If you don’t notice my work, it means I’m doing my job properly. I’m an audiovisual translator, which means that I write the subtitles for films in other languages. There is something about the anonymity of the work that appeals to me. As Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum, put it in “The Art of Subtitling,” “Good subtitles are designed to be inconspicuous, almost invisible.”
Of course, it’s impossible to be truly invisible. Translating film and TV always involves some form of compromise. But we do our best, carefully dissecting what is being said in the source language, then reassembling it in the target language so that you have the same viewing experience as a native speaker, and may even forget you’re watching a “foreign” film.
Whether working (as I do) from French into English, from Spanish into German, or Japanese into Swedish, the process is always the same: We pay close attention not only to the meaning of the words, but to the actors’ emotions, the cadence of their speech, their body language, the themes and narrative structure of the script, the historical period, and the social context. Together, these cues provide a host of tiny hints, all of which add extra layers of meaning and must be accounted for in the translation.
Say I’m dubbing a ghost story set in a bourgeois Parisian household in the year 1850. The French grandmother stands in a doorway and whispers, “A tout de suite, mon petit.” How would you dub that into English? I might try, “See you in a minute, my darling,” but that doesn’t sound stuffy enough for the 19th-century bourgeoisie. So what about, “See you in a moment?” The issue there is the cinematographer has lit the scene so the actor casts a sinister shadow into the room. If I were a grandmother trying to lurk in a doorway, I wouldn’t say, “See you in a moment.” However, “See you soon, my darling” perfectly fits the atmosphere of the scene.
My job is always easier when I’m working on a story that I really care about. If I’m hooked by the plot and can empathize with the characters, then I can produce a deeper, more intuitive translation because in that moment, I am that character. When the process is flowing well, it’s both relaxing and satisfying, like being in a meditative state in which I’m channeling the emotion of every scene. There have even been a few times over the years, when I’ve been working on something especially good, that I was so immersed in the story that translating a single line of dialogue has left me breathless or moved to tears. It can be quite jarring to reach the end of the working day and suddenly have to emerge from this fictional world, to open my mouth and speak my mind again, to remember who I am.
This line of work is not really suited for those with big egos. Most of my colleagues — the actual, real-life ones — are modest, sincere and soft-spoken. And even though these qualities are the very things that make us good at our job, I do wish that we could sing our own praises a little louder, and bring some more attention to our invisible craft.
Especially because these days, though there are more films and TV from around the world than ever before, in many countries (such as the UK, where I live, or Spain, where my colleagues assure me the situation is even tougher), rates are falling and deadlines are getting tighter. This has inevitable repercussions on quality, not to mention our livelihoods. It can be hard to publicize our achievements because we usually sign non-disclosure agreements, and more often than not, filmmakers regard us as an afterthought, something to be rushed through at the distribution stage. Thankfully, many of the best filmmakers realize how important the translation stage is and are closely involved in the subtitling and dubbing process. They also pay fairly, so that we can take our time getting it just right.
It’s possible for subtitles and dubs to be so seamless that they feel invisible without pushing audiovisual translators ourselves out of sight. I’m proud of what I do, and I want the world to know how much care and consideration I, and thousands like me, put into our work. That being said, there is still a certain satisfaction in being the hidden conduit between cultures, the solitary name that appears in a film’s credits after everyone has left the cinema. It is precisely our invisibility that allows a family watching Netflix in Chicago to empathize with a bourgeois grandmother in Paris or an edgy rapper in Caen. Translation is about helping people to understand each other, and it feels good to be able to do that on a daily basis.
David Buchanan studied audiovisual translation at the University of Roehampton. This piece was written for Zócalo Public Square.