by Alexander C. Totz
When I first began translating over a decade ago, audiovisual translation seemed like a natural fit for me. Having trained many years earlier as an actor and worked briefly as a freelance stage director, translating for film and television beckoned like both a shortcut and a straight shot toward the best of both worlds.
First, or on the one hand, being able to put my own imprint, my own words onto a cinematic or televised work had a great deal of sex appeal in a literary way. But secondly, on the other hand, it carried the implicit promise that I wouldn’t have to actually make anything up myself, and therefore risk very little. If anyone reading this is seriously considering a career in audiovisual translation, let me here and now disabuse you of these naïve ideas.
On the first point, I very quickly realized that this work had precious little zing or pizzazz that actually creating something from scratch might have. (And now as a budding documentary filmmaker, I can with some confidence assure you that the wow factor fades fast when having to simply make something work.) Audiovisual translation like any other professional specialization is first and foremost an interpretive craft. I have quite humbly not too long ago come to accept that whoever the author is, whether it’s the director, writer, or some permutation therein, their work is what I have been hired to midhusband, or channel if you will, into my native tongue, English. At the very least the intention, the substance beneath the words, if not the actual and literal expression, is my professional true north on any such project.
Which ironically and paradoxically brings me to the second point, where I thought I could simply kick back, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Because audiovisual translation per se, as I’m grateful to have been able to perform it for over a decade, is actually comprised of a wide array of specializations subsets. (These include subtitling, dubbing, transcription, and creative material translation.) Specifically, when I began, it was natural for me to promote myself for and seek out script translation. As I began my career, I literally felt as if my clients were handing me precious vases that I was being asked to shatter and meticulously reconstruct. All this time later, that really isn’t so far from the truth! However today I can assure you that I have extremely thick gloves (and certainly callused hands). In other words, to translate a script, I have to fully commit myself to each and every character, image, and plot point, to the point of fully immersing myself in it to successfully and thoroughly navigate it into the target language
Now you might wonder, that certainly sounds creative. But I would assert instead that a great deal of reflection, instinct, and outright pure risk is involved rather than concocting something truly original. To me, this is interpretation within an audiovisual context in its purest form. Sure, some of my blood inevitably gets mixed into the cement as I meticulously reassemble that vase. But from what I’ve seen and heard, any simultaneous interpreter worth their salt will tell you just as much. Simply put, in both respects I am completely and utterly putting myself, my skills, and my own unique voice at the complete and downright service of the work before me. Certainly many professional translators and interpreters who are much more successful and experienced than I would argue that they do the same each and every day, project in project out. And I would be the last person to dispute that. But, it’s one thing to translate highly specialized documentation in a particular specialization that is simply exchanged between two or more persons to be read, often with a highly predictable and fixed set of terminology and verbiage. It’s something else entirely though to translate script, a TV bible, or dialogue that’s shared among a creative team and/or ultimately bound to be shown before an audience wherever of complete strangers, where nearly anything goes in terms of text style and details.
All of this is to say that I would encourage anyone with a curiosity about this specialization to be very clear about their intentions from the get go. A passion for language is fundamental for any translator or interpreter, but the desire to be in service constantly to artists and writers, and above all their work, is essential. Globalization and its impact both on our profession and media businesses generally has, in my completely non-statistically verifiable view, expedited collaboration and partnerships across geopolitical borders, which on many levels is all to the good. It certainly can eliminate our work when we human translators are perceived as mere middle people amid those collaborations. But I’m fairly confident that as long as individuals are drawn to support carrying audiovisual works across linguistic borders, there will be work for them.