Professional Audiovisual Translation

by Tiina Holopainen, in-house freelance subtitler at YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and part-time teacher in subtitling at the University of Turku (English version by Mari Korpunen and Tiina Holopainen)


 This article was written in February 2010, addressing Finnish subtitlers. At the end of 2009, Finnish audiovisual (AV) translators working for commercial AV translation companies had begun mobilizing in order to improve their terms of employment.


In the past few years, Finnish AV translators have increasingly felt the need to point out  that AV translation is a profession requiring specialized skills and knowledge. Now, it is  delightful to see that subtitlers working for the commercial subtitling companies are joining their forces and demanding reasonable terms of employment, notably, better pay and benefits. This is all an essential aspect of our professional status. The mobilization of subtitlers shows professional pride, and it shows that audiovisual translators are taking responsibility over their own profession. It is exciting to read about your battle, and I wish you courage, faith and persistence for the road – success will follow. There is power in joint effort and, at this historical moment, it is probably only by joint effort that we can make a difference.


Now while the iron is hot, we should seize the opportunity and try to improve a few other defects in our field besides low pay. The key issue lies in finally raising our status from occupational workers to professionals who have autonomous power over their work. For, if we are held morally and ethically responsible for the functionality of subtitled films and TV programmes, it is our task to define the minimum terms and conditions under which their functionality might be reached. Furthermore, if we are to call ourselves professionals, we should be able to define the functionality criteria for AV translations in each case. In today's situation, it is no longer sufficient to produce excellent quality by translating intuitively. Instead, when the very prerequisites for quality are being jeopardized by subtitling companies and the ”market forces”, we should be able to promptly draw the line and argue our point consistently and convincingly. In this, there is plenty of room for improvement in the entire field of AV translation, even if the problems might be more pronounced withing the commercial subtitling companies. This, again, is due to structural problems rather than what sort of potential and actual competence subtitlers working for the commercial companies may possess.


The structural problems I am referring to are, first of all, apparent shortcomings in the training of subtitlers, be it at the level of basic university training or of further training, combined with insufficient on-the-job training. Secondly, as already mentioned, a major structural problem are, indeed, the terms and conditions of employment (notably subtitling fees and deadlines) which are now being tackled by Finnish AV translators. Even the relatively well-paid in-house subtitlers must repeatedly defend their terms of employment against demands made in the name of profitability and cost-efficiency that weaken the subtitlers' status and, consequently, the quality of subtitled TV programmes. Therefore, it is a battle shared by all subtitlers in the field, and it is about defining the boundaries of our profession against exploitation.


In the face of this battle, I would like to present my thoughts and observations of our field having worked for twenty years as a subtitler at YLE and nearly fifteen years as a teacher of subtitling at the University of Turku. I have myself walked a long and an even rocky road as a subtitler. I was a typical novice, a trained translator but having no training in subtitling itself. Thinking back, my ideas about the subtitler's task were rather superficial and atomistic, even though I did try to pay attention to the special characteristics of television as a medium. The little feedback I received as my ”on-the-job training” focused mainly on linguistic aspects – an essential but not nearly a sufficient competence in the profession of (audiovisual) translation.


Today, there is more training in AV translation at the universities. However, given the problems both in the quality of subtitles and the status of subtitlers, it is obviously not comprehensive enough. The same may be said about on-the-job training. Therefore, in the light of my own experience, I would like to stress a few things to you who would like to become a subtitler: Given the variety of challenges in the field, an approved sample translation is no guarantee of your skills as a subtitler. Therefore, be aware of your responsibility towards the profession and the language community you serve. Find out persistently about the various skills and knowledge required, including the norms and conventions prevailing in the field. And note that a great deal of this knowledge is still so called tacit knowledge which may be accessed only through the personal guidance of experienced subtitlers who know how to describe their work. Not all do. Furthermore, watch subtitled films and TV programmes made by experienced subtitlers, and ask yourself how they seem to approach their work and why. And remember that learning in this field is a never-ending process. But the first thing you should do is to graduate from university! A university degree does not increase your income as a subtitler, but it will improve your confidence and your professional pride.

The Novice Is Too Often Left Alone

Due to the fact that training and guidance at work are insufficient, subtitlers starting their career are still too often left on their own in developing their expertise in this demanding field. Apparently, too much of the basics have to be learned in the hard way. Consequently, the development of the subtitlers' skills and knowledge depends on whether they themselves happen to become aware of the many factors guiding our work or whether someone else happens to point them out to them. Based on my observations of subtitled films and programmes, there seem to be common problems in such aspects as segmentation, reading speed, readability, and (polysemiotic) textuality. In addition, the appropriateness of style in terms of the film or text genre seems often to constitute a challenge, as subtitlers tend to cling too heavily to the style of the speaker, i.e., to the original verbal element of their audiovisual source text. Fiction, in particular, requires living into the entire film or TV series in order for the subtitler to be able to produce stylistically and contentually functional dialogue in the form of subtitles – in the given target language and for the given culture. Shortcomings in these aspects are, unfortunately, not the prerogative of novices, although I would not doubt for a minute that most of us genuinely aim at good quality. Everyone makes errors at times, but knowing and mastering the basics could be ensured by systematizing basic and further training in subtitling on the one hand, and on-the-job training and feedback system on the other hand.


Professionality Means Autonomy, Responsibility and Collegiality

The subtitler's profession, thus, definitely requires a complex set of specialized skills and knowledge. Talking about professionality is, however, de facto problematic, whether we look at our actual skills (the quality of subtitles), our ability to describe our work, or our competence in defining the boundaries of our profession. And even if individual subtitlers are not solely to be blamed for this, it is through each of our actions that these problems are maintained. No one else but we can and may be expected to do something about it. As the situation now stands, the best way to change things such as fees and other terms of employment is through collective action. This is why the ongoing collective agreement negotiations in Finland are, indeed, a great opportunity, and it is my hope that as many subtitlers as possible give their support to the negotiators.


However, as already mentioned before, terms of employment are only one aspect of our professionality. Talking about professionality is problematic also if we are not aware of our responsibility towards our viewers, our culture and our language. The situation is only exacerbated if commissioners insist on knowing what subtitling requires instead of acknowledging our autonomy over our own profession. Yet, it is we that are responsible for requesting adequate conditions for performing our work. It is too often that we give in to bad practices and say: “I suppose, this is how it works.”


By “bad practices” I do not mean just unreasonably low fees but any guidelines or orders that interfere with the subtitlers' sphere of expertise and thus make it difficult for us to complete our task according to our professional ethics. Examples of such instances are when subtitlers accept limitations to the time used for background research, or any other exorbitant efficiency demands (a certain number of subtitles per day or week, a 24-hour (!) time of delivery for a feature film translation). Or, when subtitlers agree to using master template files, as I did myself when working for FilmNet in the early days of my career. Or, when subtitlers do not insist on getting material of sufficient quality, or on getting all the necessary material, e.g. all episodes of a mini series, including adequate broadcasting information (channel, date and time of broadcast, etc.).


On the other hand, a professional subtitler does not miss the deadline, at least not ever  without contacting the commissioner in good time. Finally, as professionals we should be able to argue for our subtitling solutions, and, when giving feedback to our colleagues, we should be able to do it in a collegial manner. Apparently, there are still severe problems in this area. No one has to accept any kind of subjection or intimidating behaviour from the part of a senior colleague or a company representative, neither face-to-face nor in the form of telephone calls in the evening! We should finally develop a comprehensive feedback system within the profession itself, a system that allows variations in individuals norms and conventions, such as reading speed, but sets a certain standard for feedback. For instance, to say that a subtitler has ”deviated too much from the original dialogue” does not suffice as an argument. It is insufficient as an argument as our very task is not to imitate the original dialogue but to make subtitled films and TV programmes, which is an entirely different task with entirely different priorities.


In cases where subtitlers are expected to produce a certain number of subtitles per week or day, audiovisual translation is perceived as a mechanical performance instead of a mental and a creative process for which the subtitler takes full professional responsibility. And when subtitlers agree to work with master template files, they will not be able to respect their own language as required by their professional ethics. For, firstly – taking Finnish as an example – master template files that are cued based on an Indo-European language virtually prevent segmentation that will recognize the Finnish information structure and rhythm. This is a crucial problem, as segmentation and cueing are far from a mechanical procedure. Instead, they may be seen as part of the very core of creating polysemiotic meaning in a subtitled film or TV programme. Secondly, first-generation translations have been observed to cause interference in second-generation translations, standardizing their expression and, consequently, impoverishing the target language (see, e.g., Jan Pedersen’s dissertation Scandinavian Subtitling, 2007). Thirdly, in first-generation translations, what is cued and how is often based on an entirely different tradition from the Finnish one: in first-generation translations, cueing practices seem generally to have been influenced by dubbing practices, or by subtitling practices for the deaf and the hard-of-hearing. As it is, in Finland these services have always been separate, which they should be, as the needs of these groups are very different. And, fourthly, by accepting master template files we perpetuate the notion of subtitling as a mechanical process, we contribute to the standardization of practices at the expense of the special features of our own language, and pave the way for the impoverishment and even automation of our profession.


The Notion of Language and of Subtitling in Subtitling Companies

- Urgent Need for Mobilization of Subtitlers across the Borders!

The need for subtitlers has increased enormously during the past two decades, which has led to the emergence of commercial subtitling companies, many of them operating globally. Most of the international subtitling companies hold a mechanical view of language and subtitling, as manifested by the way subtitlers have been reduced to sweatshop workers. Furthermore, international subtitling companies base their operations on the arrogant assumption that everything that applies to one language (often English) applies to other languages, even to languages from an entirely different family. While this is all very true and unfortunate, we must also acknowledge that we cannot expect these companies to know what subtitling requires unless we tell them. It is our job to defend our work and point out the boundaries. No one else will do it. In this overall unsatisfactory situation the only solution is to join our forces as the Finnish subtitlers are now doing. Eventually, given the global nature of the industry, there should be a global mobilization of subtitlers if we want to find sustainable solutions in terms of reasonable fees, terms of employment, and other aspects of our professional status!


Improvements Needed Also in Basic University Training

The university translation study programmes in Finland have been and, apparently, still are unable to train enough qualified subtitlers for the needs of the industry. Therefore, not many graduates can hardly consider themselves as professionals in AV translation when starting their career as subtitlers. Thus, there is a high risk that people find themselves at the mercy of subtitling companies guided by market forces.


In theory, translator training programmes at the Finnish universities do offer a great deal of translation communicational knowledge and skills. However, for one reason or other, many students seem to have difficulties in internalizing them. When teaching subtitling and other translation courses, I have observed that even advanced students tend to translate language instead of messages. Students may be familiar with the theoretical concepts of translation communication but are unable to apply them in practice. If the application of the communicational approach is difficult in the translation of written texts, it will be even more so in the translation of audiovisual texts where the source and the target text consists not only of verbal material but also of images and verbal and non-verbal sound.


So, translator training does not seem to succeed in the best way in providing the students with a communicational and professional approach. If, after having studied several years, the students approach written translation as a primarily linguistic exercise, a short subtitling course will not suffice to change this approach for AV translation. Some Finnish universities do offer a larger package of AV translation training, but it seems that, in practice, too many translator graduates starting in the subtitling industry still adhere to a linguistic notion of translation. To say the least, there is lack of knowledge of the translator's professional responsibilities if translators agree to subtitle a feature film within 24 hours – and even take pride in doing so!


It seems obvious, then, that improvements are necessary in the basic university training, at the very least in the amount and the quality of AV translation training. AV translation training should constitute a sufficiently versatile basic package. This package should offer students an understanding of the various skills and competences required in the field of AV translation, with more in-depth studies in one area, e.g. subtitling. It would be, however, unrealistic to think this will be enough for the students to master any one area of AV translation professionally. Therefore, systematic further training and on-the-job training should be available much more than is presently the case. No longer can we afford a situation in which subtitlers learn – if at all – the basic skills and ethics of our profession the hard way, during the course of their working lives. In such a situation, multinational subtitling companies will continue to direct the development of our field according to their own business interests.


What about Those without Translator Education?

Newcomers in the field with a training background other than Translator Studies may be seen to have the poorest starting point for the profession. While it is true that some individuals are particularly gifted for the field regardless of training, they have still far to go to become professionals. As stated earlier, in addition to communicational language and translation skills, the work requires a number of multi-faceted, medium-related (audiovisual) competences. Plus it requires professional ethics. We must be able to defend the boundaries of our profession in such a way that non-experts cannot continue meddling in our field. Would lawyers allow non-lawyers to intrude in the essential prerequisites of their professional performance? Needless to say that translators with non-translational training background have the same responsibility as anyone in training themselves into professional subtitlers but, on the average, they have even more to learn.


Unlike that of the lawyer or the doctor, anyone can decide to start practising the translator profession. And in this historical situation, this is how it should be – at least for the time being. In Finland, translator training has been offered only for some 45 years. There are many self-taught translators in the field who do their job with solid professionality developed over the years. In fact, in the field of AV translation, it is the self-taught subtitlers at the Finnish Broadcasting Company who have developed the  subtitling practices and conventions in Finland. In international comparison, the Finnish approach in subtitling may be considered advanced, as it is clearly based on a holistic and communicational understanding of translation – meaning that our task is to create audiovisual messages, subtitled films and TV programmes, and not mere subtitles.


Objectives of Further Training and of On-the-job Training

It is impossible to include an all-embracing study package in AV translation – or in any special field of translation – within the university Master's Degree programme. Therefore, the focus should be on further training and on-the-job training. In other professional fields, on-the-job training is more often a rule than an exception, thus ensuring certain standards within the profession. The same should apply to the field of AV translation: newcomers should be given systematic on-the-job training for a sufficiently long period of time. Using grammatically correct language and getting the facts and the interpretation right are aspects of general translation and, as such, an important part of AV translation, as well. But there is more to AV translation than that. Based on mere observations of subtitled programmes and DVD's in Finnish, I dare to say that more attention should be paid by subtitlers to such aspects as rhythm (the interaction of subtitles, image and sound; reading speed), the functionality of the subtitles as a text (e.g. segmentation, coherence and cohesion and other aspects of textuality; idiomacy of expression, readability, and clarity of thought) and as a text genre (e.g. dialogue, radio news, etc.), as well as to the coherence of style. The style of a particular subtitle should not be determined primarily by the style of the spoken utterance at hand but first and foremost by the overall style of the film or TV programme and by the text genre in question.


AV translator training, whether offered at the universities or on the job, should always focus on how to apply communicational thinking in practice. As it is, people with a translator training background in Finland do know that translation is communication and that our job is to create texts and messages, and not to translate individual sentences or utterances. The problem seems to lie instead in the ability to apply this knowledge in practice in such a complex field as audiovisual translation. In simple terms, a communicational approach in subtitling means that the subtitler sees the entire film or TV programme as the source text (i.e., as the director’s interpretation of the verbal material) and the subtitled film as the target text, and reconciles the terms, the objectives and the interests of all parties involved (the makers of the film, the client, the commissioner, the viewer, etc.). The most important question in this endeavour should be: How do the subtitles, the image and the sound together help the viewers to follow and live into the subtitled film or TV programme? In other words, subtitlers should break away from the prevailing but narrow view that subtitling is primarily rendering – through condensing or otherwise – the spoken dialogue in another language.