05 Mar 2024
by Charlotte Bosseaux

Surviving translation

Experimental guidelines for translating emotional content in documentaries. 

How can we subtitle ethically the voices of those who have suffered trauma? Charlotte Bosseaux tells us how this crucial question has shaped her recent practice-based research.

I have always been fascinated by translation: the way meaning changes from one language and culture to another, the potential for introducing new ideas, for manipulating content and the common assumption that originals and translations are the same as if translation was an objective activity. As an academic my work has focused on voices for as long as I can remember: first researching voices in novels, particularly in the works of Virginia Woolf in French translation, then moving on to dubbing considering the voices of actors, and now working on audiovisual testimonies (subtitles and voice-over versions) focusing on how the voices of those who have been in vulnerable situations are rendered in translation.

Behind my work has always been a desire to make sure that we represent the voices of an original as respectfully as possible and that characters in novels and films but also, and perhaps more importantly, real individuals come to us as powerfully or truthfully as they can in translation.

Working in Audiovisual Translation Studies I have been able to engage with many researchers and audiovisual translators, and I gradually realised that current subtitling norms are usually a one size fits all situation. There may be variations depending on material, but general guidelines always emphasised the need to avoid repetitions, hesitations and to follow certain segmentations to make sure subtitles are as readable as possible. However, there are materials such as testimonies focusing on painful and difficult stories that might benefit from a different type of subtitling so that we can more clearly hear the voices of the originals; their emotions through pauses, hesitations and tone.

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I therefore embarked on practice-based research in which we made a documentary called Surviving Translation. Surviving Translation © University of Edinburgh, 2023. Based on original research by Charlotte Bosseaux (co-creator, co-producer). Director: Ling Lee (editor and co-producer). Funded by an AHRC Research, Development and Engagement Fellowship (Grant number: AH/W000199/1).

Surviving Translation shows what migrant women have gone through as they arrived in a new country and could not speak its language, as well as testimonies from translators, interpreters and a subtitler who worked with us on the film, sharing how it feels to translate for people who have suffered trauma and gender-based violence (GBV). Surviving Translation features four languages: English, Kurdish Sorani from Iraq, Spanish from El Salvador and French from Cameroon. We worked with teams of subtitlers to find innovative ways of subtitling to convey the orality of the survivors’ testimonies. GBV and trauma survivors often feel that their voices have been taken away from them and we wanted to make sure their voices were heard and amplified in translation, ultimately making sure that we did not silence their words or emotions for new audiences.

The subtitling process, as it was done alongside film editing, took over a year and we tested subtitling strategies on a varied audience via online surveys. We showed different extracts from the documentary with different subtitling options asking audiences what they thought of our endeavours to convey the emotions and orality of the originals’ speech in subtitling. These options concerned the use of pauses, hesitations, repetitions and our attempts at conveying those for instance through different segmentations and the use of punctuation. We also suggested different placements so that the subtitles would not cover faces, particularly in close-ups, and we asked opinions on assigning colours for different voices, to make sure that the subtitles captured the individuality of the women and their voices.

Examples of placement and colours:

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We are very pleased to say that Surviving Translation is ready now and that we have been able to produce subtitling guidelines, which are available from my website Ethical Translation. Our 'Experimental Guidelines for Translating Emotional Content in Documentaries' focus on the different options that we suggest and our ‘Guidelines on Remuneration and Working Conditions of Subtitlers’ complement them by providing some guidance on best practice when hiring subtitlers on projects dealing with challenging and emotional material.

I hope you will find these guidelines inspiring. It is important to emphasise that they are not meant as definitive solutions that must be applied prescriptively. They are instead suggestions based on our experience of translating Surviving Translation. We hope that subtitling companies and subtitlers will find them a useful starting point when working with emotional and challenging content and welcome any feedback on their applicability, usefulness and areas of improvement. Please send your comments to: [email protected]

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This article first appeared on the SubComm website.

SubComm is an initiative founded by Dr Hannah Silvester (University College Cork) and Dr Tiina Tuominen (University of Turku), to bring together researchers and practitioners interested in subtitling.

SubComm organises regular informal online networking events (subtitle chats) and publishes guest blog posts about research projects. Their next subtitle chat on the topic Tools that make our lives easier will be on Thursday 24th March, 4-5.30pm. To find out more, visit the SubComm website, or join their mailing list by dropping a line to [email protected]. They are always looking for new people to join them in their love of all things subtitling!