What Does “Plot-pertinent” Mean in Audiovisual Translation?
To close this year, I wanted to examine a term that aims to be specific but often ends up being ambiguous.
This term is thrown around in our industry when dealing with several things, like sound effects, songs, and on-screen text. I want to talk about the latter.
It’s known by many names: narratives, forced narratives, inserts, visuals, opticals, supers, etc. Let’s look at the types of on-screen text (OST):
1. OST Captured During Production
- Photographed Text: images captured by the camera, like street signs, names of businesses, building names, name tags, text in a book, etc.
2. OST Created During Post-production
- Non-dialogue Burned-in Text: location identifiers (Mexico City, Mexico), date identifiers (August 20, 1996), speaker identifiers (John Smith, CEO of WhoKnowsWhat), newscast banners, explanations and dedications in prologues and epilogues, etc.
- Dialogue Burned-in Text: subtitles translating or transliterating a language different from the original version language (subtitles for French audio in an English audio movie, subtitles for sign language, etc.).
- Graphics: OST in animated content, opening and closing credits, production credits, main title, episode title, production logos, etc.
At first glance, when deciding what should be translated (or transliterated), the rule appears to be very clear: if the OST is plot-pertinent and not redundant, translate it.
So, what’s the problem? The term “plot-pertinent” is used to mean something broader than what it denotes. It’s more complex and always subject to opinion.
Diving deeper, beyond its apparent clarity, we find that it’s not so simple. In fact, whether or not something is plot-pertinent can be determined by several tests. The first test is to check if it’s pertinent, of course.
Plot-pertinent photographed text is any filmed text that is there to give context to the viewer. We can determine whether something is “pertinent” by asking ourselves: if you replaced the text with anything else, would it still make sense? If not, it’s pertinent.
For example, in Second Act, a policeman is directing traffic at the beginning of the movie with a vest that reads NYPD (New York Police Department). It’s indeed plot-pertinent text, because it’s an establishing shot: our story takes place in New York. If you changed it to KCPD (Kansas City Police Department), it wouldn’t make sense.
Photographed text that is not plot-pertinent is what the camera captures incidentally when filming in situ, for example, sheets of paper glued to a wall during a panoramic shot of an urban setting.
The second test is the distribution type. Traditionally, most photographed text is not translated in theatrical releases, even if it’s plot-pertinent. When theatrical files are used as source files for DVD and Blu-ray distribution, all those forced narratives have to be translated and added, because this type of distribution tends to translate more OST than theatrical.
The third layer is territory. Some territories, like Latin America, prefer all photographed text translated. For others, like the Netherlands, less is more.
Non-photographed text, since it’s being added during post-production and is not incidental, is usually considered plot-pertinent without ambiguity. For example, animation does not have incidental OST, therefore, non-redundant on-screen text in animation (except the credits) should be translated or transliterated (within the time and space constraints of subtitling, of course). Even so, not all text added during post-production is essential, like news tickers, for example.
And that is why the industry needs to start using a more precise term to decide what OST should be included and what shouldn’t.
Due to the complexity of the issue, I think a good place to start would be to use “essential plot-pertinent onscreen text” for those instances that must be translated to not confuse the viewer, for example, a sign that reads “Smile, you’re on camera” right before the police takes a burglar away.
But, if given a choice, I would rather have all OST translated, even if it’s not essential. I think this would level the playing field for viewers in different countries and allow them the chance to have a very similar viewing experience. Personally, when watching Korean or Japanese content, for example, if I see any on-screen text flash by without a subtitle, the suspension of disbelief is broken, and I am left wishing I could read the language.
I wish all of you and your loved ones a very happy and healthy 2021.