Translators’ Workshop 2018 – Event report

Berlin, 3 November 2018

Including our speakers, a group of 30 translators gathered in the conference room of the Sorat Ambassador Hotel on 3 November for the German Society’s annual Translators’ Workshop. A major reason for the popularity of this regular event is that it is an opportunity to see what other translators in different fields are doing and pick up useful tips and insights for one’s own work.

The first speaker, Richard Delaney, barrister and translator, was slated to give a talk on “a legal topic”. This time he had chosen to speak, in his inimitable and lively style, on the topic of certification and certifying legal translations. In Germany, with its Federal style of government in which 16 states have (near)-autonomy over a variety of issues, one issue is that there is no agreement about what constitutes a “sworn” translator or a “certified” translator. Are they even the same thing? The individual translator is certified by a local German court, receives an official designation plus official stamp and can henceforth produce translations acceptable in his/her “bundesland” or state. Whether courts in another state will agree to recognize the work is by no means assured, although the “sworn” status is theoretically valid in all states. In the UK and other countries, however, only the translation itself is certified as complete and accurate.

The EU Directive 2010/64 concerns the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings. However, the preamble to the directive points to problems of mutual recognition and the need to trust that other countries apply the same standards of quality in the judicial process. The Directive calls for member states to take “concrete measures to ensure the interpretation and translation provided meets the quality required…” Germany has a register of appropriate interpreters and translators, the UK does not. Indeed, in England and Wales there is no explicit implementation of the Directive at all – and Brexit makes this unlikely. Nor do these countries’ rules of criminal procedure make any mention of quality criteria for translations whatsoever.

Richard mentioned the scandals surrounding Capita, a big cut-price translation and interpretation service in the UK, about poor quality work. As The Guardian put it, “A war crimes trial at the Old Bailey collapsed last year and has had to be rescheduled because of problems over the quality of interpreting offered to the defendant, a Nepalese army officer.”

The way ahead, it would seem, would be a recognized European qualification for “sworn” translators. This would be good for rare languages, create uniform standards and a larger client base. It would also provide greater clarity for the people ordering and paying for the service. The issue is not so pressing in civil cases, because the clients can generally afford to ensure that they buy good quality translations.

The CIoL has just updated its guidelines for self-certification. The speaker suggested it would be a good idea to have a CIoL seal and a standard formula to verify the translation.

Being very much a man who knows the practical side of legal translating, Richard gave advice on coping with the situation in Bavaria. Here the translator’s note of confirmation swears that the translation is a true and complete rendering of the text that was presented as an original/copy etc. As Richard pointed out, it is not the translator’s job to certify that the text provided was the original. To avoid any possible pitfalls here, he recommends that a copy of the text presented for translation be attached to the translation.

The second speaker of the morning was Dörthe Busch; her talk, in German, was titled “Die Übersetzung von Untertiteln”. Probably very few of us have ever given much thought to how the sub-titles for a foreign-language film are produced. It turns out to be very complicated and technically demanding! It was only to be expected that timing is vital, so that the sub-title matches the action/speech on screen. In addition, however, the number of frames is important and here is the first difficulty. The European PAL system has 25 frames per second, America’s NTSC has 30. As if that were not enough, a film is divided into cuts – hard cuts or fades. Somehow, a sub-title has to be produced that will render what has been said accurately and in a way that the viewer can comfortably read without being irritated by the action moving on before he/she has read the dialogue. In other words, everything has to seem quite natural and unobtrusive. As rule of thumb, a subtitle should be visible for at least one second but no longer than 6 seconds. It should be no longer than two lines of 40 characters (without spaces), whereby the shorter line should come first. About 15 characters per second are considered the right amount, so rapid cuts will influence the length of the sub-titles. As it is impossible to translate everything word for word in the time and space available, text must be shortened without losing idiom or meaning. It is advisable to keep the syntax simple and ensure that each sub-title is a semantic unit.

Any names that can be clearly heard in the film must appear in the sub-title. Captions used in the original film will be retained in the foreign-language version, so a decision needs to be made about whether the caption needs to be translated and if so, where the sub-title should appear on the screen – preferably above or below the existing text, but certainly not so as to obscure someone’s face.

Imperceptible choices, such as how many frames (e.g. 5, bearing in mind that one second has 25 or 30 frames, depending on the system) should be allowed to run before the sub-title appears, or how many frames before the end of the cut the sub-title should disappear from the screen, have a bearing on how the viewer perceives the film, whether he/she finds it “breathless” in style or not.

Sub-titles are obviously important to deaf people, but the speaker is not always visible on the screen; the solution here is coloured sub-titles – a different colour for each person.

Dörthe demonstrated the software used to sub-title, showing time code and individual frames plus the sound track. For those not already convinced that sub-titling is an art form in itself, Dörthe asked us to translate some soundtrack. It was much harder than it looked to make it all fit and sound right. I, certainly, came away resolving never to look casually upon a sub-title again.

After the lunch break, which allowed plenty of time to network and chat as well as eat, we turned our attention to the “Key to Music Translation” with a talk by Janet and Michael Berridge (many will remember Janet from her time as chairperson of the German Society). Having outlined how they met and turned a working collaboration into a marriage – or was it the other way around? – Janet and Michael proceeded to talk about their approach to translation in the musical field. Over time, the CD booklets have tended to become more important as a marketing tool that customers expect to have provided and translating them can call for not only a broad musical knowledge but also a feeling for when something extra is needed to make the text accessible to the target audience. Sometimes research into the topic will involve calling a musician friend to ask about some technical detail of playing a particular instrument. Because each booklet, interview with an artist or press release to advertise a new recording is unique, Janet and Michael have never felt the need to use CAT tools, as they feel that, due to a lack of repetition in their work, there is no benefit to be derived from them. They use a large collection of reference books, e.g. to identify the accepted translated title of a musical work, and, when the desired work is not to hand at home, consult the rich store of books and information in a Berlin library.

Janet and Michael brought some samples of music with them – quite fascinating was a version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition by the Fauré Quartet, which as the notes say, has a “ …phenomenal diversity of sounds of the Fauré Quartet. As if bringing out the best of a solo piano and a large orchestra, the Fauré Quartet, located in between those two extremes, seems to achieve the best of both worlds.” And the name of the composer highlights something of which the translator always needs to be aware – how to transliterate Russian names and, moreover, is that how the customer wants the name spelt?

As Janet and Michael said, translations for music firms are marketing tools, which neatly brings us to the fourth talk of the day, “Translating for Marketers” by Rose Newell. Rose asked who works mainly with direct clients – a majority – and who does marketing texts, again most of the participants translate at least some texts that may be regarded, in the widest sense of the word, as marketing. Having established a common ground, it was time to think more closely about the people one is dealing with and their role in the firm; are we talking to the owner or decision maker, did the person we are speaking to actually write the copy (which we must therefore avoid slamming), do they have any understanding of our languages? It was a good exercise to recall these and other basics, such as determining how much text there is and when it is wanted. As Rose stressed, however well we communicate, explain and empathize with the customer, we still need to know when to walk away and politely decline a job.

Rose brought along some short texts that can best be described as “crass”. After some initial confusion, a lively discussion developed about the offensive nature of the purported “ads” and whether as a translator one should point out to the client what is objectionable, just translate the text given or refuse the work. Another interesting issue was an example of copy that was poor quality and not really fit for purpose. Should one tell the client? Here we return to the dilemma mentioned before, and it is best to find out who actually wrote the poor copy before sticking one’s neck out too far. A final example was for an app that was linked to an Oyster card – clearly this is not going to work without a lot of tweaking outside the UK. The fictional title of the product “MISST” also sounds like the German word for manure. Again, tell the customer or just translate?

All in all, participants went away with food for thought and a refreshed understanding of the profession. Thank you to all our speakers.