Managing mistakes: Getting ‘wrong’ right

While the topic for today’s post is something that I touched upon in my recent guide to translating medical texts, I feel that it is something so engrained in the translation act that it is worth a more detailed exploration.

In that post (under the sub-heading of ‘Poorly written texts’) I explained that technical texts are very frequently marred by the presence of many mistakes (typographical, stylistic, grammatical, formatting…) and here I want to further explore this feature of texts along with an array of weird and wonderful examples from a variety of sources in order to highlight the issues that they pose for the translator’s work.

Firstly, just to show that I’m not exaggerating the importance of this issue, why not have a quick glance at this text from the African Journal of Neurological Sciences – an interesting article and a quite typical medical journal entry, and one that is littered with examples of each of the aforementioned errors:

Examples of formatting and stylistic errors include the incorrectly placed space following the phrase ‘une alternative intéressant .’ (line 93), the unnecessary usage of a capital for ‘Plus de 77%…’ (line 61) as well as the inconsistent or unnecessary usage of full stops and commas in decimals, capitals for references to tables, and last but not least between using numerals or their full, written versions e.g. ‘Quatre enfants’ and ‘2 cas’ (lines 38 and 29 respectively).

In addition to these examples, instances of typographical and grammatical errors include the misspellings of ‘haemophilus’ as ‘heamophilus’ (23), ‘aiguë’ as ‘aigue’ (64), ‘tétraventriculaires’ as ‘tétraventiculaires’ (80) and ‘hypertension’ as ‘hyperetension’ (figure 3) or the lack of agreement for ‘séries européenne(s)’ (55). Finally, the worst examples of errors must be the reference to table 6 on line 33 when there are only five tables and the usage of the non-existent ‘dérivation standard’ (table 4) – presumably a guess at the French version of the English term ‘standard deviation’ (which is actually ‘écart type’).

This may seem like an extreme example yet the truth is that mistakes can and will happen in almost any kind of text (even in big budget Hollywood movies, as we will see) and the importance of taking the time and effort to proofread work cannot be overstated.

Films obviously offer different challenges to written texts in the way that there are aesthetic and audio elements serving to complicate matters. For example, how could the translator go about dealing with this example from Aladdin? The animators clearly tried to make all the writing in the film look Arabic yet when we see the faces of Jafar and the Sultan reading a scroll, their eyes move from left to right (Arabic is read right to left). In this instance – when the translator has no control over the error – they must shift their focus to ensuring that they don’t introduce any new errors in their work, which can see the translation process turn into something resembling a game of chinese whispers as is the case with the error below.

In this scene from French film Amélie (below, 0:28 onwards) where the death of Princess Diana is announced on the news, the narrator declares that the death occurred ‘dans la nuit du 30 août 1997′ [on the night of 30th August 1997] when it was in fact widely acknowledged to be the 31st August – a small detail, perhaps, but one which causes the translator/subtitler a bit of a problem.

When a factual error such as this is found in a ST, the translator faces the dilemma of whether to remain faithful to their source and knowingly reproduce the error with the risk of it later being attributed to the translator themselves or whether to stray from the text and correct the error. In his excellent 2001 Revising and Editing for Translators, Brian Mossop suggests that ‘factual errors should be corrected if they seem to be inadvertent but not if they are important as author’s ignorance of the facts’ and, as the former appears to be the case here, the translator should presumably correct the error.

However, in the English subtitle the translator not only neglects to change the date (perhaps it was not spotted or they deemed it unimportant) but also renders the French simply as ‘on August 30th 1997′ which, while seemingly only a small change, actually serves to compound the error (the night of the 30th and early hours of the 31st could perhaps be seen as nearly interchangeable, whereas this subtitle loses that margin for error).

Facts and figures are an obvious place to find errors that can easily be overlooked as it is easy to assume that something is correct, yet it is always worth double checking.

While it is quite obvious in this previous example that the error is not intentional, there are other times when the author’s intentions are must more difficult to ascertain:

In his 2012 film Django Unchained – which toys with the traditional spaghetti western, known for playing fast and loose with history – Quentin Tarantino treats us to all kinds of historical inaccuracies and anachronisms (how about the use of dynamite years before its invention…). In the introduction we’re greeted with the subtitle ‘1858: Two Years Before The Civil War.’ when the war actually began in 1861.

Yet here, despite the obvious errors, the translator’s task is more difficult than ever. Given Tarantino’s previous work (think Inglorious Basterds) it is actually quite likely that the mistakes are intentional and – rather counter-intuitively – the correct decision for the translator to take is to maintain the errors even when it is in their control to change them, as with the opening subtitle.

Ultimately, it is important that the translator fulfils their extended role as proofreader and editor in both ensuring that mistakes present in the source text are spotted and that they don’t introduce more mistakes in their own work. This task is made slightly more manageable when working with written tasks due to the fact that the translator can often contact clients or authors to seek clarification on certain issues while the single-layered medium of writing (i.e. no contradictory visual or audio issues to contend with as in the examples above) reduces some of the burden. However, despite its importance, it remains an under-appreciated element of the translators task.

Top 100 Language Professional Blogs – Voting

Hello again everybody! Just a quick one. I’m excited to announce that my blog has been selected as one of the Top 100 Language Professional blogs in the ‘Top Language Lovers 2013’ competition and I need your votes to get as high up that list as possible!
Voting runs from 22nd May to 9th June and I’m counting on your help. So if you’ve enjoyed the blog then please take a few seconds to click the link above and vote for Jaltranslation: I will be forever grateful! And don’t be shy about sharing this page too, every vote counts!
Thanks, and ciao for now.

The Delicate Art of Subtitling: Capturing the language of the banlieues.

I thought that today I would try to deal with a subject that is slightly alien to me, yet one which I find extremely interesting and something that everyone will have come across: the art of subtitling.

First of all, I have to admit that I am not an expert in subtitling, far from it. I have read up on the subject and done some work involving subtitling in the past and I just wanted to share and contextualise some of the unique challenges that it poses.

From a monolingual point of view alone subtitling is an extremely difficult task to get right and, as subtitling relies on the suspension of disbelief, the importance of the text extends beyond a simple communication aid to a piece of the drama in its own right where textual breaks can completely ruin the illusion.

When you look at the list of pre-requisites and constraints for a single piece of subtitling, the skill involved in the task of the subtitler is brought into much sharper focus. Take, for example, the fact that a subtitle can contain a maximum of 35 characters per line (including spaces and punctuation) up to a maximum of two lines – not even half a tweet to get across everything being rapidly churned out on screen. Then combine that with the facts that the average viewer can read a two-line subtitle of 70 characters in 6 seconds while the subtitle cannot run over a cut or change of scene, and your work is really cut out.

Furthermore, each subtitle has to be a coherent, logical unit in its own right, with line breaks appearing as if they are naturally-occuring. Take the example below: the first rendering of the line break is unnacceptable while the second makes the message more readable and coherent as well as adoping a pyramid shape (rather than the inverted pyramid of the first) which is always preferred by the human eye. Phew!

Why did you do it? Kevin

will not be happy.

should be

Why did you do it?

Kevin will not be happy.

This is not to mention the fairly obvious facts that the subtitle should also aim to synchronise as much as possible with the audio track all while ensuring instant comprehension without obstructing the importance and effect of the image on the screen, which serves to further complicate the task.

Although translation may seem like just a small addition given these strict constraints, it adds a great number of additional challenges – cultural, practical and linguistic in nature – such as the languages using differing amounts of characters or being spoken at different speeds, or even concepts being introduced that would normally require lengthy explanations for the target audience.

Next – as an example of some tricky subtitling – I want to look at a scene from the French film La Haine which, while it remains a favourite of French teachers here in England as the complexity of the language – with its copious amounts of slang – and the subject matter addressed make it an extremely interesting project for students, seems to have bypassed many French audiences. The film follows three friends in their early twenties from different immigrant backgrounds living in a ZUP – zone d’urbanisation prioritaire – (an impoverished multi-ethnic housing project) in the banlieues (suburbs) of Paris and chronicles their various struggles over a roughly 19 hour period.

The scene in question (click the image for the video) directly addresses their disconnect with the rest of Parisian society as the three friends attend a modern art exhibition in Paris. Linguistically, this disconnect is clearly demonstrated in the French through the colloquial nature of their speech and this is an extremely challenging issue for the subtitler to capture precisely, as they aim to express this fluctuating formality while battling the constraints listed above.

Here, the subtitler attempts to lower the register in English by using colloquial contractions such as ‘outta my way’ (0:13) or ‘Awwright’ (0:50) in Hubert’s speech before contrasting this with the more standard language employed when he is speaking with the two women. Another method used in an attempt to demonstrate this different dialect/idiolect is the substitution of their urban Parisian slang with a semi-African American dialect as the American translators were clearly of the opinion that this would resonate better with their target audience, only to be widely criticised for this ambitious and contradictory leap which only serves to complicate matters. In the clip above, for example, Hubert’s ‘mothafuckas’ (3:12) or Said’s reference to the black woman as ‘sister’ (0:37) which contrasts with the UK-version subtitle of ‘the black one’ – a slightly closer rendering of the French dialogue which avoids the confusion of adding another ethnic background into the dialogue – are both examples of this interesting, yet flawed, method of capturing the language of the banlieues.

These struggles to accurately capture the exact register of speech continue throughout the entire film and the role of subtitler in this case is an unenviable task! While this post only scratches the very surface of what is involved, I hope it has proven to be an interesting insight into the challenges that the role of subtitler offers up.

Landlocked comedy and swearing with style

While many American comedies seem to have no problem making the leap onto TV screens all over the world – Family Guy or South Park being great examples of how Western ideas can be transferred successfully to other countries – it’s not always the same for their British counterparts, who often seem too tied up in their own culture to be able to cross borders.

Take for instance the classic British comedy ‘Only Fools and Horses’ (from which the previous post’s clip was taken) which, for such a hugely successful programme, has never even been aired in neighbouring France, or perhaps ‘The Royle Family’, whose depiction of typical British life is deemed too foreign for non-British audiences and which, apart from tentative releases in Holland, Finland and Portugal where a high level of understanding of British culture is assumed, has also failed to gain a wider audience.

For an example of why these comedies are so hard to translate, let’s take an example from yet another successful British comedy that has failed to provoke laughter beyond the British Isles: ‘One Foot in the Grave’. (The show was actually released in Germany as Mit einem Bein im Grab but, rather than being a simple translation, this was a complete adaptation of the programme, swapping the Meldrews for Viktor and Margret Bölkhoff.)

Listening to the intro theme (although it wouldn’t pose any real problems if the programme were to be translated as it could just be left in English) we can gain an interesting insight into one of the reasons that these programmes fail to cross over with nearly every line containing highly idiomatic uses of language relating to aging which don’t have ready equivalents in a foreign tongue: ‘too long in the tooth’, ‘OAP’, ‘clapped out’, ‘run down’ etc.

It is this close proximity to the English language and a cultural boundness caused by obscure references and linguistic games that prove too hard to break down. One extreme example of the importance of the use of language in the series can be found in the episode ‘The Dawn of Man’ where the crux of the entire story revolves around the similarity between ‘popcorn’ and ‘cop porn’!

It’s not all doom and gloom though as some series do manage to achieve success on foreign soil. One famous example is ‘Father Ted’, which has accumulated many French fans thanks to its appearance on heavily Westernised channel  ‘Jimmy’ (named after James Dean and Jimi Hendrix), which is known for helping Anglophone series make their way onto French screens, and due to the fact that the premise of Catholic priests in an isolated community is one that is relatively easily transferrable.

Father Ted S01E01 with French subtitles

Indeed, the nature of the situation comedy and the relatively few obscure cultural references which are integral to the plot allow a fairly simple subtitling process. In the first episode, only a few alterations are made for the French audience and most references are simply left unchanged e.g. ‘Toffos’ at 16:05 or ‘Top of the Pops’ at 7:20.

The only alterations of note are seen when Ted’s reference to nuclear waste as ‘the old glow in the dark’ is simplified to ‘déchets’ (waste) and when the reference to Terry Wogan and another TV presenter is creatively subtitled as ‘PPDA et Pernaut’, referring to two equally famous French presenters – Patrick Poivre d’Arvor and Jean-Pierre Pernaut – and these changes are often made due to the nature of subtitling, where constraints of time and space limit opportunities for explanation or the use of long-winded phrases.

Probably the most significant challenge of translating Ted is replicating the various swear words that the programme has to offer. Interestingly, the general tendency in the French subtitles is to soften the swearing: ‘gobshite’ becomes ‘demeuré’ or ‘crétin’ (half-wit, cretin), ‘feck off’ is changed to ‘dégage’ (clear off), while ‘feck’ is rather cleverly reproduced as ‘fier’ which is not actually a swear word but plays on its similarity to ‘ficher’ (to not give a fuck about) in a similar way to ‘feck’ and ‘fuck’.

So there you have it, once all the swearing is dealt with it seems that some comedy can make the leap while others remain just too British to amuse our foreign neighbours.