Migrating Texts recap: Subtitling

Over two days, Migrating Texts brought together 17 expert speakers, four panel chairs, and a wide range of attendees from academia and the cultural and creative industries to discuss subtitling, translation and adaptation. We’re incredibly grateful to all those who came and contributed to the conversation. For those who couldn’t make it, over three blogs we’ll be bringing you the main points from each session. First up: subtitling.

L-R: Dr Laura Incalcaterra McLoughlin (NUI Galway),  Prof Kirsten Malmkjær (University of Leicester), Dr Huw Jones (MeCETES, University of York), Dr Sonali Joshi (Day for Night), Lindsay Bywood (UCL/professional subtitler).

L-R: Dr Laura Incalcaterra McLoughlin, Prof Kirsten Malmkjær, Dr Huw Jones, Dr Sonali Joshi, Lindsay Bywood.

The afternoon began with a session entitled ‘Subtitling and Foreign-Language Teaching & Learning’. Our first speaker, Prof Kirsten Malmkjaer (University of Leciester), laid the foundations for the rest of the afternoon by introducing the Translation and Language Learning report, funded by the European Commission The key question is how do we order the main language competences – reading, writing, speaking and listening – and where does translation fit in to this? While translation of large chunks of texts was the main pedagogical tool in Greek and Latin classrooms, it has fallen out of favour in recent years, as pressure increases for language student to learn ‘communication’ skills. As Prof Malmkjaer asks, what is translation if not communication? Or, what is communication if not translation? ‘Communication’ today seems to mean language skills that students can use in business or travel, rather than gaining deeper understanding of other cultures.

The report spans a variety of EU and non-EU countries, with a literature review, analysis of policy, and surveys of language teachers. In addition, the team carried out focus groups in Leicester and Tarragona. Prof Malmkjaer highlighted that there is no common European policy for language learning, and only the European Common Framework mentions translation and interpreting as language competences. Somewhat surprisingly, the UK stands out among EU and other countries in having translation as a key part of language learning (although with more focus on accuracy than fluidity of expression or creativity). The statutory new curriculum introduced in the UK in 2014 includes translation in a more rigorous programme of language learning. However, as the report outlines, while translation can be a very useful tool for language learning, there is still a fear among teachers of using it, especially in multilingual classrooms. While the EU has published the report, as education is a national competence, they can only suggest guidelines and hope that national governments incorporate them into policy decisions.

Our next speaker, professional subtitler and UCL PhD student Lindsay Bywood, presented ‘everything you need to know about subtitling’. She reminded us that while we usually think of subtitling as audiovisual translation, there is also surtitling, subtitling for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and live subtitling (for news broadcasts, for example). In general, most Western and Central European countries dub whereas the UK and Scandinavia subtitle: the factors include community size, cost and speed. In the Arab world, it was always subtitling, but taking literacy issues into account, dubbing is on the rise. Subtitled media have only recently become popular in the UK. It began with Amélie in 2001, but the real boom came with The Killing in 2011: “All of a sudden my friends were asking me about my job”. Lindsay suggested that with smartphones we’re all more used to text as entertainment, and it’s also cheaper to buy and subtitle programming than to produce new.

Lindsay explained some of the practicalities of subtitling. We can listen to a lot more text than we can read, and the text needs to fit on the screen, so we have to condense meaning. While certain rules have evolved over time (text should be on screen for 1-6 seconds, text shouldn’t cover shot changes etc), she maintained that more research is needed to see how these rules work for real viewers. ‘Respeaking’ is the new method of subtitling, using speech recognition software, although homophones can cause problems. It usually takes 3-5 days to subtitle a film well, but different markets, especially different countries, require different standards.

The final presentation of the session was ‘Subtitling in the Language Classroom’ from Dr Laura Incalcaterra McLoughlin (NUI Galway). Like Prof Malmkjaer, Dr Incalcaterra highlighted how “Translation is actively discouraged” in classrooms as it’s seen to limit communication, but translation is communication. Translation has been criticised for being text bound, monosemiotic. Today we use more multimedial, polysemiotic texts, and that is where subtitling comes in. Subtitling involves reflection, problem solving and flexibility, working out how the language fits with images and sound. Using films in classrooms also encourages intercultural learning, reflecting on cultural differences. Subtitling can also promote literacy in general, and visual and audiovisual literacy, reading symbols and body language. Subtitled videos can be shared and shown to their peers, allowing for peer review much more than written translation does. ClipFair is a free online platform, sponsored by the EU, for subtitling, dubbing and audiodescribing, perfect for use in language classrooms.

Our second session of the afternoon, ‘Foreign-Language Film Distribution and TV Programming in the UK’, began with Dr Huw Jones (University of York) introducing his work for MeCETES on the market for foreign language films in the UK. You can download Dr Jones’ whole presentation here. Britain has the lowest proportion of foreign lang film viewers. Only 5% say they watch foreign lang films regularly. Why are people put off foreign films? We don’t like subtitles, they’re too ‘arty’, bad acting, cultural prejudices, limited availability, and a “characteristically insular mindset” which not only stops us learning languages but makes us reject foreign products all contribute. However: 25% of Britons surveyed say there are not enough foreign-lang films in the UK, especially as foreign language films are being squeezed out by American arthouse films and live theatre screenings. Cinemas are also not catering for the new language markets; for example, there is a big disparity between the number of Polish speakers in the UK and Polish film screenings.The typical foreign language film fans are young, urban, educated, earn less than £30k, but have high cultural capital. MeCETES are trying to better understand the market to give policy recommendations to the EU, who currently support the mobility of foreign films through the MEDIA programme. In the following discussion, Paul Kaye, from the DGT at the European Commission added that films should be made available with subtitles in the original language to help language learners.

Finally, Dr Sonali Joshi, founder of Day For Night, gave the industry perspective on subtitling and distribution. Day For Night has been operating for about a year, bringing films they’ve found at festivals to the UK and Ireland. They also subtitle their own films in house as well as work for art galleries, factual programming and films for other companies. Dr Joshi explained how films were released in 33 languages in the UK in 2012 but only 1 or 2 per language. The greatest number of foreign releases are in French, but the biggest box office draw is Hindi. The decreasing distinction between the programming at independent and chain cinemas means less space for foreign films, which is why Day For Night screen films in non-traditional places like universities and galleries. Dr Joshi suggested that we need more film education to encourage young people to watch foreign films, like the BBC 2 series Moviedrome did from 1988-2000. When asked about whether Video On Demand makes it easier to distribute foreign language films, Dr Joshi replied that small films can get completely lost on the big VOD platforms like Netflix, but curated platforms like Mubi can be a good alternative.

The afternoon ended with a round table between all speakers. We discussed how there is often no subtitling budget because people don’t think of it until too late, resulting in a loss of quality and communication. The consensus was it’s very odd most directors don’t care about subtitles when they govern how most people experience the film. Dr Joshi explained that most directors rely on favours to get films subtitled for festivals, and maintained that  festivals should insist on a standard of subtitling. Our speakers also all agreed that there is space in academia to develop new modules that bring together subtitling skills and cultural film studies.

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