Aug 11, 2007

Subtitle quality lost in translation

Little time and low pay have negative impact

LONDON -- Like their counterparts in the dubbing arena, subtitle workers are plagued by two key questions -- time and money -- as Hollywood's megapics are subtitled in more and more languages.

Jerome Henry Rudes, a New York-based consultant to LVT Laser Subtitling and founder of the Avignon Film Festival, says a month-long lead time is ideal to perfect the translation, timing the subtitles to appear in harmony with the rhythm of the movie and the readability of the subtitles crystal clear.

What's more, "The rate of pay for translating films is incredibly low. It's a huge problem," says London-based freelance translator Helena Koutna, who has done English-to-Czech translation of more than 300 DVDs including "Shrek 2," "Ice Age," "Fargo" and "There's Something About Mary."

To Koutna, the low pay is having a negative impact on the quality of translations. "Translations are often given to the agency that offers the lowest rates. They employ hard-up students, not proper translators. The problem is these students are often not sure-footed in their own language, let alone their second language."

And these challenges are growing. Hollywood is finding huge audiences for its megapics overseas, resulting in some colossal versioning efforts from the studios.

" 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' was dubbed in 25 languages, many of which were also subtitled," notes Nancy Carson, executive vice president of Warner Bros. Intl. "Furthermore, the film was subtitled in 19 additional languages, making a total of 44 unique language versions, not including English."

The subtitlers share some concerns with the dubbers, but they say they also have a different set of challenges. "Creating subtitles and placing them on the bottom third of the screen at the right moment is an art in and of itself," enthuses Rudes.

"The subtitler's palette is vast. There are all those choices of words, expressions, dialects, abbreviations and symbols that must be sorted through. Every word, every phrase, every punctuation mark needs to be economical, evocative and faithful to the original."

As in dubbing, subtitling houses are finding that as more and more blockbusters get worldwide day-and-date releases, so the pressure is being ratcheted up.

"A day-and-date release becomes a logistical challenge for versioning our films, when the delivery is quite late. Otherwise, with ample time, the process happens quite smoothly," says Carson.

"When the delivery of the final finished film is late, the pressure can mount," concurs Dan Olliff, Paramount's London-based vice president, international film operations, who oversaw the versioning and delivery of Michael Bay's "Transformers."

"Transformers" was delivered approximately 3½ weeks before it hit screens in Southeast Asia and had previews in other European subtitling markets ahead of its U.S. bow. Although the schedule was tight, Olliff points out that where required Par's local distribution offices are given secure access to preliminary version materials "so they can get a steer on the translation process as early as possible."

According to Olliff, the phase one process of completing the dialogue translation "should take a week" but it is phase two -- the physical process of subtitling -- which can prove to be more time sensitive. This is partly because reels are fed to physical subtitling houses in split shipments of odd or even reels to limit the risk of piracy.

To Olliff, day-and-date releases crank up the pressure due to the sheer volume of prints that need to be struck and sent across the world concurrently rather than because of the time it takes to subtitle or dub. The logistics of delivery for day-and-date releases are becoming further complicated with the increasing need to deliver both digital drives and 35mm prints.

Rudes says subtitling "is always a last-minute affair. We are always under the gun."

However, he adds, "too often, subtitling is not thought of as an important phase of post-production and is done at the last second, too quickly and without the appropriate devotion of resources and attention."

"Only later -- at the screening of your film in Lima or Lisbon, when the audience is not laughing at the funny lines -- do you realize that you should have paid more attention," warns Rudes. "If you need Italian subtitles, use a native-speaking Italian, not your girlfriend from Pennsylvania who did a semester abroad in Milan."

Some films present unique challenges.

Koutna, a perfectionist in her art, is quick to point out how tricky translation work can be. "'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World' required a lot of research of specialist terminology, I had to find someone who knows about ships and sailing and knows the right Czech terms -- not easy in a land-locked country!"

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