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Slashings and Subtitles: Romanian Media Piracy, Censorship, and Translation

From: The Velvet Light Trap
Number 63, Spring 2009
pp. 45-57 | 10.1353/vlt.0.0026

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Friday nights in Romania under the Communist regime (which came to an end in December 1989), friends and family would gather in front of their television sets, trying to guess what they were actually watching. Telephone calls would be made, film reference and theory books consulted. Such detective skills were required due to the government's censorship tactics, which included screening foreign films (both on television and in cinemas) with their titles altered beyond recognition, their credit sequences removed, entire scenes eliminated, and dialogue ideologically "cleansed" through the subtitling process.1 Coauthor and Romanian national Ioana Uricaru recalls that "God" was invariably translated as Cel-de-Sus, or "the one above," and "church" as edificiu, or "edifice."2 Sometimes films playing in cinemas would differ dramatically at the beginning and end of their run as elements requiring excision came to the attention of officials.3

Subtitling was the translation method associated with government media channels. As such, it was considered official, professional, and proper—both "ideologically correct" and the industry standard. With subtitles, interference of the "original" is kept at a minimum.4 As lines of text superimposed onto the film image, subtitles neither erase nor noisily intrude upon the foreign soundtrack. Consequently, they are often viewed as a clean technique that respects the source material by enabling it to remain intact. However, in Romania the identification of subtitling with "quality" translation was compromised by its close link to adjacent practices of content deletion and paraphrasing for the sake of ideological alteration. The role that subtitling played in making meaning palatable for the "party line" meant that this technique was, concurrently, subject to suspicion and distrust, especially by those (extremely numerous) audience members who understood foreign languages and were able to fact-check official versions.

In the following discussion we note how translation can function in both the service and the subversion of censorship and how both roles are complicated by contradictory notions of quality and authenticity. We begin by pitting Romania's official, government-sanctioned translation methods against the unofficial, amateur, and alternative practices that typify piracy operations. We then proceed to unpack and expand notions of media piracy to include niche, expert, and online modes of engagement. Further, by focusing on Romanian piracy operations involving the translation of banned foreign-language films and television programs, we seek to engage with the unintentional, excess productivity of censorship revealed through its secondary by-products.

Both censorship and translation are themselves commonly positioned as second-order modes—occurring after or in opposition to the primary process of production. From this perspective both are seen as somewhat improper and prone to misuse, troubling and exceeding notions of authenticity and originality. Thus, the three keywords structuring this discussion—piracy, censorship, and translation—all represent discourses mired, to varying degrees, in negativity. Even in the case of translation, which might seem the most benign of the three, an acknowledgment of its "badness" lingers, as expressed in the common popular saying traduttore, traditore, or "translator, traitor," an Italian phrase also adopted in Romanian. By thinking through their interrelation, we wish to reevaluate this secondary status in order to engage more productively with the differences and inequalities of national, minority, and subcultural reception contexts.

In particular, we take issue with the supposed errors and failures of pirated translation, demonstrating how in certain geopolitical circumstances such limitations can achieve legitimacy, ultimately signaling a certain uncensored authenticity. Here we glimpse how second-order discourses are excessive and untoward precisely because they call into question notions of firstness. In Communist Romania pirated foreign-language media complicated notions of originality, directing attention toward the primacy of the viewing context as much as that of the source text. The translations that proliferated within this environment need to be considered beyond the parameters of "quality" alone. Finally, it is our contention that the rubric of language difference and translation enables us to glimpse some of the subtleties of censorship, directing attention toward the everyday rather than the extreme. Variances in the audiovisual translation techniques that accompany both censorship and piracy operations provide a largely unexamined angle from which to view and interrogate the politics of film exhibition, distribution, and reception.

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