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Robert Gray in Montreal.

christinne muschi The Globe and Mail

"Subtitles are the only form of translation where the audience can compare the translation with the original," says veteran Montreal film translator Robert Gray. But when Gray edited German subtitles for Rebelle (War Witch), the Canadian nominee for this year's best foreign-language film Oscar, even he couldn't compare the words he was working on with those spoken by the actors.

Rebelle is about an African child soldier, and much of the dialogue is in Lingala, a Bantu language spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gray doesn't understand Lingala, and was given a raw German translation based not on the original dialogue, but on a transcript of the English subtitles.

"It was problematic," Gray says. "The person who did the translation hadn't seen the film, and was translating as if it were a written text."

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There aren't usually that many layers of separation in Gray's subtitling assignments, which over three decades have included movies by eminent filmmakers in Quebec and abroad. He has worked on subtitles for all seven Canadian films nominated for best foreign-language film since the category was launched in 1976, including Denys Arcand's Les invasions barbares/TheBarbarian Invasions, which won in 2003.

Millions of words are written about film every year, but few about the subtitler's craft. Filmmaker Atom Egoyan and York University professor Ian Balfour co-edited a 2004 Alphabet City anthology called Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film (2004) that touched on the theory and practice of film translation, but the traditional view is that a good subtitle should do its work as unnoticeably as possible.

Unlike a translator of written text, however, a subtitler has to condense the dialogue to fit the time allowed – usually by a third, Gray says. "The eye reads slower than the ear hears," he says, and nobody likes to see subtitles trailing on after the camera has moved on to another shot. Among those sensitive to such things, the exact placement of a subtitle can stir "almost religious debate." And if you do allow your subtitles to become noticeable, the consequences can be unpleasant, as Gray discovered when he translated Hamlet's monologue from French to colloquial English, in Arcand's Jesus of Montreal.

"After the premiere in Cannes," Gray says, "one of the actors, who was a Shakespearean actor, was about to rip my throat open for having dared to change Shakespeare. We weren't able to change the translation for the release, but when the film came out on DVD 10 years later, I made sure to put in the original version."

Gray wandered into subtitling almost by accident, after translating for interviews with Rainer Werner Fassbinder during his visit to the Montreal Film Festival in 1981. "That opened my eyes to the fact that maybe I could work in film," he recalls. "I had been reading subtitles for a long time, and had never thought that somebody wrote them, or that I could be one of those people."

He started subtitling for the National Film Board, and then for independent filmmakers, working with a noisy 35mm projector and an editing table. Now he does everything on a computer with Quicktime files and a variety of subtitling programs, depending on the film format and the preference of the subtitling studio.

Computerization has made it possible for anyone to write subtitles, and just about anyone does. At websites such as opensubtitles.org and podnapisi.net, you can upload your own home-made subtitles, and view and rate those of others.

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As with most other kinds of writing, the democratization of subtitle publishing has driven down rates for the most low-margin work: subtitling for DVDs. Gray was recently approached by a company that wanted him to subtitle 30 films a month – a frantic pace of work. "They were paying 10 cents a subtitle," Gray says. "Anyone taking time and doing it seriously wouldn't do it for less than a dollar or $1.50 per subtitle."

Gray's German translation skills have also made him a favourite helpmate at live appearances by directors Micheal Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, for whom he has also subtitled several films, including his Paradise Trilogy. Gray is in Los Angeles this weekend to translate for Haneke at the Oscars, in case the Austrian's latest film Amour wins in any of its five nominated categories, including best picture and best director. In Hollywood, success is a language that everyone understands.

Note to readers This story has been updated because Rainer Werner Fassbinder's name was rendered incorrectly in an earlier version.

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