Lost (and Found) in Translation: Anna Karina and A Woman is a Woman (1961)

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To view A Woman is a Woman click here.

Anna Karina was discovered in the classic sense, as in someone saw her at a café and offered her a modeling job. The kind of discovery people with dreams of stardom long for but rarely see. She became a successful model and due to her appearance in a series of ads for Palmolive, came to the attention of director Jean-Luc Godard. This led to her first released film with him (Le Petit Soldat [1963] was the first she made with him but it wasn’t released until three years later), Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman), and it made her a star. She did a lot of work afterwards, with Godard and others, but that role was the one that instantly, and forever, won me over.

I’m sure I saw Band of Outsiders (1964) first. Or maybe Alphaville (1965). I can’t remember. The reason I can’t is  A Woman is a Woman, as I became entranced by Karina in a way I had not with the other two films, leaving me to forget whether or not I’d seen those other ones first. She’s great in all of them, and in Pierrot le fou(1965). I believe she hit her peak with Godard and his films. But in A Woman is a Woman, she is so charming, so utterly hypnotic, that it is no surprise to me that she took home the Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival. My confusion is why she didn’t get anything else for it. Of all Godard’s movies, this is the one that most fits her talents, charms and personality. But since Godard wasn’t about to start exclusively directing musical comedies (that still seems odd to even type that genre description in the same sentence with his name) she wouldn’t have many other opportunities. But as a singer, dancer and actress, she couldn’t have asked for better.

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Karina plays a dancer named Angela and Angela wants a baby. She has a lover, Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy) who’s ready but not willing. She also has a suitor, Alfred Lubitsch (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who is more than willing but, having not gotten into bed with her yet, not quite ready. Is there more to the plot than that? You know, I’m not really sure. Better put, I’m not really sure Godard cared. When Jean-Luc Godard does musical comedy, one cannot expect it to feel anything at all like a musical comedy one might be accustomed to. Where to begin?

For starters, the musical cues throughout the film are randomly inserted, or at least meant to feel that way. They are a constant, blaring in and out of existence at moments that need no musical cue whatsoever. They are not constant in their melodies or mood. They simply drop in and out, as does the sound itself. Anna looks at the camera, and winks on occasion, and even Belmondo talks to the camera early on in the movie. Anna walks around her dance hall and sings a song. She and Brialy fight and stop speaking to each other so they use book titles to communicate their feelings. Then she decides to sleep with Belmondo to get Brialy to sleep with her, thus leaving open the question as to who the father might be. And then the movie ends. So, yeah, it’s a Godard musical comedy.

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But it’s got Anna Karina and that’s all I really care about. I don’t really care what comment Godard was making or not making on the genre of musical comedy. I admire Godard but I’ll be honest, when Anna’s on the screen, I couldn’t care less what he’s trying to say. Maybe that’s why this isn’t one of his most talked about or discussed movies despite that fact that he is clearly deconstructing the genre. But it showcases Anna Karina in a way his other films do not and so she’s all you really care about. It’s one of those movies you can point to where the lead actor’s charm is the whole movie for you. It usually happens to me with early James Cagney/Joan Blondell movies. Some are great, some are good, some are pretty bad. I don’t care at all, I love watching those two together, they make each movie work. I’ve got a million other examples but for now, I’ll just stick with Karina and this film, a film I probably wouldn’t care for a lick if she wasn’t in it.

And one last thing: The subtitling situation runs from good to bad to worse with this movie, depending on the version you see. The ending contains a play on words that is decidedly lost in the translation and most translations even get the gist of it wrong. After she and Emile have their go at making a baby, he laughs, she asks him why, and he says, “Parce que Angela, vous êtes infâme.” She responds, “Je ne suis pas infâme. Je suis une femme!” He’s saying he’s laughing because she is shameless, or infamous, to which she says she’s not, she is a woman. So, pronunciation-wise, the play on words being she is not infame (EN-FEM), she is une femme (UNE-FEM). But the subtitles usually miss this and translate her response to be, “am I not a woman? I am a woman!” Which is completely wrong. So, ignore the subtitles and just listen to the beautiful words coming out of her beautiful mouth and enjoy the wink she gives the camera at the end. And when the camera shows the word “fin” in lights through the window, you may not know how important any of it was, but if you’re like me, you won’t care. You may even go back to the beginning and watch it all over again.

Greg Ferrara

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8 Responses Lost (and Found) in Translation: Anna Karina and A Woman is a Woman (1961)
Posted By swac44 : September 29, 2017 8:47 am

I’m always intrigued by the way subtitles get things wrong. I speak some French, and catch slips on occasion, but my girlfriend is pretty fluent in German, so she’s more on top of things in that language.

For me, the most obvious is when a French character says “Merde!” and the subtitle says something else. Maybe sanitized for rating/TV? But often I’ll watch an older film with a new translation and catch usage that doesn’t fit, like using “party” as a verb, which to my ear sounds wrong in anything before the 1980s. Writing subtitles is a fine art to be sure.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 29, 2017 10:10 am

In this case, of course, there is no direct equivalent as there is no word for “infamous” that sounds like another word for “woman.” But throughout my life watching subtitled movies, and knowing a little French (my wife speaks it and reads it much better than I), I have noticed a shift in the last ten years in which older movies are now using hardcore profanity according to the subtitlers. In at least one version of Les Diaboliques I watched about five years ago, the kids said “F***” quite a lot. None of the words in French were ever the same and ranged from the usual “merde” to simple exclamations and yet, whoever did the subtitling felt the kids should all being saying “F***” for whatever reason. I guess to show old movies can be edgy or some similar pathetic reason.

Posted By John Cooper : September 29, 2017 10:20 am

A long time ago I was in Paris, watching “Arsenic and Old Lace” in a revival movie house. That movie’s opening titles set the tone by introducing “Brooklyn, where anything can happen, and usually does.” But even with my high school French, I could see that the subtitles read “Brooklyn, where strange things happen.” What a waste of a good line, and an important joke that tells the viewer what to expect from what’s coming!

Posted By swac44 : September 29, 2017 10:25 am

My first thought was you could pair infamous with “a feminist” (which doesn’t really work, but that’s where my brain went) or “I’m feminine” or something to that effect. Maybe by the end of the movie, the subtitler had run out of clever.

Posted By swac44 : September 29, 2017 10:27 am

Imagine how much better silent movies would be if you added swear words to the imtertitles!

Actually, that might work with What Price Glory?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 29, 2017 3:06 pm

John, there are a lot of great stories about subtitles getting titles and key lines wrong (THE GREEN MILE became UNEXPECTED MIRACLES and THERE WILL BE BLOOD became BLOODY OIL) but your example points to something a lot more difficult, variations in humor. Getting a joke to work the same way it does in one language in another has got to be one of the toughest things to do. It’s what happens at the end of this very movie in which the word play just doesn’t work in English. Still, it feels like those French subtitlers could have easily made the opening work for ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. You’d think, anyway.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 29, 2017 3:07 pm

Swac44, but then you’d lose the fun of trying to lip-read Victor McLaglen.

Posted By Coolbev : October 3, 2017 9:27 am

The translation in the version I saw was “You have no shame!”, “No, I’m a dame!”, which I quite like. At least, well enough to remember it 40 years later – the only time I’ve seen this was in college with a girl I knew from high school. I think I was trying to Impress her with my sophistication. It wasn’t a very romantic choice, and I don’t think she was impressed, but i laughed my butt off.

I also remember the argument in book titles as being about the cleverest thing I’d ever seen.

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