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Learning more than expected: subtitling for an international film festival

By Anna Kompasová and Róbert Špánik, final-year MA students at the Department of Translation Studies, Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra, Slovakia

The Department of Translation Studies of Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra is one of the top Slovak academic institutions in the field of translation studies. It is proud to be the only Slovak university in the EMT Network, has a long tradition in research and practice-oriented training, and has hosted numerous scientific, educational and cultural events and initiatives for researchers, practitioners and students. Furthermore, ours was the first department in Slovakia to provide specialised training in audiovisual translation, dubbing translation, subtitling, audio-description and subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Audiovisual translation seminars are among the most popular at our department because of their unique character, and the atmosphere in them is always one of cooperation and positivity. Creating a dubbing script or subtitles for our favourite TV series and films is both a dream and a challenge for every student of translation studies. For us, working on a good translation, editing dialogues and coming up with creative solutions gets the adrenaline flowing, recharging us with positive energy from a job well done. Moreover, having completed two semesters full of fun and hard work gives us a huge advantage in practice – no matter how scary the future might seem to a student approaching the end of their studies.

What really helps is the practical training experience, which is a vital part of the master’s programme in Nitra. Being provided with opportunities to meet professionals, discuss our work with experienced translators and work in their teams can be daunting, but it’s also a great way to build confidence and to meet new people and see new places. In this aspect, it’s little surprise that cooperation with film festivals has been one of the most popular options for students at our department.

In our case, we were hoping to experience the same, but then Covid-19 paid a visit and radically changed plans for everybody – and the field of culture and the arts was no exception. But as in many sectors, the culture sector managed to react to the new situation promptly and so, fortunately, the popular international documentary film festival One World (in Slovak: Jeden svet) decided to invite its viewers into the online space and provide a rich week-long programme. Thanks to this, we as final-year students had the unique chance to collaborate and enjoy the atmosphere and adventure related to this type of event. The One World International Documentary Film Festival 2020 took place from 5-11 November. The competing films opened up debates on important social and human-rights issues that reflected the theme: CHOICE. The One World Festival cooperates with experts from the People in Peril Association, as well as filmmakers, partner organisations, secondary schools and academic institutions. Moreover, it is accompanied by exhibitions, workshops and discussions. The 21st year of the festival was exceptional in several respects. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the whole festival took place online, which meant adjustments in the way of working and communication, but also provided opportunity for more viewers to enjoy this year’s selection of films.

In order for the audience to view the films, preparations started much earlier. During the summer several students were already working on translations of announcements, film synopses and promo copy with the intention of attracting as many viewers as possible. And during September and October, 14 students from Nitra enthusiastically embarked on the subtitling of 19 documentary films. The One World Festival definitely opened the door to diverse themes. During the subtitling process, in addition to struggling with wordplay and terminology, we often laughed, cried, became angry or scared, as the films touched upon themes such as human life and dignity, the human soul, freedom, discrimination, emotional and psychological health, misuse of power and destruction of the environment.

Frankly speaking, we were taking on a difficult task. During the process of translation, we often had to cope with unexpected situations that required a great deal of energy. We didn’t quite anticipate the amount of time necessary for the research of realia and terminology, but we were aware of the responsibility we had towards the viewers.  On the other hand, we learned so much more than just subtitling. Mantras, zoological terminology, psychology, Bhutanese musical instruments, political expressions and medical jargon: this and more helped us become not only more knowledgeable but also open-minded and curious. In many cases the subtitling process required consultation with experts in various scientific fields, endless internet research, and was accompanied by the struggle of making long Slovak words fit the screen, adequate transfer of emotional expression, and even the translation and re-rhyming of songs.

Moreover, while subtitling we had to follow all the requirements and parameters, sometimes fought manifold technical issues, and thus put into practice knowledge already acquired in specialist seminars. The translation process, editing, proofreading and subsequent implementation of changes were no longer just a simulation, but a real project for which we bore responsibility. It was an experience that we will remember for a long time and which only convinced us that the work of a subtitler is a challenging, creative but never boring profession. The topics we had to deal with often gave us pause for thought and made us come up with solutions for various demanding situations. Consultations with a nuclear power plant expert, zoo personnel or ichthyologists represent just a small part. We are very proud that the fruits of our work contributed to Slovak science as well. Thanks to the film Sea of Shadows and consultations with experts from the Slovak Academy of Sciences, we managed to introduce a new term into Slovak zoological terminology, specifically the official scientific term for the fish totoaba macdonaldi.

The 21st year of the festival was not only extraordinary because it took place online. In addition to classic subtitles, three documentary films were also adapted for hearing and visually impaired viewers. Although it might sound not much, it is important to say that this was the first time a Slovak film festival had attempted an inclusive approach in providing access via more than just interlingual subtitles. Indeed, these special streamings were prepared by One World Festival in cooperation with the Department of Translation Studies of CPU Nitra. This was a great challenge for students. Although this was our first practical attempt at working with this form outside of the school environment – with a main focus on SDH, the quality met a positive response. While creating subtitles for a hearing-impaired audience we began to realise many things that had not even occurred to us before. It taught us to be more receptive and empathetic and showed us how important it is to pay attention to doing the job well and conscientiously. This challenging task gave us a lot not only as translators but as people too. The pace of the work was fast, but quality was the highest priority. The subtitles created were under the professional supervision of Dr Emília Perez and the creative and technical team of the festival organisers. Cooperation with the One World Festival provided us with the opportunity to apply our knowledge in practice and brought us new experiences. In this way, we helped a festival which promotes social and human-rights issues and raises many intriguing and relevant questions. Last but not least, recognition by the organising committee of the festival who enthusiastically promoted the work of translators and subtitlers, and the good feeling that we as translators derived from being able to find our names at the end of the films and on the festival’s website, were also a great reward. We have become more confident that we not only have a command of subtitling at a theoretical level but also at a practical one. Furthermore, many of us have found out that subtitling is our calling, and we would like to work in this field after graduation as well.

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