Since the early ’90s the Department of Applied Linguistics/Translators & Interpreters of the University of Antwerp (called HIVT at that time) has been specializing in audiovisual translation. About 25 years later, OPEN, an expertise centre for accessible media and culture was founded. OPEN aims to raise the visibility of accessibility in all its facets, to contribute to the realisation of an inclusive society, to be a point of contact between all stakeholders, focussing on innovation, professionalisation and knowledge exchange in this domain. Besides organising activities like workshops and conferences, we conduct research projects involving also our students.
One of the ongoing projects, started last year in collaboration with the NTGhent theatre company, a software developer & surtitling company and three of our master students. The performances of COMPASSIE, directed by Milo Rau and performed on 4 and 5 March 2020 in Ghent, became, accessible for people with vision loss and for people who are D/deaf or hard of hearing, thanks to the translation into Flemisch sign language (VGT), the provision of surtitles and audio description
The three master students created the audio description and the subtitles for the deaf and the hard of hearing (SDH) that were uploaded on a “theatre tablet” together with Flemish sign language and synchronized with the surtitles on the scene. The students also investigated the impact of this technology on the creation process, the final quality and the user experience.
As far as the methodology is concerned, they started with a profound analysis of the context (the play and its director), the source text (and all its semiotic meanings) and the audio description, that needed to be pre-recorded which is very unusual for theatre AD. Amongst the challenges they faced, we can mention the selection of the information, the subjectivity, the synchronization of the different channels (AD, SDH, VGT and surtitles on scene) and the fact that theatre typically is live and by consequence, no two performances are the same. The conclusions of this pilot project will be taken into account for the future “theatre tablet projects” we are planning.
This kind of collaborative projects, where students touch upon the aim of translation in the very broad sense and see the social impact of what they are learning, is highly stimulating and of utmost importance for our students.
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.
Video excerpts: Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 4, Episode 5 (English/German), 1990, (c) Paramount/CBS
Dr Beverly Crusher is not to be envied: First, one by one, the crew members of the starship Enterprise D are disappearing, and then, it’s not even possible to call out to other ships for help. When Dr Crusher orders the ‘viewscreen’ to be switched on, all she can see is a dimly lit … misty something. She calls out: ‘Computer, what is that mist I am seeing?’
On the surface, a very simple task for a translator: no complex linguistic structures, no ambiguities, no unanswered questions. But, wait! Apparently, it all went wrong, at least according to numerous commentsfrom the Germanfan community. [Tip: The web pages are in German; the comments mentioned can be found by searching for ‘Mist’.] So, what went wrong? Well, here is the German dubbed version:
‘Computer, was ist das für ein Mist, den ich da sehe!’
She says something like mist here, doesn’t she? She absolutely does – but Mist in German means ‘dung’, or, in this context, rather ‘rubbish, garbage’. Mist should be Nebel in German, shouldn’t it? It’s clear to everyone: The translator must have made a grave mistake!
The following thoughts have arisen out of various discussions with colleagues and students. The purpose in laying them out is not to sort out what really happened, but to explore the kind of reasoning that could have led to the ultimate decision for the German dubbed version.
One thing not to lose out of sight when translating for dubbing is the need for at least a certain degree of lip synchronicity. When a pairing such as mist/Mist presents itself, involving two (almost) identically pronounced words formed with pretty much the same lip movement, then this is a strong formal argument for using the paired word, providing that the choice will be semantically plausible in the given context.
In the short YouTube video linked above, lip movement may not seem important, given the camera perspective, but in a dubbing studio with a large screen and high resolution, the situation may look quite different.
The emotional state of the character is also relevant in the situation. Dr Crusher is clearly frustrated. All the people she works with on a daily basis have disappeared, and the universe is about to collapse. She cannot explain what is happening and the viewscreen is not providing any useful information as to the whereabouts of the ship.
In such a scene, mist can be an inspiration for the German Mist, which is not only lip-synchronous, but which better transports the emotional state of Dr Crusher than would the use of the default translation, Nebel. And, as the ‘mist’ has no further relevance for the development of the story, the parameter space shifts towards other translation options.
Relationship between text and image
Not only does the ‘mist’ play no role in the rest of the story, but it is not even easily discernible as such. Whatever the viewscreen is showing, it would be hard to identify it if it were not clearly named: You could just as well ask what that strange light is that is coming from that one corner.
The English variant shifts the focus (away from the light) and pre-empts an interpretation (the pale light is a nebula), whereas in the German variant, no perspective is construed. But what becomes more apparent in German is that whatever the viewscreen is showing, it is not what Dr Crusher expected – after all, when the viewscreen allows a glimpse outside the Enterprise, both she and the audience are usually looking at either a field of stars or the crew of some other starship.
Translation or dubbing decision?
Last but not least, we have to ask whether the shift from mist to Mist happened during translation or maybe somewhere else: in the dubbing studio. Did the translation initially contain the variant Nebel instead of Mist? Was there a problem with the timing, was a shorter variant (one vs. two syllables) necessary? Or, did the translated sentence just not fit the character, who had been dubbed by the same person for years, during which time the concept for the character had evolved? Was the English original an inspiration and mist sounded so good that, after a brief discussion, Mist was chosen instead of Nebel? We may never find out, but the possibility exists.
All but normative
The image many people have of translation is that it simply involves the advanced use of dictionaries. Of course, dictionaries are indeed an important tool for translators, but unfortunately, this narrow view results in a very normative stance on translation, as witnessed by the never-ending topos of the ‘correct’ translation. While there may in fact be misleading, incorrect and simply wrong translations out there, the spectrum extending in the other direction is very broad. After all, what is a correct translation? One that is based on the first option given in some dictionary, or one that is (at the least) just as entertaining, informative, etc. as the original? If it had not been for the existence of the original, would anyone have noticed a ‘problem’ with the Mist variant in German?
‘Lost in translation’ is a common phrase, but ‘gained in translation’ should become just as common. Translation enriches our culture, technology and economy in many ways, by bringing in new ideas, by enabling collaboration, etc. And, from a less lofty perspective, translators are sometimes able to reveal previously unrecognized nuances. The example discussed here should provide for an excellent case-in-point.
My thanks go out to Jonatan Jalle Steller for creating the video excerpts and to Cynthia Dyre for revising the English version.