Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (known in English as Portrait of a Young Lady on Fire) is a French romance-drama film set in late-18th century France. The plot revolves around the growing relationship between Héloïse, an unwilling bride-to-be and Marianne, an artist secretly commissioned by Héloïse’s mother to paint her wedding portrait on an isolated island where she had come to stay in anticipation. Marianne poses as a companion for Héloïse in her days leading up to her wedding, but grows fond of her, and reveals the truth: a beginning for many more truths to follow, but ultimately ending in departure. Director and writer Celine Sciamma has expressed that this film is a foray into radically portraying a lesbian love story as fulfilling, despite its historically unfulfilled resolution.
The film, in considerable debt to its English subtitles, garnered global attention that led it to win several awards in predominantly English-speaking countries. It is usually considered difficult to translate films of the romance and drama genres owing to their elaborate, flowery dialogue. Portrait’s dialogue is slow, straightforward, and punctuated by silence, added onto by the protagonists’ continued low vocal intonations, which occasionally even become whispers. The fixed form of literary text is superseded by the medium of film, which demands its coherence with other elements like music, setting, framing, lighting, and expressions. In most instances, literal translation has sufficed – in fact, metacommentary may be made upon the lovers’ restraint as not needing elaborate translation into words. The tension that underlies their speech is not performed until well into the film, and the accompanying warmly-toned mises-en-scène (small crowds around bonfires, kitchens, bedrooms, other closed domestic rooms, and the sea) further are best suited for minimal dialogue, so as to preserve the duality of acceptance which nurtures and desire which deepens. Also worth considering is the setting of the film in an island isolated from land-connected territory, hence leaving less scope for the translator to render ‘mainstream’ French culture. Consider this scene where Marianne is glancing at and attempting to progress with her portrait:
MARIANNE: Je n’arrive pas à vous faire sourire. C’est comme si j’avais l’impression de le faire et qu’il disparaissait. (I can’t make you smile. I feel I do it and then it disappears.)
MARIANNE: Chez vous, c’est certain. (Definitely for you.)
While there are slight discrepancies if one considers a word-for-word translation, there is almost nothing lost in translation during this exchange, except for the inevitable. For the uncredited subtitle writer, conceptual translation here finds near likeness with literal translation. The aforementioned slow style of speech also allows the varied length of translated dialogues to be accommodated with regards to appearing on the screen. However, like all art, absolute equivalence cannot be found in translation for Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, and there are certain observations to be made about the symbiotic relationship between language and identity as well as the movement of translation’s purpose beyond source-to-target conversion as shown by Portrait: beginning with the film’s very title.
Translated literally in English, the title is ‘Portrait of a young girl on fire’. The word ‘lady’ or ‘woman’ also has an equivalent term in French, namely femme. Given that the English and French titles were simultaneously released, it may be noted that jeune fille (trans. ‘young girl’) is colloquially used (albeit less often) to describe a young woman, whereas femme has come to be associated with relationships and marriage (‘girlfriend’ and ‘wife’). What may have been a defining choice of title, signifying the women’s idealism and unattachment to men, is slightly lost in the translation, yet ‘Portrait of A Young Girl on Fire’ would carry significantly different connotations of childhood. The title of the film is arguably intended to be figurative and metaphorical, making it more complicated to translate because it may have several interpretations. Womanhood and the feminine gaze pervade the film, as well as imageries of fire from a burning dress to a cigarette. One of the most critically approved analyses is that of the fire being a symbol for the women’s romantic and sexual desires, as well as for that love being fiercely indictive of the heteropatriarchal standards imposed upon Héloïse. This essence appears to be suitably replicated in the English title, something that also emerges in the scene where the women read the classical story of Orpheus and Eurydice from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Requiring a complex translation from classical text to script to the target language, its rendering in English nonetheless leaves a little lost. Translating the slight wordplay is a non-issue, made up for by all the English variants, overwhelming elements and portrayals of the film. What, then, is lost in Portrait of a Lady on Fire?
The pronouns “vous” and “tu” in French allow one to observe and acknowledge the nature of their relationship with another. “Vous” is a courteous term of salutation that is frequently used between strangers and persons of significant age differences or social statuses. “Tu” is employed among friends and family members of close relational proximity, and is often directed to a child. Depending on the colloquial context, it can be used intimately or to demonstrate power over someone with a supposedly higher status. In Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, this is further complicated – the lovers mostly address each other by ‘vous’, and Héloïse and her mother do as well. ‘Tu’ is used sparingly (exactly three times), in the moments where for seconds the characters lose their restraint and composure. The mother refers to Héloïse as ‘tu’ after she tells her daughter to say goodbye to her like she did as a child. This reveals the mother loosening her role as an authority figure of the socially-sanctioned family. However, between Marianne and Héloïse, ‘vous’ is used well into the last stages of their relationship. Only on the night before the mother returns does Marianne call to Héloïse with the verbal conjugation of dormir (to sleep) in correspondence with the pronoun of ‘tu’.
MARIANNE: Ne dors pas, ne dors pas. (Do not sleep, do not sleep.)
As Héloïse begins to express her regret, Marianne quickly and quietly tells her not to regret, with the ‘vous’ conjugation of regretter (to regret). Lastly, Héloïse uses the ‘tu’ conjugation of tournir (to turn) to ask Marianne to look at her one last time. These subtleties are not adequately conveyed through the English subtitles – but can they be? Adding terms of endearment or rendering phrases in more polite ways may contrive the original effect of the nature of Portrait’s dialogue. Rendering the sentences with ‘vous’ in more antique language and ‘tu’ in more conversational language may take away from the film’s subtle emergence of love, making it a further complication for translators. Perhaps, ironically, we can take a cue from the film itself: just as Héloïse wonders if ‘all lovers feel like they’re inventing something’, so we can invent our own standards for translation in the wake of love in the middle of forces against it.