Didier Ruiller: Back and forth to subtitling

In this interview, Didier Ruiller, a subtitling specialist, discusses his passion for foreign cinema and his experience teaching at ISIT.

After receiving his Science Bac at the end of high school, Didier Ruiller used his passion for languages as motivation to continue his training by starting translation studies at ISIT, in Paris. Because fiction and dialogues were his preferred choice, he decided to specialize in audiovisual translation. For his first experience in a subtitling laboratory, he held a technical position, rather than a one of a translator, which allowed him to learn all the tricks of the trade and to create an extensive address book.

While keeping subtitling as his main activity, he diversified and became interested in publishing. The publishing company Flammarion entrusted to him the translation of several works from the collection “Sans aspirine” which popularizes the human sciences from a fun and offbeat angle. After that, he started teaching at ISIT, where his mission was to teach everything he had learned in the field and to take up a personal challenge: to confront an audience. “Leading a course means facing an audience that has expectations and that will judge you on what you are capable of providing. Even if you are there primarily to share your passion for the profession, you deliver a performance. You must be captivating, compelling, stimulating. If you’re bad, you’ll know immediately!” stresses Didier Ruiller. The circle is complete. For 10 years, this subtitling specialist has carried out his two activities – translation and teaching –  simultaneously.

In this interview with Cultures Connection, this foreign cinema enthusiast tells us about his experience as a translator and shares his passion for teaching with us.

You subtitled “Drive” by Nicolas Winding Refn, what were the working and confidentiality conditions?

Confidentiality is obvious. From the moment a client entrusts you with the adaptation of a feature film, you have the script and the image because we always work from a video of the film in question. So, it is clear that we, as translators, are required not to release anything. We work in our little corner without talking to anyone.

Now, according to the film or series you are subtitling, there is a degree of confidentiality. On very big releases, I imagine that there are certainly some provisions that are made and that translators must sign releases. It’s happened to me a several times. A colleague even told me that for a film, she was forced to work in the distributor’s premises to prevent a copy or version of the film from circulating.

However, in most cases, we work from home and the client counts on our discretion to not reveal anything about the film or its plot. Above all, it’s a relationship of trust with the distributor. They know that you aren’t going to pirate the movie because that would be the best way to shoot yourself in the foot.

It is said that often, in this profession, the best subtitling is what isn’t seen.

What is the procedure to follow so that the viewer can enjoy the film while reading?

This is what makes this profession so difficult and interesting at the same time. There is nothing worse for the viewer than having to spend most of the time reading the bottom of the screen. Subtitles should therefore be used as a crutch. That is, that they are there to help the viewer follow the film but they must not overtake the image and what’s happening on the screen. Besides, it is said that often, in this profession, the best subtitling is what isn’t seen. When you ask viewers what they thought of the subtitles, if they tell you they don’t know, it means it went without a hitch. In fact, the challenge is to create something that does not exceed the maximum number of characters which is allowed for each subtitle while still allowing the viewer to instantly understand what is said by the actors on the screen. It’s for this reason that we often say that it is more of an adaptation exercise than a translation exercise. Like a literary translator, we don’t have the choice to use translation notes. In audiovisual translation, there are time and space constraints and the viewer needs to understand immediately, especially when working with very specific registers such as humor.

Take, for example, English subtitling. There are things which will not be conveyed in the target language because Anglo-Saxon humor is not the same as French humor. English uses a lot of very short words, which are made up of 3 to 5 letters, where you just have to change one letter to change the meaning. French humor plays on a different register. At the moment, I’m working on the American Late Show and this difference is pretty obvious: we really have to adapt. There are things which work very well from one language to another but when the trick concerns phonetics or homonymy, it becomes a lot more complicated. Sometimes we have to start with a very different approach to the original version, while keeping in mind that the viewer inevitably compares unconsciously what they read with what they hear. If there is too big a difference between the two, it gets stuck. For me, humor is the major difficulty in this job, but also what makes it exciting.

The second difficulty that we face is that English is a more concise and synthetic language than French. Between English and French, we have a 20% expansion rate, which means that a text in English will be longer once translated into French. So, we need to condense and summarize what is said. If, for example, an English speaker says three sentences, each containing a different idea, we need to find a French version that incorporates all three ideas. In some cases, we may even have to sacrifice one of the three ideas, with the aim of clarity and comfortable reading for the audience. Mastering the implicit is essential, just like knowing how to juggle synonyms.

You directed the Master in Intercultural Communication and Translation course at ISIT, what are the benefits of combining communication and translation?

When I was a student, ISIT only provided training in translation and interpretation. So you would leave the school with a translator’s diploma and/or an interpreter’s diploma, which suited me perfectly because that was what I wanted to do. The school then chose to diversify its training to respond to a constantly changing labor market, butremained focused on its core business, namely mastering languages and intercultural skills. It now offers training focused on communication, management and intercultural skills, enabling young graduates to work in fields other than pure and simple translation, such as human resources, marketing, and internal and external communication in their different working languages.

We have also noted that not only the skills acquired by our students in their studies, but also their linguistic and cultural expertise makes a huge difference in the labor market. A young graduate will be perfectly able to manage a team of Spanish speakers composed of a Colombian, a Spaniard and two Chileans, for example, because they have mastered the codes specific to each country, to each culture.

Between English and French, we have a 20% expansion rate, which means that a text in English will be longer once translated into French. So, we need to condense and summarize what is said. If, for example, an English speaker says three sentences, each containing a different idea, we need to find a French version that incorporates all three ideas.

What screenwriter would you like to translate?

I don’t know. I usually follow my heart for any particular director. I had the chance of subtitling “Drive” by Nicolas Winding Refn, as well as his subsequent films. He is a director whose films are not very talkative and works a lot on the image, the photo, the atmosphere. I like what he does. I have never had the chance to work on films by Wes Anderson, who is also a director that I really like, but I’d be happy to translate them. I would also like to be able to readapt some great classics that we sometimes see on TV whose subtitles could use a polish!

Translation into English: Chloe Findlay

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