William and Mary Law School

An American Movie in Poland

I took the opportunity this weekend to go to the movies. In Poland. I know, I'm crazy, right? Who flies a zillion miles across an ocean to a semi-exotic country with tons of interesting cultural and historical landmarks only to sit in a movie theater for two hours and watch a movie. Not just any movie, for those of you warming up the criticism machine, but an American movie. That's right - I saw "Mud," an American movie starring a very American "actor," Matthey McConaughey.

Let's put aside the question of my dubious tourist choice and the fact that I actually enjoyed (very much so) a Matthew McConaughey movie (despite a scene featuring his trademark removing-of-the-shirt ritual). Let's instead focus on an interesting international phenomenon or two. So, like I said, "Mud" is an American movie. For Poles to enjoy it, then, it has to be either a) dubbed into Polish, where a Polish speaker or two (not necessarily actors - more on that in a minute) reads all of the lines of the movie in Polish or b) presented with subtitles. Thankfully, "Mud" was in the latter group - with subtitles. Before I get to the subtitles, let me address the title of the movie. "Mud," in English, refers to the main character's name. It's fairly original, evocative to a certain extent of the kind of person who would call himself Mud, and fitting for the Southern gothic nature of the film. Cool! In Polish, the title has been translated to "Uciekinier," or Fugitive. Not cool. A lot gets lost in translation with the title alone, which looks, in retrospect, a lot like foreshadowing for the actual translation of the film. Now, this isn't to say that all American film titles get lousy translations into Polish. For example, another summer film currently being advertised here is "The Hangover 3." In Polish, hangover is "kac." A wily Polish film executive christened the original "Hangover" as "Kac Vegas," which is actually more clever, with its use of the pun, than the American title. Poor "Mud," however falls into the camp of films whose titles lose something in translation. 

As for the film itself, "Mud" has very rich dialogue and interesting use of language. In marveling over the boat he's found stuck high in a tree, title character Mud remarks, "It's a hell of a thing." He repeats the line a few times, and there's a charming naivete to it that complements the character nicely. When translated, however, Mud's comment becomes variations of "it's awesome," or "it's amazing." The line goes from a character definiting pseudo-catchphrase to just a common remark about the unusualness of finding a boat in a tree. One of the supporting characters is a kid who calls himself "Neckbone." The name isn't translated, literally, into Polish, losing some of its esoteric charm and becoming just a name. There were also several puns, jokes, and allusions in the film that, sadly, lost their significance entirely when translated into Polish. I paid attention to the subtitles whenever something clever was conveyed in English. I guess it's bound to happen when a very Southern film gets translated for an audience who has no familiarity with the American South.

In noting all this, I couldn't help but but feel two sentiments. First, I wondered what I'd lost in viewing all kinds of foreign films with subtitles. Granted, I don't watch a ton of foreign films. But I've seen enough to wonder how much of the brilliance present in the original language I was missing out on because of the inherent problems with translation. Also, I'm sure I've read several books translated from their original language into English - does the problem show up there too? Probably, but how will I ever know, not speaking Spanish, German or Latin? Second, I couldn't help but feel a pang of pity not only for Poles but for all the non-English speaking world who gets their American media second hand. I've seen a few previews for Iron Man 3 - would you bet Tony Stark's dry, witty humor comes across in another language? Yeah, I doubt it too. It's not a huge thing, but interesting, nonetheless. I suppose the language issue is a two-way street, with native English speakers missing out on little jokes or deeper meanings. It's unfortunate. Maybe we should all learn Esperanto?

Stepping away from "Mud" and my experience at the theater, it also bears noting how American films are presented on broadcast TV. Polish TV stations love showing films in primetime, I've noticed.They don't have as many TV shows as we do, so they fill the prime viewing hours with movies, many of them imports from the U.S. On TV, instead of subtitles - which, really, who wants to read a movie - the films are dubbed over. Fine, OK, you get some Polish actors together and read a Polish translation of Rambo II (which, by the way, gets none of the violence edited out for TV broadcast here, but somehow still gets an "Age 12+" rating for TV. Go figure). Except that's not what they do. Instead of a true "dubbing," they just have a guy, in a very, very monotone voice, read the film's dialogue over the movie's original audio track. So Rambo's saying his lines on screen (with none of the swear words bleeped out, which, I guess makes sense since the viewers don't speak the language. But seriously, seems like everyone here knows the "F" word), and then half a second later, this guy reads the line in Polish, inflection free. Doesn't matter if it's a woman or a kid talking in the film - this ain't no dramatic reading. What's more, it's the same voice for every film. Same guy, same bland voice reading the lines over the movie's audio. How crazy! I asked a friend about it, and he didn't seem to think it was strange. In fact, he liked the continuity of the same guy dubbing all their movies, and even the integrity of not trying to dramatize the dialogue. It's like a neutral reading that lets the viewer impose his own interpretation on the text, he said. Wow. Talk about a different cultural viewpoint! And this for something as innocuous as a movie!