by Dietlinde DuPlessis
If you translate subtitles for streaming services into languages other than English, you most likely have received pivot-language assignments. If you are a native English speaker, you might have been asked to produce templates for pivot translations. If you are not familiar with the term pivot language, here is a short definition: A translation from language A into B is achieved in two steps: a first translation from language A into the so-called pivot language, then a translation by a different translator from the pivot language into language B.
In the last few years, I have translated subtitles for content in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Lebanese Arabic, Spanish, Thai, and Turkish into German, all by way of English templates. Jorge Díaz-Cintas is very critical of this practice. In the Routledge Handbook of Translation Studies (2012), he says: “[this practice] is seen by many as ethically questionable.” Indeed, apart from Spanish, I understood next to nothing of the source audio and relied on the English translation for my rendering into German. In subtitlers’ Facebook groups some audiovisual translators told me they would never touch a pivot translation, some say they would ask to omit the translator’s credit, while others find them an opportunity to research and learn.
A century-long tradition
In streaming services, the pivot-language approach arose recently, as they distribute more and more non-English content into a variety of markets. Our colleague Deborah Wexler, who has been in this business for many years, started to encounter pivot-language scripts for subtitling and dubbing around 2015. But as a practice it is not new. In fact, Shakespeare came to Russia in the 18th/19th century via French and German, and Anne Frank’s diary was translated into Spanish first from the German, then the French translation, rather than the original Dutch. Relay interpreting also has a long tradition and is practiced today, for example, in the European Union parliament or at the United Nations.
Pivot languages reduce complexity
Why is this approach used? Two main reasons come to mind. The first is the unavailability of a translator for a rare language pair, especially if narrowed down to audiovisual translation. The pool of subtitlers for Korean to Polish or Japanese to Portuguese is most likely very limited. The second reason is the sheer complexity which arises when the number of languages increases. In the European Parliament, with 24 official languages, there are now 552 possible language combinations.
If the European Union used a pivot-language approach, interpreters for only 46 language pairs would be needed: 23 languages into the pivot language and 23 languages from the pivot language.
Lost in pivot translation
One problem with pivot languages is immediately obvious: A mistake made in the translation from the original language into the pivot language will be reproduced into all target languages. I have received updates in which the translation was so different from the original one that it made me wonder how that even happened. But there are less obvious pitfalls. In my examples, I will use English as a pivot language, which is probably the most common constellation. English is lacking a few distinctions that the source and the ultimate target language might have. In some languages,
“grandfather” translates differently, depending on whether he is the maternal or paternal grandfather, “sister” translates differently if she is the younger rather than the older sister. If the target-language translator does not find this information in the English pivot text, she randomly must choose one.
Common problems with German concern gender and formality. Comparing it to Spanish or Korean as source languages, both share linguistic markers for gender or formality that English lacks.
In the English version, these markers are lost, leaving the translator to, again, research or guess.
An example how this can lead to very real problems: A boy talks about his “profesora,” a female teacher. The English template just reads “teacher.” The translator uses the masculine form “Lehrer” (in German, there is no unmarked form for “teacher,” it will be either masculine or feminine), then, several episodes later, we see the female teacher. The previous episodes are delivered, and the subtitle cannot be changed. A real-life example for formality issues: In a Korean series, our translator team had everyone at a workplace be formal. Since none of us spoke Korean, we didn’t know how formal they were in the audio. Imagine our surprise when we found out in episode 8 that two of the coworkers were married to each other! There had never been a hint of this. In fact, some of their colleagues did not even know this and they were getting divorced, so we made up the explanation that they were indeed formal at the workplace because they were estranged and didn’t want
everybody to know about their relationship. The fact that “you” can be singular or plural can also be a problem when the addressee(s) is/are not seen on-screen. Lastly, there is ambiguity in the form of homonyms of homographs.
In a somewhat constructed example, the adjectives “justa” and “blanca” when describing a woman could both be translated as “fair.” It might not be obvious whether to translate this in the sense of “impartial” or “light-skinned.”
Independently of language issues, a person with no knowledge of the source language will most likely also have less knowledge of the culture of the source-language country. This is certainly the
case for me with Korea, Lebanon, etc.
As per relevant governing guidelines for major streaming providers, the template is the first step of subtitle translation, created as the Source of Truth (SOT) for all other languages, so it’s of the utmost importance that an English template is complete, accurate, and includes all plot-pertinent dialogue and on-screen text.
Solving the dilemma
The quality of translations could be improved without bringing back all the complexity if agencies kept a database of translators’ additional language knowledge and preferably assigned translations to those who have knowledge of the source language. Since English is also present, they don’t have to be nearly as proficient as they would have to be to translate directly out of the source language.
Creating the perfect template
The use of pivot language and templates go hand in hand (without timed text, the subtitler would have a hard time matching the dialog to the audio). For those of you who are asked to create pivot-language templates, here are some tips to make the life of the users of those templates easier by taking the guessing out of the game and to ultimately help us to create better translations.
– Make ample use of the annotation field!
– Compared to a translation aimed directly at the viewer, translate more literal and factual, use fewer idioms, but certainly explain and translate idioms used in the source audio, especially if they relate to something seen on screen.
– Pay special attention to grammatical or vocabulary distinctions absent in the pivot language: formality levels, gender, plural forms, tenses.
– Explain cultural references and linguistic register (slang/informal/formal).
– Ignore reading speed if the template is only used for pivoting.
If you do all this, you just might get a public shout-out like this one from fellow subtitler Juliusz Braun in a Facebook group at the beginning of March: “Dear templaters! I’ve recently worked on a couple of English templates for non-English content where the template creator added information lost in English (plural/singular “you”, formal/informal language) in annotations. If any of you are here – thank you, that’s super useful!”
Dietlinde DuPlessis is an audiovisual translator in Tucson, Arizona, doing business under the name “Desert Dirndl.” She received a degree in Technical Translation from the University of Hildesheim, worked for 20 years in corporate communications in her home country Germany, and moved to the US in 2015. There, she went back to her roots in translation and subtitles from English and Spanish into German. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, @desertdirndl