by Deborah Wexler
As an audiovisual translator, the second most frequently asked question I get after, “Wow, do you really translate movies and series?” is “How did you get into that?”
I started at a state channel in Mexico called Imevisión that later became Televisión Azteca. A woman I knew worked there and one day she said to me, “They are urgently looking for someone who can translate the Italian movie Ladri di biciclette… by tomorrow!” and I was game. I spent all of that day and night translating the movie and stayed on after that.
Back then, they didn’t call us “audiovisual translators,” but “movie translators” (there were no “series” yet). I worked on paper since there were no subtitling programs available. We would listen to the dialogue on the video, pause it, write the in time and out time, and subtract the in time from the out time to get the duration of the subtitle. Then we would convert that number of frames into spaces, translate the dialogue mentally, count the characters to see if they fit in the space allowed, and write it down with a pencil. There were no spellcheckers available, so the writing had to be perfect from the start. We would take our enormous stack of pages to be typed by the Chyron operator so the subtitles could later be burned into film reels.
Then I worked for Televisa, Mexico’s leading media company, on the night shift, arriving just in time to see them transitioning from a Moviola to computers and a three-quarter VCR. The Moviola was an editing machine that allowed you to view the film, but the translation and timing were done on paper. The new computers didn’t have a hard drive, so the software (SoftNi, the first PC-based subtitling system) was run through a floppy disk drive in DOS.
After that, I worked for a bit at PCTV, the largest cable TV distributor in Latin America, until I immigrated to the United States.
There, I started working for an amazing company called Captions, Inc., where I later became the Director of Translation Services, in charge of over 500 linguists, until it was absorbed by the then start-up Pixelogic Media, which I now call home.
Somebody once told me, after having heard my laughter while translating a comedy, “People shouldn’t be allowed to have so much fun while working!” It was said in jest, but it’s a great way to describe how I feel about this work. I would not want to be doing anything else in the world. It’s what I wished I could do when as a little girl I used to see the translator credit “Translated by Perla Moctezuma” at the end of subtitled movies on television. I still remember Perla’s name, even though I never got to meet her.
Although it’s had a few bumps, I like my yellow brick road story because I love where it has taken me. Today it’s taking me to Seoul to train an amazing group of Korean editors in the art of subtitling. Both the typhoon Hinnamnor and I are scheduled to land in Korea tonight.
I hope you’re inspired by this compilation of stories of how audiovisual translators ended up being a part of this fabulous field. This special edition of Deep Focus is dedicated to them.