UBC Reports | Vol.
50 | No. 1 | Jan.
Not Lost in Translation
UBC Creative Writing course examines the art of subtitling
By Erica Smishek
Mark Harris more closely resembles your big brother's
gentle, slightly disheveled best friend than a cultural warlord.
But word by word, line by line, he is taking on Hollywood's
global domination of the creative marketplace and injecting
some much-needed diversity into the films, television, animation
and even comic books available to Canadians.
Harris is the originator, instructor and inspirational guru
behind The Art of Subtitling, a unique course offered through
UBC's Creative Writing program and thought to be the
only one of its kind in Canada. Aimed at filmmakers,screenwriters,
playwrights, language and comparative literature students,
film scholars and freelance journalists, it explores one of
the most important if underrated motion picture arts.
"I consider it a counter-attack to [Motion Picture
Association of America President] Jack Valenti and his desire
to dominate the world market with American films," Harris
says. "I want to have genuine globalism versus this
phony globalism we have now.
"Why is it that with 150 channels, we can't see
Indonesian flying head [well known in Southeast Asian folklore,
a vampire-like creature who must feed on blood] movies? Why
do we just get reruns of Seinfeld or MASH?"
Quite clearly, the man loves language and is fascinated by
how words unite with pictures or performance to create a rare
slice of life shaped by country and culture. He wants to share
that love with students and, in the process, develop a talent
pool capable of creating idiomatic Canadian versions of foreign-language
"I want to open up people's minds to different
things," Harris says with enthusiasm and without arrogance.
Working in teams, language and literature specialists are
paired with students who concentrate on screenwriting and
film studies. They have the opportunity to study the script
as it is rewritten into another language and to become the
writer or co-writer of select scripts and scenes in English.
In addition to subtitles for films, students produce versions
of comic books, graphic novels, animation, TV-friendly plays
and opera libretti. More unusual projects have included an
entirely new genre called photoroman, which matches autobiographical
stories to photographs.
"Students love it," Harris says. "They
never know what's going to happen next.
Nobody grows up and says ‘I'm going to be a subtitler.'
It takes awhile to get people up to speed. You need to expose
them to a lot of stuff. Everything clicks at the end of the
Harris has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a master's
degree in Film Studies, reviews films for The Georgia Straight
and has published poems, translations and some 3,000 essays,
articles and reviews in more than 50 periodicals. He teaches
film history and theory and is the former programming director
of the Pacific Cinematheque, a not-for-profit Vancouver-based
society dedicated to the understanding of film and moving
In 1999, he did the titles for La Cambrure, an Eric Rohmer
short subject presented at the Vancouver International Film
Festival, a project he calls the "launch pad"
for the subtitling course.
Hungarian-born translator Karoly Sandor, 72, has taken the
course numerous times and has known his instructor since Harris
was a PhD candidate at UBC.
"Mark Harris is a very gifted person," says Sandor.
"There is no doubt that spending time in class with
Harris gives you so much information that you want to know.
You're prompted to read, you're prompted to go
to movies, you're prompted to fulfill your potential
as a human being. I see my young classmates and they are under
Harris' own fascination with subtitling began as a
student in one of UBC creative writing Prof. George McWhirter's
translation courses. He was appalled by what gets missed when
a film is subtitled from one language into another, pointing
to a three-minute sequence of dialogue from Fritz Lang's
M that was reduced to one line -- ‘I can't help
"Subtitles can be wretched," Harris says. "It's
usually due to speed or cheapness, not incompetence."
His favourite bad examples come from English-language versions
of Hong Kong films from the 1980s.
"They are missing verbs and are non-grammatical. The
best line was one that said, ‘suck the coffin mushroom
It all comes down to translation, which Sandor calls "the
furnace before you bake the bread of subtitling.
"If the world didn't have translation,"
Sandor says, "we wouldn't know Dostoevsky or Chekhov,
we'd only know Shakespeare in English, we wouldn't
know Newton or Einstein. Translation is the key to the vault
of treasures of others. That's how we share. That's
how life becomes so much richer."
While definite mechanical rules apply (subtitles usually
contain 40 to 45 characters per three-second burst of film
time, for example), Harris' broader goal is to help
students overcome such challenges as "explosion of talk"
(very wordy dialogue, often containing plot information),
historical inaccuracy, impenetrable slang, nuance of the particular
genre (comedy, drama, action, etc.) and idiom, and to inspire
them to create subtitled works that may be even better than
the original language versions.
"I want us to participate in creating a universe where
you can see Indonesian flying head movies on channel 123,"
Look out Jack Valenti.