Echo Translation

In his book La voix au cinéma (The Voice in Cinema), Michel Chion coined the word ‘acousmêtre’ to describe a character that can be heard but not seen on screen. Rather than nail down his term with a comprehensive definition, Chion introduces his readers to various kinds of disembodied voices in the cinema. They include the ‘complete acousmêtre, the one who is not-yet seen, but who remains liable to appear in the visual field at any Moment’; the ‘already visualized acousmêtre’ – like a character who becomes a temporary narrator to explain an on-screen flashback; and, perhaps its most familiar kind, the ‘commentator-acousmêtre’, the disengaged speaker who provides a voice over, ‘but never shows himself [and] who has no personal stake in the image.’[1] The acousmêtre seems to derive special powers by eschewing visibility: these are ‘the ability to be everywhere, to see all, to know all, and to have complete power. In other words: ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience, and omnipotence.’[2] When acousmêtre acquires a body, it seems to lose authority, even if – as in the case of the Wizard of Oz in the 1939 Hollywood movie – this power was never more than a matter of faith of others.

Disembodied, the acousmêtre cannot occupy a clearly demarcated place. Chion writes that it ‘must, even if only slightly, have one foot in the image, in the space of the film; he must haunt the borderlands that are neither the interior of the filmic stage nor the proscenium,’ thereby bringing about ‘disequilibrium and tension.’ Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960) provides Chion with numerous examples of how the uncanny, haunting qualities of the acousmêtre can be summoned to produce dramatic effects. Norman Bates’ mother is foremost an off-screen voice, whilst her body is little more than a evanescent shadow flickering in and out of sight. When, at the end of the movie, and after a police psychiatrist has diagnosed Bates’ condition, we see Norman sitting in a holding cell, it is his invisible mother who speaks. ‘When we hear the voice over Norman’s face,’ writes Chion, ‘his mouth is closed, as if to suggest possession by spirits or ventriloquism.’[3] This, according to Chion, is the ‘triumph of the acousmêtre’.

Audiences watching Hitchcock’s film in the People’s Republic of Poland, when it was first screened on television there in 1980, heard a second, unique acousmatic voice, that of a translator. A single voice delivered the words of all the characters on screen. Both the actors and translator were audible, although the Polish voice was louder and followed a second or less later. The acousmatic voice of Norman’s mother which seemed to have buried itself in his body was now, almost certainly, voiced by a man. Hitchcock’s trashy Freudianism was undone by this act of gender reassignment.

Audiences in the Poland – like those in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and the Soviet Union (where ‘Psycho’ was not shown) – were developing viewing habits which still shape the ways in which people like to watch foreign films and broadcasts today. The practices of subtitling and synchronised dubbing by using a cast of voice actors which dominate film translation elsewhere in the world were too costly. Instead, a single – or sometimes multiple – voice over translation was imposed over the original soundtrack of imported films and other foreign footage. In Russia this technique is known by various names including ‘perevod Gavrilova’ (‘Gavrilov Translation’ after one of the technique’s practitioners). The Poles call the voice over translator a Szeptanka (‘Whisperer’) or a Lektor Filmowy (‘Film Reader’).

Preferred by television broadcasters, voice over translation is largely scripted, recorded and added in post-production today but its origins in Eastern Europe can be traced to live acts of translation in the cinema, first of ‘trophy films’ which had been looted from Germany at the end of the Second World War (including prints of movies by the Allies) and, then, of a handful of imported films were which were shown under license in the Eastern Bloc from the late 1950s on. The appearance of films made in the West might be taken as a sign of the political ‘Thaw’, particularly in relatively liberal Poland – the Film Repertoire Council [Filmowa Rada Repertuarowa] established there in 1957 set out to achieve a tactical even balance of films from the two Cold War blocs.[4] Nevertheless, Soviet film censors remained wary of the influence of Western films on local audiences, cutting politically ‘incorrect’ scenes and censoring images of drug use and sexuality.

In the Soviet Union occasional film festivals and a few specialist cinemas were rare places were audiences could see international films which had not been approved for wide distribution. The Illusion cinema – which opened in Moscow in 1966 – was one such place. It was the official theatre of Gosfilmofond, the State Film Archive, and a key venue for the Moscow International Film Festival. Early screenings there included ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939), the Japanese art house classic ‘The Naked Island‘ (1960) directed by Kaneto Shindō, and the 1963 Oscar-winning Italian comedy ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ starring Sophia Loren. To support its international programme, the Illusion cinema trained and employed a cadre of professional translators who operated from a special booth equipped with microphones and headphones, as well as lecturers who introduced the repertoire to the public. And when prints were sent to film festivals in the Soviet republics they would often be accompanied by a professional translator from the Illusion cinema.

Translation and and interpretation were exercises in ideological alignment. Just as sexual scenes might be cut by the censors, vulgarity and slang would be suppressed by the translator at the microphone. The translators did not necessarily need to speak the original language of the film: often they would translate from the English, French or German subtitles which accompanied an imported title. Occasionally a foreign film would arrive without subtitles or any other kind of textual aids and so the translator would make a stab at interpretation. The spontaneous and even improvisational aspect of translation was, however, muted by repetition – a translator might relay the same film many times in a day and, in the case of the most popular films like ‘Casablanca’ (1942), many hundreds of times in a career. Nevertheless, the Illusion’s translators saw themselves as performers of a particular genre of live performance. Irina Razlogova has interviewed a number of them. One, Grigory Libergal who worked at the Moscow cinema from its opening until the 1980s, recalled: ‘When you are watching a film with a simultaneous translation, you, the viewer, have to clearly hear the original soundtrack of the film. If the translator is a master of his craft, he will not “dominate” the screen, speak on top of the actors. If he is a virtuoso, if he can feel the balance between the film proper and his own voice, after several minutes the spectator in the theater will forget about the translator, feeling that he himself can understand English, French, or Japanese.’[5]

Whilst Razlogova’s interviewees emphasise character and even artistry as valuable qualities, the ideal, as Libergal stresses, was for the translator to be ‘out of mind’. Henryk Pijanowski, a veteran ‘lektor’ in Poland, suggests that the words should disappear too: ‘Mastery of film translation is when the lektor strives to read so that the listener does not hear a thing’.[6] According to this doxa, the lektor’s voice seeks to bury itself in the mind of the listener, to become like thought. All on-screen words – whether titles, close ups of text, dialogue, voice over narration, or on-screen addresses to the viewer – are his. Moreover, they are unified by tone, colour and timbre. Intonation is to be steady and consistent, even when the original on-screen dialogue is delivered at a high emotional pitch; fast paced exchanges are compressed by judicious editing by the lektor; and those points where speech breaks down – like screams and moans – are left alone, as is singing (though lyrics are often relayed in monotone). This professional voice is never embarrassed by what appears on screen, or doubts the action. Nor does it listen to itself.

A World in Your Ear

Voice over translation would seem to be akin to the better known and more widespread practice of dubbing or what is sometimes called ‘voice replacement’. But the practices differ in crucial ways. In dubbing, for instance, the aim of the vocal actor is to present the illusion of synchronized speech by overlaying his or her voice over that of another. Gender and age should match, as should the sound with the movement of lips (at least in countries like Germany where the imperative to sync sound with image overrides the requirement of fidelity to the script[7]). By contrast, a lektor uses delay to distinguish his voice from those of the actors on screen: his words follow theirs.

The popularity of voice over translation in Poland may well be a product of the the poor reputation of dubbing, particularly in the 1950s when it was still the dominant way of translating foreign films. In 1955 Film magazine gathered the opinions of Polish viewers of René Clair’s ‘Les Belles De Nuit’ (Beauties of the Night, France, 1952) and Slátan Dudow’s ‘Stärker als die Nacht’ (Stronger than the Night, East Germany, 1954): ‘The dubbing in “Stronger than the Night”,’ according to one, ‘was primitive, and completely embarrasses the filmmakers with errors and awkwardness. The actors on the screen open their mouths, and there is silence. This lasts for a while until we hear a Polish voice … the same effect is also found in the scene depicting a clandestine meeting by the river when the mouths of those gathered is met by annoying silence on the screen – like a silent film.’[8] Even when the dubbing was well-synchronised, other cavils were raised. ‘I cannot accept the convention that the Frenchman on screen speaks Polish. This is something unnatural …’ remarked one viewer of the Clair film.[9] Unnaturalness is a familiar complaint in the history of sound dubbing (Antonin Artaud characterised dubbing as a form of possession and Jorge Luis Borges said that it produces monsters[10]). But the erasure of foreignness might well have been unwelcome too. Unlike dubbing (but like subtitling), voice over translation allows for foreign words and accents to be audible, and, as such, for difference to persist. During the Cold War, the gap between the original voice and its translation was also the gap between East and West or, for that matter, between East and East. In hearing Gérard Philipe or Gina Lollobrigida’s voices in ‘Les Belles De Nuit’, audiences were able to enjoy a little of the internationalism which the Soviet Bloc proclaimed so loudly in its propaganda but denied its citizens in life. Whether this was a wish for solidarity with working classes around the world or a desire to satisfy what Czesław Miłosz once called the ‘hunger for strangeness’ in the grey world of state socialism is hard to know.[11]

Another difference between dubbing and voice over narration is the fact that the lektor assumes responsibility for delivering all words heard or seen on screen. To contain this proliferating polyphony, the ‘best’ voice over is transparent, unobtrusive, lacking corporality. This tendency was amplified when voice over translation was imported into the expanding field of television broadcasting in Eastern Europe in the 1970s. Post-sync recording means that the infelicities of live translation are ironed out. Close-micing, producing a very ‘dry’ sound with little reverberation, erases all traces the space of the studio. Offering clear definition, close-micing also lifts the voice out of the space of the film. So close, this voice seems to be inside the ear. It is always there, always on, even, it seems, when the lektor is not speaking.

Almost always male, transmitted over the airwaves, and having the capacity to speak for all and to translate every language, the voice of lektor might seem to have the powers that Chion ascribes to the acousmêtre. But, unlike the narrator of movies, newsreels or documentaries, the lektor does not provide expert explanations of events, or insight into the inner thoughts of the characters on screen. He has no capacity for reflection or hindsight. His is, seemingly, an automatic voice, only triggered by the words of others. Rather than being the voice of God, the lektor is a servant of the speaker. His humble status is perhaps revealed by the ‘first’ voice over translator in the Soviet world, Ivan Bolshakov, chairman of the Committee on Cinematography of the USSR. In the 1940s Bolshakov would arrange daily private screenings for the generalissimo in his private cinema. These were both moments of private entertainment and, at the same time, a meeting of the most important film censorship board in the USSR.[12] Stalin’s displeasure would mean that a film would not be acquired for distribution. According to eyewitnesses, he was a particularly active viewer, delivering a running report of the ideological merits and failings of each film – a dictator’s commentary. He had a taste for cowboy movies as well as the films of Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable but according to Nikita Khrushchev, would also ‘curse them, giving them an ideological evaluation.’[13] A canny retainer, Bolshakov would usually arrange for a choice of films to be available at each screening to improve Stalin’s mood. This introduced a new problem – the prints of the films were not subtitled and so Bolshakov had to be ready to give his mercurial master an extempore translation of the dialogue on the spot. Speaking only faltering English, Bolshakov would prepare by spending hours with interpreters learning the story and lines. Even then, he struggled to keep up with the plot and dialogue of the many films he’d put at Stalin’s command. Stalin apparently enjoyed the deep discomfort felt by his subaltern. Such anecdotes are often relayed by Stalin’s biographers to illustrate his volatile and malevolent character: nevertheless, Bolshakov was a wily operator, successfully extending his role to become the first Minister of Cinematography in 1946.

Abusive Translations

Like many things in Eastern Europe, voice over translation may have originated at the command of authority but it eluded the control of the state. In the 1980s unlicensed copies of western films began to be made on video cassettes and traded (their illegal origins often confirmed by the legend ‘For Preview Purposes Only’ across the screen). These were accompanied by voice over translations provided by amateurs, many of whom were academics or professional translators who had benefited from language training. Leonid Veniaminovich Volodarskii recalls the process:

Everything was done using two VCRs, sitting on your knees, basically. One of them had to be stereo. You stuck the original [VHS cassette] into one VCR, a blank VHS cassette into the other VCR, and a mic into this other VCR, too. I translated simultaneously, and my voice was recorded by the second VCR. Then some techie – I’m strictly not technicallyminded – made a master tape of my voiceover. From that point on, it was ‘Full speed ahead!’ – multiple copies were made, and the voiceover hit the popular masses.[14]

Often idiosyncratic, these translations departed from the script in ways that appeal to both their viewers and to scholars of translation. One, Alexander Burak, stresses the fact that such translations were made without a great deal of preparation: often long passages of slang or idiomatic phrases would elude the translator and so he would have to improvise (an unintended echo of Bolshakov’s performances for Stalin).[15] Even skilled translators might well enhance the original with local colloquialisms and vivid profanities in an effort to capture what they believed to be the colour of the original. The creative translator of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ (1973) replaced New York’s street slang with that of Warsaw’s Praga district in a pirate version on sale in Poland in early 1990s. Widely acclaimed as the master of the genre in Russia, Dmitry Puckhov (aka Goblin), who acquired his English in the 1980s on a two-year course at the Dzerzhinsky Police House of Culture and by translating rock lyrics at home, achieved success and some degree of notoriety for his voice over translations which far exceed the principle of fidelity. In rescripting imported thrillers and crime films such as ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994), Puckhov incorporated the full force of Russian expletives as well as an urgent, highly distinctive tone of voice. These devices, he claims, capture the gritty qualities of the original films far more effectively than pious, literary-minded culture approach to translation promoted by the film studios.[16] His reputation, however, owes more to to his comic voice over translations of the first two ‘Lord of the Rings’ films made in the early 2000s which relocate Middle-earth to contemporary Russia. The principal characters were given comic Russified names:[17] Frodo Baggins became Fedor Mikhailovich Sumkin (a derivative of the Russian word sumka, or bag); the Ranger, Aragorn, was renamed Agronom (farm worker); Legolas became Logovaz, after the Russian car company responsible for Ladas. Puckhov also introduced new elements into the soundscape: courtly dancing at Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party, for instance, is accompanied by a well-known techno track by Ruki Vverh! (Hands Up!). Woven through the voice over narration are what remain topical themes relating to the rampant advance of capitalism in the country. The search story becomes something like a crime drama set in the Russian underworld. The tone is set from the outset when the main character, just returned to Middle-earth after years of wandering, announces: ‘The world is not much changed – people steal as before. MacDonald’s have cropped up everywhere – it is funny I don’t see them here.’ In effect, Puckhov’s versions of ‘Lord of the Rings’ are social satires which function as what Abé Mark Nornes calls ‘abusive translations’ – acts of rescripting which ‘tamper with language usage and freely ignore or change much of the source text’. What Nornes calls ‘abuse’ has the positive value when it ‘helps inject a palpable sense of the foreign.’[18] Freely available for download, Russian viewers would play Puckhov’s translations over imported films. As Vlad Strukov notes, ‘the sound of the original Hollywood movie becomes secondary as the movie is now meant to accompany the “translation” and not the other way around, as one would expect’.[19]

Deeply engrained listening habits mean that voice over translation continues to be the way in which Poles and Russians prefer to watch broadcasts of foreign material (though subtitling is on the rise in cinemas). As K.I. Donnelly notes, ‘it is conventional and thus naturalistic in its own way.’[20] But the attachment to the phenomenon runs deeper than that. In Poland and Russia today, considerable nostalgia attaches to the early translators of these black market releases (and in marked contradistinction to the characterization of voice over narration by Polish film critics in the early 1990s as an unwelcome hangover from the Soviet Bloc). The extent of the audiences for these illegally-traded copies was so great that their voices are still well known, instantly and comfortingly familiar.[21] Figures who would once needed to mask their activities with anonymity have become minor celebrities. Of Władysław Frączak, for instance, one on-line fan in Poland wrote in 2011 ‘This lektor stood out when I watched my first American film on VHS – ‘Mask’ with Jim Carrey. I can listen to him even when the film is hopeless’.[22] This listener was drawn to Frączak’s idiolect. That the voice over technique is known in Russia by the name of one of its chief practitioners, Andrei Gavrilov who began his work in the 1980s moonlighting from his work as a journalist in the European section of TASS news agency is itself evidence of recognition. Many now work in the mainstream media today. In recent years, the best-known in Russia, Puckhov, has developed a career as an on-line political commentator. (His ‘Goblin News’ sometimes accompanied, by a neat table-turn, with English subtitles). Increasingly visible and often valued for the vocal idiosyncrasies that they brought to the act of translation, these once-acousmatic voices have now acquired names and visibility.

Being visible and credited as the owner of a voice is a benefit of post-communism: it chimes with the principles of the freedom of speech, accountability and ownership which have been claimed as rights by opponents of the Soviet Bloc. Bylines are an aspect of professionalization too. Others include the representation by agents and the construction of commercial ‘voice banks’. Lektors in Poland now ply their trade as ‘voice over artists’ for advertising and radio. And when they provide voice over translations, they usually read scripts translated by others. Professional codes and standards – like those articulated by Libergal and Pijanowski above – have been set down. Expansion of the profession has also provided opportunities for a small number of women. But what, one might wonder, has been lost in these developments? Chion – the chief celebrant of the voice in the cinema – calls the process by which the acousmêtre acquires a body ‘de-acousmatization’. ‘Embodying the voice,’ he writes of fantasy, thriller, and gangster movies which feature powerful shadowy kingpins, ‘is a sort of symbolic act, dooming the acousmêtre to the fate of ordinary mortals. De-acousmatization roots the acousmêtre to a place and says, “here is your body, you’ll be there, and not elsewhere”.’[23] Brought down to earth, the acousmêtre is deprived of its off-screen panopticism and omnipotence. The voice of the Lektor in Eastern Europe has however never occupied this all-knowing, all-seeing realm. Instead, it spoke from the shadows, always echoing another, more authoritative voice. The gap between these two voices was the space in which sometimes fretful, occasionally improvised, and, at times, ‘abusive’ translations could be heard.

[1] Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) 21. Translated by Claudia Gorbman.

[2] Ibid, 24.

[3] Ibid, 149.

[4] Marek Haltoff, Polish National Cinema (Oxford & New York: Berghahn, 2002), 78.

[5] Grigory Libergal cited by Elena Razlogova in ‘Listening to the Inaudible Foreign. Simultaneous Translators and Soviet Experience of Foreign Cinema’ in ‪Lilya Kaganovsky, ‪Masha Salazkina, eds., Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema (Bloomington, IN: ‪Indiana University Press, ‪2014) 169. Razlogova’s translation.

[6] Henryk Pijanowski interviewed in ‘Zawód Lektor (Lektorzy Magia Polskiego Głosu)’, a television programme made by Michał Jeczeń for TVP1, 2006.

[7] On national differences in the approach to dubbing see K. I. Donnelly, Occult Aesthetics. Synchronization in Sound Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[8] Cited in Czesław Michałski, ‘O dubbing dobrze i źle’ in Film, 50 (1955) 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Michal Yampolsky. ‘Voice Devoured: Artaud and Borges on Dubbing’ in October, 64 (Spring 1993) 57-77.

[11] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980) 69.

[12] See Grigory Mariamov, 
Kremlevskii tsenzor. Stalin smotrit kino (The Kremlin Censor. Stalin Watches the Cinema (Moscow: Kinotsentr, 1992).

[13] Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev: Volume 2: Reformer, 1945-1964, edited by Sergei Khrushchev (Philadelphia, PA: Penn State University Press, 2006) 115.

[14] Volodarskii cited by Alexander Burak, ‘Some Like it Hot – Goblin‐Style: “Ozhivliazh” in Russian Film Translations’ in Russian Language Journal, v. 61 (2011) 7. Burak’s translation.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See Carl Shreck, ‘Goblin Makes the Case against Demonizing Expletives’ in St. Petersburg Times (29 July 2003) 1-2.

[17] Natalia Rulyova, ‘Piracy and Narrative Games: Dmitry Puchkov’s Translations of “The Lord of the Rings”’ in The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 49, no. 4 (Winter 2005), pp. 625-638.

[18] Abé Mark Nornes, Cinema Babel. Translating Global Cinema (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) 179.

[19] Vlad Strukov, ‘Translated by Goblin: Global Challenge and Local Response in Brian James Baer, John Benjamin, eds., ‘Post-Soviet Translations of Hollywood Films’ in Contexts, Subtexts and Pretexts: Literary Translation in Eastern Europe and Russia (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2011) 242.

[20] Donnelly, op cit., 178.

[21] When Lucjan Szołajski died in Warsaw in June 2013, numerous obituaries recorded the fact that he had provided voice over translation for more than 20,000 films and television series over forty years.

[22] -accessed July 2014.

[23] Chion, op cit., 27-8.


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