Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Lost in Non-Translation?: Analysing Film Voices from a Position of Linguistic Incompetence

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Lost in Non-Translation?: Analysing Film Voices from a Position of Linguistic Incompetence

Article excerpt

In the case of the subtitled film, we hear the more or less alien sounds of another tongue. If the language neighbours our own, we may recognise a substantial portion of the words and phrases. If it is more distant, we may find ourselves adrift on an alien sea of undecipherable phonic substance

(Stam, 1989, p.68)

Critical Realities: The Casting of the Foreign-Language Film Voice as Intractably Unattainable

In 1997 Wong Kar-wai received a Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival for Happy Together (Chun gwong cha sit), a movie that 'thoroughly consolidated Wong's international reputation' (Stringer, 2002, p.400). His ascension to become 'one of the key names in the West's pantheon of Asian filmmakers' (p.395) has been facilitated, in part, by the large volume of English-language writing about him, in academic, journalistic, and online contexts. This writing has privileged attention to Wong's use of varied visual palettes, non-linear narrative structures, and unusual musical choices. There has also been some commentary on Wong's very distinctive technique of deploying multiple voiceover narrators in his films. Even in relation to this aspect of his authorial style, however, there has been a notable absence of attention to vocal performance.1

Given that this writing on Wong is focused on all manner of aesthetic details in the image and on the soundtrack, it seems especially significant that the aesthetics of the voice is not given consideration. I take the critical discourse on Wong Kar-wai to be representative of a wider tendency in English-language criticism of non-English language films: that is to say, its propensity to cast the foreign-language voice as a textual element that is uniquely 'unattainable'. In 'The Unattainable Text', a landmark essay on the practice of writing about film, Raymond Bellour conjures up the image of movie critics carrying out their task 'in fear and trembling' (1975, p.19), as they struggle to express moving images and sounds through the written word. Despite all sorts of developments in film criticism in the forty years that have elapsed since Bellour expressed this sentiment, the foreign-language voice remains an aspect of the film experience that critics are reluctant to explore: Robert Stam's notion of such voices as 'undecipherable phonic substance' (1989, p. 68) is represented through the lack of attention there has been in film criticism to the textual details of the foreign-language vocal soundtrack.

In the first instance, this article elaborates on the critical omission outlined above, which has resulted in a long-standing 'deaf spot' in Englishlanguage film criticism. It then proposes a writing strategy, through a critique of the vocal soundtrack of Happy Together, that acknowledges the influence of linguistic incompetence, but also distinguishes, and explores the significance of, those non-semantic vocal elements that are legible to all who can hear them. Finally, the article reflects critically on the value of this interpretative practice in relation to wider debates about foreign spectatorship, world cinema, and the role of subjectivity within film criticism.

By paying attention to non-semantic elements of the vocal soundtrack I position myself within a mode of voice studies (some about film, some not) that has demonstrated 'a growing interest in theorizing the voice in its materiality and in its performative aspects since the early 2000s' (Novak, 2015, p.15), with writers such as Michel Chion (1999), Steven Connor (2000), Adriana Cavarero (2005), Mladen Dolar (2006), Martin Shingler (2006), Susan Smith (2007), Liz Greene (2009), and Davina Quinlivan (2012) producing distinctive work, that, nevertheless, shares a common interest in exploring the voice's bodily qualities.

These studies extend interest in the voice beyond its function as a carrier of language. This orientation lends them potential as guides for a critical practice that seeks to account for a spectating experience in which the language being spoken cannot be understood without the mediation of subtitles. …

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