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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 1 | Jan. 8, 2004

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 films.

"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 semester."

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 images.

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 a spell."

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 myself.'

"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 now.'"

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," says Harris.

Look out Jack Valenti.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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