My First Job

'Rebecca's Tale' author Sally Beauman worked as a film subtitler in New York; 'It was very good training for one's novelist skills'

"I am the only person to have seen The Sound of Music 56 times," says Sally Beauman. Bearing in mind the dedication of some of its fans, she concedes this may not be true but adds she must be the only person to have clocked up 50-odd viewings of The Exorcist and Dr Dolittle in addition to that movie.

Sally is a former editor of Harper's & Queen and now a best-selling novelist - Rebecca's Tale is her take on the Daphne du Maurier story. But she can look back to a brief career on the periphery of the movie business when, living in New York soon after graduation, she saw an intriguing small ad along the lines of "Smart lady wanted to work as a subtitler for 20th Century Fox". She applied and was hired as the junior member of a three-woman team that helped to make English-language films intelligible to Spanish or Portuguese-speaking audiences.

"Say there is a four-line speech," she explains. "The human eye could not read that in the time in which it is spoken. You have to précis down all the time, so you get the gist of it." Another problem was that although a character's voice can be heard speaking while the camera cuts from long-shot to close-up or to another character, the subtitle has to be removed before any of these jumps.

By the time her team began, the English-language version of the film would already be finished and in the US cinemas. Sally and her colleagues would use a copy of the script that included the duration of all the shots, allowing them to work out how long any subtitle could remain on the screen.

"It involved lots of maths, and I'm appalling at maths," she explains. "You do your calculations - pages and pages." Finally all the subtitles, at this stage still in English, were incorporated into a few prints of the film. These copies were never seen by the public but were the basis for translations into any language. It was only at this stage that the actual translators were wheeled in; their words would fit so long as they were not appreciably longer than Sally's.

"It was very interesting and very good training for one's novelist skills. I found the discipline of condensing very difficult. In Hollywood films, the dialogue is pretty compressed anyway; characters tend not to jabber on. A great many people will have worked on the script; it is honed and honed. All the dialogue works extremely efficiently, involving plot, character or a joke."

She loved the work. It was only when New York magazine gave her a job that the subtitling came, as they say in the movies, to The End.

'The Landscape of Love', by Sally Beauman, is out now in paperback (Time Warner, £6.99.)

Jonathan Sale

The Independent, 13.7.2006