17 Jan 2023
by Adriana Tortoriello

Subtitling goes to sixth form

Adriana Tortoriello describes an outreach project which turned out to be rather more warmly received than anyone expected.

‘Don’t be too upset  if they don’t talk to you too much,’ the teachers told me as I arrived. ‘Don’t take it personally: that’s just the way they are.’  I’d been invited to run a subtitling workshop for a group  of sixth-form (year 12) students in an East London school, to give them a taster session of the real thing (using the real software).

I was already facing two challenges of my own. One: I have been teaching subtitling/audiovisual translation for a long time, but I’ve always taught translation students at university level, in fact at master’s level. Two: I’d done a few school sessions before but all in primary schools, and just on translation.

Subtitling is different, and it’s complex. You need to consider at all times things like the character limitation and the reading speed required for your subtitles, and the consequent need to condense your translation yet still convey the dialogue. You need to be able to navigate and negotiate cultural references and select the appropriate register for that character, always bearing in mind that those words exist as part of a complex text that includes images and sounds too. And it can get pretty technical too, because at the end of the day you need to master a fairly sophisticated piece of software as well as understand how the film editing influences your choices as a subtitler.

So here I was, talking about subtitling and demonstrating some pretty complex software to a bunch of teenagers who, I’d been warned, would be unresponsive. But I do think that outreach is truly important. And particularly in view of the fact that at the moment modern foreign languages (MFLs) in this country are in a pretty bad place, when I come across a teacher who not only cares about teaching the subject but cares enough to invest in inviting a professional linguist to talk to the students, I certainly don’t say no. The session was on.

A refreshing reality

So what actually happened? First up, it turns out  that the myth of the grumpy teenager sometimes can be just that: a myth. The students who weren’t supposed to even talk to me were incredibly attentive, responsive and perceptive – a group of very motivated Y12s studying Spanish, keen to listen and ask plenty of questions, linguistically pretty savvy and technically very, very savvy indeed. I mean, these are digital natives, right?

It took them all of a couple of minutes to get the more technical side – from frame rate to reading speed, to how to best use a shot change for subtitle timing. I was able to show them, and get them to work on, a couple of real files from old shows, and to illustrate the difference between translating from a pre-existing template (the most common way of working in the industry when you work with an agency) and creating a new subtitle file from scratch, with only video and script at your disposal (which is the way you work whenyou provide subtitles for a direct client).

OK, I wouldn’t outsource my next assignments to them tomorrow, but I was pretty impressed. And subtitling turns out to be the perfect playground for discussing style, register, cultural references and even spelling and punctuation issues. We had a very interesting discussion around cultural references, and they were pretty quick on the mark there too.

Experience versus stamina

What do I take away from the experience? First, one thing we can do to reverse that lamentable trend away from MFLs is to highlight possible career pathways; and an intro to subtitling might well prove a little way in – a nice springboard to getting students to see yet another fabulous thing you can do on a professional level with your foreign languages.

Another thing I reflected on after my stint at that school was the whole issue of experience versus stamina. My husband, who is a runner and in his 60s, often manages to beat people in their 20s and 30s on the track. However, he then takes 10 times as long as they do to recover from a hard race! His coach put it succinctly: it’s down to experience versus stamina. Here, the combination of my experience and their stamina worked like a house on fire, and we all went away a little bit richer than before – acknowledging the potential in young learners is an essential breath of fresh air that benefits even the most seasoned of professionals.

At the end of the day, I am convinced that there’s nothing like teaching to reflect on your professional practice: it makes you snap out of any autopilot you might have acquired and take a good old look at the whys and wherefores of your daily work. If in the process we manage to inspire a new generation of linguists, hen it truly is a win-win.