Subtitling multilingual films: Options vs Constraints

At the third instalment of Migrating Texts on 11 November 2016, Dr Irene de Higes Andino (Universitat Jaume I) both presented her research and ran a hands-on activity on subtitling multilingual films. In this blog, she explores some of the key points she shared with us on the day.

Subtitling multilingual films: Options vs Constraints

Although the coexistence of languages in audiovisual texts is not a new phenomenon, as Jean François Cornu made clear during his presentation at the Migrating Texts 3 event, the reality is that multilingualism is more and more present nowadays in films and TV series. Its translation is a challenge for subtitlers as the presence of a third language (or languages) (L3, following terminology by Corrius 2008, Zabalbeascoa & Corrius 2012 and de Higes Andino 2014) increases the traditional process of translation. In the case of a multilingual discourse, it is not just a monolingual discourse (in L1) translated into another monolingual discourse (in L2). What happens with L3 during the translation process?

As I did during my presentation and the hands-on activity at the Migrating Texts event last November, here I will reflect on the process of subtitling multilingual films.

In my conception, a multilingual film is any audiovisual text (TV series, feature film, short film, documentary, etc.) including more than one (live, dead or invented) language (see a summary of variables for L3 in Zabalbeascoa 2012). Any film from the Star Wars saga is a multilingual film, as are the documentary Do You Really Love Me? (Alistair Cole 2011) and the animation TV series Dora the Explorer (Nickelodeon Studios 2000- ).

One characteristic of multilingualism in films is that language diversity makes translation visible. Sometimes intradiegetically (Cronin 2009), when translation becomes part of the story and serves as a communication tool among characters; i.e. when a character acts as an interpreter – for example, in It’s a Free World… (Ken Loach 2007). In other occasions filmmakers find it necessary to translate L3 extradiegetically, that is, translation is added when editing the film for the audience to understand L3 (Cronin 2009). The most common solution is to add subtitles during the post-production process – as in Provoked: A True Story (Jag Mundhra 2006). Otherwise an off-camera voice may translate L3 dialogues through voice-over – e.g., in Spanglish (James L Brooks 2005). Finally translation is conspicuous by its absence when no translation is provided for L3 dialogues. In doing so the audience is faced with a sense of incomprehension which might be similar to the one felt by characters. Later I will explain how the (in)visibility of translation in the text to be translated usually affects its translation.

Let’s now reflect on the subtitling process, an industrial process in which different human agents are involved. Not only does the subtitler participate in it with his/her translation, but final subtitles are the product of a process initiated and supervised by the distributor. The subtitler task is thus open to options but also limited by constraints.

When translating a multilingual film, subtitlers have different options; they need to decide which subtitling convention to apply, mainly based on the translation strategy chosen. To do so, first, they usually reflect on the function multilingualism has in the text. The presence of an L3 usually renders realism in the sense of representing language diversity in a society, but it may have a different function too. Sometimes it might just mark characters as an Other, or emphasise an identity or even voice social criticism. It may also be a vehicle for humour or be used to create confusion (cf. de Higes Andino 2014).

Once the importance of multilingualism is determined, it is time for the subtitler to decide the translation strategy (Bartoll 2006): Will multilingualism be marked or not marked? The following table, based on de Higes Andino 2014, shows how the translation strategy is reflected in the film by the language and/or the typographical convention used in subtitles. Two more conventions are included: the combination of modes (for example, in one same scene some L3 dialogues may be subtitled but some others may be not) or by the absence of subtitles (be it because L3 is not to be translated or because L3 coincides with L1 dialogues, which are the ones subtitled due to relevance principles).

Translation mode Conventions Translation strategies
Multilingualism is marked Multilingualism is not marked
Subtitling Language L1 x
L2 x
L3 (same or different) x
Interlanguage x
Typography Box x
Brackets x
Capital letters x
Change of positioning x
Colours x
Italics x
Label x
Quotation marks x
Square brackets x
No special typography x
Combination of modes x
Non-translation Absence of subtitles x (if no subtitles are on screen) x (if dialogues in L3 overlap with L1)

As the text to be translated is audiovisual, the decision to apply one option or another may be based on constraints. A multilingual film might be technically manipulated (Díaz Cintas 2012) when the way L3 dialogues are subtitled is restricted by textual constraints (Martí Ferriol 2010):

  • Formal constraints (related with the conventions of subtitling)
  • Linguistic constraints (related with the languages used in the text)
  • Semiotic and iconic constraints (related with semiotics and visual elements)
  • Socio-cultural constraints (related with the cultures represented in the text)

According to the results from de Higes Andino (2014), no clear trend is generally observed in the translation of L3 despite the absence or presence of constraints. It seems to depend much on extra-linguistic factors, except on one occasion. L3 is frequently not marked when subtitlers have to face formal constraints implying text reduction (voices in the distance, long shots, dialogue overlapping or L3 overlapping with the music code). In their absence, on the contrary, the percentage of samples marking multilingualism increases considerably. That particularly technical constraint does seem to limit the subtitler task.

However, this is not the only constraint determining the subtitler’s option. Extra-linguistic decisions may produce an ideological manipulation of the text (Díaz Cintas 2012). First, the original intention of filmmakers is much taken into account. From the interviews carried out during my research, the following conclusion was drawn: Linguistic representation of migrant characters affects L3 subtitling as L3 dialogues subtitled into L1 by the filmmaker are nearly the only ones to be translated into the target language.

Second, the subtitler task is often restricted by the other human agents participating in the process. The distributor, as the initiator of the commission, may limit his/her options. Distributors interviewed for my research were against the use of typography to mark multilingualism because of artistic reasons related to the readability of subtitles. On the one hand, they thought that the audience may not accept or understand typographical syntax used to visually mark multilingualism. On the other hand, they were convinced it is unnecessary as the audience may be able to detect code-switching through the soundtrack.

The final conclusion of my descriptive and comparative research on the subtitling of multilingual British films into Spanish is that generally no clear trend is observed in the subtitling of L3. Due to the increasing amount of multilingual audiovisual texts, it is my aim, however, to show professional subtitlers and future professionals which different options they have and which textual constraints and extra-linguistic decisions may determine the final solution. In doing so, they would be capable of distinguishing the function of multilingualism, justify their decision on the translation strategy and try to convince filmmakers and distributors on new language and typographical conventions marking L3.


Bartoll, E. (2006). Subtitling multilingual films. In M. Carroll, H. Gerzymisch-Arbogast, & S. Nauert (Eds.), Proceedings of the Marie Curie Euroconferences MuTra: Audiovisual Translation Scenarios, Copenhagen 1-5 May 2006.

Cronin, M. (2009). Translation goes to the Movies. London and New York: Routledge.

Corrius, M. (2008). Translating Multilingual Audiovisual Texts. Priorities, Restrictions, Theoretical Implications (PhD dissertation). Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Barcelona.

de Higes Andino, I. (2014). Estudio descriptivo y comparativo de la traducción de filmes plurilingües: el caso del cine británico de migración y diáspora (PhD dissertation). Universitat Jaume I, Castelló de la Plana.

Díaz Cintas, J. (2012). Clearing the Smoke to See the Screen: Ideological Manipulation in Audiovisual Translation. Meta, 57(2), 279-293.

Martí Ferriol, J. L. (2010). Cine independiente y traducción. Valencia: Tirant lo Blanch.

Zabalbeascoa, P. (2012). Translating Heterolingual Audiovisual Humor: Beyond the Blinkers of Traditional Thinking. In J. Muñoz-Basols, C. Fouto, L. Soler González, & T. Fisher (Eds.), The Limits of Literary Translation: Expanding Frontier in Iberian Languages (pp. 317–338). Kassel: Reichenberger.

Zabalbeascoa, P., & Corrius, M. (2012). How Spanish in an American film is rendered in translation: dubbing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Spain. Perspectives.



Adapting Text for Radio Workshop with Jeremy Mortimer

On Friday 10 July, Migrating Texts at the IMLR hosted a workshop on adapting texts for radio with Jeremy Mortimer. Now a freelancer, Jeremy spent ‘decades’ writing and producing over 400 radio dramas with the BBC. In an equally fun-filled and informative afternoon, Jeremy led a group of 16 participants – including students, lecturers, publishers, and people preparing to start their own feminist radio station – through all the stages of turning a written text into a recorded drama.

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Jeremy began by pointing out that even though the workshop was called ‘Adaptation for radio’, really we would be adapting for sound, as today there is nothing to stop you recording your own podcast at home and sharing it with the world. Unlike television, radio has a very fast turn around; you can have an idea in the morning and have listeners by the afternoon. The radio play is still a very popular genre, with the BBC Radio 4 afternoon slot attracting 750,000 listeners daily. As Jeremy underlined, the radio play is performed in the listeners’ heads, which means 750,000 different radio plays every day.

In Jeremy’s mind, there are only two rules:
1) Don’t bore your listener!
2) Be careful about how you confuse your listener (that doesn’t mean don’t confuse them – a little confusion is a good thing).

Other suggestions from participants included bearing in mind the attention span of listeners, but Jeremy countered that broadcasters are often too patronising and shouldn’t underestimate their listeners. The key to making a good radio drama is the resonance of the human voice. Referring to the prologue of Henry V, in which a sole voice creates epic battles, Jeremy affirmed that speaking directly to the audience, giving them something, is essential to successful radio drama. Using space and distance is also very important – you need to consider where to position your actors in relation to the microphone depending on whether you want them whispering in the listeners’ ears or shouting at them. Adding music can then increase the drama and direct the listeners’ emotions.

As for the question of fidelity, Jeremy asked “Fidelity to what?” Perspectives shift over time, so even if we stuck to Shakespeare’s words, our listeners would interpret his meanings in a very different way to that originally intended. On the other hand, an adaptation could sound very different and yet be very faithful to the spirit or effects of the source material. We should be less reverential when adapting, Jeremy insisted. He added that changing tenses is particularly important as past tense doesn’t work on radio!

Introductions to radio drama over, the real work began. We were divided into four groups and each given a text to adapt: two poems by Li Po, ‘Bringing in the Wine’ and ‘Chang Kan Village Song’; an extract from Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel; and the beginning of Gabriel García Márquez’s short story ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’. To download the texts, click here. We were challenged to write a script of roughly one minute, starting with our first impressions and the words jump off the page for us.MT scripts

With the help of three seasoned radio drama performers, we then recorded our scripts.

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If the embedded player does not work, please click here to listen on Soundcloud.

Having listened back to our recordings, we noted that physicality is very important; even though we can’t be seen, physically acting out the roles made for much livelier and more convincing recordings. As Jeremy reminded us, voices rely on bodies to work properly.

The afternoon ended with a final piece of advice from Jeremy: if you are interested in writing for radio, get out there and do it! Actually record your script so you have something to play people if you want them to commission you. Even if your ultimate aim is the BBC, you will need plenty of experience to get there, so try university or local radio stations or just start uploading podcasts from your home.

Developments in subtitling by Lindsay Bywood

Following her fascinating intervention at Migrating Texts 2014, in this blog post academic and professional subtitler Lindsay Bywood provides more information about developments in audiovisual translation.

Subtitling has, in recent years, become a somewhat more visible presence on our screens than it once was, thanks in part to the popularity and success of series such as The Killing, Borgen, and Inspector Montalbano to name but a few. It seems that the TV audience in the UK are slowly becoming more willing to consume foreign-language film and television with subtitles. This is extremely good news for practitioners and scholars of audiovisual translation (AVT) who have been working to make video material accessible to speakers of other languages and those with disabilities for some decades now.

The practice of subtitling consists in converting speech to text (with or without translation), but this conversion is by no means simple. Firstly, we can speak faster than we can read, so the subtitle must usually be shorter than the utterance. It is the subtitler’s task to edit the spoken text to a length at which the viewer can read it and still have time to appreciate the visual content offered by the programme producer. Secondly there are technical constraints: foreign-language subtitles are a maximum of two lines, so as not to mask too much of the image, and there is a limit to the length of the text line which can be displayed on the screen. Additionally the subtitler needs to make the text as readable as possible in order to allow the viewer easy access to the meaning of the dialogue. To this end, the subtitler has to follow both semantic and syntactical rules alongside the technical and timing constraints.

The subtitler does have some help, however, as their task differs from that of the text translator in that for the text translator, the target text replaces the source text, whilst for the subtitler, the source text remains unaltered alongside the target text. A film or television programme is a multi-semiotic text, and the viewer receives meaning through the dialogue, the images on screen, the music and sound effects, as well as the subtitles (and any other text on screen).

The biggest difference between translation subtitling and other forms of translation is that it is also the subtitler’s job to decide when the subtitles should be seen on screen, that is, the in-times (when the subtitle appears) and the out-times (when it disappears). A subtitle file consists of text and timecode, and the timecode is what facilitates this process; the timecode in the file corresponds to a timecode carried in the audiovisual material. Here too there are rules which have been developed over time: some through viewer research, and some just through convention.

The other form of subtitling is subtitling for the D/deaf and the hard-of-hearing, which is sometimes called SDH. This is usually done in the same language as the programme. SDH subtitling is the job of someone called a subtitler, who might even be the same person who does translation subtitling. There are some differences in the rules applied to this form of subtitling, though: since research has shown that D/deaf and hard-of-hearing people prefer to have more text rather than less, these subtitles can be longer than two lines, and are often verbatim, that is completely unedited. Also because these particular viewers have little or no access to the aural elements of the audiovisual content, there is a need to indicate other non-verbal noises, such as sound effects, laughter, etc. Additionally this viewer group requires indication of who is speaking, which is done using various methods, including speaker labels, colours, and positioning the subtitle under the mouth of the person speaking.

There is a legal requirement in many European countries for a certain amount of television and film to be made accessible to those with disabilities, and the UK, through Ofcom, leads the way in this respect. As many television programmes are live (not only news, but also sporting events and live entertainment programmes such as The X Factor and I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here) this poses a problem for the broadcaster: how to subtitle these programmes when even the fastest typist cannot keep up with the speed of an average speaker. As often in these cases, technology provides an answer of sorts. The most recent solution for what is termed ‘live subtitling’ has resulted in the creation of a new professional profile within AVT: the respeaker. The respeaker is trained to listen to the audio of a TV programme, and ‘respeak’ this audio in subtitle form, with punctuation, into a speech recognition system, such as might be used by people who cannot touch type. This system then interfaces with subtitling software to produce the subtitles on screen, providing a faster service than was previously possible. The speech recognition system is trained to recognise the respeaker’s voice and accent, which results in a high level of accuracy. However, the system struggles to deal with homophones, leading to some of the sometimes hilarious mistakes that we see lampooned on social media.

 year of the whores

 To work as an offline subtitler (that is, not live subtitling as described above) it is usually necessary to have software. Previously such software was either very expensive or the proprietary software of commercial subtitling companies. The market has now expanded and cheaper software exists along with freeware and cloud-based platforms that have all of the essential functionality to work as a subtitler but might lack some of the more sophisticated tools of the more established packages. There are many courses in subtitling, from one-day introductions up to Master’s courses and some companies also offer training to interested parties.

With the explosion in audiovisual content, the interest in and demand for subtitling has increased exponentially, which is seen as a positive development throughout the industry.

About the author

Lindsay Bywood studied German and Philosophy at the University of Oxford and holds an MA in Translation from the University of Salford. She has been working in subtitling since 1998, starting as a subtitler and quickly progressing to senior management. Most recently she was Director of Business Development at VSI, an international subtitling and dubbing company with headquarters in London. Lindsay is currently studying for a PhD in subtitling at CenTraS, University College London. She teaches at MA level and runs workshops in project management, AVT, post-editing, and professional skills for translators. She is a member of ESIST, speaks regularly at translator training events, and has published several papers on subtitling. Her research interests include diachronic variation in the subtitling of foreign films into English, the didactics of translation, machine translation for subtitling, and the interface between academia and industry.

Migrating Texts recap: Adaptation

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. Last but not least: adaptation.

L-R: Melanie Stokes, Gwyneth Hughes, Jeremy Mortimer

L-R: Melanie Stokes, Gwyneth Hughes, Jeremy Mortimer

The adaptation session began with a panel of industry professionals discussing their adaptations of Dickens to film, radio and television. Our first speaker, Gwyneth Hughes, explained that you have to pitch based on your ability as a screenwriter to stand up to the greats like Dickens. In adaptation you have to be prepared to kill your darlings. You have the genius on your shoulder, but your employers just want to make money and don’t care much for fidelity. Huge casts of characters and lavish settings just aren’t affordable. Gwyneth called Edwin Drood, which she has written a screen adaptation of, THE great unfinished novel. Everyone has an idea for it, but you have to do what’s possible. The biggest challenge in adapting a classic is how to get across what people are thinking and feeling: “In novels you’re inside people’s heads. On telly you’re outside someone’s face”.

Jeremy Mortimer, who has produced over 200 radio dramas for the BBC, explained how the way that the BBC has changed its time-slots has changed approaches to adaptations, especially the introduction of the 15 minute drama slot. In the 80s, the approach was big books over many many episodes. A Tale of Two Cities in 1989 was 7 hours long, whereas the 2011 version had only 3 hours. Jeremy equated this process to how Dickens himself had to adapt his writing to publishers’ needs, with the beginning of Barnaby Rudge published long before Dickens wrote the end. While novels are often written in the past tense, radio adaptations have to be in the present because “A novel is what happened whereas drama is absolutely now”. Unlike TV and film, radio allows much greater use of a narrator and has no restrictions in terms of settings (so the latest verion of Barnaby Rudge starts in the modern day Middle East). Jeremy affirmed that casting is an important part of the adaptation process as it affects how people experience the text. He therefore cast Daniel Laurie, an actor with Downs syndrome, as Barnaby because he didn’t want to direct an actor pretending. He ended with the assertion that every adaptation, even The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, adds to our collective idea of what Dickens means. As long as you preserve the essence of Dickens (his impressionist style, his care for his characters), you are doing Dickens.

Our final speaker in this panel, Melanie Stokes once presented “Not As Good As the Book” for Channel 4, in which she concluded that all adaptations are personal readings. Film, she argued, is more like real-life. Time never stops and you can never know what’s in someone’s head. You have to be very careful using literary devices for the screen: voice over can be the death of the story as it loses urgency. Pacing is absolutely key in films. What makes someone like Danny Boyle a great director is that he makes films like music. Dickens, Melanie maintained, is tragicomedy, but he’s as messy as life: with romance, grotesque, silliness,and sinister villains. Modern audiences aren’t used to such a mish-mash of genres, so the biggest challenge is how to set the tone, “like streaky bacon”. Melanie argued that, in a way, new approaches to period pieces say more about our world than contemporary works. Nick Nickleby is the first contemporary adaptation of Dickens for TV. Inspired by Sherlock, it used excerpts from the original text, bleeding time periods together. The orphanage was updated to the scandal of old-people’s homes, a modern problem that Dickens would have been interested in.

In the Q+A, Kate Griffiths raised the question of authorship. Gwyneth Hughes said there would be no product without an enormous team. Melanie Stokes added that the job of the producer is to protect the writer’s vision but it depends on the alchemy of the team. As for why contemporary audiences remain drawn to Victorian texts, Melanie Stokes suggested that the Victorian feels like it’s “us” as it’s the start of modern Britain so it doesn’t need updating. Gwyneth Hughes agreed that these Victorian stories are so exciting because there was so much on the line for people back then. “Telephones and high-speed trains ruin much of the drama of 19th century stories” Jeremy Mortimer quipped. Finally, in response to a question about the relationship between academic experts and writers, Gwyneth Hughes replied that she does obsessive research for her adaptations in a very scholarly way rather than consulting an outside expert.

L-R: Kit Yee Wong, Prof. Dan Rebellato, Dr Andrew Watts, Dr Kate Griffiths

L-R: Kit Yee Wong, Prof. Dan Rebellato, Dr Andrew Watts, Dr Kate Griffiths

The second adaptation session focused on adaptations of Zola and Balzac across different media, from an academic, analytical point of view. Professor Dan Rebellato (Royal Holloway) began by introducing the latest BBC radio adaptation of Zola he is now working on, despite having avoided reading Zola for many years. When he reads a novel he thinks whether it would work on radio. His original answer to Rougon-Macquarts was no, but now that he is working on it, he likes the challenge of adapting 20 novels, trying to weave them together and introduce connections. “Too many classic serials sound like nothing but classic serials”, he claimed. “We want to keep the originality of Zola”. The end result will be 3 series with 9 45-min episodes each, called Zola: Blood, Sex and Money. “The number of people who’ve read one of the novels is in the hundreds of thousands. Those who’ve read all 20 could fit in this room”. Part of the challenge is therefore making the stories accessible to those with little knowledge of the books, while still giving listeners the thrill of recognising parts that they have read. Prof Rebellato highlighted that these books are intensely, immersively visual, with set pieces of big public events. Zola includes more detail than our imaginations can process; his approach to writing was as an empirical science. To get around this, Prof Rebellato argued, it is best to use two or three sound cues and leave it up to listeners’ imaginations.

Dr Kate Griffiths (Cardiff University) described how Zola’s works are themselves full of adaptations. ‘Interminable’ myth is reinterpreted in Thérèse Raquin, as are paintings like Manet’s ‘Olympia’. While film versions of Thérèse have attracted scholarly attention, TV and radio adaptations have not. Dr Griffiths argued that the best adaptations of Zola are as self-reflexive as their source material. The BBC adaptation, for example, “makes art of what it can’t show” particularly when it came to sex scenes. Radio, by contrast, can be much freer not only with sexual content but other disturbing scenes like the drowning. Moreover, radio allows listeners to hear the thoughts of characters in the same way as a novel would. As such, “Radio is not blind, it is the medium of inner vision”.

Dr Andrew Watts (University of Birmingham) explained that TV adaptations of Balzac’s Père Goriot are often written off as disappointing by literary critics, but appealed to audiences. He maintained that adaptation is a two-way process: the novel can be read differently after seeing the adaptation. The BBC produced 3 Balzac adaptations from 1965-71 as the serial format was a way to face competition from ITV. The BBC changed the structure of Père Goriot adding in the cliff hangers that Balzac objected to, but, as Dr Watts analysed, the repetitions and returns typical of the serial format reflect Balzac’s textual returns. Dr Watts finally observed how memories of actors in previous roles add new layers of meaning in adaptations.

You can read more of Dr Griffiths and Dr Watts’ ideas about this topic in their book Adapting Nineteenth-Century France.

In the Q+A, it was asked “How much ‘France’ do we get in these adaptations? How much France do we want?”. Adaptations tend to cater for English audiences, even though French adaptations dominate. This is perhaps because traditionally far more people have studied French than other languages, and also because translations of French classics are out of copyright and therefore far cheaper to produce. As for why there are so few adaptations of theatre for television these days, Prof Rebellato suggested  that there is a real resistance to theatre adaptations for TV because TV has only recently shaken its reputation for overly theatrical acting.

Migrating Texts recap: Translation

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. In this blog: Translation.

L-R: Katie Brown, Dr Karen Seago, Samantha Schnee, Dr Geraldine Brodie

L-R: Katie Brown, Dr Karen Seago, Samantha Schnee, Dr Geraldine Brodie

Our first panel on Saturday morning asked how we judge a ‘good’ translation, why certain works are more likely to get translated than others and how, while also offering advice to aspiring translators. Our first speaker, Dr Karen Seago, discussed the translation of non-canonical texts like crime fiction, comic books and screenplays, which is the focus of the Audiovisual Translation and Popular Culture MA she runs at City University. These sorts of texts are the most widely read, translated and adapted, yet most literary translation courses still ignore these in favour of more traditional genres. In her teaching of translation, she discusses what drives the decision making process and how intercultural issues affect the translation. She notes that in practice editors have a huge impact on the final translation (they decide to what extent the text should be domesticated), and that professional translators are under so much time pressure that they cannot afford the same kind of analytical thinking about translations as students.

Judging a ‘good’ translation, Dr Seago explained, depends on the nature of the text. Crime fiction, for example, is formulaic, and depends on things like repetition and superfluous detail, which you would often expect a translator to ‘tidy up’ in translations of other genres. In addition, crime fiction depends on reader involvement, whether intellectual or affective, so a good translation must achieve this above all. As part of her role in the Executive Committee of the BCLA, Dr Seago also runs the annual John Dryden Translation Competition. She explained that the judges look primarily at how the entry functions as a literary text: Is it a fresh new voice? Does it grab the reader? Can it introduce new metaphors or expressions without sounding like translationese? In this sense, being a ‘good’ translator is as much about reading widely and choosing the right text to translate as about the translation itself.

As well as teaching translation at UCL, our second speaker, Dr Geraldine Brodie, organises events bringing together translators, theatre practitioners and students. She finds theatre a very useful case study for teaching translation as it provides examples of the hidden or contradictory features of translation practice. There are three types of theatre translation: direct (rewritten by an expert in the source language), indirect (rewritten by a playwright in the target language) and literal. In London, the trend is for indirect translations, although these are almost never advertised as such: instead, they are a ‘version’, ‘adaptation’, ‘remix’, or ‘a new play inspired by…’. Of 99 plays on in the West End in March 2014, 11 were translations, mostly indirect translations with some surtitled plays. Dr Brodie affirmed that everything is translatable, but it is clear that certain plays are more likely to be translated than others, especially Western European and Russian classics. Writers like Ibsen and Chekov are now considered part of the English canon, and are therefore seen to offer a much higher chance of commercial success than work from an unknown writer, meaning that we see far more re-translations than new translations. Whether a play gets translated also depends on whether a successful English language writer would make a good fit with it, as a ‘big name’ is seen as necessary to draw in an audience.

The final speaker in this panel, Samantha Schnee, founder of Words Without Borders and chair of the Writers in Translation committee at English Pen, gave practical information about ways in which translation is supported. She explained how English Pen use Arts Council grants to support publishers to pay for translations, which can cost between £2-10,000. The last round of funding supported 20 books from 10 languages. The Pen Promotes scheme also offers support for the marketing and promotion of translations, and urges publishers to recognise the work of translators. Words Without Borders offers free online access to translations from across the world. The team are working to find and translate writing from all countries, and often work with academics to gain insights into those lesser-known literatures. The site also publishes a blog with useful articles for any aspiring translator. Other recommended resources for translators include the Emerging Translators Network, the Harvill Secker Young Translator’s Prize and the British Centre for Literary Translation’s Mentorship Scheme. As a key piece of advice, Samantha affirmed that translation is above all creating art – a translation has no chance of success if it does not read well.

In the discussion following the speakers, all three agreed that translators must act as agents for the texts they think are deserving of being published in translation. Publishers and editors constantly receive recommendations from all sides, but those with expertise in foreign languages and cultures are well placed to discover a hidden gem, and must be pushy!


L-R: Katie Brown, Emma Langley, Deborah Smith, Dr Ricarda Vidal

The second panel of the translation session discussed innovations in translation practice, in both the educational and commercial spheres. We began with Dr Ricarda Vidal (Kimg’s College London) introducing Translation Games, her fascinating project which plays with translation across not only different languages but different media in a ‘public-facing programme of ludic workshops’. Translation Games employs the arts to make languages interesting for the general public, while at the same time trying to discover whether there is an ‘essence’ of a text which carries through different media. As Dr Vidal explained, Translation Games began with a project called What We Made in which a short narrative text commissioned from the American Colleen Becker was translated in a sort of telephone game from English to French to Italian and so on. Each translator only had access to the previous step, although the text was also translated back into English at every stage. At the same time, the text was translated from writing to film to ceramics to an audiovisual piece and finally to choreography, and simultaneously from text to textile. They found there was indeed an ‘essence’ which carried across all of the versions of the text. Translation Games has since run further projects involving translation from poetry to scents, and a challenge for students and artists to translate a photographic version of a poem by the Serbian Vasko Popa into an English poem. The next stage of the project is to develop activities which can be taken into schools.

After having ‘apprenticed’ at And Other Stories, our second speaker Deborah Smith is now setting up her own publishing company focused on translations from non-European languages. Deborah explained how And Other Stories, which recently became an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation, functions as a not-for-profit social enterprise, meaning its work is considered of benefit to the community. They publish some fiction written in English along with their translated works, partly because English language fiction has more visibility (in terms of literary prizes and other critical recognition), but also in order to capture an audience that would not usually go for translated fiction by branding them both within the same series. And Other Stories runs on subscriptions: money from subscribers funds the printing of each new title. In exchange, subscribers get thanked by name in each book and are invited to play a more active role in recommending further books to be published. This sense of community is furthered by the reading groups which And Other Stories run to help them select new titles for translation.

Moving on to her own enterprise, Deborah highlighted that translations from non-European languages are a huge gap in the market, as a result of significant biases against them in the publishing industry. As most commissioning editors cannot read (many) non-European languages, translators often have to translate the whole book first for them to judge it, without any guarantee of payment. In addition, translators have to be scouts, agents and editors too, because so few people in such positions have the requisite language skills. Another problem is that non-European language authors are much less likely to speak English, so when it comes to marketing books, publishers cannot count on the usual tools of readings and interviews. Deborah maintains that this challenge should be seen as an opportunity for publishers to think of more exciting, innovative ways of marketing books which may actually help them to reach new audiences.

Finally, Emma Langley, founder of Phoenix Yard Press, introduced her work with children’s books and critical literacy, explaining how she uses images to get children interested in both reading and languages. She maintained that while children’s books have very rarely been translated, the tide is finally starting to turn. However, recent experience has proven how reticent book buyers are towards translated children’s books still: buyers’ reported that the cover of the translation of Norwegian political satire Barna Som Fosvant (pictured below) looked ‘too foreign’. Instead of giving in to buyers’ demands, Phoenix Yard goes directly to potential readers, mainly schools, offering discounts if they order in bulk.

emma langley

Phoenix Yard’s biggest success so far has been Line of Fire, the translation of On Les Aura, the diary of an anonymous French soldier from WWI, found and illustrated by Barroux. Emma explained the many innovative ways they have been publicizing the book, including work in schools funded by the Arts Council, and the creation of a range of related teaching resources. She added that getting an ally, recognised by the book trade – in this case Michael Morpurgo – to write an introduction can be a great way to win over wary buyers. Moreover, Phoenix Yard employed a unique and very exciting event to publicize Line of Fire before it had even been translated: The Spectacular Translation Machine. As part of the London Literature Festival, members of the public were challenged to translated the entire graphic novel in one weekend, with each panel and its suggested translations pegged up around the room. This was not only a fantastic method of publicity but a new approach to translation practice which would surely work well in classrooms.

Emma finally spoke about her work in schools, giving children – many of whose first language is not English – the images from books published my Phoenix Yard and getting them to write the story in their own way, as a springboard for them to reflect on linguistic and cultural differences.

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.

Spanish Adaptations by Prof. Sally Faulkner

At Migrating Texts, panels will discuss Dickens, Balzac and Zola as case studies of intermedial adaptation, but as Prof. Sally Faulkner explores in our latest blog post, Spanish literary adaptations are another fascinating avenue for study.

While not on a scale that matches Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare adaptations in Anglophone cinema, intermedial relations between film and literature have enriched Spanish film from its inception to the present day. If adaptations of popular operas (zarzuelas) and other music-hall numbers topped the lists of most adapted texts in early Spanish cinema, by the 1920s directors were turning to literature in order to fulfil the inter-related aims of, first, securing a middle-class, literate audience who possessed the cultural capital to enjoy film versions of texts they knew, second, extending the narrative possibilities of the still relatively new medium by testing it to produce versions of literary originals, and, third, the didactic aim of bringing classic literary texts to the still largely illiterate masses (Compared to relatively high rates of literacy in Northern Europe in the early twentieth century, Spain’s were still only around 50-60% in these early decades of the new century).

With Civil War (1936-39) and dictatorship (Francoism 1939-78) literary adaptations in Spanish film, like all other areas of national culture, became entangled with politics. Received wisdom has had it that period drama adaptations of conservative authors like Pedro Antonio de Alarcón and Jacinto Benavente in the early-Francoist 1940s were at best simply escapist, at worst pro-Franco propaganda. Recent studies of popular culture of this period, spear-headed by critic Jo Labanyi, have shown that culture is rarely ‘simply escapist’, and beneath the apparently conservative surfaces of films like From Woman to Woman (Lucia 1950) lay ideas that bristled with ideological critique of the regime, especially from the point of view of gender.

But literary adaptations weren’t all period dramas that used a conservative author as a fig-leaf to hide ideological opposition. Still under dictatorship, directors dared to push an increasingly desperate censorship board (newly conscious, from the 1960s on, of how their anti-democratic activities looked in the West) by adapting daring, dynamic authors and texts, including works by Miguel de Unamuno (e.g. Aunt Tula Picazo 1964). The most famous example of this is the great exiled director, world-cinema auteur, yet son of Spanish (Aragonese) soil, Luis Buñuel, who returned to Franco’s Spain for the second time in 1969 to make his great adaptation of Tristana (1970), by Benito Pérez Galdós – the Spanish Dickens – whose liberal politics critiqued Francoism.

Under democracy, literary adaptations have been no less aesthetically inventive, nor politically potent, but have become increasingly intermedial, as directors work across large and small screen formats. Thus Mario Camus, a director trained at the Madrid Film School in the 1960s, made what is still one of the great Galdós adaptations of democracy for television, with his version of Fortunata and Jacinta (1979-80). Extraordinarily, given how difficult it is to get hold of almost all but the most contemporary Spanish films, this ten-part series is available in its entirety as a free download from the official Spanish TV website:

More recently benefiting from transnational entanglements with heritage cinema, literary adaptations in Spanish screen culture continue to delight audiences, even if they occasionally annoy critics for being too literary, too cinematic, too Spanish, too transnational or too middlebrow. Exploring the meanings of these terms within shifting Spanish and international contexts is one of the rewards that awaits students and scholars studying these adaptations!

About the author

Sally Faulkner is Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies and Film at the University of Exeter. She is the author of Literary Adaptations in Spanish Cinema (2004) and A Cinema of Contradiction: Spanish Film of the 1960s (2006) and was awarded a Fellowship from the British Arts and Humanities Research Council for 2011. Professsor Faulkner has been named a ‘rising star’ in the field of Modern Language and Literature by the Leverhulme Trust, winning the only Leverhulme prize awarded for Hispanic Studies in 2013. Her latest book, A History of Spanish Film:Cinema and Society 1910-2010, is the first exploration of the relationship between Spanish film and social mobility.

Accessible Filmmaking by Dr Pablo Romero Fresco

To tie in with Migrating Texts, we will post a range of blogs and articles by experts (academics and industry professionals) in subtitling, translation and intermedial adaptation. We are delighted that our first guest blogger is Dr Pablo Romero Fresco from the University of Roehampton.

The numbers tell a sad story. Almost 60% of the revenue obtained by the leading top-grossing films made in Hollywood in the last decade comes from the translated (subtitled or dubbed) or accessible (with subtitles for the deaf or audiodescription for the blind) versions of those films, and yet only between 0.1% and 1% of their budgets is usually devoted to translation and accessibility. Relegated to the distribution stage as an afterthought in the filmmaking process, translators have to translate films in very limited time, for a small remuneration and with no access to the creative team of the films. This may be seen as a profitable model for the film industry, but more than a decade of research in audiovisual translation has shown that it may also have a very negative impact on the quality and reception of translated films. In fact, renowned filmmakers such as Ken Loach are now beginning to denounce that this model often results in the alteration of their film’s vision and that, even more worryingly, they are not always aware of this.

As a potential way to tackle this problem, accessible filmmaking attempts to integrate audiovisual translation and accessibility as part of the filmmaking process through collaboration between filmmakers and translators. The aim is to apply this model to training, research and practice, and the first steps have already been taken. From the point of view of training, some audiovisual translation courses now include film content as part of their syllabus. This is the case of the MA in Media Accessibility at the University of Macerata or the MA in Accessible Filmmaking at the University of Roehampton (London), where students learn not only how to make films but also how to make them accessible to viewers in other languages and viewers with hearing and visual loss. Whether or not these students will end up working in the film industry, they will be able to speak the same language as filmmakers, which will facilitate their collaboration for the translation of the films. Another potential step in this direction is to establish links between film schools and translation institutions so that audiovisual translation students can subtitle or dub for their assignments real short films made by student filmmakers. This may be more satisfying than translating clips from films that have already been translated and will also foster the spirit of collaboration between both areas.

As far as research is concerned, three new avenues in audiovisual translation are already looking at the common ground between film(making) and translation: universal design applied to media accessibility, part-subtitling and creative subtitling. All three are examples of accessible filmmaking, which could help filmmakers and film scholars explore the aspects of audiovisual translation and accessibility that have an impact on the reception of their (translated) films and audiovisual translation scholars and translators identify the elements from filmmaking and film studies that can contribute to the theory and practice of translation. In this sense, it is worth considering the often-overlooked research on translation carried out by filmmakers such as the scholar and documentarian David Mac Dougall, for whom subtitling “remains part of the creative process, influencing the pacing and rhythm of the film as well as its intellectual and emotional content”. Now that research on audiovisual translation has come of age and has begun to delve into reception studies, it is in an optimum position to consider the practical and theoretical implications of strengthening its links with film studies and filmmaking.

Finally, if it is to be presented as a realistic alternative to the current consideration of audiovisual translation as an afterthought in the filmmaking process, accessible filmmaking must also be applicable in the professional practice. A first example of this is the short documentary about blindness and audiodescription Joining the Dots. At the University of Roehampton, the collaboration between translators and the creative team of the film is set as a requirement for filmmakers who wish to have their films translated or made accessible. This collaboration may range from a couple of meetings between the filmmaker and the translator to a more thorough involvement as part of the post-production process. Examples are Michael Chanan’s Secret City (2012), Enrica Colusso’s Home Sweet Home (2012) or the award-winning documentary Hijos de las nubes (2010), directed by Alvaro Longoria and produced by the Spanish actor Javier Bardem. Outside Roehampton, companies such as Subtrain and Sub-ti are also beginning to apply this model. Furthermore, independent filmmakers such as Alastair Cole, whose award-winning films have been presented at the Cannes Film Festival Critics’ Week, are now working with a new figure, the producer of accessibility, who acts as liaison between the filmmaker and the translators ensuring that they have access to the creative team of the film for their translation.

As well as the examples mentioned here with regard to training, research and practice, other initiatives have been launched to raise the visibility of accessible filmmaking in academic and non-academic circles, including presentations in film festivals (Venice 2012 and 2013, Edinburgh 2013) to reach professionals in the film industry, a first academic article, a dedicated website and a special item on the Spanish newspaper El País about the application of accessible filmmaking in developing countries.

In an increasingly multilingual society where film co-productions are becoming more and more common, translation has a key role to play. The integration of accessibility and AVT as part of the filmmaking process through the collaboration between filmmakers and translators can help ensure that the filmmakers’ visions are not altered when their films reach foreign audiences and viewers with hearing and visual loss. Time will tell whether or not it is possible to present alternative models to the current consideration of audiovisual translation and accessibility as an afterthought in the film industry, but the fact that accessible filmmaking is already being applied at grassroots level and in independent films provides encouragement to keep pursuing this cause.

About the author

Pablo Romero Fresco is a Reader in Translation and Filmmaking at the University of Roehampton, where he teaches Filmmaking, Dubbing, Subtitling and Respeaking. He also teaches at the MAs on Audiovisual Translation at Universidad Autònoma de Barcelona and University of Vigo (Spain). He is the author of the book Subtitling through Speech Recognition: Respeaking (St Jerome) and is Ofcom’s external reviewer to assess the quality of live subtitles in the UK. He has collaborated with Stagetext and the National Gallery in the UK to provide access to live events in museums and galleries for deaf and hard of hearing people and with North-West University, in South Africa, to use respeaking as a tool for social integration in the classroom. He is a member of the first World-wide Focus Group on Audiovisual Media Accessibility organised by the United Nation’s ITU and of the research group CAIAC/Transmedia Catalonia, for which he has coordinated the subtitling part of the EU-funded project DTV4ALL.

Pablo is also a filmmaker. His first documentary, Joining the Dots (2012), about blindness and audiodescription, was screened during the 69th Venice Film Festival and selected for the 2012 London Spanish Film Festival, the 12th International Human Rights Film Festival Watch Docs (Poland) and the 2014 Look & Roll Film Festival on Disabilities (Switzerland). His second documentary, Brothers and Sisters (2012), about education in Kibera (Kenya), was broadcast online by the Spanish newspaper El País in 2013 along with the feature article Levantarse en Kibera and the short film Joel (2012).