Sunday morning lifeblogging: adventures in European subtitling

Samurai Champloo

Shot taken from Samurai Champloo

About a year ago there was this email exchange between me and some of my AFOE colleagues in which I talked a bit about my daily job as a subtitler. Actually, I was venting. During this exchange I was invited to write a post about subtitling for AFOE.

The image at the beginning of this post is a screen shot taken from the anime series Samurai Champloo that I subtitled some time ago. The Dutch subtitle roughly translates as “So, it was really you, sitting stark naked in that bathtub?” I have translated weirder lines, though.

Many non-European nationals that settle in Europe for the first time, especially Americans, seem to find subtitling and dubbing a particularly quaint feature of the continental European landscape. It must indeed be weird to hear Will Smith speak French or German all of a sudden. And on several occasions I have heard American friends in Belgium wonder why subtitles never seem to correspond with what is actually said on screen. In general they do, really, but in a different way. Moreover, subtitles are often associated with “European” as in “arty, obscure films shown at elitist film festivals”. Last year I translated and subtitled an episode of the British soap Coronation Street in which two parents are wondering what their goth daughter must be talking about with her friends. ‘Boys, probably’ says dad. But mom replies: ‘Probably some film with subtitles that nobody else ever goes to see.’ And there I was, poor little European me, translating that line in a soap opera that could not possibly be more mainstream.

Anyway, I have hesitated a long time before deciding to finally give in and write a post about my job. AFOE is not a lifeblog and, most of all, there are some slightly unsavoury details about my job that I wanted to keep in the closet. Never mind that these details actually prompted the request to write this post… But, hey, it is August (traditional slow season at AFOE) and I feel generous. If you really want to know just how “elitist” the life of the average subtitler is, then read on.

I am not going to go too technical on you guys in this post but, noblesse oblige, I need to point out some useful resources on subtitling. Go have a look at the website of Jan Iversson, a Swedish subtitler and author of the magnificent Subtitling for the media handbook. There is also this website on subtitling standards by Fotios Karamitroglou. It gives you a good idea of all the technical issues. And if you are really masochistic you can go and read some excerpts of Pilar Orero’s Topics in audiovisual translation.

And how does all this technical stuff translate into practice? In November 2007 the European Parliament and Council adopted Media 2007 the latest EU programme designed to support the European audiovisual sector. I had a closer look and discovered the EU had commissioned a few interesting studies. One of these studies (pdf), by French Media Consulting Group, deals with ‘dubbing and subtitling practices in the European audiovisual sector’. It is an extensive overview of how different European countries deal with foreign audiovisual material:

As regards works distributed in cinemas: most European countries use subtitling. And even though some countries would traditionally be inclined to prefer dubbing (Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic), It was noted that most of them are clearly moving towards subtitling. In fact, only Italy and Spain, where films are generally dubbed, have resisted this trend.

As regards works broadcast on television: dubbing is the preferred option in 10 countries: Germany, Austria, Spain, France, Hungary, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland, and French-speaking Belgium. Voiceover is used in 4 countries: Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. Voiceover is also present to a lesser extent in Estonia, where 33% of foreign language programs use voiceover, with the remainder subtitled.

The remaining European countries use subtitling, with Luxembourg and Malta a special case in that they broadcast foreign audiovisual works exclusively in the original version.

The study also mentions, among many other things, the size of the European dubbing and subtitling market:

The study estimated that 2006 turnover for the European dubbing and subtitling industries was between 372 million € (minimum estimate) and 465 million € (maximum estimate).

And here is a nice confirmation of what everybody in Europe already knows (emphasis mine):

Non-European fictions accounted for 73% of the total, of which 73.15% consisted in American programs (54% of the overall total). Non-European fictions represented 68.57% of hours in dubbing countries, compared with 79.55% in subtitling countries, which in fact corresponds to a clear predominance of English-speaking programs since most (i.e., 57%) of these works are coming from English-speaking countries (USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada).

Okay, so much for the practical information. I now need to explain one more thing before I can go on to rant a bit about my personal experiences.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post many people, and not just my American friends, wonder about the discrepancy between what they hear on screen and what they read in the subtitles. The explanation is really quite simple.

First of all, people process spoken information faster than written information. Subtitles follow the pace of spoken language. The amount of text used in subtitles therefore needs to be reduced so that the reading speed matches the speed of the dialogue. The faster a character speaks, the more the translator needs to reduce his text. Most of the time it is simply impossible to do a word for word translation. You, the people who watch tv and movies, simply cannot read fast enough. It is your fault, not the subtitler’s. The need to respect the viewers’ reading speed is a constantly recurring and major challenge in subtitling.

Moreover, in most cases, notably television, subtitlers will translate for a very broad audience. Sure, there are people who can read really fast, but we also have to take into account that there are many people who cannot. The elderly, the less educated, children, etcetera. The reading speed is therefore set to accommodate the average viewer. Of course, it all depends on the targeted audience. If you are doing specialized translations for, say, corporate managers or academic graduates the reading speed will be faster than if you are translating strictly for young children. Personally, I translate mainly for a television audience. Now get this. According to a Belgian study years ago the average television viewer’s literacy level was estimated, if I remember correctly, to be that of a… fourteen year old!

Secondly, subtitlers translate for people who do not understand the source language or the cultural context of that source language. For instance, the English expression “it is raining cats and dogs” simply does not make any sense when translated literally. Dutch-language viewers, my target audience, will not think of heavy rainfall. They will literally be seeing mental images of cats and dogs falling out of the sky. A good translator then needs to come up with the equivalent of that expression in his own language, which will more than likely not feature cats and dogs, and quietly explain to some people (like I had to do) that yes, the English voice was mentioning cats and dogs and that no, this does not mean I have to mention these domestic creatures in my translation. Another example is the American Medicaid program. Unless you are translating a documentary explaining what Medicaid is, you’ll need to find an equivalent, very often a descriptive translation, that makes sense to people who have no idea what it is.

Let’s go back to the cats and dogs for a second. Once I had to do a whole series of funny American cartoons for kids. In one episode the expression “it is raining like cats and dogs” was used in combination with an image of actual cartoon cats and dogs falling out of the sky that totally belied my earlier argument that I do not have to mention these creatures in my translation. After all, this time the animals were shown on screen. So what does a good translator do in a case like this?

Well, first of all you cry a little and curse the fact that you chose to become a subtitler. Next, you search your native language database for any expressions dealing with heavy rainfall in the hope that at least one of them will mention either a dog or a cat so that your translation will correspond with what is being shown on screen. In Dutch there is the word hondenweer or dog’s weather, which means “really bad weather” and generally describes heavy rainfall combined with heavy winds. I solved the pun problem by feeding cats into the equation and came up with something like: “Today, it is dog’s AND cat’s weather.” The pun was preserved and the text corresponded with the image. Eureka!

Sadly, more often than not subtitlers are not that lucky. Just consider this movie scene I once had with a bitchy female character brushing off a vampire with the words “bite me”… And no, a literal translation is not an option in Dutch because you would lose the pun.

The frustrating fact that, in subtitling, the audience can easily compare the source language with the translation is something you learn to accept pretty soon in your career. No matter how ingenious your solutions to translation problems are, there will always be criticism from individuals who are either totally obnoxious or who are completely unaware of what a good translation is all about. And I am working for television. Thousands of people, sometimes even hundreds of thousands, get to see and, in theory, judge my work.

Another closely related frustrating fact is that people are not even supposed to judge your work. A good translation is one that viewers remain totally oblivious to. As soon as viewers start noticing your translation there is something wrong with it. Subtitlers are trained in several techniques that allow the viewer to read subtitles without paying too much attention to them. We respect the rhythm of the dialogue, we keep the layout of the subtitles and the sentence structure (avoid sub clauses, for instance) as clear and simple as possible, etcetera. Sometimes you will have to alter a good translation simply because it will be too difficult to read. Also, the lettertype or font of the subtitles is specifically designed to provide maximum reading comfort. And here we touch upon another constraint for subtitlers. Your text must fit the screen. Sometimes, especially if you are working with a large font size, you simply have to drop information because otherwise your text would be too long and scroll off screen. On several occasions I have had to alter a perfectly good translation just because there was not enough room at the end of the line for the full stop.

The technical constraints are a source of constant frustration. This frustration, or challenge, is particularly palpable when you are translating a quality program. One time I spent two weeks on a screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Now there is a challenge for you. You cannot translate everything, you cannot keep the original sentence structure and you cannot always keep the rhyme schemes. Furthermore, viewers need to follow the action on screen as much as they need to follow the dialogue, which means you have to “simplify” the dialogue and cut it into easily digestible little chunks of text. And, remember, they only have a limited time in which to read the subtitles. If the text is too difficult or too long they cannot go back and read it a second time. At the same time the translator must convey as much of the original flavour, both stylistically and contextually, as possible. With films like these I often feel like I am some sort of firefighter trying to salvage as much as I can from an immense burning mansion. You take out the expensive furniture and artwork and all the people and you leave behind the wallpaper, the rugs, the goldfish tank and the occasional poodle. Sorry, folks, no time.

The funny thing is that many people will claim they never read the subtitles and that they do not need them. This is actually a compliment. Little do they know that those dastardly subtitlers actually trick them into believing that. Research measuring the eye movements of people watching subtitled movies has demonstrated that everybody reads the subtitles, consciously or not. In countries with a long established subtitling tradition viewers are simply so used to reading subtitles that they hardly notice them anymore.

So, to summarize, subtitlers do everything in their power to make sure people do not notice all their brilliant solutions to difficult problems. And they do this so well, that more often than not even their customers (the television stations that buy the subtitles, for instance) have no clue either. They tend to have no idea of the true value of the product they are buying and adjust their prices accordingly. Downwards, ever downwards. To quote from the Media 2007 study mentioned upstream (emphasis mine):

The quality of audiovisual translation will be a major issue in the evolution of subtitling and dubbing in Europe. The quality of audiovisual translation (time spent on research, time spent on contextual analysis, verification) is being threatened by pressure on the structural variables of the market: price, volume, deadlines. The problems of quality of the audiovisual translation are not always caused by an insufficiency of existing training courses.

No, the quality is often market driven. Truly talented translators are driven out of the market because too many television execs have little regard for them. Demand for their quality is low and prices are constantly being driven down. Even experienced translators, indeed under pressure of prices, volumes and deadlines, are having to compromise in order to make ends meet. Or they leave the business altogether. The gaps are then filled by lesser subtitling gods who take advantage of the lower standards and give creedence to the often heard complaint that the quality of subtitles is really bad.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of good translators out there who keep on trucking. Why? Because it is a fascinating and highly varied job. You get to do everything from documentaries to soaps to movies to cartoons to… the list is endless. Nowadays most translators work at home and thanks to the internet you can work in any country you want. All you need is an ADSL connection to download your work and a pc equipped with the necessary software and you are good to go. I am now living in France while I am working for a translation company in Belgium, but I could as easily decide to move to Canada.

Oh, one more thing. About those “unsavoury details”. If there is one thing I absolutely hate to translate, it is… porn. Yes, porn needs to be subtitled as well, believe it or not. I haven’t had any porn to translate for two years now, but in the past I used to do some work for Belgian pay tv. Porn was part of the package, either you accepted the whole package, including great movies and awesome documentaries, or they took their business elsewhere (which they eventually did anyway in order to cut prices, but that is another story).

Porn sucks, no pun intended, for several reasons. The first reason is the appeal of porn. People often ask me what kind of stuff I translate. Typically, I’ll then cite a list of movies and documentaries and make sure to proudly mention that I have done notoriously difficult things like Shakespeare and comedy. The British bard and comedy, however, do not generally impress people much. When I mention Japanese anime the reactions get a little better, “way cool” and all that, but not much. By now you must know that subtitlers have a frustrating job with little or no gratification and that it is always nice for us if we can extract at least a glimmer of recognition out of somebody. So, inevitably, I will be forced to bring up the subject of porn. Remember the enthusiasm with which Obama was recently welcomed in Berlin? That is exactly the reaction I tend to get when I mention porn. All of a sudden I am the toast of the party. How humiliating is that?

The second reason why porn sucks is its unpredictability. Yes, porn can be unpredictable. At least for subtitlers. I have been in the subtitling business for almost eighteen years now and I never missed a deadline. Apart from this one time when, at the very beginning of my porn career, I accepted to do a porn movie over the weekend. On Friday night I got a call from my client. Would I be willing to quickly do an X-rated flick by next Monday? Sure, why not. How much work could that possibly be? Famous last words.

A typical normal feature film, one and a half hours long and with few action sequences, will have some 700-800 subtitles. About three days work if it is not too difficult. This particular porn flick went up to 700!! Even when, obviously, there was plenty of action.

To make things worse, the damn thing was difficult too. Yes, porn can even be difficult. As most of you will know (I assume cheekily) porn producers for some reason must insist on telling a story. In this case the story was about some bimbo trying to make it through college. She was doing a major in Spanish or in history. At one point she was attending class, you could tell because she was wearing glasses, and flaunting her knowledge about the early history of California. She was supposed to be a good student too. I forgot what it was and I’ll be damned if I go and check my archives but suddenly, and to my great horror, she mentioned a 15th century Spanish book. And she gave the title in Spanish. Get the picture? This American bimbo had probably never spoken a word of Spanish in her life before. Hell, she even lacked basic English speaking skills. That mouth was definitely not made for talking. I have a major in Spanish and I did not understand a word of it.

I was so upset that I made it a point of honour to find that book. And I did. After several hours trawling the internet I found exactly ONE webpage that mentioned the book and its Spanish title. That one subtitle alone, invoice value seventy eurocents, cost me hours of work and precious time. And, at the same time, I realized that absolutely no-one watching this flick would give a damn about this Spanish book. That is another thing about porn. Your work means absolutely nothing to no-one. Or almost no-one. There are actually viewers who insist on porn to be subtitled. The pay tv channel at one point tried to broadcast some flicks without subtitles and apparently received so many complaints that they were forced to reinstate them.

The Spanish book was not exceptional, by the way. In another movie a scholarly-like porn actress (she too was wearing glasses to make her character credible) was reading from a marine biology book and citing various names of deep sea mollusks.

And there is the quality of the sound. Porn is often made on the cheap, anyway, with a handycam and not much else in the way of sound equipment. You know how paper always seems to make so much more noise in movies than it does in real life? Well, hard plastic is even worse than paper. Imagine the following scene. A couple is talking and making love in the middle of a room, far away from the camera and mike, on a mattress covered with hard plastic. Outside the building you hear cars going by and dogs barking. In the background movie assistants are knocking things over and there is the sound of the director giving directions. The dialogue of the couple banging away on the noisy mattress is garbled. Some sentences come through clearly and others do not. You, as a subtitler, have to turn all this mess into a consistent dialogue.

But it can get worse. Shower room full of girls, the showers are on and all the girls are giggling and talking among themselves. The main lead actress is standing off-screen, far away under one of the showers amid the noisy girls. On screen you see the male lead having a conversation with the female lead. This dialogue, in the beginning of the movie, sets up “the story”. It is therefore important to get all the information right. You, the subtitler, however, can only hear the male lead… Etcetera, etcetera.

I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it at this. I have done my duty and talked about subtitling. Would love to hear more in the comments section from any colleagues out there, though. Do not be shy.

PS: Here is another good and concise page on subtitling. By Mary Carroll.

Update: Welcome, readers of Andrew Sullivan and The Plank (and Metafilter!). I needed to be a little more precise when I stated that “people process spoken language faster than written language.” This is true in subtitling, not necessarily in other areas, because the viewers are following both the action on screen and the text.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Culture and tagged , , by Guy La Roche. Bookmark the permalink.

About Guy La Roche

Dutch translator and subtitler living in Brittany with his three cats. Has also lived in the Flemish part of Belgium. Speaks English rather fluently and in a former life used to have a decent command of Spanish. Knows swear words in German and Russian. Not quite francophone yet, but slowly getting there. Vaguely centrist observer of the world around him, extremely naive and, sometimes, rather proud of it. Writes Venale Pecus.

60 thoughts on “Sunday morning lifeblogging: adventures in European subtitling

  1. I recall in the past seeing Hong Kong movies shown in Taiwan & Singapore that were dubbed into Mandarin but that also had (left-to-right) subtitles in English and often right-to-left subtitles in Chinese characters.

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