Today, on Ada Lovelace Day, I’m supposed to write about a woman in technology. I’m breaking this rule a bit, to write about my mother. She was not a technologist, though she was certainly an avid user and early adopter of technology in her career as a film translator (subtitles and dubbing).
We grew up with the tools of her trade in the house: film projectors, editing systems and more. All this was before personal computers and the rest of the increasingly ubiquitous digital technologies arrived. There’s no question, however, that she would have instantly grasped the value of what came later and would have adopted it long before most others, because she understood how good tools help make good work.
But her influence on me, which has been powerful, has more to do with her other qualities. She laughed at limits, and frequently at rules. She was a perfectionist and a rebel, with a powerful and stubborn intellect.
Her subtitles were poetry when the film in its native language (or languages, as was often the case with European films) was poetic. They were hard prose when that was the tone of the original. Her faith to the director, and to the audience, was paramount.
She revolutionized dubbing in her day. She literally wiped away a movie’s soundtrack and then rebuilt it from scratch, adding voices, background and music to recreate the original in English, and with such precision that many American viewers, who’d been taught to disdain subtitles and properly disdained the crappy voiceovers that had passed for dubbing, didn’t realize they were watching a foreign film.
I can remember her spending several days on a single line of dialog, running a clip of film back and forth (and back and forth and back and forth…) in the Moviola (and later KEM) editing machine. She’d test one idea after another until she’d found a translation that was faithful to the meaning of the original and which an actor could speak in a way that would provide such accurate lip synchronization that the words would seem as though they’d been spoken in the native language.
I’m pretty tough on myself when it comes to getting things right. But I don’t begin to have that kind of persistence.
When I was playing music for a living, years before I went into journalism and tech, she visited the studio on Vermont where we were recording our first album. She was a musician herself, and must have been tempted to offer detailed advice. She didn’t. She offered, instead, her presence — and a jug of staggeringly smooth and powerful apple-based liquor she and a neighbor had distilled back in Woodstock, N.Y., where I’d spent much of my childhood. I suspect Ada Lovelace would have approved.