by Murat Önol
Like many things, subtitle translation came into my life through a series of coincidences. It all started in the spring of 1991. A friend told me that the Istanbul Film Festival was looking for translators. I attended the group interview. It was the first time I was entering through the kitchen of the festival, which I had previously followed as a spectator.
Of course, I was seeing and experiencing everything like a movie: the historical building, the huge entrance, very high ceilings. In one room, a man is projecting a movie on a screen. The rhythmic sound of the rotating reels becomes the soundtrack. It was as if I were on the set of a Solanas movie.
The first meeting took place around a long table. First, the director of the festival told us that they had decided to switch from simultaneous interpretation to electronic subtitling. Then an Italian guy named Fabrizio Fiumi (the eventual founder of Softitler and DigiTitles) explained to us what electronic subtitles were. It was a very simple system: a computer connected by fiber-optic cable to an electronic display. The computer used DOS as its operating system. When you pressed a button, the translation you had made on a floppy disk would magically appear on the panel. Previously, the problem of translation at festivals was solved either by burning subtitles on films or by simultaneous interpretation. The first method was too expensive and the second one was too disturbing. This new method solved both problems very effectively.
Of course, everything is simple at first, but as you take steps, things start to get complicated. The first problem we had was with Turkish special characters, and of course we realized that even a simple dot can have a crucial importance in certain circumstances. It was terribly funny when we saw that it was impossible to write “sıkışıyordu” (i.e. “she/he was getting stuck”) because we were not able to use “ı” and “ş”. On the display it was written “sikisiyordu” (i.e. “she/he was fucking”). Fabrizio was creative, practical and a go-getter. They solved the special character problem, but of course there wasn’t much he could do about translations lost due to blackouts, viruses or corrupted floppy disks, about optical cables eaten by cats or trampled underfoot, about displays kicked by angry spectators or blown fuses during screenings. He was magical, but he wasn’t a magician. That’s why he always reminded us of the importance of taking precautions.
I learned a lot during my festival period, it was an environment where practice and theory were amalgamated. We were experiencing unimaginable problems and finding solutions to them together, trying out the methods we had studied and researched in the field and seeing their effects on the audience with our own eyes. Of course, we were discussing not only translation but also working conditions. The foundations of subtitle copyrights were laid in that circle in those years and afterwards we obtained important rights about our work.
Everything was constantly evolving. In 1996 and 1997 I started working on international projects. First, a retrospective of Turkish cinema in Paris, then some festivals: Montreal, Italy. Then I started translating DVDs, again thanks to Fabrizio. We formed a group of translators in Turkey for this work. We were working from home now, but for international companies. In those years, each new company meant different experiences and a search for new methods. Of course, the Scandinavian school was different from the Greek one, but a new style was emerging from these differences. The discussions were very lively.
Working from home for DVD made me reconsider my thoughts about subtitling. I was no longer in the presence of people at festivals who were reading our translations in that moment, but I had my retired father. He was a cinema lover who only spoke Turkish. I showed him every translation I did, and it was thanks to him that I realized how important reading speed was. He wanted to understand what he was watching. Subtitling is the most important element, for people who don’t speak the original language of a movie or who are hearing impaired, to understand correctly what is being watched. It is therefore essential that the text is quickly readable and immediately understandable. To understand how I should write, I started reading US and French pulp novels translated and published in Turkey in the 1960s. I realized that the translators had used incredibly effective methods for localization. Of course, I started to use these methods in my own translations.
With the advent of streaming media, countless languages and dialects from different places and cultures all over the world have met huge and unlimited audiences from different cultures. This has increased the importance of audiovisual translation. Brand new solutions have been produced to old and new problems. Some of them are correct and some are open to discussion. This is important because development depends on these discussions. If we want to improve the quality of our work, I think we should draw some conclusions about the changes that have taken place in our field over the last fifty years. And we should never forget that improving the quality of the product is linked to improving working conditions. Thirty years have passed since I started working as a subtitler and during these thirty years I have experienced both fascinating and very difficult moments. It’s a great pleasure to see that you can make a person really understand a movie. But sometimes you can be overwhelmed by jobs and it’s no fun at all.
It all started like a movie, and it continues like a movie. The director is still Solanas. I remember the first time I launched subtitles in a movie theatre. It’s a weekday. I’m a senior in high school. I’m skipping school for the launch. The movie is called Canticle of The Stones. It’s a movie about the first Intifada. I had translated it with a friend of mine. We were very intellectual. We were very radical. We were very young. The movie starts. I sit down at the computer to launch the subtitles. I fall down and cut my hand. I get up immediately. My blood drips on the keyboard. I launch the subtitles while trying to stop the blood. Meanwhile, a group of people from the audience starts chanting slogans supporting the Palestine Liberation Organization. After 10 minutes the police intervene. There is an incredible chaos in the theater, but the screening continues. I am still bleeding. At the end of the movie, I run to Gökhan Pamukçu, the man who was projecting a movie when I first walked into that historical building while training for my first festival.
To cheer me up, he tells me how he subtitled West Side Story with two movie projectors in the 1960s. Like a cowboy with two guns, he showed the movie from one projector and sent the subtitles from the other.
Thirty years have passed. More than ten thousand days. Both Fabrizio and Gökhan have passed away. And I’m still trying to make the TXT as invisible as possible. And I’m not talking about something mystical. I want the text to melt into the images like light, color, and music. I want it to complete the image in this way, not from the outside but from the inside. I want the text to be understood but not be noticed. I want the audience not to speak positively or negatively about the translation after seeing the film, because I don’t want them to think it is a translation. That’s why I’m still in search of invisible TXT.