Watch a foreign film and you'll see the work of Helen Eisenman. It's on practically every frame, right at the bottom. That you rarely even think about it is a sign of how well she's doing her job.
Eisenman is one of the industry's leading subtitlers, in fact one of the only subtitlers in the United States. Her credits include such Academy Award-winners as "The Official Story" and "Babette's Feast." Over the past 25 years, she has worked on more than 300 films, taking the words of everyone from Francois Truffaut to Pedro Almodovar and making sure nothing is lost when they're flashed across the screen."You're looking for clarity. You're looking for understandability and making sure that all the nuances and all the subtleties are there," Eisenman said during a recent interview at her Manhattan apartment.
"You don't need to send telegrams, condense everything into two words. You try to get the flavor of everything within the limits of what you can show."
Language counts, but so does timing. The words have to stay on long enough so the audience can read along, but not so long that key dialogue is missed.
Eisenman says "more than 90 percent" of the original script makes it, noting that background talk is sometimes left untranslated, as are songs considered unessential to the plot.
And her work has grown more difficult over the years. Once, you could show two lines of dialogue at a time. But with the rise of home video, the second line gets cut off on the smaller screen, which means that Eisenman must get by on one line at a time.
" `Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown' was a tricky film," Eisenman said of Almodovar's popular 1989 comedy, which received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film.
"The one problem is the Spanish. Spanish is spoken rapidly, very rapidly. So when they have a quick interchange between two people and three people, you want to get as much of that as possible without cutting off the other person. You got trouble because they talk right on top of each other.
"All comedy is challenging," she explained. "You want to get the same laughter the original got. You don't want to create new laughter, but the same laughter."
Eisenman also contends with the wordy comedies of French director Eric Rohmer, insisting much of the dialogue is repetitive but resisting any tampering because "that's his style."
One of the few directors with whom she deals personally is another Frenchman, Louis Malle. Eisenman worked on the acclaimed "Goodbye Children" ("Au Revoir Les Enfants"), as well as "Murmer of the Heart" and last year's "May Fools."
" `May Fools' was talk, talk, talk," she laughed. "Louis Malle can be very difficult. He'll say, `Helen, you missed that.' He's that way."
"He likes a lot of contractions. I take away all the contractions that are in the original subtitles and the next thing I know I'm fighting with him tooth and nail. But when he comes to the final screening, he's usually very happy." Subtitling usually takes two to three weeks. First, the original prints arrive and Eisenman spends about a week "spotting" - going through the film frame by frame and marking where dialogue begins and ends.
Then come the subtitles. Many of the films she gets already have them, but Eisenman notes they're often poorly done.
"In Europe, if you want to sell a picture to America, nobody's going to look at it unless you have subtitles," she said. "So they have to put subtitles on it, good, bad or indifferent, they have to put them on.
"I like to watch films going frame by frame. You remember everything so clearly. I can still close my eyes and see `Jean de Florette,' all the beautiful images."
The subtitles are sent to the printer and come back on a negative, which is eventually combined with the negative of the film. Eisenman will then give the film a final inspection.
"You want to make sure they're in the right place. Are they timed correctly? Are the letters spread out properly. What you're also worried about is if the letters can't be seen, like when the picture has a totally white background."
Eisenman, a shoemaker's daughter, was born in Austria but left at an early age when her her family fled from the oppression of Nazi Germany. That's how her training in languages began. Shuttled from school to school, she picked up French, Spanish, Italian, English and Portugese to go with her native German.
She also discovered her skills as a translator.
"When I was 8 years old, I was living in Italy and had a friend from Vienna who was much younger than I. I was reading `The Last of the Mohicans' and I was reading it in English. I thought my friend should share it with me, so I started to translate it into German."
After moving to New York in 1940, Eisenman worked in radio and eventually got involved with film production, which helped get her interested in subtitling.
Despite an envious list of credits, Eisenman notes that with fewer foreign films released in the United States she has to support herself with other work, including dubbing and subtitling of American films for other countries.
The attention she has received over the years has usually been positive. Not only do directors praise her work, but she also gets occasional letters and telephone calls from grateful filmgoers. And some people even consider her important enough to provide the kind of VIP treatment Eisenman and few others could appreciate.
"I did a German television show where the narrator speaks in German and I answer all the questions in English," she recalled, inserting a tape of the program into her VCR.
"I asked them how they were going to handle it for German televison. They said, `Oh, we'll probably subtitle it.' "