Why Roman Polanski’s furious with the French film industry

The association of Anglo Subtitlers in France (ASIF) has the pledged support of Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski, as they plan to protest against declining rates for professional subtitling at next month’s Cannes Film Festival.

A petition drafted by the ASIF highlights the problems facing professional translators and subtitlers, whose rates are being squeezed by French production studios. Many of the films scheduled to be showcased at Cannes were subtitled by members of the ASIF.

Polanski joins a list of nearly 200 signatories to the petition, including Firefox director Laurent Cantet, Patrice Leconte and Cyrano de Bergerac scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière.

A letter sent out by the ASIF earlier this month to the Cannes festival organisers, France’s state film body the CNC, the French government-backed export body Unifrance and all major producer’s collectives in the country outlines the importance of professionally written subtitles. The letter notes:

“Good subtitles directly help a film to generate profit. The current union rate of $5.60 (£4.10) per subtitle — although rarely insisted upon by English-language translators — underlines the importance that good subtitles have for a film’s career. After spending hundreds of thousands, or even millions of euros to produce a film, it seems counterproductive to try and make minor savings on the subtitling, at the risk of undermining the film’s chances of success on the international marketplace.”

Oscar winner Claude Lelouch’s film Salaud, on t’aime (Bastard, we love you) has been referenced as an example of the treatment inflicted by film studios on subtitlers. According to the Guardian, Lelouch’s film reportedly offered subtitlers £0.69 per subtitle – well below the cited union rate of £4.10.

Squeezing subtitlers’ fees is counterproductive on a number of levels. First, quality subtitling requires the necessary academic training. As with translation, cultural references and nuances rarely adapt from one language to another at the mere touch of a button.

Click here to read professional subtitler Paul Berlinger’s views on the rate cuts and breakdown of how subtitling is commissioned within the film industry. [external]

Second, in an industry that has long been overshadowed by English-language films coming out of Hollywood, subtitles are an invaluable facet for “foreign” films reaching out to international audiences. France produces many excellent films, films that would otherwise be less acclaimed or even risk potential ridicule should subtitles be considered subpar or inaccurate.

Finally, with digital technology infinitely increasing the reach of any film across its native borders, allowing the quality of subtitles to suffers is an incredibly foolhardy and backwards approach.

The ASIF will be vocally protesting the treatment of subtitlers at the Cannes Film Festival. If France’s film bodies wish for future films to see the same level of international success as, say, The Intouchables did in 2011, professional translators and subtitlers need the necessary incentives if they are to continue breaking languages barriers, boosting French exports and bringing French cinema to a global audience.

We are trying to get in touch with the ASIF and CNC for further comment. We will update this post once we receive their response.

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