Subtitling Pushkin

November 4th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

A long lapse in blogging, partly due to an unresolved problem with the image uploader. So for now, it’ll be straight text, plus a few links.

In September Video Artists International released a DVD with performances of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Mozart and Salieri and Dargomyzhsky’s The Stone Guest, both done at the Bolshoi Theatre (in 1981 and 1979 respectively). I provided the on-screen subtitles.

It was an interesting process. I had already done some informal subtitling, earlier in the year, of Youtube clips, using my translations of Mozart and Salieri and The Woes of Wit. I was pleased with how easily the translations matched up with the lines spoken on screen. I made no cuts or simplifications, and it was possible to get all the relevant text into titles of manageable length that stayed on the screen long enough to read them without falling behind the spoken dialogue. I felt like it was a good test of the resilience of my versions.

These are verse translations, of course, but one thing that becomes evident right away is that in subtitles you have to pretty much forget about the printed verse format. Regular line breaks, capital letters to begin lines, indentations for half-lines, and all that, just get in the way and are pretty pointless (rhyme changes things a bit; that has to at least not be obscured). The actors are delivering the words at their own pace, according to their own interpretation, and “chunking” different sections of dialogue in the way that feels most effective to them. Made into readable title screens, these chunks may not look like verse at all.

But they are, and good actors would bring out the rhythm even in the absence of these printed cues. They might do all kinds of things that would drive teachers of “proper” verse delivery wild, but as long as they are focusing on what is being said, verse on the stage can mostly take care of itself.

Opera introduces at least one more layer of interpretation, but in these two “chamber operas” the composers adhered to Pushkin’s texts with remarkable fidelity. There are few cuts, discreetly made, which leave the shape of these brilliant mini-dramas very much intact.

Doing subtitles for a commercial release, though, I did have to simplify some titles. At least I was asked to, and it made sense to do it. Limpid as Pushkin’s verse is, there are times when it is just too complex, in terms of syntax, image, or rhetoric, for an audience to take in by brief reading on a screen, while listening to a sung performance. In such cases a less elaborate version of the lines can be helpful. But most of the titles are unsimplified.

More recently the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra asked permission to use my text in supertitles of a live performance of the Rimsky-Korsakoff Mozart and Salieri. It was performed in Calgary on Oct. 30.

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