Exercise in Literal Translation I

The unexpected connections between high school French and grown-up adventures in screenwriting


When I studied French in high school, I didn’t yet understand how to learn a language. Watching French movies with English subtitles only encouraged me to believe that the characters were speaking near word-for-word equivalents of the sentences I read.

At their best, subtitles represent a loose rendering of the actual words spoken by characters in a foreign language film, and there’s good reason for that: a literal translation simply wouldn’t convey the style, emotion, or even meaning of the dialogue in its original tongue.

Good subtitles draw upon different words to support the illusion that, in this case, the French and English viewer are seeing the exact same film. (Same story, different texts – as my dad and I explore in much greater depth in The Creative Compass.)

Likewise, a great book-to-film adaptation manages a small miracle: it at once fulfills devoted readers’ expectations of familiarity; makes them feel as though they’re discovering, for the first time, territory to which they’ve already staked a claim; and welcomes viewers not familiar with or even necessarily interested in reading the original book.

The most successful examples of such adaptations leave the first group of fans mostly unaware of the many, many changes required to stimulate someone’s exclamation that a film was “just like the book!”

To return to the original analogy, however, in order to learn a language, I needed to pay greater attention to that literal translation, because it’s an essential intermediate step.

By my mid-20s, I’d studied several other languages and I had a better grasp of how best to go about doing do so: I watched dozens of hours of Arabic soap operas without subtitles and it forced me to focus on the words spoken. The ones I did know helped me to guess at the meaning of those I didn’t. I deconstructed the dialogue in my mind so as to build on a dictionary-like database of words, phrasings, and expressions.

I needed the parts in order to to build my own whole. I needed to be able to make sense before I could hope to make art. In my ongoing efforts to learn the language of cinema, I’ve turned to a similar strategy.

Read the next post in the series.