A few months ago I received a call from New Zealand. Philip Saffery from Toitereo Linguists was looking for an Italian translator for a subtitling job. I was thrilled. I had been chasing subtitling work for a while, without any luck. Tell me more, I said. It got more and more interesting. The film was called The Orator – O Le Tulafale, the first ever Samoan feature film, entirely shot in Samoa, with a Samoan cast, by a Samoan director, and in the Samoan language. Nothing short of an historical film. I confess that I did not know much about Samoa, despite the fact that Australia is home to a pretty big community of Samoan expats. Of course Philip, who lived in Polynesia for ages and is fluent in te reo Maori and other Polynesian languages, had already done the English subtitles, so it was essentially an English to Italian job.
Still, you can probably guess that a film about Samoan traditions does present certain challenges for someone who is not very knowledgeable about that culture. Lucky for us, Wikipedia and Google gave me access to a wealth of information, and within a couple of days I had temporarily become some kind of expert on the history, politics and customs. I still remember the essentials, but unfortunately, like many other translators, I do tend to clean up my cache every now and then, to make room for what I need to have handy for my next project.
Working on subtitles was a new experience for me, and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s quite different from translating literature, as the format rules out not only all notes and explanations, but sometimes can also require a compression of the target text to make it readable to the audience in the limited time for which the text appears on the screen. David Bellos points it out in Chapter 12 of his brilliant and entertaining Is That a Fish in Your Ear? where he also tells us that
It has become a convention to regard average filmgoers as capable of reading only about 15 characters per second; and […] no more than 32 alphabetic characters can be displayed in a line. In addition, no more than two lines can be displayed at a time without obscuring significant parts of the image. […] the subtitler has around 64 characters including spaces that must be displayed for a few seconds at most to express the key meanings of a shot or sequence in which characters may speak many more words than that. […] It’s really amazing that it can be done at all.
It really is, but it’s also true that most of the times you work it out pretty naturally if you are a good translator. Luckily, this film does not include fast-paced conversation. It is quite formal in its use of dialogue, which is often very poetic and symbolic, therefore making it a bit easier to subtitle. Counting the syllables of the original Samoan speech and of the English subtitles I was translating from was one way to check that my subtitles weren’t too long. The problem was rather the impossibility of using explanatory notes for Samoan terms and customs that I was not familiar with.
Luckily, the producers had prepared a very insightful press kit to explain some of the cultural elements and traditional Samoan customs to Western journalists and critics. The press kit had a unique role in the process, as it was part of my job to translate that, as well, with all the issues I just pointed out, but on the other hand the explanations it contained helped me navigate the cultural elements of the film. Moreover, knowing that viewers at the Venice Film Festival would have the press kit handy somewhat eased the panic of a translator who can’t use explanatory notes and has no room for paraphrase, either.
Let’s take the complex social structures underlying the Samoan word “matai”:
Matai are titleholders. They are divided into 2 categories, chiefs (alii); orators (tulafale). Women are divided into two categories, faletua and tausi, faletua i.e. wives of chiefs, tausi i.e. wives of orators. Untitled men (taulele’a )as a group are called ‘aumaga, (singular: taule’ale’a); untitled women, including women not married to men who hold matai titles, are honorifically addressed as le nuu o tama’ita’i (literally the village of the ladies) and are known collectively as aualuma. Each grouping i.e. Alii & Faipule which are the matai; faletua and tausi which are the wives of the matai; the ‘aumaga i.e. the collective of untitled men, the aualuma i.e the collective of untitled women; has a specific role to play in the village governance.
Not particularly hard, I know, but still so radically different from Australian society and even from the most traditional elements of my father’s Southern Italian family, which I though was very complex and honor-based! It is simply not possible to explain any of that in the subtitles. Another Samoan tradition depicted in the movie is the ifoga:
A ritual where the offending party pleads for pardon from the offended party. Three elements sustain ifoga: a sense of remorse and shame by the perpetrator, accountability by the family and village, and forgiveness by the victim’s family. Traditionally the culprit(s) kneel covered in fine mats. Ritual acceptance by the offended party occurs when they approach the ifoga party and pull away the mats.
The ifoga in this film lasts for days, the culprits kneel under the mats and under pouring rain, fighting back sleep until the victim of their bullying comes out to forgive them. Without the press kit, and because of the space and time constraints in subtitling, a Western viewer would have been completely lost in front of this scene. (“Hey, what’s he doing under that mat? He’s the bigger guy, he already kicked the little guy’s butt once, now he’s prostrating himself for days waiting to be excused?! It makes no sense at all!”) I was struck and amazed by the humanity and beauty of this ritual, by the strength that honor and family can exert even on the big bad village bully, by the obvious sincerity that it fosters. I’d love to discuss this ritual at length, but I am not a sociologist and this is not the place. Let me just say that things like that made translating the subtitles of the movie a very enriching experience from a cultural point of view.
Another interesting aspect was that this was, with the exception of a few legal document, my first re-translation. I was not translating from Samoan – which sounds sweet as honey but, alas, I can’t understand a word of it – but, as I said, from Philip’s translation from Samoan to English . There is an underlying issue of trust in such an undertaking. I did trust Philip, as his resumé is very impressive and the NZFC wouldn’t have picked a random translator for a movie that eventually became New Zealand’s entry in the Academy Awards. Still, here and there, where the English text was a bit obscure, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was because of a cultural gap between Western mindset and Samoan tradition, or if there was a mistake in the translation. Almost invariably, it was the first case, but I still had to take particular care anytime something sounded strange, as I could not go back to the original and work it out myself. Philip was a precious ally, though, and would always have an answer for me.
There were a few linguistic issues, as well, like the use of a word like “banished“ in English which, as I understand, was a pretty direct translation of the Samoan. The word, though, translates into Italian differently in different context: “esiliato” in the case of “banished from a village” but “ripudiato” in “banished by one’s family.” Clearly, I had to check that the word did not carry too much symbolic meaning, which would have been lost by “splitting” it into two words in the Italian.
As far Samoan words are concerned, there was the issue of “lavalava” which is basically what most Europeans would call a “pareo,” a word that comes from Tahitian. The last thing I wanted to do was to diminish the distinctively Samoan flavour by using a word borrowed from a “close enough” culture. It seemed to be something that careless peddlers of the “exotic” would do and indeed used to do, selling simplistic concepts like “oriental,” “african,” and “aboriginal” to romantic bourgeois Westerners as if they were monolithic categories. I did go for “lavalava” in the end, and when a guy wearing just that piece of cloth is told to “take off your lavalava” it becomes pretty obvious what a lavalava is.
Also, it all got unexpectedly glamorous when I got offered two tickets for the film’s premiere at the 68th Venice Film Festival. I happened to be in Italy at the time, and I said, why not? Having all those people reading my subtitles was extremely gratifying and quite scary, to tell you the truth. I watched it all with unforgiving attention and I only found five or six things I would have changed, which is really not a lot, for a picky translator. When the audience laughed at jokes that crossed half a world and two languages, I started to relax.
The film earned a standing ovation and a special mention in Venice, and I don’t think my subtitles played much of a role in this – Tusi Tamasese is a brilliant and poetic storyteller, who managed to pull off a courageous film which is emotional, visually rich and yet understated. It was a privilege and an honour to be involved, even if peripherally, in its success, and I hope viewers in Italy will be able to enjoy it without cringing at my subtitles.