Say What?


on audiovisual and literary translation, subtitling, and the French & American film industries

Of dust . . . real and imaginary

Théâtre du Soleil's performance space in New York

Théâtre du Soleil's performance space in New York

Over the weekend I was fortunate to see the complete production of Les Ephémères, by the great, storied French theater company Théâtre du Soleil.  They have a long tradition of blurring and crossing boundaries of all sorts.

I was initially curious to see whether they were going to use supertitles, and whether they might distract me as a spectator, as I seek out as many monolingual opportunities as I can to enhance my language skills.  While they did use them, because of the performance space design, I barely noticed them.

Two key things though popped out at me from the get go:  a proper translation of the title (which remains en français naturally because it’s performed in French), and a specific scene in which a translation decision was made that completely broke my suspension of disbelief.

The word éphémère evokes not only something literary but innately human.  To translate it literally (“the emphemerals” or ” the emphemeral things/ones”) confuses the French poetry register with that of English, which to me within English seems like a veritable linguistic subcontinent, but moreover the aims and achievements of the piece itself and its collective makers/authors.

As I was swept up in different directions by its varied themes and stories, one constant remained that any Anglophone would understand:  dust.  I would propose something more like “Of dust . . .”  that better captures the literary register while directly summarizing the many varied scenes it portrays.

One of which fell completely flat because the character/actor/creator said he was originally from Oklahoma when his English-speaking accent sounded ever so slightly Germanic.  Most Francophones (other than African ones) I’ve ever met, when speaking English of any proficiency, either use sounds similar to their native tongue (dropping “h’es”, “i” becomes “e” etc.), or something I only can describe as Germanic.  Never mind the character in question was supposed to be a transsexual who’d moved all the way from Oklahoma to Paris to gain more acceptance . . .

I frequently deal with this choice/”problem” in my work as an audiovisual translator, in terms of properly situating characters with how they actually sound.  In this case though, when the character (played and created by Jeremy James) revealed he was from Oklahoma (earning a well-deserved laugh), he did so in English, making it all the more disjointed.  Many lives back I used to direct and write theatre, so perhaps I am less likely to let it slip by than other spectators.


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