Lenny Borger-SubTitler Superior

If you are a fan of classic French Cinema then you’ve no doubt seen the name Lenny Borger credited as the subtitler on many new French films and the revivals of such films as LA GRANDE ILLUSION, RULES OF THE GAME, PEPE LE MOKO, QUAI DES ORFEVRES, RIFIFI and BREATHLESS.

If you are a fan of classic French Cinema then you’ve no doubt seen the name Lenny Borger credited as the subtitler on many new French films and the revivals of such films as LA GRANDE ILLUSION, RULES OF THE GAME, PEPE LE MOKO, QUAI DES ORFEVRES, RIFIFI and BREATHLESS.


I caught up with this Brooklyn-born and bred Parisian at his Sentier district apartment after wine and pasta at a tiny bistro off the rue Montorgeuil for a conversation about film and Paris.

TG: When did you first come to Paris?
LB: I arrived in October of 1977. I didn’t have any work. I didn’t have a life.

TG: Why?
LB: Because I was young and naive. I came to finish research for my doctoral dissertation in Theater and Film and as soon as I managed to get a job I dropped the idea. Unfortunate, but it wouldn’t have helped me in anything else anyway. I got my job at VARIETY in 1979 thanks to a chance meeting with the new Paris bureau chief. I was a film critic/correspondent and I remained there until 1990 when the paper decided to downsize its foreign operations.

TG: What were you responsibilities?
LB: I was covering most of the new French films so I saw most of the some 120 releases every year. I was a relay between France and the American industry.

TG: You learned your French at Yeshiva University High School in Brooklyn?
LB: No, I learned my French from French songs. There’s an expression in France: Tout finit par des chansons–“Everything ends in song.” For me everything began with song because when I was entering college I saw the Jacques Brel show in New York (JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS) and immediately fell in love with French chansons and began translating them into English for my own pleasure.

TG: No classroom experience?
LB: I had a term of introductory French at Hunter College but I wasn’t interested. It was only later after Jacques Brel that I really got interested in French music and French literature. So one thing led to another and I was buying records and I still have everything that I bought. Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Leo Ferré. So I had very strange French–very literary. When I went shopping I couldn’t ask for anything basic, I didn’t have the vocabulary!

When I arrived in Paris I didn’t know anyone except for an American woman and her French husband who lent me an apartment on the rue St.-Denis, the red-light district. Then I rented an apartment in Montmartre where I lived for nine years until I was thrown out because they wanted to sell it. Then I lucked out and bought this place in the Sentier, which belonged to the family of a friend of mine.

TG: You’ve seen a lot of changes in this neighborhood.
LB: Yeah, it’s become more expensive. They renovated the boulevards. Everything is very up-market. The Montorgeuil quarter has become very trendy.

TG: I find it remarkable that learning French the way you did you can translate film dialogue.

LB: Remember that I studied theater, which helped. I got my first job doing translations for the catalog for UniFrance Film, the umbrella organization for French Cinema–a page in French and a page in English. That gave me pocket money until I got the job with VARIETY. It solved all my problems because it was a full-time job and I was being paid pretty well. For twelve years I didn’t have to worry. Since I left it has been more difficult.

TG: What was the first film that you translated?
LB: A Tavernier film, UNE SEMAINE DE VACANCES. I was helping a friend, whom Tavernier had hired to do his subtitling.

TG: You’ve done numerous classic films where the directors were dead. Describe the process of a working with a living director.
LB: With Tavernier it was very simple. We’d spend an afternoon together going over the titles and he would make comments and suggestions. He understands English very well. The hardest film we did was L627, a police drama that was full of jargon. It was a very long process. In the end he gave a green light to everything we did.

TG: When one mentions Tavernier one has to think of Philippe Noiret. How much interaction did you have with Philippe?


LB: None. I met him once. He was an extraordinary character. On the day of Noiret’s funeral I was having dinner with friends at a restaurant in the Latin Quarter and Tavernier walked in with his wife. He looked very distraught-Noiret had been his alter ego. It was very moving.

TG: How did your relationship evolve with Bruce Goldstein (Film Forum-NY) and Rialto Films)?
LB: In 1992, I curated a tribute to Harold Lloyd at the Musée D’Orsay. I’d been told that Bruce Goldstein knew the most about Harold Lloyd because he was a friend of Lloyd’s granddaughter. I tried to reach him by phone but he was very hard to reach. It was only years later in 1999, when I was in New York, that a mutual friend called me and said: “Hey, what are you doing this morning? I’m having breakfast with Bruce Goldstein.” “Ah, the famous Bruce Goldstein!” So I went and we finally met and we hit it off. He told me that how his new classics distribution company, Rialto Pictures, was reissuing LA GRANDE ILLUSION. I asked what he planned to do about subtitles and he said he thought he would do them himself since he had very little money. And then at one point I blurted out that I would do them for nothing and that was the beginning. And of course, he paid me. We were very happy with the results because for the first time GRAND ILLUSION (as it is erroneously still known in English) got the subtitles it deserved, including the famous music hall song performed by Julien Carette, which had never been translated.

I had the same problem with RIFIFI. I wrote entirely new subtitles, with Jules Dassin (the director) and his daughter, Richelle, who had written songs for her famous brother, Joe Dassin. Jules went over all of my titles and made suggestions. In the beginning I was very nervous because Jules didn’t want “any of that slang stuff.” And I said: “Jules, the whole film is slang!” (Remember that when Dassin made RIFIFI, he could barely understand the dialogue.) So we talked and came up with a compromise that we’d only use slang that was not so terribly dated and still understandable today. The nightclub theme song performed by Magali Noel was all written in slang and it was fun to adapt. Richelle Dassin bailed me out wonderfully when I couldn’t come up with a proper word or rhyme. So every tine Bruce (and his business associate, Adrienne Halpern) does a French film I write entirely new subtitles. I’ve done 25 films for them, not the mention those commissioned for DVDs from the Criterion Collection, such as the French 1934 version of LES MISERABLES.

TG: You were telling me over lunch that you had to re-do Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt) several times. What was that all about?
LB: In the mid-90s, I was contacted by the Cinémathèque françaisebecause they wanted to show a subtitled new print in L.A. for some event. A few years later the Criterion Collection acquired the U.S. DVD rights and they contacted me and I told them that I had already done the subtitles and they could have it for a very modest fee. But there was a problem, which we didn’t realize at the time: the dialogue list that I worked with was very erratic–it wasn’t always accurate.

There was a scene with Fritz Lang where Jack Palance says: “Whenever I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook,” and Lang replies: “The Nazis used to say revolver instead of checkbook.” Lang didn’t use the word “Nazis” but Hitlériens (“Hitlerians”). But in the “official” dialogue list it said “Italiens” (“Italians.”) We thought that was weird but, stupidly, we didn’t question it. So I recently corrected the gaffe and took the liberty of overhauling the rest of the titles for Rialto’s recent new theatrical release and the upcoming Blu-ray DVD by Criterion.

TG: What was your most difficult film?
LB: Probably LA GRANDE ILLUSION because there were so many social levels in the film to distinguish. You have Gabin, the working class man, Pierre Fresnay, the aristocrat who says vous (speaks in the formal vous rather than personal tu) his wife and his child. Another tough job was Clouzot’s QUAI DES ORFERVRES because it had so much police jargon from the 40’s which nobody understood. I spent weeks trying to do research. I even tracked down a former police chief who’d operated in the post-war years and had retired to Los Angeles –even he didn’t understand some of the dialogue!

I also did LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS for Criterion that sorely needed to be re-subtitled. It’s like what they say about translations of great literature–every new generation should have a new translation.

TG: Can you briefly describe your work on specific directors?
LB: Jacques Becker  (GRISBI) was one of the great directors of the post-war period. He didn’t live long enough to make many films, dying in 1960. His last film LE TROU I didn’t get a chance to subtitle but I did work on CASQUE D’OR.

Renoir is great for a handful of towering films. From1935-39 he made LA BETE HUMAINE, LA GRANDE ILLUSION and RULES OF THE GAME (which I also re-did) but I also think he made a lot of junk. I think his American period was mediocre. After the war he made THE RIVER which was a very lovely film shot in India. FRENCH CANCAN was his last good film, in my opinion. But as for the rest…

TG: What about Melville (Jean-Pierre?)
LB: Probably the most underrated French filmmaker of the last 50 years.
The Americans didn’t know who he was. The incredible success of his Resistance drama, ARMY OF SHADOWS finally set the record straight.

TG: On a personal note–How has Paris affected your work and your life?
LB: It gave me work. I had no idea what I was going to do in 1977 when I came here. It was very difficult to get papers and work. No one wanted to take the risk of hiring me and then I fell into VARIETY, which saved my life and made my career for a long time. Paris changed my life. I really didn’t want to go back to New York. I could have gone back and got my Ph.D. and gone off to teach in some godforsaken Midwestern college. I thought that was death warmed over. I was very lucky when I left VARIETY and was able to convert into subtitling and translating. Things are hard now but I think they are hard for everyone.

TG: As a final question, what is about Paris that still excites you after thirty years?
LB: It’s still one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Sometimes I forgot and get involved in something and take things for granted and bitch and complain and then I get out of the house and go down to the river and walk across the Pont des Arts and look down the Seine and say, “This is why I’m here.”

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