by Rosário Valadas Vieira
In the 1960s, Portugal had only one TV channel, in black and white. Daily broadcasting was introduced on March 7, 1957, in the midst of the dictatorship. Back then, going to the movies or watching TV was the source of entertainment for adults and children alike. All foreign and national audiovisual content was censored, naturally, and subtitles were the translation format of choice.
Subtitles were taken for granted by the Portuguese and were often the only reading material for a nation with a low literacy rate.
Reading subtitles and enjoying them go way back for me, back to when I was a child. From an early age I was passionate about British, American, and French films and series. I wouldn’t miss a single weekly episode of Bonanza, Green Acres, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Space: 1999, MASH or movies like Ben-Hur, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and later The Poseidon Adventure, A Clockwork Orange, Saturday Night Fever, or Apocalypse Now. I could go on and on.
After the revolution in April of 1974, the newly liberal context allowed for many international TV series and films to be broadcast, and again, subtitles were the go-to means for understanding foreign audiovisual content in Portugal.
Color transmission was introduced on March 10, 1980, and it was a historic event. People would stop in the streets, in front of appliance stores, to watch color television. To enjoy the full package, picture and dialogue, subtitles became even more critical for the growing audience. Dubbed content was already available, particularly for children’s series, but subtitling was still the predominant form of audiovisual translation.
Because of Portugal’s vast subtitling tradition, rules and standards were already established. With the emergence of two private TV channels in Portugal in the 1990s, these rules, namely, number of characters per line, italics, hyphens in dialogue, punctuation, and other conventions, were followed by Portuguese professionals. This way, the target audience was able to enjoy shows with consistently formatted subtitles on any of the national channels.
Fast forward to the 21st century, when streaming platforms began to emerge, providing audiovisual content of varied linguistic origins for audiences of equally varied nationalities, Portugal already had a vast subtitling tradition as one of the first European countries to subtitle TV content. A Japanese or Hungarian film now needs to be translated into numerous languages to reach viewers around the world. Subtitles or dubbing have become necessary and demand for translators has increased exponentially, which in turn has led to large fluctuations in rates. Unfortunately, instead of increasing, they have decreased. To take part in this frantic race, many translators, with or without experience or even specialized training, accepted lower rates, not realizing this would be detrimental to all translators in the long run.
Given subtitling have predominated in Portugal since 1957, audiovisual translation rules and standards were already implemented. As I am probably one of the professionals with most years of experience in the field, and since I have been providing training in subtitling since 1997, I was careful to gather these pre-existing rules in a more systematized manner, so that students and future professional translator-subtitlers would have a set of standards to follow.
In 2015, when Netflix entered the Portuguese market, Portuguese translators and translation agencies were flooded with requests for subtitling and dubbing. The volume of content was massive, so we received the good ol’ offer “higher quantity, less pay.” The problem is that what we produce is not exactly “sausages”, which should also be of good quality, obviously, but our product, translation, requires specialized knowledge, I would even say encyclopedic knowledge, and very specific techniques, including the ability to synthesize within character limit and spotting while considering scene and shot changes. A Timed Text Style Guide was made available for each language, but Portuguese guidelines clashed, in some respects, with what had been practiced in Portugal for decades. This, unsurprisingly, affects the viewer experience.
In some European countries, Portugal being one of the first, subtitling audiovisual content was always done, as opposed to countries where most TV shows and films are dubbed, such as England, the United States, Spain and Brazil. When a country has established rules for over half a century, and the audience is used to them, it is unsettling, to say the least, for different rules to be imposed, even if these rules are more appropriate.
A few examples of the discrepancies include the use of quotation marks, the positioning and format of songs, and capitalized OST.
In Portugal, if a one-sentence quote is broken down into three subtitles, the first two subtitles have quotation marks at the beginning and the third has quotation marks at the end, closing the quote. According to Netflix’s rules, the first subtitle needs quotation marks at the beginning to open the quote and the last one needs quotation marks at the end to close the quote.
The subtitles in between do not need quotation marks. This may mislead the viewer to think the phrase was said by the character, and not quoted. As for the positioning of songs on the screen, in Portugal, subtitles with song verses or poems are aligned to the left and not italicized. This change has caused unease and confusion among professionals and trainers. Because of this influence, now songs or poems in shows aired nationally have inconsistent alignment and italicization. Also, it is odd for Portuguese audiences to see OST in capital letters, as they take up a lot of unnecessary screen space, yet it is now common to see the screen occupied by giant letters, even when OST is not plot pertinent.
There are also differences in timing/spotting. An appropriate reading speed is important to give the viewer enough time to read the subtitles.
However, the minimum duration of a subtitle which used to be 1 second, is now 20 frames. This is quite fast for some viewers, even if it’s only for one small word. It takes time to gaze at subtitles. Not seeing subtitles during shot changes is also important for readability. But having to set precisely 2 frames before or after shot changes sometimes is not easily feasible.
These issues have been raised in other countries, not only in Portugal. In Spain, for instance, names of ships, which used to be written in italics, are no longer. Viewers have complained about this.
If Portuguese professionals, specifically those who are in the audiovisual market and linked to academia and university training in AVT, and are therefore more up-to-date on current standards, had been consulted before the Portuguese Style Guide was created, perhaps these discrepancies would have been avoided and viewers would not have been affected. It’s a matter of respect for Portuguese consumers, an audience with a history of reading subtitles for more than half a century.