The Liberation Politics of Live Translation

Curator's Note

In this brief scene from Bertrand Tavernier's film Coup de torchon (1981), a local interpreter translates a French sound film into Wolof live in colonial Senegal. Actually, he is translating Coup de torchon screenwriter Jean Aurenche's early advertising short Au petit jour à Mexico on va fusiller un homme (1933), featuring animator Paul Grimault as the condemned man and painter Max Ernst, voiced by actor Jacques Brunius, as the soldier who refuses to shoot him. The Senegalese interpreter redubs them once again: he translates their dialogue, mocks their actions, and explains the meaning of the advertisement to the audience. This fictional episode conveys a widespread historical practice. Local interpreters translated movies brought in mobile cinema vans to small towns and villages throughout colonial Africa. They often invented dialogues and voiceover narration for French and British propaganda films, transforming or ridiculing the original message.

Live translation of cinema remained a common practice in the Global South and the socialist world in the decolonization era, in some regions into the 1980s. In my contribution to the In Focus issue, I describe how simultaneous translation became a weapon of liberation at the Tashkent Film Festival for Asian, African, and Latin American Cinema in Soviet Uzbekistan, a biannual event that hosted hundreds of films and filmmakers from dozens of countries between 1968 and 1988. At the festival, Soviet interpreters translated live into dozens of languages, making it possible for Soviet audiences and foreign guests to encounter militant and popular films from across the Global South.

While the Tashkent festival was the most ambitious multilingual film translation project of its era, it was not unique. May Adadol Ingawanij describes “versionists”—itinerant professional performers who translated Indian films for rural and small town audiences in Thailand into the 1980s. Jie Li shows how “guerrilla” mobile projectionists in remote areas of Mao’s China interpreted movies live into local languages, using traditions such as storyteller’s bamboo clapper, “kuaibal.” And these practices traveled: famed Tanzanian video narrator Lufufu (Derek Gaspar Mukandala) told Matthias Krings that he found his calling while observing a Chinese live translation of a North Vietnamese movie during his military training program in China in 1971. In each locale, audiences valued these live redubbers as artists in their own right. Live translation of sound cinema deserves to be studied as a ubiquitous feature of global film circulation infrastructure in the decolonization era.


Wonderful to hear about Indian "versionists" and "guerilla" projectionists in China! Absolutely agree... screen translation and live redubbing are such under-studied phenemona, despite being so vital to film circulation and culture. 

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