Casablanca is one of my favourite films; it has everything I like in a motion picture: a good story, mixing both the personal and the social; strong performances, a great score, and a really strong sense of self – the assured direction doesn’t waste any time setting the table for the story, from the first frames about the escape route from occupied France to Casablanca (and onwards onto Lisbon, which was used by refugees as an escape route into America; even though Portugal was ruled by an authoritarian, fascist leader – António de Oliveira Salazar – the country remained neutral in World War II) to the last shot of the plane flying above and Rick’s famous “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship“.
A few weeks ago, while I was re-watching it (I recorded it a few years ago in my TV cable box during a rerun on RTP2, the culturally-inclined channel of Portugal’s national public television and radio provider, RTP, so I can watch it whenever I want) I noticed a particularly interesting line which felt perfect for this segment!
It comes at a very sensitive time in the film, during which (SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT) Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) have an argument about why she didn’t leave with him from occupied Paris. She starts explaining him her life when she started living in Paris, including how she met Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a member of the Czechoslovak Resistance, and fell in love with him. Rick cuts the conversation short, ending it on a very sour note with the following lines:
The line I focused on was the very last one, “Or aren’t you the kind that tells?“, which was translated into [European] Portuguese as follows:
There’s really nothing wrong with the translation, but it does set out a very interesting parallel between English and Portuguese with respect to the many meanings of the verb to tell (contar in Portuguese), some of which are shared by the two languages! The two main shared meanings that are at play in this sentence are to tell and contar as “to say something to someone” (we could assume Rick is saying Ilsa doesn’t like to tell other people about her previous relationships, since she kept them a secret from him while they were together) or “to count, to enumerate” (Rick scathingly accuses her of promiscuity, stating that she’d have so many romantic relationships she wouldn’t have been able to count with how many men she’d been with previously).
To look for the immediately preceding lines for clues with regard to what Rick actually meant with this is hard – he asks her to tell him who she left him for, but later insinuates she may have been with many men, and she would be able to tell which person she had left him for. The tone Bogart uses is harsh and unforgiving, so there’s even a strong possibility that in that specific line “to tell” can have both these meanings.
In any case, anyone reading this line will make their own assumptions about what the line means, and in the case of a subtitle translator, that single choice may impact how others gauge the film and understand its meaning.
Luckily, contar in Portuguese has both these meanings: to tell something to someone (Eu contei-te um segredo. I told you a secret), and to count, to enumerate (Eu contei até 10. I counted to 10).
That means that when you’re watching Casablanca in a Portuguese re-run – hearing the English words, and reading the European Portuguese text – you too will have to make a choice about what this line means. In this way, subtitles force you to engage with both languages at the same time, and while that may be taxing on your brain and concentration, having these questions and finding answers for them will help you understand both languages better in the long haul!
So, what do you think about this line? Or about the difficulties of translating dialogue into a different language? Do you know any other meanings of the term contar? Do they match with the English verb to tell? Let us know in the comments!