Sunday, March 01, 2009

Between the Walls

This weekend, Spencer, York and I saw that French movie The Class, which had a draw for each of us. For Spencer, it was in French; for York, it was about teaching; for me, it involved grammar more so than most movies and may be one of the few I’ve ever seen to dwell on the practicality of the subjunctive mood. Despite this, we all left feeling that its good qualities were hampered by some significant faults.

I’ll mention those problems in thisahere indented secion. Spoiler alert and all that.
A plotline emphasized in the last third of the movie and involving the expulsion of the Malian student Souleyman seemed a bit rushed, as if it had been jammed into the final moments to give the work a big, emotional finale, even when the film itself was characterized by more subtle moments connected only by the fact that they happened over the course of a single school year and involved the same group of students and teachers.

I mean to say that Souleyman’s expulsion didn’t work as well as major events that happen near the end of other movies. Those often progress toward their big final moments in a way that a viewer can see coming — a plausible, natural development of the plot. Souleyman’s expulsion, however, felt forced, if only because The Class comprised a series of smaller, less cinematically structured plotlines. Rather than to tell a single story with a beginning, middle and end, the point of the film, as I understood it, was to offer a glimpse into a single classroom over nine months. Just as a student or teacher in a real classroom might learn little about the personal lives of the other people who so briefly inhabit such a space, the film featured a handful of interactions that offer the vaguest hints at characterization. Like a quiet kid at the back of class or the teacher who never really connects with his students might do in real life, the audience was left to formulate opinions about the film’s characters using only scant information.

On top of this, the expulsion proceedings seemed inherently unfair — Souleyman’s mother does not speak enough French to comprehend what’s happening and therefore must rely on the translation by her son, who would seem to have motivation enough to construct an alternate version of the events in an effort to make his mother think better of him. No one else in the room spoke the language he and his mother spoke and no one would have been able to catch him. Even worse, during the academic “trial” itself, the teacher protagonist François Marin never owns up to the fact that his own poor judgment led to the incident that ultimately gets Souleyman expelled in the first place. This made me hate him a little, and I’m guessing I wasn’t supposed to.
Aside from what I mentioned in the above paragraph, The Class made me think about the difficulty of translating movies — especially when the movie in question deals with language. Early in The Class, there’s a scene in which Mr. Marin is trying to teach his students how to conjugate an irregular verb. The subtitles identify the verb as to swim, but from what’s being written on the chalkboard, even someone with a slight understanding of French could can guess that it’s some other verb. (Spencer later said it was the verb to know, so there you go.) It brings up an interesting point: Because the English for to know is a regular verb, those charged with translating the film had no choice but to incorrectly translate what the actors were speaking and just hope that no one would notice the disparity. For the people that did note the difference, it could have distracted them from the movie.

This isn’t me complaining, however; all my gripes appear above, in the big, indented paragraph. I’m just noting how certain movies or TV shows must pose problems that other shows and movies don’t and even most books probably don’t. With books, theoretically, whole passages could be rewritten to conform to the structure of whatever language the work is being translated into. Films, however, need subtitles that appear on screen long enough to be readable but briefly enough that they keep up with what’s being said. And they have to do it in the sequence dictated by the original film, more or less. Unlike a written paragraph, a scene can’t be broken down. I assume the majority of translated movies chop out a lot of ancillary information and shades of meaning in order to translate the action on-screen without loosing the pace.

(Sidebar: And that’s to say nothing of how to address the problem of translating a movie into a given language when the movie already contains references to that language. What do you do when, for example, you’re dubbing a movie into English and that movie’s original, foreign version already contained a few lines in English? I read somewhere that Uter, the German exchange student from The Simpsons becomes an Austrian or Belgian or something when the show is dubbed in German, but even that wouldn’t explain why a cast of characters walks around speaking German when they’re saluting the American flag and living in the U.S. And how does the show deal with Bumblebee Man in Spanish-speaking countries? Does Groundskeeper Willie become Irish for rebroadcasts in Scotland?)

For instance, take a comment from Mr. Marin makes that instigates the movie’s finale. Souleyman ends up being considered for expulsion because he reacts explosively to Mr. Marin’s pronunciation of two female students as “skanks” — or at least that’s what the subtitles say. The concept of skanks might be pretty universal, but think for a moment about how many words we have in English for that type of woman and then again how many the French probably have. I can’t imagine the process than led the translators of this movie to ultimately choose skank. Given that the movie also substituted the French for to know with the English to swim, it’s understandable that some people would question the use of the word skank. This message board thread discussing the subject led me to conclude that skank is a pretty good translation for the term the original French version uses: pétasse, which can mean either “stupid tart” or “slut,” depending on context. Skank basically covers that — associations of both classlessness and whorishness, depending on how you say it and who you are.

Says someone on the message board:
I think that this is actually a really central part of the movie… The girls behaved badly and the teacher lost his temper. Ordinarily, that would not have been a big deal. But the whole incident was massively amplified because the word he used, pétasse, meant totally different things to the teacher and his students. The teacher didn’t focus on the sexual connotations. He just thought he was calling the girls rude. That’s presumably the connotation that the word has in the mainstream French culture from which the teacher is supposed to come. But to his working-class immigrant students, the word has totally degrading sexual connotations. The teacher thought he was saying “You were acting like an asshole,” and the students heard him saying “You were acting like a dirty whore.” And that’s hard to translate into English, because there isn’t a word in English that means “asshole” to middle-class Anglo-Americans and “dirty whore” to working-class immigrants.
Thus, we get skank. And in this case, I’d say it works — or at least communicates the point as well as any English term could.

Finally, there’s the title of the film itself: The Class. Even having seen the movie this weekend, my primary association with the name is that sucky CBS sitcom of the same name. In my opinion, the original French title, Entre les murs, should have just been translated directly into English as “Between the Walls,” since it’s makes as much sense in either language and actually gets to the heart of the film: a story literally restricted to what happens in a single school building. I wonder if the title was altered not by the people who translated the actual dialogue but instead whoever was charged with making the film appealing to American audiences.

I guess I can’t write off The Class altogether, because anything that makes me think this much was apparently worth seeing. Really, it was a good movie, just with a few problems. For my purposes, maybe the parts that didn’t work so well were worth more than those that did.


  1. "know" is not a regular verb.

    In the little translation I've done, it makes sense to change stuff if the original isn't going to make sense in the target language. Like puns, rhymes, etc. But since "know" is not regular, I don't know why they changed it.

  2. Good point. Doy. I shall have to ammend this post.

    If the verb used in the original version of the movie was, in fact, the French for to know, then it would have made sense to just use the English equivalent. Maybe, then, it wasn't to know. Or maybe to swim is just an especially obvious irregular English verb.

  3. Ah. It wasn't to know --- it was croire, "to believe," at least according to this guy:

    Though, again, I don't know much French, I suppose there might be situations where you could translate the verb as "to know." However, believe is a regular verb, so that at least explains the need to sub something else into the English version.