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  • The Liberation Politics of Live Translation:Global South Cinemas in Soviet Tashkent
  • Elena Razlogova (bio)

When new Global South cinemas entered transnational circulation in the decolonization era, film translation became a weapon of liberation.1 In reconstructing this key role, this essay seeks to temper the current tendency in film studies to celebrate untranslatabilty in Global South cinemas. It focuses on the Festival of Asian, African, and Latin American Cinema in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a biannual event that hosted hundreds of films and filmmakers from dozens of Global South countries between 1968 and 1988.2 At Tashkent, translators literally revoiced [End Page 183] films via a live performance piped into the movie theater on top of the original soundtrack.3 In the Soviet "relay" system, interpreters translated films made in an array of colonial and indigenous languages: first, via loudspeaker, into Russian for local Uzbek audiences and Soviet participants, and then, via headphones, from the Russian translation into the other official languages: English, French, and, after 1976, also Spanish and Arabic.4 The festival employed translators working from subtitles, dialogue lists, or live soundtracks in European languages. It also brought in experts in non-Western languages and cultures. Translators worked with several languages in one day or even one screening—what Japanese poetry scholar Aleksandr Dolin remembered as a "linguistic bootcamp" in Japanese, English, and French.5 Finally, during projections, escort interpreters whispered their translation in Khmer, Bengali, Wolof, and other indigenous tongues to delegates who did not speak official festival languages, a type of interpreting called chuchotage.6 Soviet organizers provided simultaneous translation for every single guest. The Tashkent festival was the most ambitious multilingual film translation project of its era.

As film translation scholars have demonstrated, and as mentioned in previous essays in this dossier, standard dubbing and subtitling techniques aim to get rid of the inconsistencies between source text and translation. In so doing, they strip the original text of its "otherness," destroying especially the specificity of cultures originating outside of Western Europe and North America.7 Echoing this argument, recent work on multilingual cinema finds critical potential in incomprehensible or hard-to-understand "heterolingual" film dialogue. A director's decision not to translate such "heterolanguage," these scholars argue, subverts the erasure of diasporic, indigenous, and minority languages and cultures.8

In contrast, decolonization-era Global South filmmakers considered translation essential to reach their multilingual, often illiterate audiences. At Tashkent in the 1970s, the Chilean director Miguel Littín decried untranslated Hollywood English in Latin American theaters.9 Egyptian participants convinced the Tashkent festival to [End Page 184] add Arabic as an official language in 1976.10 And the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène proposed educating African filmmakers in indigenous languages.11 These Tashkent debates echoed the anticolonial Third World Cinema Committee's 1973 resolution to make "the new films understandable to the masses of people."12 To that end, the Senegalese filmmaker and film historian Paulin Soumanou Vieyra proposed that all films distributed in Senegal be dubbed in Wolof.13 The Bolivian director Jorge Sanjinés planned two versions of Yawar Mallku (1969), shot in Quechua and Spanish and each dubbed entirely in one of the native languages, Quechua (dubbing the Spanish dialogue) and Aymara.14 Arab producers discussed adopting a revision of classical Arabic developed for international radio broadcasting to convey films across Arab nations and dialects.15 Whether Global South filmmakers approached revoicing from a nationalist, regionalist, or militant "Third Worldist" point of view, they rarely proposed withholding translation as an effective strategy.

In the West, translation was withheld during the Cold War, in the name of Western cultural diplomacy and art cinema. In 1946, the Cannes and Venice international film festivals invited national governments to submit only unsubtitled "national" versions.16 The Cinémathèque Française in Paris and the Anthology Film Archive in New York showed unsubtitled "original" versions into the 1970s.17 "There is a sacrifice involved in the substitution of the purity of the image for the sense of the words, but it is a necessary one," Anthology founders responded to patrons' complaints.18 This notion of cinema as a universal visual language, common since the silent era, justified a...