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© Yoana Pavlova
First Publication: November 2015
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In the last several years I have been watching Balkan films mostly among foreign audiences. I came to realize there is an invisible gap between what is happening on screen and what part of it can be translated, especially when it comes to local history, culture, politics. Be it in spacious theaters at festivals, or at home in front of my computer, reading the subtitles often makes me cringe in my seat, like a parent whose kid is hitting a false note. Still, there are also wonderful discoveries in terms of cinematic and linguistic work, not without the contribution of a few brave native speakers scattered around the Balkans. Some of them are trained translators, others – became ones by necessity, yet they are united by the love for local cinema.

As the American Angela Rodel states, she is, foremost, a translator but then also a musician, an actress, and, as of February 2015 – Executive Director of the Fulbright Commission in Bulgaria. She visited the country 20 years ago, for the Koprvishtitsa folk music festival: “I had fallen in love with Bulgarian folk music and went with a very naive idea of what Bulgaria and Bulgarians were like. I think right from the start I somehow knew I would end up living here someday, it was just a question of when.”

Angela Rodel

Another American – Greg de Cuir, Jr, writer and translator – came to Belgrade pursuing his research on the Yugoslav Black Wave, after spending some years in various Hollywood offices. Asked to recollect his first impressions: “Never thought I would live in the Balkans after I first visited, even though I΄ve relocated to a different city every five or so years of my life. Language and cultural differences were not a factor in my decision. I wanted to come, regardless of the challenges.”

Zoom to Romania where the British journalist Tom Wilson, today a renown director known for the 2014 Gopo Award winner The Bucuresti Experiment (Romania, 2013), arrived in 1999. “I was blown away by the country, it seemed so fresh and exciting and full of adventure. I didn΄t make it to Bucharest, except for changing trains at Gara de Nord, since I was told it was far too dangerous. So I definitely didn΄t expect to end up living there. I can remember the train pulling out of the station, and staring at the communist blocks – I΄d never seen tower-blocks that looked like that before. They looked absolutely terrifying.” 

How did they learn the local language in the first place? Angela Rodel admits she listened to a lot of radio and TV, and films helped too: “I recall watching Measure For Measure (1981) with friends and stopping after almost every line for them to explain to me what had been said, since it uses a Macedonian dialect that I couldn’t make heads or tails of! But I learned a lot of very quirky vocabulary that way – Turkisms that help me to this day in my career as a literary translator.” Greg de Cuir, Jr became proficient primarily through movies: “I think I learned the language the same way Balkan kids learn English – by way of popular culture.” For Tom Wilson it was the other way around: “I learned the language through friends, and then watched movies when I was ready.”

Greg de Cuir, Jr

Once they mastered the tools, it was a matter of time to start translating, or better yet – mediating. Angela Rodel, for instance, has worked on the heavy artillery of Bulgarian contemporary prose: Milen Ruskov, Zachary Karabashliev, Virginia Zaharieva, Georgi Gospodinov. Then Georgi Djulgerov, the very director of Measure For Measure, cast her in his 2009 feature The Goat (Bulgaria, 2009), in one of the central roles. Naturally, she was also subtitling the film. Did her time on the set prove useful? “Definitely, I can imagine what the actors were experiencing, and know from first-hand experience that the lines have to sound like something someone would actually say.”

Greg de Cuir, Jr, on the other hand, has been pretty much immersed in the local film culture ever since he moved to Serbia. Apart from publishing his study The Yugoslav Black Wave - The History and Poetics of Polemical Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s in Yugoslavia in 2012, he programs for various regional and international events, including Alternative Film/Video Belgrade and Beldocs, as well as acts like the managing editor of NECSUS_European Journal of Media Studies. Being a film critic and a cinephile is of great service when the right line is needed, though, like that time when calling to mind Kubrick΄s Full Metal Jacket dialogue helped him out for a Serbian film he was translating. “After I explained the nuance, the producer I was working with said: “See! What other translator here would know that?”

Contrasting words and images, however, is a much more complex issue for Tom Wilson. “As a filmmaker, you learn the importance of everything in the cinematic package – camerawork, lighting, sound, editing – everything that goes into making a film. As a translator, you΄re concerned with one thing: language. As I came from a journalistic background, I was always very preoccupied with language and its ramifications anyway, and so I΄d put the question the other way around: working as a director made me better understand the non-linguistic elements of film.” Tom Wilson gives as an example his subtitling work for the films of Corneliu Porumboiu, known for their elaborate relationship with semantics, where discussions on phrasing could take weeks and every word must be “surgically precise.” “The translator becomes the conduit for the director΄s ideas, and I feel that with someone like Porumboiu, this is a huge responsibility,” he concludes.

Tom Wilson

Nevertheless, the three often face situations where exact translation is difficult, if not impossible (enter notorious Balkan swear-words). “Translating is an art, not a science,” asserts Greg de Cuir, Jr. Angela Rodel mentions the upcoming Lea Ivanova biopic where the protagonists repeats “Da ti go fukna v chiniyata”, “which is a euphemism for a much more vulgar curse, but it was extremely hard to think of something with the same flavor”. Tom Wilson has been sweating over the same difficulty: “Romanian is very rich in imagery and is often very poetic. Especially when it comes to swearing. It΄s frustrating when you have to translate some incredibly creative swearing (usually involving mothers/dead ancestors/horrifically graphic sexual imagery) with the word fuck.”

As a matter of fact, the perception of their mother tongue has evolved as well. “I realized that American English doesn’t have the wealth of social-historical registers that Bulgarian does, due to the specifics of its history,” assumes Angela Rodel. To the same conclusion reached Tom Wilson: “English is often said to have more words than any other language (this is probably not strictly true, and depends on how you define a word, but the general idea is that English is a pretty rich language). Despite this, there are so many words that Romanian has and English doesn΄t.” And he even taught his British friends how to use the Romanian term fitze. Greg de Cuir, Jr outlines the fact that his work as a translator made him consider broader, non-native English-speaking audience: “I like to think I΄m fluent in two English languages now: American and non-dogmatic International.”

Yet another change occurred since they all moved to the Balkans – plenty of new national waves are being celebrated, and as translators the three of them witnessed this transformation from within. Angela Rodel is a big supporter of Bulgarian cinema: “We are seeing a whole new generation of young, post-socialist directors who are doing very exciting, creative work – and are finally being recognized for it, both in Bulgaria and abroad.” Greg de Cuir, Jr joins her stance: “Generally, I think the quality is high and there are a lot of talented artists. I have also seen an increased international presence, in terms of co-productions. Post-Socialist Serbia has it΄s best days ahead of it, in terms of art and culture.” Tom Wilson recounts: “I definitely saw the evolution of the scene from the start. And it΄s changed beyond recognition. At the turn of the millennium, Romania just wasn΄t really on the world cinema map. Now it seems to be an ever-present fixture at basically every international film festival.”

What about their own place in cinema of the Balkans? Other than translating subtitles, Greg de Cuir, Jr is often also advising Serbian directors and producers about the festival strategy of their projects. Tom Wilson jokes about Romanian filmmakers΄ unwillingness to be reckoned part of the New Wave label, but, of course, he acknowledges the creative effect of the milieu and would love to be recognized as part of this discourse. Angela Rodel perceives her rich background as the main reason to be appointed Fulbright Commissioner in Bulgarian, because “what better way to understand each other than through our art and our music?”
  The Bucuresti Experiment
  The Goat
  Georgi Djulgerov
  Georgi Gospodinov
  Corneliu Porumboiu
  Greg DeCuir Jr.
  Tom Wilson
  Success as a chameleon
  Hallo Holland - Holland Film Meeting Report
  Maya Vitkova about Viktoria΄s Victory
  Eastern European Cinema: 25 years after the Wall
  Alexandru Solomon: Documentary, his improved formula
  Greg de Cuir, Jr
  Angela Rodel
  Tom Wilson
  altcine Explore movies by Country People To read
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