n October 2006, I attended the Languages and the Media Conference in Berlin as a representative of the FIT Media Committee, in lieu of our Coordinator Gabriela Scandura (of the Argentine Association of Translators and Interpreters), who could not be present.
The Languages and the Media Conference, or Sprachen und Medien, is an international gathering of professionals, broadcasters, and academics working in the field of the audiovisual. This event occurs every two years. I delivered a paper at the first of such conferences in 1996.2
The theme this year was "Free AccessPriceless Rights?" The Conference was preceded by one day of workshops, which I unfortunately could not attend. The conference proper was held from 26 to 27 October at the Hotel InterContinental Berlin.
Professor Yves Gambier (University of Turku, Finland) chaired the first session, on "Accessibility", after delivering a warm welcoming address. The topics being discussed here were new to me. I guess I'd had until then a narrower understanding of what media translation was all about. I'd never thought of making films, TV shows, museums and other public exhibitions fully accessible to everybody, including those who find it hard to hear or to see. In Europe there is a commitment on the part of public television broadcasters and museums to make these audiovisual manifestations available to all. So we heard about the UK experience with audio description from Joan Greening (Royal National Institute of the Blind, UK), we learned from Josélia Neves (Escola Superior de Tecnologia e Gestão de Leiria, Portugal) how museums in Portugal were being made accessible to the blind through audiovisual translation, and Laura Santamaria (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) told us about the efforts that were being made in Spain to give everyone "The Right to Listen to the Screen" through audio description. I felt I had been left in the dark about this development since everybody else seemed to be well aware of this and I wasn't. There was an intervention from the floor mentioning a theatre for the blind in New York, and somebody else said that, in Hamburg, deaf guides were used to help hearing impaired people visit museums. The main point was to find ways in which language could be used to make the arts truly accessible to everyone.
Then there was a coffee break where everybody vied to make themselves heard over the din and shouts of long lost friends meeting again after what? Has it been that long? And you still remember me! How could I forget? I spoke to Yves Gambier, Corinne Imhauser (ISTI-HEB, Belgium), and Mary Carroll (TITELBILD Subtitling and Translation GmbH, Germany), all three of whom I hadn't seen in a long while. Though Yves and I had both been at the same conference in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, a few years back. It was a great pleasure to be with them again.
When the bell rang, we split into two groups. I went into the Charlottenburg III room where a panel chaired by Jorge Diaz-Cintas (Roehampton University, UK) was looking at audiovisual translation from the point of view of norms. According to Jan Pedersen (Stockholm University, Sweden), it seems that a norm for subtitling has evolved among the three main Scandinavian-speaking countries of Europe: Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (in alphabetical order), where the emerging pattern is that certain words are increasingly imported from one language into another. Then we looked at linguistic variation in subtitling, and Jenny Mattson (Göteborg University, Sweden) pointed out the way discourse markers (such as with regard to; regarding; as regards; as far as; etc.) were translated on public TV, commercial TV and DVD. And finally, Muhammad Y Gamal (Sydney Institute of Technology, Australia) talked about the challenges of subtitling into Arabic for various countries that have different norms for written Arabic.
Then we had a wonderful lunch, which I will not attempt to describe because I trust your imagination. Believe me, there was food for thought, for vegetarians, and for carnivores. I sat with a former student of mine to whom I had taught film translation in Vienna in 2002 (Gülçin Körpe, a member of Universitas), and with a brilliant simultaneous interpreter of Italo-British descent who could easily switch from French to English to Italian to German flawlessly but whose name unfortunately escapes me at the moment.
In the afternoon, I attended a panel on professional challenges chaired by Corinne Imhauser. Participants talked about theatre surtitles (Yvonne Griesel, Germany), quality control in subtitling (Ana Maria da Silva Cravo, Escola Superior de Educação de Castelo Branco, Portugal), live voice-over for film festivals (Caroline Elias, Film & Television Academy[HFF] Konrad Wolf, Germany), and Jean-Louis Sarthou (SNAC and SACEM, France) spoke, in French, about the working conditions of translators who adapt films for synchronized dubbing in France. Luckily for the French-impaired, one of the participants happened to be the talented and devoted interpreter whose name I forget and with whom I had shared lunch. Our nameless but generous interpreter therefore gathered the aforementioned linguistically handicapped colleagues around him and made them au fait.
After another loud and pleasant coffee break (see picture above), everybody rallied in the larger room for a panel on live subtitling led by Mary Carroll. In their talks the panellists, Beatrice Caruso (Swiss Text, Switzerland), Thijs de Korte (NOB Hilversum, The Netherlands), Magnus Rönnlid (SVT Subtitling, Sweden), Sabine Wahrmann (ARD Text, Germany), and David Padmore (Red Bee Media, UK), were mostly concerned with the technical aspects of the methods used by European broadcasters to provide live subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired and, in the case of the Netherlands, English to Dutch live subtitling for news and information shows as well. In the examples we were shown of live subtitling as it is practiced in Sweden, a line of text would move continuously from right to left at the bottom of the screen as the images changed. The drawback, I find, is that every time the shot changes, the viewer tends to start reading the sentence over again from the left, which takes longer and is distracting. In Switzerland, the emphasis was put on new software. The problem with this, it was pointed out, is that rates are constantly being lowered and human subtitlers are paid less and less, plus they're the ones who are expected to purchase the new software. In the Netherlands, the live interlingual subtitling experience allows viewers to read simultaneously in Dutch, subtitles that correspond to the speech they hear in English from politicians on the screen. The Dutch subtitlers manage to do this by showing the image with a delay of 20-30 seconds. This delay enables them to translate what is being said and break it up into subtitles that appear synchronously on the screen. Magnus Rönnlid said that the Swedish broadcasters would never accept such a delay. He said they wouldn't want to be the ones who broadcast President Bush declaring World War III 30 seconds after everybody else did. David Padmore, formerly of the BBC, explained that in Britain in order to produce subtitles that would (more or less synchronously) follow the image on the screen, stenographers were first used. Since such shorthand writers are becoming more and more scarce and difficult to find, speech recognition software is now used, with greater delay and less accuracy. And this is simply for the transcription of English to English text, but British broadcasters are now introducing French to English live subtitling as well.
At 6 pm there was a drinks reception, where more noisy conversations, exchange of business cards and networking occurred. After which smaller groups were formed to continue discussions seriously and get to the heart of the matter. Intellectually famished delegates repaired to their favourite drinking holes for a liquid bite to eat.
Day two began with a panel led by Mary Carroll on various tools used in subtitling. Note that the main sponsor of the conference was Soft)Ni, offering subtitling and captioning solutions. Demonstrators were standing at a table near the pretty girl at the entrance (see picture 5 above) and were eager to show us how the software worked. On this panel, academics from Dublin City University (Marin Flanagan and Colm Caffrey), and representatives of various large companies (Softel, SDL, and SysMedia) that offer products and services in subtitling, translation, and video technologies spoke about the automatic translation of subtitles, machine translation and translation tools, and explained how these new tools represent the future of subtitling. Some in the audience expressed concern over what the impact of these "improvements" will eventually be on the income and working conditions of human translators, not to mention the quality of the resulting translation output by such automatic tools. In my specialty, which is synchronized dubbing, I know that such tools are absolutely useless, at least for the moment, and therefore represent absolutely no threat. Nobody asked me for my opinion, but since I'm writing this report, I might as well say what's on my mind.
When I began working as a translator, all I needed was a pencil, an eraser, paper and dictionaries. My most precious tool was my mind, my accumulated experience with the culture and literature of both my source language and my target language, my linguistic knowledge, and my ability to write understandably. I would hand over my translation to a typist who copied it and gave it back to me for proofreading. Computers got rid of the typist. And that job was added to my own. But that was okay by me, though not for the typist, because it allowed me to work faster and more efficiently. Then I began translating films for dubbing and returned to the pencil and eraser, writing my translation/adaptation by hand on a mother band that is then copied manually by a calligrapher onto a rhythmo band.3 In the case of subtitles, I use my computer and work on a template where the number of the subtitle, the timecodes in and out, and the number of characters allowed per subtitle are indicated. But essentially, I still use my mind and my accumulated knowledge and artistic judgment.
But present-day research emphasises software, especially for subtitling, not so much for dubbing mercifully. And translators are expected to buy the software with their own money, lower their rates, and produce more work, so that their employers can increase their profits. I fail to see the advantage for us practitioners of translation in the field of the audiovisual. Okay, help me down from my soapbox now.
On the next panel, chaired by Beatrice Caruso, Peter Templeton (Satellite Program Services [SPS], Australia), Hubert Schilling (CIRCOM and France 3 Alsace), Elisabeth Krone (ARTE), and Omar Asmar (MTV Europe) joined the fray and gave the point of view of broadcasters whose mandate is to reach viewers and listeners across language barriers. It was interesting to learn how, at MTV, subtitles sought to create an idiom that corresponds to how the youth and their rock idols speak while at the same time respecting the norms of the language. Arte, the German-French broadcaster, uses simultaneous interpreters to provide live translations of news and information shows. On the other side of the globe, Australians, who have to deal with non-European languages, need to take their cues from members of the public who, in some instances, prefer English programmes to Chinese programmes which they find too heavy with propaganda.
After another copious lunch, I unfortunately missed the presentation by my friend Carlo Eugenio (University of Naples Federico II, Italy), since I attended the other panel, on linguistic models, chaired by Aline Remael (University College Antwerp, Belgium). Here we heard about studies that were carried out by Ph.D. students on a linguistic model for dubbing in Catalan (Anna Marzà i Ibàñez, Universitat Jaume I, Spain), on the vocabulary used for dubbing conversations (Pablo Romero Fresco, Heriot-Watt University, UK), and on predictable patterns in the dubbing of television series (Christopher Taylor, University of Trieste, Italy). The trend in university research seems to be first the establishment of a corpus, say a television police series or a sitcom, then the counting of certain linguistic elements in search of a pattern or a structure. For instance, the various ways in which the interjection "well" is translated in a set number of dubbed films or in the different episodes of a TV series, as opposed to what the target language offers as a choice in reality and in existing comparable sitcoms and TV series originally produced in the target language. The conclusion, in this case, was that the dubbing translator/adaptor uses only a limited vocabulary in comparison to the script writer of a TV show or to the "man in the street". The reason advanced for this was that the public expected the use of a certain stock of set phrases and expressions in dubbed audiovisual productions irregardless of the actual usage in real life, whereas viewers wanted original TV productions to use the vocabulary they actually spoke in real conversations. It seemed to me that the researchers would have gained from consulting with practitioners of the craft before reaching conclusions which, though interesting and partly accurate, missed the point to a large extent because they failed to take into account the many constraints that regulate the work of the translator/adaptor for the screen and to which the script writer is not restricted. For instance, here in French Canada, English swear words are a pain in the [body part of your choice] to translate, because of the constraint of always using "international" French and of avoiding colloquialisms in dubbing, while script writers are not limited in such a way. The problem is there are no swear words in "international" French. Street language is by essence colloquial. Therefore a similar study conducted in Canada would conclude that dubbed films are less accurate than original productions in their use of language. But why is that so? Is it through of a lack of professionalism on the part of the translator/adaptor? Or is it because they are forced to use an artificial language by distributors whose only motivation is to reach the largest audience possible? Academics would profit by consulting practitioners to learn more about their working conditions and constrictions, although I must also admit that practitioners could use the information uncovered by university researchers if such studies were made available to them.
Christopher Taylor chaired the next panel I attended, which dealt with translation strategies. I was busy networking after the coffee break, was late and missed most of the first paper delivered by Dr. Zoë Pettit (University of Greenwich, UK), but she seemed to have done a good job, because everybody applauded when she sat down. Cristina Valentini (University of Bologna, Italy) imparted her reflections on the localization of dubbed films, which is mainly done through the verbal explanation of visual cues. Such cues did not need to be explained to the original viewer who spoke the source language, but are unclear to the viewer of the dubbed version. She showed how the translator/adaptor manages to introduce into the speech of the characters on the screen an explanation for such cues that might not be understood otherwise. Then Maria José Veiga (University of Aveiro, Portugal) warned us that humour was a very serious thing before launching into a solemn and well documented explanation of strategies used to subtitle humour. By that time the conference was coming to a close and participants were beginning to be overloaded with information. I could hear one "tilt" after another as eyes glazed over and papers were shuffled.
Professor Yves Gambier addressed the assembly for a final benediction and a warm au revoir, inviting everybody to the next Languages and the Media Conference to be held two years from now, in 2008. And that was it.
1 Member of LTAC/ATTLC and of SARTEC
2 "Translating for the Audio-Visual in a Bilingual Country--The Canadian Dubbing and Subtitling Experience", Translating for the Media, Papers from the International Conference Languages & the Media, Berlin, 22-23 November 1996, edited by Yves Gambier, University of Turku, Centre for Translation and Interpreting, 1998.
3 See http://accurapid.com/journal/05dubb.htm