The forgotten world of TV translators

Copyright: Maarit Vilmunen

When you are watching TV, you seldom think that behind all of it, thereís almost always a translator who, sweating and shedding tears, has subtitled, or done something else necessary to make watching the program as pleasant as possible. "There were times when people easily gave the translators feedback if they had done a lousy job. These days thereís hardly any feedback, we donít get feathers in our cap, or black eyes. Donít the viewers care about subtitles anymore?" asks Professor Bernard Vandenheede from the University of Gent, Belgium.

The tradition of TV translation varies a lot in different countries. In some European countries almost all foreign programs are dubbed. However in Finland, almost 80 % of all programs are subtitled and only cartoons for children are dubbed. For example in Belgium the situation is totally different. The country is clearly divided in two when it comes to TV translating.

Bernard Vandenheede. Copyright: Maarit Vilmunen

"In Southern Belgium all TV programs are dubbed, but we in Northern Belgium prefer subtitling. Only voice-over documentaries and cartoons for children are the exception, theyíre dubbed", says the jovial gentleman next to me, Professor Bernard Vandenheede from the University of Gent. He teaches among other things subtitling and has taken part in many international TV translation projects. The latest of them is the Socrates project in which five countries took part. The participating universities were The University of Gent from Belgium, The University of Helsinki from Finland, The University of Salamanca from Spain, The University of Reykjavik from Iceland and The University of Maine from Germany. Professor Vandenheede is visiting Savonlinna School of Translation Studies by courtesy of the Audiovisual communication project for translators and interpreters at the University of Joensuu in Savonlinna.


An interesting path leads to the career of teacher
More about the project
The students get to know different styles of AV translation


Being a TV translator is harder than you might think. Presumably many a viewer has, lying on the couch, cursed the translator who hasnít translated something in the program, and at the same time has been sure, that he could do it better. Hardly ever do you come to think that maybe itís not that simple: subtitling is translation, in which many restricting factors have an influence. The most important factors are, of course, time and space. Thereís always a limited amount of time, because everything that is said in the program, should in principle be said in the subtitle.

"Everything in TV translation is dependent on the time, because it determines in what time everything important has to be said. And usually the text must be reduced" says Professor Vandenheede. There are only two lines of space and on each line there are only about 30 marks to be used, therefore the translator might have problems while subtitling rapidly spoken dialogue.

The Finnish way vs. the Belgium way of subtitling

Copyright: Maarit Vilmunen

There are both similarities and differences in subtitling tradition between Finland and Belgium. Already the working process is quite different: the Finns start by translating the material, the Belgians first find out from the tape how much time there is to use.


Why Belgians start by the tape


If you compare Finnish and Belgian subtitled programs, the differences are clear but not disturbing. Belgians, for example, use more one-line subtitles and thatís why the number of them is bigger. Furthermore, there are conventions in the way, for example, sentence continuations, songs, or hesitations are indicated. However, there can be conventions in these even inside one country, because the employers (TV-channels) usually have their own ways and styles which the translator has to follow.

"If you do your job well, the viewer doesnít even know there are any subtitles" is a very good motto for the translator.

It might be that the situation will change in the near future. With digital television and DVDís there will be more and more use for TV translators, too. The problem is, will the quality of subtitles suffer as the new things gain ground?

Professor Bernard Vandenheede doesnít look at the future through rose-colored glasses, either:


Quality of TV translations is declining


"Once we subtitled an episode of a TV series on purpose as poorly as possible, and showed the episode to a group of people to see their reactions. Nobody gave us feedback. If we had done this kind of an experiment ten years ago, the result would have been totally different!"

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