- The Politics of Translation at Soviet Film Festivals during the Cold War
Some time between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, my grandmother, Kira Razlogova, translated an African film at the Moscow International Film Festival. It was an official screening, with the ambassador of the African country present in the audience. She sat in a translator’s booth at the back of the theater, reading into the microphone from a printed French dialogue list just given to her. She had never seen this film before. She watched it now for the first time through the window of her booth, and synced her reading to the spoken lines flowing into her earphones, lines in an African language she did not know. Loudspeakers transmitted her voice into the cinema hall over the partially muted original soundtrack. Ten minutes before the end, the script ran out of pages. The film goes on; she has nothing to say; an administrator storms into her booth predicting a diplomatic crisis. To save the situation, she went ahead and invented the dialogue for the rest of the film on the basis of the moving images. After the screening, the ambassador, made aware that the script was too short, thanked her for making up the final scenes. He claimed her translation was quite close to the original (Kira Razlogova).
My grandmother’s experience underscores Soviet innovation in simultaneous film translation—as an improvisational sound art and as a form of cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. As the postwar Soviet Union opened up its cultural borders, it aimed to compete with Western powers for the attention of the decolonizing and unaligned countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Engerman). Film festivals in Moscow and Tashkent played a key role in this project. Simultaneous interpreters made these festivals possible, through their screenings as well as their heated debates about the role of cinema in newly independent states and ongoing liberation movements in the Third World. The Soviet state tightly controlled the festival in Moscow, and to a lesser extent, in Tashkent. Even so, festival participants formed friendships and discovered films in ways that explored dissident and postcolonial politics.
New work on world cinema, film festivals, and film translation has barely acknowledged the existence of live film interpreting after the silent era, when live sound accompaniment was widespread.1 Audiovisual translation scholars today focus almost exclusively on dubbing and subtitles (Gambier). I learned of this forgotten chapter of Soviet and world cinema history only because I experienced live translation myself, [End Page 66] watching foreign films from a translator’s booth and listening to stories my relatives told me since childhood. Here I draw, among other sources, on several interviews with and written memories of the earliest surviving Soviet simultaneous film translators—some of them my relatives—who began their work in the mid-1960s.2
Although you would not know it from the scholarship, during the Cold War all film festivals used live translation at one time or another, if often unofficially. On paper, most festivals have required or preferred subtitled films since the early 1950s. Yet as late as 1990 one could encounter a Chinese film in Berlin with only German loudspeaker translation (“Film Festival Guide: Berlin”). By then, an electronic subtitles system, introduced at the Florence Film Festival of Independent Film in 1986, made it possible to screen films with subtitles in two languages, a local language and in English, a global lingua franca (“Trimmed Lineup at Florence Fest of Indie Pictures”). Berlin and Venice still use live earphone translation at jury and some press screenings (Ferguson; Oncins). Soviet festivals—the Moscow International Film Festival, launched in 1959, and the Tashkent International Festival of African and Asian Cinema, inaugurated in 1968 (it had included Latin American cinema since 1974)—chose simultaneous film translation as the standard.
The conventional distinction between written “translation” and oral simultaneous “interpretation” makes little sense for Soviet film festivals.3 At different times during the same screening, the “translator” could translate a foreign dialogue list, interpret the soundtrack, or make up the dialogue based on the visual track when the vocal track was in an unfamiliar language and...