Not Lost In Translation The Folks Who Write Film Subtitles Don't Expect Prizes. The Challenge Is Its Own Reward. They Need A Good Grasp Of Slang And A Keen Ear, So Gi's Won't Scream ''thanks'' For Onrushing Tanks.

Posted: March 03, 1999

NEW YORK — Henri Behar swivels between computer screen and video monitor, testing how the words on one fit the images on the other.

He has taken Shakespeare's ''Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'', translated it into a French question of nearly equal length, and is synchronizing it to the puckering of Gwyneth Paltrow's lips in a scene from Shakespeare in Love.

Behar gives his version a trial run, electronically superimposing the sentence - ''Vais-je te comparer a un beau jour d'ete?'' - on the bottom of the video frame. It's not the accepted French translation of the Shakespeare sonnet (that's too wordy), but it's a good one because comparer looks credible coming from Paltrow's mouth as she says ''compare'' and d'ete is passably close to ''day.''

For the man who has spent the better part of February condensing sonnets into haiku, rhythm is more important than rhyme.

Henri Behar is a subtitler.

A form of cultural ventriloquism, subtitling combines the glamour of plumbing and the intellectual challenge of saying the most in the fewest words. It's labor-intensive. It's brain-cramping. And, if you're Behar, it's an addictive game - like ''playing 3-D Scrabble in two languages,'' he says cheerfully.

Paltrow may not know it, but how her Oscar-nominated performance in Shakespeare plays in France, where it opens March 10, depends largely on this silver-maned man in black. If a subtitle is inadequate, clumsy or distracting, it makes the actor look bad. The task, Behar says, is to create ''subliminal'' subtitles so in sync with the mood and rhythm of the movie ''that the audience isn't even aware it's reading.''

In a profession of fewer than 100 players worldwide, Behar is an acknowledged poet. But unlike most artists, the better his work, the more likely it is to go unheralded.

''You want not to be noticed,'' explains Helen Eisenman, the doyenne of the business and a woman widely referred to as ''the queen of subtitlers.''

For Eisenman, Behar is ''le roi des sous-titres.'' The king. A man of a certain age, Behar remains modest: ''It's not like I'm Andre Gide translating Hamlet into French,'' he says with a shrug.

Yet the onetime North American correspondent for Le Monde - a demi-celebrity at Cannes Film Festival news conferences, where he has been known to translate up to six languages simultaneously - is a rather significant personage. The Cairo-born, Paris-educated, Manhattan-seasoned cosmopolite has helped teach the French what it is to be American via his subtitles for quintessentially Yank movies such as The Apostle, American Buffalo, and Boyz N the Hood.

He takes pride in his work and cringes at less artful subtitling, such as the line in Sam Peckinpah's World War II drama Cross of Iron, when armored trucks came up the ridge. In the original English, a soldier warned, ''Tanks, tanks!'' In the badly subtitled French, the character yelled, ''Merci, merci!''

Since Behar was hired for Woody Allen's Zelig in 1983, he has subtitled more than 100 French- and English-language films. Translating from English - Bull Durham, Good Will Hunting, Marvin's Room, Menace II Society - is his preference, and that's lucky, because there are more films exported from the States than imported. Despite the enormous success of films such as Life Is Beautiful and The Postman, subtitled movies accounted for less than 1 percent of the total 1998 U.S. domestic box office, according to Variety.

His specialty is the literary or linguistically idiosyncratic. Behar was born to Jewish parents in Cairo, and his toddler vocabulary included Arabic, French, English and Italian. As an adult, he also became fluent in German and Spanish.

''We were taught to have fun with languages,'' he explains at the Laser Video Titres lab in Tribeca. ''The feat isn't speaking 17 languages; it's to play and enjoy within and between the languages.''

You could say that American slang is another of Behar's tongues. Black vernacular, in particular, moves quickly and requires astute handling on the part of the subtitler.

In 1991, when he prepared Boyz N the Hood for French audiences, Behar says, ''we were shocked when blacks called each other nigger, so whether it was an epithet or an endearment, it usually went untranslated.'' By 1993 and Menace II Society, ''the word nigger, when it was synonymous with 'friend,' got subtitled as copain or mec - 'pal' or 'guy.' ''

Behar looks back at his Boyz subtitles and wishes he could make changes. Ice Cube's line ''We got a problem here, nigger?'' was translated as ''Once again, I don't know, Negro!'' - the best he could do at the time. ''I think, with films that are so slangy, subtitlers need to update their work every five years [as] French slang catches up.''

References to American icons may never be fully translatable. In Boyz, Laurence Fishburne upbraids his son, Cuba Gooding Jr., for hanging out in bad company by using a pejorative reference to African American comics: ''What are y'all, Amos and Andy? Are you Stepin and he's Fetchit?'' Because it had to have a reference the French could understand, the subtitle reads, ''Vous jouez a quoi, Laurel et Hardy? Il est Abbott, t'es Costello?'' The racial element was lost.

Shakespeare in Love, so filled with theatrical lingo, provided another challenge. When the showman played by Geoffrey Rush promises that Shakespeare is hard at work on ''a real crowd-tickler,'' Behar got stuck. He couldn't come up with an equivalent in the 15 characters permitted for a scene of one-second duration. (Unlike a newspaper story, a subtitle can't jump to the next page.) Behar finally settled on ''Elle a tout'' - ''It has everything.'' Not the crowd-tickler screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard might have liked, but it fits.

David Mamet is an even greater challenge than Shakespeare, Behar says.

''Mamet dialogue is extremely fast, and the overlaps of dialogue with the overlaps of editing will drive you nuts.'' That, plus the staccato rhythms and Chicago slang made subtitling Mamet's American Buffalo one of Behar's most difficult assignments.

Behar sees an average of 10 movies a week - his bread-and-butter is freelance entertainment stories - and can't help considering the subtitling difficulties each would pose.

''I didn't do Oliver Stone's JFK, but that would be my nightmare assignment. You've got the lightning edits. You've got to translate the dialogue on televisions being watched by the characters who are also talking. And you've got to evoke historical color that Americans are familiar with, but the French are not.''

Not that word-for-word transcriptions are necessary, or even desirable, subtitlers point out. ''The audience should be looking at the action, not reading,'' says Eisenman, who is so highly regarded that she works on films in languages she does not speak. (She subtitled the Danish Babette's Feast and the Mandarin Raise the Red Lantern into English by working with native speakers.) ''Our job isn't that of the literary translator. Our job is to give the Cliff's Notes to a movie.''

Subtitling is a complicated tango during which someone like Behar or Eisenman dances with the film until both are equal partners.

First comes the plumbing part: The film, transferred onto a time-coded VHS video, goes through the ''spotting'' process. The dialogue is broken down into sequences whose lengths determine how many words can be printed across the screen.

The lines are then translated, adapted to conform to spotting constraints and reconciled with the time codes. That's the 3-D Scrabble part.

The subtitles are synchronized with the dialogue and action, then tested. Refinements are made. Eventually, the final text is laser-engraved on the print.

Though the money isn't great ($2,000 to $3,000 is average for a month's work) and the only public recognition they get is a footnote at film's end, Behar and Eisenman are enormously devoted to their work. What others might find tedious, they consider an irresistible brain teaser.

By coincidence, Eisenman - who speaks German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese - and Behar are both Diaspora Jews. Eisenman, now a New Yorker, fled Vienna in 1937, and her family worked its way to America with stops in Italy and Portugal. Behar left Cairo in 1957, and has bounced between Europe and the States ever since.

''I don't know that Jewishness has anything to do with preparing you for this job,'' says Behar, ''except that we've been expelled from so many countries that we speak a lot of languages.'' Or maybe, ''it's in our genes that we learn languages quickly, or that each time we move, we have to learn a culture from the ground up.''

If there were Oscars for subtitling, Behar and Eisenman would have enough statuettes to play tenpin.

''But there shouldn't be an Oscar for subtitling,'' Behar says with a shudder. ''You're not the creator, you're just reformatting. I mean, wouldn't that be like giving the guy at the foundry who casts the Rodin credit for the artwork?''

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