Translation and interpreting is one of the most varied lines of work there is. Professional translators and interpreters can find themselves working in courtrooms, assisting UN dialogues, or bringing novels to new audiences.
The internet may have hailed the dawn of online translation tools, which some have worried will phase out the need for human translators. But in other ways, the internet has created more work. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and a plethora of other online streaming services have made a wealth of video content available to more people than ever before. And to make this content available to a global audience, video translation is crucial.
This, coupled with an increasing number of Hollywood shooting outside of the US, and the diversification of storytelling has opened up many new and bountiful opportunities for translators.
Translating scripts and subtitles brings movies to new audiences
Translating spoken dialogue into local languages is possibly the most common form of video translation found within the film industry. Subtitlers listen to a movie’s English dialogue, for example, and translate it into, say, Spanish. Though this may sound simple to bilingual readers, there is more to it than a simple word-for-word approach.
Translators working on subtitles need to be skilled creative writers, working on lines that may be (or become) iconic in their native languages. Immortal lines like “You can’t handle the truth!” and “Are you not entertained?!” need translations with equal gravitas. There’s also the matter of conveying consistent characterisation. Subtitled lines must be written in each character’s ‘voice’.
Aside from subtitles, script translators are needed to write dialogue for dubbed versions of films. This comes with its own set of unique requirements. The chief difficulty with dubbing translation is turning native dialogue into local dialogue that matches an actor’s mouth movements as closely as possible. If it takes an actor a long time to say something in English, it has to last the same length of time in German, even if there is one simple German word which conveys the same meaning as a whole English sentence (as there so often is).
Once timing, meaning and ‘voice’ have been taken into account, script translators need to bear localisation in mind. This comes into effect most starkly when a source film uses more than one language. The 2010 hit Toy Story 3, for example, features prominent scenes in which Buzz Lightyear is reset in ‘Spanish mode’. For these scenes, the character speaks Spanish and adopts stereotypical Spanish mannerisms. This presents a problem for the writers translating all of the film’s dialogue into Spanish. Ingeniously, Toy Story 3’s translators addressed this by having Buzz speak a different Spanish dialect for these scenes. In the Mexican version of the film, for example, Buzz adopts a European Spanish dialect. In the European Spanish version he speaks the dialect from Andalusia—the southern Spanish region thought to be most stereotypically ‘Spanish’.
Interpreting on set helps cross-border productions
Due to the growing international market and booming blockbuster budgets, larger numbers of Hollywood films are being shot in foreign locations. To make sure these shoots run smoothly, interpreters are invaluable.
On-set interpreters can help cast and crew communicate across language barriers. A director working with actors who don’t speak their language, for example, may need someone to interpret their notes. As will producers working with local foreign crew members.
On-set interpreters are most crucial when large numbers of extras who don’t speak English are being used. In one famous example, Francis Ford Coppola directed hundreds of native extras from the Ifugao province in the Philippines during the making of Apocalypse Now. In cases like these, interpreters can also take on the responsibility of looking out for the welfare of native extras. Lily Luglug, an interpreter on Apocalypse Now, made sure all the Ifugao extras were properly treated, since being on a movie set was completely alien to them. Her husband Gerry also acted as an interpreter, telling of the “immense responsibility.”
Though Apocalypse Now was filmed in the 1970s, an increasing number of films are being shot in foreign locations. Action movies like the Mission Impossible and James Bond series often film in locales, sometimes with native extras, meaning opportunities for translators like the Luglugs are becoming increasingly available.
Native advisors help with cultural accuracy
In recent years, many Hollywood movie makers have looked to tell more diverse stories. Disney Animation’s Moana is one recent example. The film follows the adventures of a village chief’s daughter as she navigates the Polynesian islands with the demi-god Maui.
To ensure their depictions of local customs and traditions were accurate, the filmmakers traveled to the Pacific Islands and assembled a team of linguists, historians, anthropologists and fishermen. The team, dubbed the Oceanic Story Trust, advised on every aspect of the movie to ensure accuracy and cultural sensitivity. This was important for Disney, as many of their previous films, such as Aladdin, have been accused of racism and appropriation.
The movie got a lot of things right, casting people with indigenous heritage to play all the leading roles, incorporating native language into musical numbers, and sticking closely to local history. Unfortunately the film failed to depict Maui in a way which satisfied Pacific Island audiences; many were offended by the character’s rotund physique. This mistake only cements the importance of cultural sensitivity when making movies. Translators and interpreters will have a lot of work in the film industry as these trends continue to develop.