The perils of subtitling and translation in Video – Jonah Kessel on his latest 5DMkII project

China based DSLR News shooter Jonah Kessel discusses the issues he faced with language and translation on his latest DSLR video shorts

The Fate of Old Beijing: CH. 1 – A Disappearing World from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

Working in foreign countries journalists encounter many problems with language barriers. However, video journalists face even more cross-cultural communication obstacles to hurdle.

I’ve worked in a number of different countries; however, a recent project taught me more about language issues in relationship to video production in a foreign country than any project I have been part of in the past.

The core of this project was three videos all shot on Canon DSLRs with a combined running time of about 18 minutes. 18 minutes of cut video from about 320 GB of footage covering redevelopment and cultural heritage areas in China’s rapidly modernizing capital. While colleague Kit Gillet and myself speak some Chinese (he, far better than I) when doing interviews we require translators to make sure we understand what is being communicated to us accurately. This is normal; however, its just the tip of the iceberg in the process from street interview to streaming video.

Translation as it relates to video production breaks down into a couple different areas of core concern in my mind. Live translation, transcribing, the decision of subtitling vs. voice over and accuracy.

LIVE TRANSLATION: While we hire native Chinese speakers to work along side of us while we do interviews, the key in video interviews with translators is to make sure they aren’t speaking when you’re subject is speaking. This can be extremely difficult when a conversation is going on. You have the choice to let the subject speak for long periods of time, followed by a lengthy translation — in effect, ruining the possible flow of conversation you might have with your subject. Or, you can have them translate after every statement, breaking up the video into twice as much content as you need as well as the possibility of having messy In’s and Out’s in your video clips. Often, our translator would be telling us what was said — when the subject jumps in and began talking again. Now you have multiple voices in multiple languages at the beginning of your clip. So training your fixer or translator in video journalism is extremely helpful here, but even the best of them can’t stop a subject from speaking while they are translating. In this production a lot of clips came out unusable with events like this.

TRANSCRIBING: Sometimes I tell people I do this and they think I’m nuts. However, let’s say you just completed 15, 20 minute interviews. That’s a lot of information to process and to create a smooth narrative over 18 minutes, it’s pretty helpful to have everything typed out. At that point you can lay everything out and start piecing together the interviews like a puzzle. This means all interviews need to be translated and transcribed. While I know plenty of people who don’t do this, for me its very helpful to know all of my assets in storytelling — and every bit of recorded information is an asset.

The Fate of Old Beijing: CH. 2 – David vs. Goliath from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

SUBTITLING vs. VOICE OVER: After finishing this project a major (unnamed) newspaper enquired about republishing the series. However, the style of this newspaper is to use voice over rather than subtitling. The normal thing you see here is the voice starting at full volume and within one second dropping down to a hardly audible level so the English voice can be heard easily. While this makes information accessible to people who can’t be bothered to read, it creates a lot of problems which makes me lean strongly toward subtitling:

  • Immediately by using voice over you might say: you are taking away your subject’s voice. When we started in on this project, one of our big goals was to give the Chinese residents of this issue a voice – or a venue to speak. In past video coverage of the issue, the people who mattered the most had often been left out. So when the the unnamed newspaper requested a version with voice over, I was against it. Even if people couldn’t understand the language, they can understand tonality and learn about a subject based upon the sound of their voice. At the end of the second movie, one of our subjects cries. I asked my colleague, “Does the person doing the voice over have to pretend to cry? Is it possible to make this believable?” The answer we decided, was – no.
  • The next thing I learned very quickly, it doesn’t take the same amount of time to say something in one language than in another language. Therefore, you are put into the position where you essentially cut the actual voice of your subject whenever the English happens to be done speaking. In many ways, this makes video a little less honest.
  • By using subtitles you make information accessible to people who speak both languages, not just a single audience. When thinking of the 1.4 billion possible audience members in China, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to make the information inaccessible to them.
  • On the extreme downside by using subtitles, you clutter the screen. With moving visuals and multiple languages going on this can make it either difficult to read or pay attention to the video.
  • However, in some cases voice over can work well when the person doing the voice over has an accent from that country. A great example of this done well, is in Dan Chung’s video Mongolia Racer. The voice of the racer with the Mongolian accent makes the voice over fit in much more naturally and arguably adds to the production rather than harming it.

The reasons above pushed us towards subtitling, be it ruining chances to be published in certain venues but being a little more true to our goals. Once you go down this route you encounter another world of problems technically and grammatically. Having to fit a lot of words on the screen in a short time, or not having enough words during another moment — subtitles can really be tricky to fit into your edits. Furthermore, to line up the words with what subjects are saying, when they are saying it can be difficult if not impossible due to varying sentence structure of languages.

The Fate of Old Beijing: CH. 3 – Beyond the Alleys from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

ACCURACY: Foremost we were worried about accuracy of the translation. However, this is very difficult given the nuance of language and the fact that direct translations don’t make sense. So the language has to be cultural adapted to a certain degree to make sense to the audience. This is a problem for both visual and print journalists. Back when I used to work at Chinese state-controlled China Daily I’d see a copy editor completely change the quote of a famous politician, even President Hu Jintao. While you would never dream of changing a quote in the West, my Chinese colleagues would say something like “Well, he said this, but in English he meant this.” While this might sound ridiculous, sometimes its impossible to avoid. Let me give you an example:

Our subject who opens the first video says to us: “我刚来北京的时候,胡同里都乱七八糟的.” We are interested in the phrase toward the end “乱七八糟” or — luan qi ba zao. This literally means “messy seven, eight rottens.” If we were to insert this into the sentence you would get something like:

“When I first arrived in Beijing, the hutongs were messy seven, eight rottens. They’re in much better shape now.”

To turn this into a logical English sentence, we then have to get someone who understands Chinese and English both technically and culturally to help us understand. We need them to not only literally translate but culturally translate what the phrase means to our audience. In the end, it turns into:

“When I first arrived in Beijing, the hutongs were a mess, very disorderly. They’re in much better shape now.”

To complete this project with accuracy, we hired a native English speaker fluent in Chinese and native Chinese speakers, quasi-fluent in English. Dozens of hours translating, transcribing, subtitling, thinking and arguing about what something actual means were spent at the wee hours of the night. This process has made me a bit wary of international reportage when it comes to quoting accuracy in both print and visual products (be it subtitle or voice over). Trying to figure out the cultural and possibly historical meaning of a language on a deadline is a scary thing.

ABOUT THE FILMS: “The Fate of Old Beijing: The Vanishing Hutongs.”

In the face of China’s rapid modernization, the world’s most populous country is struggling to preserve its cultural heritage, and nowhere is this more visible than in the ancient alleyways and courtyards of Beijing.

Once a ubiquitous feature of Beijing, the hutongs are more than simply housing; they are actually a way of life. Entire families live in single, crowded courtyards, often with no bathrooms. Yet despite the lack of modern amenities, the communal aspect to life within the hutongs means that few want to leave – even as their neighbourhoods are being demolished and redeveloped. UNESCO estimates that more than 88 percent of the city’s old residential quarters are already gone, most torn down in the last three decades.

In a three-part series, filmmakers Jonah Kessel and Kit Gillet explore the vanishing world of Beijing’s hutongs, the realities of life within the narrow streets, and the future for these culturally-irreplaceable areas of China’s capital.

Jonah M. Kessel is a Beijing-based freelance visual journalist and interactive art director specializing in photography, video, print and Web design.

To see the greater project “The Fate of Old Beijing: The Vanishing Hutongs” click here.

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