In the age of globalisation, where we are merely a click away from any type of media content, be it breaking news on a terror attack in a mosque somewhere at the other end of the world and the subsequent crisis management coverage, a hot-topic debate on a live TV show, or an Academy-Award-winning motion picture, can anyone nowadays still doubt the deeply-rooted implications of translation and interpreting in terms of “domesticating” or “foreignising” media content?
Of course, everybody knows a thing or two about subtitling, dubbing, localisation and internationalisation. After all, the primary objective of any communication is to get the intended message across, to the targeted audiences, right? So that’s why, in terms of audio-visual translation, usually, there are two types of film translation in use: on the one hand, dubbing, which makes the source text familiar to the audience, through domestication – aiming to have viewers feel as if they are listening to actors actually speaking in the target language; on the other hand, subtitling – a.k.a. providing a translation of the spoken language dialogue into the target language, shaped as synchronised captions, usually at the bottom of the screen – is the method which allows the audience to experience the “foreignness” character of the media content, at all times.
In her article, “The Power of Film Translation”, Agnieszka Szarkowska clearly identifies and categorises countries by the audio-visual translation type they employ: firstly, she speaks of the source-language countries, which nowadays translate into the English-speaking countries such as the USA and the UK, where there is little need for subtitling or dubbing, given that most films use English. Secondly, Ms. Szarkowska speaks of the dubbing countries, namely French-, Italian-, German- and Spanish-speaking countries (the FIGS Group) which mostly resort to domesticating audio-visual content. Thirdly, the author mentions the subtitling countries, whose distinct feature is the high percentage of imported films, thus resulting in a constant demand for translation; such counties include the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, Portugal, and why not, Romania.
To be honest, I shall not go into further debate on which of the two approaches is more beneficial – given that as a child I came to learn a great deal of words and phrases by watching subtitled movies and by playing video games set in their original language (not in my native language), I believe my views clearly favour subtitling for foreign language learning purposes.
But, I think it would be insightful to go a little further with digging into this interesting matter and review, a little, the historical perspective involving film translation. In the beginnings, in the age of silent movies, the so-called intertitles interrupted the film, every few minutes. Then, things changed in the late 1920s, when the “talkies” emerged. At first, American film companies tried to solve it by producing the same film (using the same set and scenario, but different directors and actors) in various language versions. However, this soon turned out to be unprofitable, as the films produced were of poor artistic quality and they did not win over the public. The studios began to produce dubbed versions of films instead. Talkies guaranteed that the audience was very much aware of the source culture and its nature, and thus they helped cement Hollywood’s leading position. The introduction of talkies exerted a far-reaching influence on both larger and smaller countries. As film production costs rose, it became increasingly difficult for smaller countries to export their productions and their domestic production decreased, which led to a rise in film imports. This wide gap between larger and smaller countries was to be reflected later in the choice of the film translation mode: larger countries tended to dub imported foreign productions, while smaller ones settled on subtitling.
From the early 1930s until early 1950s, American film companies reigned over the entire movie industry as they monopolised the recording equipment. It took some time for European economies to recover and, in the 1950s, larger states such as France, Italy, Germany and Spain introduced protective measures aimed at “weakening” the influence of American films in their territories. For instance, import quotas were imposed in order to protect domestic production and special taxes were levied on imported films in some countries (France, Italy). At the same time, domestic production in France, Italy, Germany and Spain was supported by the government through various subsidies and loans.
English-speaking countries, particularly the US, still hold the upper hand to this day and we are all witnesses of how Hollywood pulls the strings. What is the most obvious proof of this, if not the fact that at the “Oscars”, every year, the world-famous Academy-Awards, there is one category for “the best foreign film”, where “foreign” has become synonym to “not English”?
Despite the Hollywood monopoly, I believe it is safe to say that motion pictures have tremendous influence in terms of transferring information and ideas. Communication is and has always been about securing a bridge between cultures and people. After all, subtitling or dubbing are just a tool used in order to bring the message of the film to the targeted audiences.
And to make it even more personal for us, translators, interpreters and localisation professionals, I decided to end this piece by mentioning a few top-notch movies involving interpreters, just in case you might consider an alternative to binging for movies, this weekend. So, maybe it would be a good idea to try Stanley Donens’ 1963 “Charade”, Sofia Coppola’s 2003 “Lost in Translation”, the already world star champion, Sidney Pollack’s 2005 “The Interpreter”, or Edward Zwick’s 2006 “Blood Diamond”.