By Mara Campbell and Sebastián Arias
Sometimes it takes us ages to realize that we have been doing something inefficiently for a long time and nobody said a thing (probably because they didn’t notice). Generally, we can’t even establish the exact moment it started happening or who began doing it differently. My colleague and co-author of this article, Sebastián, and I thought that, since we did notice, we should point it out.
For me, it started many years ago. I was having trouble explaining to my team what a forced narrative file was, what it would be used for, and what purpose it served. For a few years (yes, years!), I was not completely sure, so I repeated to them the exact words my clients used to explain it. And a few months ago, I finally got it. (See below for Netflix’s definition.)
According to Netflix:
“A Forced Narrative (FN) subtitle is a text overlay that clarifies communications or alternate languages meant to be understood by the viewer. They can also be used to clarify dialogue, texted graphics or location/person IDs that are not otherwise covered in the dubbed/localized audio. To enable the same viewing experience across multiple countries and devices, FN subtitles are localized and delivered as separate timed text files. […] Subtitles, both full and FN, are not burned-in over picture.
On our service, Forced Narrative subtitles are only displayed if Subtitles and CC are set to “off” in the user’s playback settings. When the user activates a full Subtitle or SDH/CC file, the FN subtitle does not display and for this reason, we require that all Forced Narrative [subtitles] are also included in each full Subtitle and SDH/CC file.
FN subtitles are used in the following cases:
Short segments of foreign language, intended to be understood by the audience, that differ from the original language of the show.
Translation of original language location/person IDs, dates or other labels (e.g. “White House, December 10”). As a creative element, these text graphics are usually burned into image and are therefore represented as FN’s in foreign languages only. […]
Communication that would not otherwise be commonly understood (e.g. sign language, a subtitled dog, Klingons).
Transcribed dialogue in the same language, often done for audience clarification (if audio is inaudible or distorted, commonly in documentaries).”
As adults who lived their teen years during the 80’s in a non-English-speaking country, Sebastián and I grew up on dubbed movies. The norm (dare I say “logic”?) was that onscreen text was always dubbed. Dubbed versions generally are created for people who can’t read or are not used to do it, so all written information needs to be voiced in the target language for it to be understood. Yet, this has changed, and now onscreen texts are consistently subtitled and not dubbed, regardless of the type of movie/show that is being presented in its dubbed version.
Nowadays, in a dubbed movie, if a character reads a newspaper headline, if there is a plot-pertinent street sign, if we get a glimpse of a written love letter, it will be in the original language on screen and subtitled into the target language, even though all the dialogue in the movie is dubbed. This poses a problem for audiences who can’t read, namely, children, but also a few other demographic groups, including some types of disabilities.
We debated about this fairly new phenomenon, Sebastián from his ample dubbing expertise and I from my subtitling perspective, but we could not find an explanation as to why it was like this now (and much less who changed it, when, and why.)
In a galaxy far, far away
Picture the opening of Star Wars, a long sequence of floating words that dissolve into the deepest space. Imagine a non-English-speaking kid set up to watch the dubbed movie. One immediately assumes that those words, along with the subtitles for countless space-language-speaking aliens, will be dubbed, so that children can understand Jabba The Hutt threatening Han Solo’s life if he doesn’t pay his debt in A New Hope. Arguably, not many kids these days speak Huttese.
Cut to my eight-year-old daughter yelling at me from the next room, “Mom! Come read these words to me! I can’t understand what’s happening!” All onscreen text is subtitled, not dubbed, even in children’s movies that are dubbed into a foreign language.
Just keep swimming
One could point out that the Star Wars saga might not be specifically conceived to be watched by young children, so, naturally, we turned to animated films, the epitome of kid’s movies. We checked Finding Dory. The approach in that movie and in many other high-profile animated films is to localize onscreen text.
Again, these are written words that young children—the exact target audience of the film—cannot read because… they can’t read yet! Cue some more yelling from the next room.
Not to mention that they miss out on important plot twists, like in one scene, where the characters need to get to the sea, but they get sidetracked by “the world’s most powerful pair of glasses” and end up going in the wrong direction, even though the signage in the aquarium is clearly visible.
And speaking of plot twists, here is one: the original English-language version of Finding Dory also commits the same crime of showing onscreen text with no matching voice over! This might explain why the dubbing does not include voice-over on text: to emulate the original version’s viewing experience. That is commendable, logical, and the most probable explanation, but it brings up another point: should we be discussing the industry’s approach to children’s movies in general? That is probably a debate on its own that we can leave for another time.
Localizing children’s films can go to very interesting lengths. In the case of Inside Out, even the actual animation had to be localized for some regions. In the scene where the protagonist pouts about being forced to eat broccoli, the Japanese version had to get creative and change broccoli for peppers, because broccoli is a loved vegetable by kids in that country. Check out this article for more interesting localization facts about that film: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/why-inside-out-has-different-scenes-in-other-countries-2015-7.
Another form of forced narratives in all genres of film and television is burnt-in subtitles. Many scenes in Black Panther are spoken in the South African language Xhosa and subtitled into English. This poses very different challenges for the dubbing and subtitling into foreign languages.
In dubbing, the only solution is to dub into the target language, which means that both English and Xhosa lines will “sound” the same to the dubbed version viewer: they will all be in the same language. This is where the burnt-in subtitles come in handy, as they are a visual cue that there is a third language in play.
In subtitling, even though the resulting text is all rendered in the same language as well, the third language is noticed by the audience thanks to both the visual cue of the burnt-in subtitles and
the audio cue that the spoken language has changed. (For more information on multilingual instances in film and television, check out the TRAFILM Project, that “aims to describe […] [and]
discover professional and social practices along with the norms and criteria of this specific translation challenge, [as well as] validate and refine existing theoretical models on audiovisual translation and multilingualism by describing and analyzing a rich collection of data.” Visit www.trafilm.net.)
Dinna fash, Sassenach
We find the opposite situation in the show Outlander. The main character, Claire, is an Englishwoman who ends up in 1700’s Scotland, captive by some rugged, semi-savage kilt-sporting beefy Scotts who, unlike Claire, speak mostly Gaelic. None of the interventions in Gaelic (including whole lengthy dialogs and scenes) are subtitled in the first season, and just a few are interpreted to Claire by other characters when they refer to her.
To audiences, this feels quite alienating. (In my case, I double-checked to make sure that the Spanish subtitles were still on.) But it is a very deliberate move by the producers: “According to Ronald D. Moore (the TV Series developer), his crew decided to keep the Gaelic words instead of translating them to English. This maintained the first person narrative by showing Claire’s inability to understand the Gaelic.” It definitively does the trick!
This is an ideal scenario, but not the current one, due to another trend that has permeated the AVT world in the past few years: the dreaded textless video. Even though translators (usually) get a full as-broadcast video to work on/from (i.e., with all original onscreen graphics and burnt-in subtitles), the one that makes its way to our favorite streaming services is actually a “textless” version, which lacks any kind of burnt-in subtitle (it does include diegetic onscreen graphics as signs, letters, etc., sometimes in their original language and sometimes localized, as we described earlier.)
So, in many movies, the visual cue is completely lost, and audiences trying to enjoy the dubbed version find all of the dialogues standardized in the same single target language, which might bring confusion to the audience, because some of the foreign dialogues are spoken in a foreign language on purpose so that some of the characters can’t understand what is said.
As for the subtitled version of such films, the visual cue is also lost, potentially causing the same standardization and loss of viewing experience if the spectator does not pick up the audio cue that the language has changed. Luckily, both languages will be different enough to be set apart, but that is not always the case.
Chaos in Rome
My personal experience with the Israeli show Fauda might be a good example. The show “depicts the two-sided story of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict¹“, centered around an undercover Israeli unit operating in Palestine and their target, a Hamas terrorist. The operatives pose as members of Hamas, so they are fully bilingual Hebrew/Arabic, and the series is spoken in both languages, although there are no burnt-in subtitles for the Arabic (at least not on the video version available on the streaming service.) I personally find that those languages sound quite similar, so the audio cue was non-existent for me. And, since I relied solely on the English subtitles, both languages became one.
One of the show’s conflicts arises when one of the Israeli officers who had been undercover in Palestine is seen by a member of Hamas speaking Israeli on the phone with his wife. All hell breaks loose, and he has to flee because his cover is blown. It literally took me six episodes to realize that the protagonist spoke Israeli with his family and Palestinian when undercover, and that that had been the reason why he was suddenly escaping. Needless to say, I abandoned the show a few episodes later.
Sebastián and I wondered why the streaming service had decided to go in that direction with Fauda while they offered some creative options in other titles, such as the movie Roma. Roma is
spoken in Spanish and Mixtec, an indigenous language which plays an integral part in the plot, because it is used by two maids, one of them the protagonist, mainly when they talk amongst each
other. It is a trait of their heritage but also of their social status, so it is absolutely plot-pertinent to clearly identify when each language makes an appearance.
The film opens with a notice in Spanish that tells the viewer that the Mixtec dialogues will be subtitled, unlike the Spanish ones. The first subtitle of the movie—in whichever language you watch
it—includes the following notice: “Mixtec subtitles in brackets.”
We find that this is a very creative way of engaging the audience in the movie-watching experience and conveying the full meaning that the director strived to communicate. When it would have been very easy to standardize both languages into one, it would not have served the narrative at all. Even though viewers are probably not used to the use of brackets in a regular subtitle (something more associated with SDH and closed captioning), it was a very effective solution. Another good option could have been subtitles in different colors for each language, as many European countries are used to seeing, but that poses the risk of getting lost in older TVs or streaming players.
Of course, curiosity struck, and we went straight to see what had been done in the dubbed versions of Roma. Well, they do not exist². The director’s vision was only a subtitled version, which probably explains why there has been so much thought put into them regarding the treatment of the third language.
In the beginning…
Dubbing and subtitling disciplines have been around for decades all over the world, and, for better or for worse, have managed to find workarounds to most of the problems described in this article.
This new tendency we observe seems to be dragging the achievements of these techniques a few steps backwards, potentially posing problems to audiences in many levels, such as missing the point of a whole scene or even a whole plot twist, or, at the very least, the motivation of some characters to act in certain ways, which ultimately jeopardizes the viewing experience and probably the director’s intention.
Some of these issues are more easily solved than others, of course.
We noticed that it is more common in cartoon TV shows to dub onscreen texts instead of localizing them, and there are many creative ways of doing this. In the Latin American Spanish version of the show Paranorman, for example, some plot-pertinent onscreen graphics, such as a mean graffiti on the titular character’s locker, were dubbed in a way that sounded like an off-screen random school kid was reading them aloud³. Historically, for example in the 80’s dubbed movies we watched in Latin America, all texts were read out loud by a narrator, even the opening credits, i.e., cast,
producers and director, were also read (with questionable pronunciation, but that is another story.)
In dubbing there is some (small) level of control in the hands of the dubbing experts, but it also depends on the company handling the job. In Sebastián’s experience, a few clients leave these decisions to the dubbing director, even going to the lengths of preparing detailed spreadsheets of onscreen graphics instances and offering suggestions, but, ultimately, giving the team the freedom to decide what is better for the movie, since, naturally, each movie or show is a world in its own. But, unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule.
We have a dream
Considering that technology allows for so many wonderful things, we dream of a day, hopefully soon, when audiences will have many options to enjoy an audiovisual piece.
Our kids could choose to watch movies with all foreign language dubbed, dialogues and onscreen graphics alike, over textless versions of the video; tweens might want dialogues dubbed but localized graphics, to practice their reading skills; teenagers could watch the same dubbed version with subtitled forced narratives because they can totally manage them; and adults would go straight for full-on subtitles and choose to load the textless or texted version. And going full circle, maybe the elderly could opt for completely dubbed versions even of films intended for adult audiences.
Deaf audiences could choose to watch the texted version with burnt-in subtitles (instead of having the CC/SDH track include those dialogues over textless video), to get the same experience that hearing spectators get. And hard-of-hearing might “mix and match,” depending on their level of hearing loss.
The combinations are endless, and we are sure that the technology is basically there, it just needs some tweaking. We believe that audiences would engage much more with the material to the point of getting through all of it (unlike the case described previously with Fauda), they will enjoy it much better and, most importantly, understand it fully, which should go without saying, but it feels like a second thought nowadays, judging by the way things are done.
Moviemakers and directors are probably not aware of these issues, but they should be, considering that “[o]ver 50% of the revenue obtained by most current films comes from translated (dubbing, subtitling) and accessible versions (subtitling for the deaf, audio description for the blind)⁴.” Hopefully, when directors, screenwriters and producers get wind of this and decide to have a say in how their work is presented to a variety of audiences, then will we see some thought put into this by dubbing and subtitling companies around the world. We look forward to it!