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The translator’s point of view: goodbye quality, hello Quality!

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Languages & the Media 2008 - 7th International Conference on Language Transfer in Audiovisual Media

As presented by Estelle Renard on behalf of the ATAA

Last year, the sensation at the French box office was not a Hollywood blockbuster, but a small comedy about language differences and the prejudices and bonds they produce. Bienvenue chez les Chtis was a huge success and over half the French population went to see it. This film, relying as it does on language and linguistic jokes, should have been lost in translation. It was not. Thanks to the competence of the English translator and the director’s attention to it, the subtitles were so good that a Guardian journalist suggested that this tour de force deserved the creation of a whole new Oscar’s category for subtitlers. It is because it was so well translated that this film has had the chance of an international career.

If this story proves something, it is not the refinement of the French people's tastes, but the value of the work of audiovisual translators.

And indeed,

- it it is not only that without translation, an audiovisual product will not cross the borders of the country where it was created,

- nor that without a good translation, the program will be aired, but not appreciated as it should be and sometimes, not even understood.

- Translation is even more than that, it gives an added value to what we call a “product”, if we want to use the language of business.

This story is also interesting, because the comedy of cultural differences and especially those embodied in language is the ultimate challenge for an audiovisual translator. It demonstrates that what we do is something that is, essentially, not quantifiable. This 'something' that cannot be quantified is also at the heart, the very core of the industry in which we work. Creativity and efficiency cannot be measured or quantified in industrial and business language.

So how can we evaluate something that is not quantifiable? This question seems relevant, but in our industry, it leads us down the wrong path. In this sector, all companies, whatever their size, boast about the high quality translations they provide. At the same time, they boast that they can achieve that quality for a price defying all the odds, shrinking year after year. My question is : what is behind that boast? I would like to demonstrate how quality, as defined by the industry, always results in a cut in the rate paid to the translator. Why is this the case?

The key words of global translation companies are:

- Standardization / globalization

- Productivity

- Technology

Let us see how each of them works in regard to audiovisual translation and if they are a means to achieve efficiency. Can they achieve quality?


The issue here is not technical standardization such as in file or video formats, which obviously aid the circulation of audiovisual programs. I am talking about the standardization of intellectual work.

The use of templates provides an eloquent example of the confusion between quality and cost cutting. The main (and only) advantage of a template is that spotting has to be done only once, no matter how many languages the program is translated into. When using a template, translators have to fit their subtitles into spotting that was designed for another language.

- English template : Bad Girl (8 characters)

- Translation in polish : Niegrzeczna dziewczynka (22 char)

In the example above, the Polish words need a lot more time to read than the English. Using a template, this extra time is not available. The template cannot be changed. It is obviously a bad idea to provide the same template for languages that are so different. Quality spotting is adapted to each language, not the contrary. Templates are the exact opposite of what would ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience for the viewer.

Therefore, standardization is a way to save money but not to produce a good translation. The only thing it can deliver is productivity.

What does productivity mean for a translator?

The translator is an individual, not a company. For him, there is no economy of scale. Higher volume does not mean higher profits. Program for program, he will not make more profit if he translates 10 films than if he translates just one. He will earn the same for each film and his profits will not increase the more films he translates.

Productivity has a meaning from an industrial point of view but not for the translator.

Perhaps technology can help the translator. What can it do for him?

Well, not much. Technology is a means, a tool. Subtitling software for instance is an excellent tool, but it is like a car: you can have the most technologically advanced car in the world but if you don't know where you're going, you will just go nowhere more quickly. It is true that software allows translators to work in more comfortable conditions, but it cannot help them to produce better translations.

Let us assume that technology allows us to work faster. It could then be argued that it helps the translator to do a better job: they are paid the same and work faster. This means they can reinvest the time gained in reviewing their translation many times. But the point is, for audiovisual translators, technology has always meant a dramatic drop in rates and in the time allocated for each job. In France, the rates are a third of what they were 10 years ago. Has any employee in any other sector seen their salary cut by 70% in ten years? If we don't react, the same will happen in dubbing, with the rapid growth of virtual dubbing software.

In this conference, we have seen many amazing machines and softwares but I know of something even more amazing: the human brain. A machine transcodes, the brain of a translator takes a sentence in its context and transfers it to another language. Languages are not just words strung together, they are inextricably linked with a culture and are constantly evolving. They are the flesh of a civilization, and at the core of the very essence of humanity.

In a nutshell, standardisation, globalization, productivity and blind trust in the wonders of technology are the criteria of the industry, but they cannot be applied to the work of the mind, and therefore not to translation.

* * *

If we are here today questioning whether or not quality can still be achieved, it is because of global companies such as SDI, Softitler and others and the blindness of networks regarding what are ultimately their own interests. The question of “quality” (with a small q) is the elegant screen behind which these global companies make big profits. Here, the issue is not that translation costs too much, it is how to make the most money out of it, providing the biggest possible profit for their shareholders. This may seem obvious but I strongly believe that we should not see this situation from their point of view. These companies are the cancer that is eating this industry alive. Why use such a shocking term? Because the way they run their business puts the whole industry in danger.

Quality cannot be achieved without a system of values. What is valued here? Not the viewers and certainly not the translators. Recently, SDI Media Group placed an advert inviting young translators to move to the Philippines for a year. There, the company would provide them with a computer, an internet connection and lots of paid-per-minute programs. Scuba diving lessons and weekend trips were also on the agenda, but not at the company's expense. They considered the opportunity so exciting that they did not think that stating the rates paid was necessary. It is an insight into the way these companies envision the trade of the audiovisual translator. Do they think it is a hobby?

These companies create an environment where companies can only compete to pay the lowest rates, where the smaller companies eventually disappear. As a result, the subtitles are for the most part, appalling. How is it possible to blame the translators? They simply deliver a quality reflecting the rate they are paid. “If you want to pay peanuts, hire monkeys” says the proverb. This policy is hastening the end of the very business model they helped to create because consumers also want to reduce their costs, or even not pay at all. And why should they? Why buy a DVD with a translation no better than a fansubbed version? It is so much easier to download it from home, for free.

* * *

What is to be done?

It seems obvious that we have to escape this business model, this vicious circle. The role of the translator has to be re-evaluated and recognized. He is the one who conveys and gives meaning to the whole process of language transfer in the media. It is imperative that he should have the right tools to work with. To do a good job, a competent and dedicated translator simply needs two things:

- time

- money

Time. It is the only thing that can allow a translator to go through all the steps that guarantee a good translation. One of them is proofreading, for instance by a fellow translator: through this crucial step, subtitles or dubbing can be considerably enhanced.

Money. Translators should always be paid by the subtitle or word. They do not make socks. They should not be paid by the kilogram or, in this case, the minute. It is not a mechanical process repeated again and again as if on a production line. Each sentence, each subtitle is different, is a new adventure. Being paid per subtitle or word is a way to have their work properly recognized and appreciated.

This is all wishful thinking of course. It will not happen like this.

Translators must take action to gain the self respect that the industry does not give them.

The first step is to say no.

Case study: SDI office in France in 2003.

There were 30 translators working full time. Not only for that office, but in that office: we knew each other. When we learned that SDI was going to cut our rates for the third time, all the translators working there agreed to leave the company. Overnight 28 out of the 30 translators were gone.

SDI was, at the time, my only client. I did not work for 4 months afterwards, but what I gained was priceless. I gained self respect, respect for my trade and respect for the viewers/consumers. Those who have done something like this just once in their lives know how good it feels. You can look at yourself in the mirror with a big smile on your face.

Of course, if one person says no, it does not mean much to a company. But if a lot of people say no, then it starts to be a problem.

So the second step is: unite!

ATAA (French Audiovisual Translators Association) was founded two years ago, in June 2006. We were able to create an initially small network that continues to grow today. The so-called individualism of the translator has been proved to be fiction.

We now have 160 members and a mailing list of more than 500 translators.

The first achievement of the Ataa was to share information: a tremendous amount of information is exchanged through our forum and during our meetings. This simple service has made a huge difference. Now we all know what is going on in other companies, how much the other translators are paid and we can organize ourselves and act accordingly.

We also meet a lot: we take every opportunity to organise meetings, and simply get to know each other. Because what we discovered was: it is a small step from meeting in the flesh, to having the guts to say no.

Beyond this national association, we are trying to organize ourselves internationally. Thanks to the great initiative taken by our Scandinavian colleagues, we started an International League of Subtitlers that continues to grow. This international network has allowed us to meet and to compare working conditions. In the not too distant future, we hope to take positive action together.

estelle [at] traducteurs-av . org

Published - April 2009

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