intense arguments, and emotions, from the most well-composed academics and writers? And who are the people employed in this sublime impossibility? Do they live unfulfilled lives — in despair of what is being lost in translation? Or are they nonchalant, good-humoured beings happily navigating rivers of two (or more) languages?
François-Xavier Durandy, the French subtitler of Bollywood films who speaks Hindi more chaste than our average mainlander; Priya Sarukkai Chabria, the poet who translates classical Tamil texts according to the changing cultural idioms of our time, and Shahnaz Habib, the JCB Prize for Literature-winning translator, talk to Preksha Sharma about the joys and perils of translation.
Hindi films elicit a strong response from viewers of different cultures. Surprise song sequences, synchronised dances or plot developments bordering on the edge of plausibility are perhaps instrumental in making Bollywood a cult in several countries. Many see it as a gateway to Indian culture, which, factoring in a degree of error, is not an impossibility, provided trusted interpreters help in explaining colloquialisms and cultural dynamics. Translators or, more appropriately, subtitlers introduce international viewers to an interpretation of what they see and hear on screen; these linguists unpack the meaning and intention of the dialogues and contextualise the visual cues. We speak to François-Xavier Durandy, a subtitler, who recodes Hindi films — from the Indian head bobble to a sindoor-lined maang — for the French viewer.
Was your interest in Hindi sparked by only an academic curiosity? Or is there a story behind it?
The story behind it must be a connection from a previous life, however irrational that sounds (laughs). I’ve had a fascination for India since childhood. I learned Hindi for pleasure, without any career prospects. Mid ’90s was only the beginning of the liberalisation of the Indian economy. Students like me had no ambition related to India. Definitely, Bollywood played a major part. I think within India or on a global stage, the main promoter of the Hindi language is not Kendriya Hindi Sansthan, it’s definitely Bollywood. It is a huge tool of soft power for Hindi, and for India.
Since you never formally trained in subtitling per se, did you design your own method? What’s your process of subtitling a film?
I don’t watch the film first, if that’s your question. It’s like a superstition for me. If I have to translate a book, I don’t read the book first, which, I know, comes off as strange. That’s my technique, rather my lack of technique. I don’t recommend it as a process to follow, but that’s the way I do it and it obviously has me making mistakes and going wrong at some places, but I go back, realise my mistakes and right them.
The two main elements that are a must are the video file and the script. I am highlighting this because I know that some subtitlers work without the video and that’s just not done. What we translate are not the words, we translate the meaning — and behind the meaning is the intention. You have to see the expressions of the actors to make the decisions.
Talking about translating meanings and intentions, how do you decode the cultural contexts in a film? And what is the most challenging part of subtitling a Bollywood film?
I knew you would ask this question. And I knew I would have to say that I am slightly upset with the question and I will tell you why. When we talk about translation, I think we tend to focus a lot on challenges. There’s a lot of negativity in discourses about translation. You know the famous three words about translation (lost in translation) that I don’t even want to utter. At a recent awards ceremony, I was asked by a subtitler if subtitling the film I was receiving the award for was a pleasure or torture. Why on earth would it be torture! If it were torture, I wouldn’t do it. I wish I was asked more about the pleasure, the gratification or the exhilaration of translation.
Okay…the real ‘challenge’ is translating the songs. Urdu poetry goes straight to the heart when I listen to it in a film, but when I translate it into French, I have to say, I am not very happy with my translation. Even though I make it a point to pay attention to the rhymes, somehow I run the risk of sounding pompous and artificial.
Another challenge is precisely translating all those non-verbal elements in the frame that make sense to an Indian viewer but may not or cannot make sense to a French viewer. One of the first popular masala films I subtitled was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). There is an iconic and emotionally intense scene where Anjali (Kajol) is running away. She is sacrificing her love and is going to disappear almost forever, and she is dressed in an all-white outfit. For a French viewer, it’s a hot sunny day, and to be dressed in white is to be chic and elegant. As a translator you want to add a footnote saying, “No, it’s like a burial for Anjali, she is mourning”. And it’s very obvious to the Indian viewer but not to the French viewer.
Since you have spent a decade in India, you understand these cultural cues. BUT for someone who may have mastered the language but isn’t as aware of the culture, it would be impossible to interpret these, isn’t it?
Yes, if the translator is not careful, there is a risk of cultural context being misplaced. In a film I watched recently, nahaanaa was translated into a phrase that meant soaking in a tub, which is fairly common in France. But this was a small flat in Mumbai, and I thought, this person really doesn’t know much about the living conditions in Mumbai. In all probability, it must have been first translated into English as ‘taking a bath’, and then to French. This translation via a third language is what we call bridge translation or relay translation. And I never saw a film that was translated that way that didn’t have a mistake.
I will give you another example: in Sholay (1975), the opening line of the song Holi Ke Din is Chalo saheli, chalo re saathi. In the French translation, ‘chalo saheli’ was translated into a word that is masculine. Because in English, ‘chalo saheli’ would become something like ‘c’mon my friend’. And friend is gender neutral in English. But like Hindi, French also has feminine nouns and masculine nouns. Also, Hindi has three pronouns, tu, tum and aap, French has tu and vous, used according to familiarity, status and age, but English has only ‘you’. Pronouns, gender and cultural elements, all will get lost if you go through a different language or, at least, if you go through English.
How were the cultural cues communicated in the films of the ’70s and the ’80s, in cult classics like Sholay and Deewaar (1975)?
The French subtitles that you see in those old films is not French. The text doesn’t make any sense; it’s total gibberish and it’s actually quite funny, but at the same time sad. I am a huge fan of Salim-Javed (screenwriters Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar) and I love their dialogues. The dialogues of Deewaar, for instance, are just brilliant, but got entirely lost on the French viewers of those times.
How did you get interested in these films when you couldn’t understand the subtitles?
The very first movie I saw was Coolie (1983). Now I love it, but in the mid ’90s I had no exposure to Indian culture and entertainment. Coolie has a complicated plot and without the help of subtitles it made for a very strange viewing experience. I actually laughed a lot, probably thinking, ‘This is ridiculous.’ But I was reading Hindi at the time, so after a while I was able to access the dialogues.
It’s a little sad, and yet funny, to remember your first Hindi movie for nonsensical subtitles; all the more because translators strive to become invisible. Isn’t it?
That’s a great question because there is a paradox. You will hear a lot of translators, including me, complaining about the fact that we don’t get recognition. Sometimes, we are not named in the end credits. At the same time, we keep saying we should remain invisible. When someone says, ‘Oh your subtitles were excellent’, it actually opens a space for doubt. I think the biggest compliment would be: ‘I saw that movie and I thoroughly enjoyed it’. Then you ask, ‘So you saw it with subtitles, with my subtitles?’ And then you would get the response: ‘I don’t know, maybe, I don’t remember’.