Translation of Silence: Two Films of Aki Kaurismäki

Translation of Silence: Two Films of Aki Kaurismäki

(I have to warn you that I am going to be talking about a study originally written in French about Finnish film and French subtitles, so I hope you won’t be too confused by the fact that I am using English!)

Since the very beginning of film studies, the image, in other words the moving picture has been considered as the primary object of study. Behind this lies the old idea of cinema as the ”universal language”, “a visual esperanto”. This massive interest in the visual leaves the verbal part, the dialogue, out of focus. However, it is specifically the verbal that becomes vitally important when approaching film from the a point of view of translation studies. Here the verbal and the visual cannot be separated: both are equally important when transferring the message to a foreign audience and culture.

French film audience as well as academic research have welcomed the works of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki with great interest and enthusiasm saying that Kaurismäki’s minimalist style brings to mind the films of French auteurs Robert Bresson and Jean-Pierre Melville.

The dialogue in films by Kaurismäki, on the other hand, reminds the French audience of the works of Jean-Luc Godard. It is partly these two factors, namely familiar style and dialogue, that have contributed to the admiration of the films of Aki Kaurismäki among French film audience. In addition, what connects  Kaurismäki to French cinema is the fact that he is what the French call an ”auteur”, a film maker who directs, produces, writes the scripts and edits the films on his own.

This is particularly a French phenomenon from the New Wave era in the 1960’s. Kaurismäki’s film-making could be termed Finnish New Wave of the 80’s. Even his production company, Villealfa productions, is a word play of Jean-Luc Godard’s film in the 60’s, named Alphaville.

However, despite the similarities in style and dialogue, French critics have often neglected the fact,that they are dealing with a translation, that inevitably omits or alters the original dialogue. One has to notice that,it is not only the dialogue in itself i.e. what is being said out loud, that is important. In the films of Kaurismäki, silence is a crucial part of the film language. Therefore, I’d like to take a look at ”the silent dialogue” and the ways in which it communicates in two films by Kaurismäki, and more specifically, in their French translations. The films in question are The Match Factory Girl –Tulitikkutehtaan Tyttö – from 1990 and Drifting Clouds – Kauas Pilvet Karkaavat – from 1996. These films deal with themes of unemployment and working class problems.

At first my intention was to take a look at Aki Kaurismäki’s silent film Juha from 1999 but it turned out in fact it less silent than many of the other Kaurismäki films! The short dialogue or its absence is very essential for Kaurismäki himself as he has told in several interviews. Therefore, for example The Match Factory Girl is a more interesting object of study than the mute Juha: The Match Factory Girl has only 42 lines, the first one, with only two words “pieni olut” – small beer – comes on the twelfth minute of the 70-minute film.

In general, there is a lot of silence in the film: the lines are short and laconic, and there is no music or other sound during the credits in the beginning nor in the end. One could even say that The Match Factory Girl is to a certain degree more silent than a silent film.

The economic dialogue of Kaurismäki differs a lot from the flow of dialogue typical for the French cinema. Kaurismäki’s characters use a written language which is very stylished. The production group has named the sometimes absurd, surrealist and laconic language of Kaurismäki “akilien” in French, or “akilish” in English, Aki’s language.

The theme of silence becomes doubly interesting when taken into the context of screen titling. The translator faces a challenging task: he or she has to transfer the film language for a foreign audience, language, and culture. Now, how to do this when most of the dialogue consists of silence, messages without words – and in the case of Kaurismäki – often very ambiguous messages without words?

The aim of this text is not to say that a certain translation is good or bad, or that the translator has failed, when certain items are left unexplained in the screen titling. Translation by its very nature is deilcient, lacking, because there is no such thing as “direct translation”. Some people even claim that translation as such is impossible.

However, instead of just stating that the translator is facing the impossible when translating a film for instance, it is more fruitful to focus, not only on how to translate the silences, but on what kind of silences there are in these two films (The Match Factory Girl and Drifting Clouds), how these silences can be understood, and most importantly: what is non-verbal communication in film like, when taken into the context of cross-cultural communication?

Edward T. Hall, author of the book The Silent Language, sees culture and communication as inseparable when analyzing non-verbal behaviour. Culture IS communication because culture is learned through communication and hence, cultural backgrounds are reflected in our communicative ways and vice versa: the way we interpret communication is closely connected to our own cultural background. Therefore national cultures can, very loosely though, be compared with each other through looking at the relationships between verbal and non-verbal communication.

Hall makes a division into a high-context and a low-context culture. In the latter, words and content are essential, whereas in a high context culture, social relations are more important. In a low context culture, greater emphasis is put on verbal communication: the message has to be explicit. Hall classifies German, Swiss, and Nordic cultures as low-context ones, whereas Latin cultures belong to high-context cultures, where only a part of the information is conveyed through the verbal. In other words,members of a high-context culture can read the message, or parts of it, from the context, the communicative environment, gestures, and other non-verbal behaviour. One has to note though, that all cultures share some of the same characteristics, and there are differences within these low-context and high-context groups.

What makes the case of Kaurismäki challenging in this respect is that non-verbal communication among the characters of his films is so minimalistic, that it is difficult for a member of a high-context culture to detect, read and interpret. As said before, there is a great deal of non-verbal communication, and silences of many kinds, but a French viewer certainly has trouble interpreting the silent film language of Kaurismäki, despite the fact that it’s generally agreed that his films are a mixture of Finnish and French cinema, whatever that means.

An example might illustrate a bit more clearly what was said earlier: in The Match Factory Girl, when the protagonist Iris has bought a new dress, and she is in front of the mirror with the dress, she is smiling very lightly. The smile is so small that it is barely notiticeable but yet one can see her looking pleased with the dress. All of a sudden her face changes, in a fraction of a second. The next shot shows her mother and step-father who have entered the room. She knows they will be angry at her spending money on a dress (which she, by the way, has bought with her own money). Instantly the viewer understands an awful lot, of the dysfunctional family relations. The scene is an example of the minimalist style of Kaurismäki, and of how very little can mean very much. Silence speaks volumes.

There are two main types of silence in the Kaurismäki films and translations I’ve studied. The first type of silence has to do with non-verbal communication, polysemic pauses, faces, and gestures. These are particularly difficult for a foreign viewer to interpret and make sense of, because as said before, the non-verbal communication is very restrained and calm and at the same time, there is not much dialogue at all. And when there is dialogue, it is not always very meaningful in terms of message and story.

Again in The Match Factory Girl, the main character Iris’s family has dinner without exchanging a word. It is typical of a Finnish dinner table to be quiet and calm whereas in France this would be unacceptable: dinner is the occasion where family gathers together to talk as well as to eat. The same happens when Iris’s family watches the news on TV. Nobody says a word, and I’m sure we all Finns recognize this as typical behaviour: we are to remain quiet when watching the news. However, in French cinema, quiet characters are often presented as strange or introvert: an example of this is the film by Claude Sautet, Un Coeur en Hiver from 1993, or La Classe de Neige by Claude Miller from 1998.

What this means, then, is that silence in social situations, is interpreted differently. What for Finns is a peaceful moment is quite something else for a Frenchperson. But then again, Iris’s quietness can also raise the question: is she simply silent, or is she silenced?

Witness the following sequence in The Match Factory Girl: Iris meets a man in a discotheque, and the whole relationship advances without words, in silence. In other words, silence here has a social function, not speech.

In Drifting Clouds the protagonist Ilona, played by the same actress who plays Iris in The Match Factory Girl, stays at home when her husband Lauri leaves for work. She is standing alone in their home, first watching out as he goes, then she turns to the bookshelf and stares at an old picture of a little boy. Nothing is said, and the meaning of this scene is very difficult to understand. Ilona’s face clearly expresses sorrow.

But is the boy her son? Her brother? Somebody else who is dear and gone? Notice the candle next to the picture. It could suggest the boy in the picture is dead, but nothing in the film tells explicitly what is going on. Later on in the film, Ilona visits a graveyard, and again,there are no words. The scene immediately brings to mind the boy in the picture. Maybe it is his grave that Ilona visits? The film is dedicated to the memory of Matti Pellonpää, who died a while before filmings of Drifting Clouds started. Pellonpää was a good friend and favorite actor of Kaurismäki, who had a role in almost all of Kaurismäki’s films. He was to have a central role in Drifting Clouds, and they had to change the script at the last minute when he died. In Shadows in Paradise, one of the proletarian films, Matti Pellonpää plays a man named Nikander, who in the end of the film marries Ilona, played by the same actress Kati Outinen who plays a woman named Ilona in Drifting Clouds. Is it the same Ilona? Is Nikander dead now that the actor Pellonpää is gone? The end credits of the film show that the picture of the boy on the bookshelf is in fact a picture of the actor Matti Pellonpää as a little boy. Again, there are no words, nothing explicit that indicates these ideas to be facts. Thus, silence here again is subject to interpretätion. I am reading it as a tribute to a late colleague and friend.

The another type of silence we are dealing with here has to do with the translation more directly: namely, what is left out or changed in the screen titling. When the spoken dialogue is transformed into text, it changes from the original. What is left out of the translation can be regarded as silence for a foreign viewer. (He or she can, for example, see and hear that the film dialogue is longer than the subtitles but, not knowing the source language, he or she cannot know what specificly is left out.)

According to Hans Vöge, one can distinguish four factors that restrict and limit the screen titling. Firstly, written text is much more neutral than spoken dialogue. Forms of politeness are left out, as well as swear words, and the language becomes more direct. For example in The Match Factory Girl, there’s a scene where Iris and her lover have dinner at a restaurant (again silently, of course) when all of a sudden the man says, in Finnish: Parempi olisi jos laputtaisit tiehesi – which translates roughly into English as: It would be better if you hit the road. In the French subtitles, the line is as follows: Fiche le campl Beat it! Thus, the longer Finnish sentence, with the conditional verb mode, is in the French translation shortened into imperative mode and hence becomes more abrupt.

Secondly, space and time are limited in a screen translation. There are two lines of subtitles in screen titling, with approximately 30 characters per line. In addition, the subtitles have to form logical sentences and ideas that are easy and fast to understand. One should avoid heavy structures and long or rare words. Since the human eye is only able to perceive a certain amount of information in a certain amount of time, one set of subtitles stays on the screen from two to seven seconds.

Thirdly, the text has to be condensed, and therefore some of the information from the source has to be left out. And fourthly, the translation has to keep up with the rhythm of the dialogue, in other words it has to be synchronized. The subtitles cannot in general be in contradiction with the story as it is being told. It is also possible to include explicit comments and additional information into the subtitles to explain the facts that cannot be presented in the film dialogue. In Drifting Clouds, for example, the sign “Kyläsaaren hoitolaitos”, the Kyläsaari institution – is translated in French: “Centre de désintoxication pour alcooliques” which shows to French viewers that the characters are visiting a rehabilitation centre, whereas Kyläsaari in itself tells for most Finns that the center is for alcoholics. However, not all signs are explained: later on in the film, when Ilona starts a restaurant, there’s an advert that says “A-oikeudet”, roughty speaking “off-licence” which tells the possible customers that the restaurant serves alcohol. This is not translated nor explained, because the information is not essential for the plot and story. However, the fact that this piece of information has been left out indicates that it is the translator who decides what is significant for a foreign viewer. Hence, the translator’s interpretation of the film indirectly affects the foreign viewer’s interpretation.

The translations of films can also be analysed in regard to music. The lyrics play an important role in the fims of Kaurismäki because they are repeatedly referred to elsewhere in the film. For example, in The Match Factory Girl, there’s a word play with the Finnish word ”huoli”, ”worry or to worry”. The most famous Finnish tango Satumaa is being played in the film, at a dance venue at night where Iris sits alone and desperate.

There’s a line in the song describing the Wonderland: “Siellä huolet huomisen voi jäädä unholaan”, (“There you can leave all your worries”) which in the context of the story can be analyzed as referring to long for death. The lyrics are translated in French, including the word for “worry”, ‘souci”. Later in the film, however, Iris poisons the man who has betrayed her and before doing that, she tells him, “Sinun ei tarvitse enää huolehtia mistään” (“You don’t have to worry about anything”). She is referring to the words of the tango, and thus to the man’s coming death, but the French translation has not noticed this. The play with the word ”worry” continues elsewhere in the film, when the doctor assures Iris: “Ei syytä huoleen. Testin tulos on positiivinen, te olette raskaana.” (”No need to worry. The test result is positive, you are pregnant”). Which is translated: “Pas de problème” (“No problem”). Again, there is a link to the lyrics of the tango. This kind of play with words and meanings is typical of Kaurismäki’s dialogue, and it’s no wonder that it is easily left unnoticed.

Aki Kaurismäki is considered as a postmodern auteur whose films contain serious parody and black humour with mixtures of fiction and “reality”. Even Kaurismäki’s silence is not self-explanatory or unambiguous. As we’ve seen, there are multiple silences with multiple interpretations. Even the image of Finland by Kaurismäki is something that is constructed, something that exists only on the screen.

Of course, the Finland of Kaurismäki doesn’t correspond to a ”real country” but it is nevertheless, perceived as ”real” by a lot of foreign viewers. French film critics like Daniel Sauvaget in Le Revue du cinéma have described Finland as “a country abandoned by gods”. In other words, Finnish culture is seen as something stereotypically exotic, partly due to the image of the country as “Kaurismäki-Finland”, where people are poor and unhappy and where silence is golden as the cliché goes.

It is the translator’s heavy task to make the silent language of “akilish” understandable for a foreign audience and culture. The wonderfully complex intermarriage of non-verbal and cross-cultural communication in Kaurismäki’s film language has a much deeper impact on how we Finns are seen by others than we, at first, might imagine.

Tuomas Muraja