May 11, 2011

Found in Translation

by Allen Irwin

Band of Outsiders (Bande à part) (1964) - dir. Jean-Luc Godard

Anything from writing down stray thoughts, transcribing a novel into another language or rendering words on a page into images of light on screen can be an act of translation. Jean-Luc Godard, for his seventh feature film, chose to adapt a novel written by Dolores Hitchens entitled Fools’ Gold which had been published in a French translation as part of the Série noire.1 However, rather than make a straight genre pastiche or homage to American gangster films, Godard chose to freely translate the novel into something wholly his own.

Ever the critic, Godard identifies the problems of translation early on, addressing its benefits and limitations while simultaneously opening up the possibilities of cinematic translation for the rest of the film. The two male leads, Arthur & Franz (Claude Brasseur & Sami Frey), go to a bouncer-guarded school to meet up with Odile (Anna Karina), a girl who may be of use to them in a potential heist. They walk into an English class where the teacher asks her students to translate Shakespeare from (pre-translated) French into English. This task is inherently absurd, especially since the students are only just beginning to learn English. No doubt the irony of doubly translating the idiosyncratic speech patterns of Shakespeare is something Godard was aware of: he seems determined to make it a point given that the teacher jumps all around Romeo & Juliet - from Juliet’s final lines, to the balcony scene, and then all the way back to the opening oration concerning “Fair Verona”, making the translation required of the students one big jumble.