The Art and Craft of Subtitles

Lovers of French cinema likely know the names Godard, Audiard, Denis and Desplechin. But the true devotee—the person who stays to the very end to read all the credits—may recognize the name Litvack.

Andrew Litvack ’87 is a French-to-English translator who focuses on film subtitling, one of the least glamorous roles in a glamorous industry. The career wasn’t exactly a childhood dream, but he was a fan of movies from an early age. “At age 8 or 10,” he says, “it was movies I wasn’t allowed to see, like Cabaret and A Woman Under the Influence. Then you could watch Bergman and Fellini on cable TV. I saw there’s another world out there, and I liked it.”

At Williams, he read French theoreticians like Jacques Derrida, but in English. He wanted to tackle them in French, so right after graduation he went to Paris, where he studied the language, taught English and planned to return soon to the States for graduate work. Then a neighbor introduced him to an Egyptian director who needed help putting a film script into proper colloquial English. That director introduced him to others, and within a few years, Litvack was working steadily with some of France’s top filmmakers. Soon he was able to put aside most other translation work in favor of what he enjoys most: subtitling.

Writing subtitles is demanding work, part art, part craft. The subtitler must know—or learn—appropriate slang and jargon for a story’s particular culture or time period and ruthlessly condense dialogue into impossibly short printed lines that capture the essence of what’s happening on screen, all the while making judgment calls and being as unobtrusive as possible. “It’s like doing a super-hard crossword puzzle,” Litvack says. “If you’re a word person, you get a certain pleasure in the gymnastics of it. I have a short attention span. Doing a new movie every week brings me to a different place each time. For me that’s a great fit.”

He has two special areas: art house films from “high-powered intellectual directors who are loved by The New York Times,” he says, and big French comedies, which are seldom seen in the U.S. Several of his latest projects are on the program of this year’s Cannes Film Festival (May 17-28), although he doesn’t usually attend. “I’m not a schmoozer,” Litvack says. “I go if a friend is visiting and wants to wear a tux in the middle of the day.”

Litvack travels to the States to see family and friends and is in touch with several of his old English professors at Williams—he mentions Anita Sokolsky, Stephen Fix, Chris Pye, Karen Swann and Stephen Tifft (with whom he co-taught Winter Study filmmaking courses in 2001 and 2004). But after 30 years in Paris, he thinks of himself as pretty much French. In one important way, though, he’s very American. “I love my work,” he says with a smile. “I’m really a workaholic.”

– Dan Carlinsky