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In the Footsteps of Giants

Translating Shakespeare for Dubbing

By Robert Paquin, Ph.D.

translator is a tracker, stepping in the tracks of the writer who came before, careful not to
step on anybody's toes, alert to the direction the tracks are pointing, attentive to the
scenery, the context, trying not to disturb anything. What happens when a translator
attempts to walk in the tracks of a giant?

Just before Christmas, I got a call from a Montreal dubbing studio. The speaker wanted to
know if I was free to write the French script of a film for dubbing. I said, "Sure, what is it?"
"Oh," the woman said, "it's called Titus." An alarm bell went off in my head. I said, "Titus?
The only Titus I know is Titus Andronicus, by Shakespeare." She said, "Well, I don't know
about that. All I know is it's out as a video already, but it's not been shown in theatres in
Montreal and there is no French version, and we want to make a French version to be
distributed as a video."

So I went to my neighborhood video store, where I'd seen the box on the shelf, though I'd
not yet rented it. And there it was! The blue face on the blue cover which said, in large
Roman capitals, "TITUS, with Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and Harry Lennix, directed
by Julie Taymor." Sure enough, on the back of the box, in the writing credits, I saw,
"Screenplay by Julie Taymor and William Shakespeare." I had read the play Titus
Andronicus as an undergraduate, but had never studied it and had never seen it
performed. I rented the video so I could watch it before getting back to my client, Covitec,
the big Montreal dubbing studio. I wanted to see how much Julie Taymor had adapted the

A film is a translation; written words are interpreted in images and sound. All films are a
cinematic translation of a written script. But sometimes the script itself is the translation of
a novel. In this case, a play. But what about this film? Were they going to be
Shakespeare's lines, in verse, or was it a prose adaptation?

During the first six minutes of this 162-minute film, there is no dialogue, but such powerful
images! Stylized violence with a sound track of TV cartoon lines, air raid sirens, the roar of
bomber airplanes, explosions, a boy sobbing, then silence, then the cheer of a crowd, then
drums accompanying the jerky ballet movements of Roman soldiers covered in blue dust.
After six minutes, a camera-shot from below shows Anthony Hopkins slowly taking off his
helmet and shouting: "Hail Rome, victorious, in thy mourning weeds!" I knew I was in the
presence of giants.

I watched the film, riveted. Then I called the dubbing studio again to discuss this. How long
were they going to give me to write this? The person I spoke to had not seen the film. I
explained that it was a play by Shakespeare and that it was all in verse, and therefore
must also be in verse in French. And I couldn't do that in a week. Luckily, the material I
needed wasn't ready yet, and I had a few days to get ready. So while somebody was
making a time-coded VHS version of the film, someone else was preparing a typed copy of
the entire script, and another person was "detecting" the film, that is to say, observing all
the mouth sounds, words, inspirations, expirations, yells, smacking of lips, and so forth
produced by the screen actors and noting them with a lead pencil on a strip of white 35
mm film, indicating, synchronously with the image, precisely when the lips of the actors
were closed to pronounce bilabial consonants like m, b, or p, or half-closed to pronounce
semi-labials like f, v, w, or r.[1] While this was being done, I read the original play by
Shakespeare and all the critical material I could find, both on the play and on Julie
Taymor's adaptation of it.[2] I rushed to Montreal's largest public library and borrowed two
translations of Titus Andronicus. One, in prose, by François-Victor Hugo, son of the great
19th-century French poet, and the other in verse, by J. B. Fort.[3] The latter is a bilingual
edition, with English on one page and French on the opposite page.

The Giants

First, I had to read about the play. Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's first tragedy, and
there are doubts about his authorship of the play. Indeed, for many critics, the patent
barbarity of theme, the apparent crudity of workmanship, and the bloody succession of
unrelieved horror place the tragedy among Shakespeare's doubtful plays, despite the fact

that Titus Andronicus was published under his name and is attributed to him by his
contemporaries. [4] Actually, there are four main theories of Shakespeare's authorship:

1. that he had no hand in Titus Andronicus;

2. that he is the author of the tragedy, probably an early experiment written under the
influence of predecessors;
3. that he put very little into the play; or
4. that he touched up, more or less perfunctorily, an older play.

The author of this older play could be Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene,
or George Peele. Indeed, The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus,
Shakespeare's first tragedy, may have been a rewrite of an older play by someone else.
But internal evidence strongly suggests that Shakespeare did have a hand in Titus.[5]
There are too many parallels and correspondences between it and such classics as
Macbeth and King Lear for it to have been written by anyone else.

I can imagine the actors of "the Right Honourable the Earle of Darbie, Earle of Pembrooke,
and Earle of Sussex" going to the young Shakespeare one day and saying, "Hey, Bill,
listen. We've got a play here we'd like to perform, but first we want you to read it over and
make it a little more presentable and poetic. We'll give you a couple of weeks to do this,
okay?" Something like the phone call from the woman at the dubbing studio who gave me
a week to translate/adapt the film Titus for dubbing in French, without even being aware
that the dialogue was in blank verse.

Julie Taymor is a stage director whose stature as film director became firmly established
with Titus, her first feature film. She had directed the off-Broadway stage production of the
play, which had been a success and was well reviewed, and she thought "it would make a
great movie."[6] Julie Taymor had also directed the stage production of The Lion King,
which was a tremendous success on Broadway. She is presently shooting a film on the
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, wife of the renowned mural painter, Diego Rivera.

Julie Taymor showed her script of Titus to Sir Anthony Hopkins, whose film career covers
95 feature films over a period of 40 years (who could forget the sinister Dr Hannibal Lecter
in The Silence of the Lambs?). He "liked the screen adaptation," liked her concepts, and

agreed to play the leading role. Jessica Lange was chosen to play Tamora, Queen of the
Goths; Alan Cumming was Saturninus; and Harry Lennix personified Aaron the Moor, as
he'd already done in Taymor's stage production.

The Play

The story of Titus Andronicus—the fictitious Roman general who comes home victorious,
but is straightaway immersed in a tragic succession of political schemes, human sacrifice,
murders, infanticide, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, and regicide—was apparently inspired
by a popular ballad of the Middle Ages. But major elements in the plot can be traced back
to Ovid and Seneca. One also finds several anachronistic details, such as a reference to
"popish tricks and ceremonies" in a speech by Aaron (V, i, 79). Hence, Titus Andronicus is
a fictitious story that comes from the Middle Ages, is set in Ancient Rome, and contains
references to issues that were contemporary to Shakespeare in the 16th century. No
wonder Julie Taymor chose to underline this confusion in chronology by showing
motorcycles and cars along with horse-drawn chariots, and soldiers in Roman costumes
along with emperors in tuxedos. Shakespeare's 16th-century English, on the other hand, is
consistently slightly archaic to the contemporary audience. In my translation I was careful
to use only French words that existed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Strangely
enough, though, French has not undergone as many changes as English has since that
time, and the French version sounds more contemporary than the English.

The Language

Titus Andronicus is in blank verse, with an occasional rhyming couplet, and no prose. I felt
it was necessary to render it in verse in French as well. And it seemed to me that the
equivalent of the iambic pentameter was the classical Alexandrine line. Unlike English, all
syllables count in French scanned poetry. So, whereas iambic pentameter is the
alternating succession of five unstressed and five stressed syllables, for a total of ten
syllables, the French Alexandrine is usually composed of 12 syllables in two segments
with a caesura, or pause, at the hemistich, that is, after six syllables; sometimes it consists
of three segments of four syllables each. But since in French only the last syllable of the
last word of the utterance is stressed, the Alexandrine line has either two or three stressed

syllables where the vowel is longer. In other words, the French line can be said more
quickly than the English line. It is therefore possible to cram more syllables into a line in
French than in English. This is a major issue when translating for the cinema, since the
translated dialogue must be synchronous with the lip movements of the screen actors. Not
only must the screen translator/adapter follow the original text stylistically and
semantically, he or she is also subject to the additional constraint of its rendition. The lines
have already been said, and the studio actor must follow the rhythm of the screen actor.


This is one of the major differences between translating for a book and translating for the
screen. And it is illustrated perfectly with the first lines in the film Titus. Julie Taymor did a
serious editing job on Shakespeare's play, deleting, re-ordering, and re-assigning
speeches. Thus, the film begins at line 70 of the original play with Titus's opening speech:

Hail, Rome, victorious in thy mourning weeds!

Lo, as the bark that hath discharg'd her freight,
Returns with precious lading to the bay
From whence at first she weigh'd her anchorage,
Cometh Andronicus, bound with laurel boughs,
To re-salute his country with his tears. (I, i, 70-75)

François-Victor Hugo translates this as:

Salut, Rome, victorieuse dans tes vêtements de deuil! Ainsi que la barque,
qui a porté au loin sa cargaison, retourne avec une précieuse charge à la
baie d'où elle a naguère levé l'ancre, ainsi Andronicus, couronné de lauriers,
revient pour saluer sa patrie avec ses larmes. (Hugo, 384)

J. B. Fort writes:

Rome, salut à toi, victorieuse en deuil!

Tel qu'un navire au loin a déchargé son fret,
Puis revient, les flancs lourds d'un précieux fardeau,

Au port même où naguère il avait levé l'ancre,
Voici qu'Andronicus, couronné de lauriers,
T'offre, Rome, à nouveau le salut de ses larmes. (Fort, 11)

This is where it gets complicated. I could not simply put either Hugo's or Fort's French
words in Anthony Hopkins's mouth, because neither translation would fit. Indeed, Hopkins
begins with a long open diphthong, Hail. So, the studio actor can neither begin with Salut,
where the French vowel u is a closed vowel, nor with Rome, since the mouth would close
on the m.

I chose to begin with:

Ave, Rome, victorieuse en vêtements de deuil.

Telle une barque qui a déchargé son fret
Et revient rapportant des trésors à la baie,
Là même où elle avait naguère levé l'ancre,
Ainsi Andronicus, ployant sous les lauriers,
Revient saluer sa patrie avec ses larmes.

The word Ave, readily recognizable as a Roman greeting, sets the tone. The vowel sounds
are open and the word Rome falls in the right place. I wanted to keep Hugo's vêtements
de deuil, because it is closer to mourning weeds than simply the en deuil in Fort's

A close comparison of the English with the three translations—Hugo's, Fort's, and mine—
will show that my choices were dictated by the need to fit either the screen actor's rhythm
of elocution, or the position of labial consonants, where the screen actor's lips close and
the studio actor needs to pronounce either a b, a p, or an m, or a semi-labial such as v, or
f, and so forth. Thus, the second line in my translation closely matches the English:

"Telle une barque qui a déchargé son fret"

"Lo, as the bark that hath discharg'd her freight"

in contrast to:

"Ainsi que la barque, qui a porté au loin sa cargaison" (Hugo, 384) or

"Tel qu'un navire au loin a déchargé son fret" (Fort, 11)

The guiding principle, therefore, is to match the text to the screen. There must be a close
correspondence between the actor's interpretation and the translation. Indeed, while
recording in the studio, dubbing actors always carefully listen to and watch the screen
actors, trying to imitate them, and following them as closely as possible, just as the
translator attempts to walk in the author's tracks. Likewise, the screen translator must
watch attentively and take his or her cues from the actors on the screen. There were a few
cases in the writing of the French script for Titus where the actor's interpretation of the
lines helped me understand the true meaning of the text, which had eluded the two
previous French translators.

The Actors Rule

In Act IV, scene 2, Aaron the Moor confronts the racist nurse who wants him to kill his
newborn son because she finds him "loathsome as a toad." Aaron replies:

Zounds, ye whore! Is black so base a hue?

Sweet blowse, you are a beauteous blossom sure. (IV, ii, 71-72)

This Hugo translates as:

Fi donc! Fi donc, putain! Le noir est-il une si ignoble couleur?... Cher joufflu,
vous êtes un beau rejeton, assurément. (Hugo, 419)

And Fort:

Morbleu, garce! Le noir est-il couleur si vile?

Pour sûr, mon doux poupon est une belle fleur. (Fort, 119)

Obviously both Hugo and Fort, translating from the text, misunderstood the second line,
thinking it was addressed to the baby. But watching Harry Lennix in the role of Aaron, I
could easily see he was speaking to the nurse, and not to the baby. And the venom in his

voice made it clear that his calling her a "beauteous blossom" was meant as irony. The
same with "sweet blowse," which both Hugo and Fort interpreted as a term of endearment
addressed by Aaron to his son, when in fact the word "sweet" is meant to contrast with
"blowse," which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "a ruddy fat-faced wench"—
hardly a compliment.

Therefore my screen translation was:

Chienne éhontée! Le blanc est moins vil que le noir?

Tu te prends toi, souillon, pour une fleur, bien sûr.

Note how the labial consonant p of prends matches the b of blowse, and how pour une
fleur, bien sûr corresponds to beauteous blossom, sure, where the p of pour covers the
initial b of beauteous, the f of fleur falls on the b of blossom, and the b of bien masks the
final m of blossom. Note also how, in the first line, I managed to put blanc (white) in the
place of black, by phrasing the question differently.

Translation for the screen is dictated by the image and by the playing of the actors, which
in the end must reign supreme, since it is the image and the acting on the screen that the
translator-tracker must follow.

Back on Track

Translation, paraphrase, pastiche—historically, all have been means of creation. In the

14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, writers unabashedly copied from each other across
cultures, across languages, across time. Early Italian artists and writers copied and
translated the classics of Antiquity. And the renaissance they initiated in the arts was soon
imitated throughout Europe. In the same way, translation is a learning experience as well
as a transfer process across cultures and languages. The translator is the author's best
critic, because of the in-depth knowledge acquired through the exercise of looking at the
text closely, questioning every word and every punctuation mark.

The translator is also the author's best student, because, as a tracker, he or she is always
trying to follow as closely as possible the marks left behind, careful not to disturb anything,

stepping in the author's tracks and, in the process, learning to walk with the same gait.
Translating the giants of literature—William Shakespeare, for instance—teaches me to
adjust and stretch my stride. It is a tremendously rewarding experience, because it takes
me along new landscapes of poetic imagery. Working on this film by Julie Taymor, in the
presence of such greats as Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, gave me new insights
into the depth of Shakespeare's talent as a playwright. In addition, the dubbing director
and actors who supplied the voices in the French version of Titus[7] provided a lesson in
observation, faithfulness, and sensitivity to nuances.


[1] For more information on the process of translating for dubbing, see Robert Paquin, Ph.
D., Translator, Adapter, Screenwriter: Translating for the Audiovisual,
[2] See Internet Movie Data Base,
[3] Titus Andronicus transl. François-Victor Hugo, in Shakespeare, Œuvres complètes,
tome II, Éditions Gallimard, 1959; and Titus Andronicus, transl. J. B. Fort, Société d'Édition
Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1972 (bilingual edition).
[4] William Bradley Otis and Morris H. Needleman, Outline History of English Literature,
3rd ed., Vol. 1, Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, 1939, pp. 178-79; and Gerald Eades
Bentley, Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook, Yale University Press, New Haven,
1961, pp. 173, 201.
[5] D.A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, 3rd ed. Vol. 1, Anchor Books, Doubleday
& Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1969, pp. 46-60.
[6] Interview with Julie Taymor by Paul Russel,
[7] Nicole Fontaine, director; Vincent Davy, voice of Titus; Anne Dorval, voice of Tamora;
Guy Nadon, voice of Aaron; Antoine Durand, voice of Saturninus.

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