by Daniela Costa
A few months ago, I was assigned the subtitle translation of a documentary. So far, nothing new to me. Before starting a project, I usually do some research about the director, characters, and theme. In this case, it was a documentary about a camp for teenagers, and how it changed their lives. Little did I know what I was about to see and the impact it would have on my perception of disability.
Before having access to the video or the English file, I was requested to translate a list of recurring terms, taking into account the different historical periods in which these terms were used. Again, nothing out of the ordinary. But surprisingly, I found terms such as “handicapped”, “deformed”, and “mentally retarded”. I had forgotten about these hurtful words, and by going deeper into the theme of the documentary, I understood those were the terms commonly used in the fifties, sixties, and seventies to refer to people with disabilities. I had to come up with Spanish translations for these terms and ended up using “minusválido”, “deforme” and “retrasado mental”, respectively. I don’t like these words– it’s even difficult to write them–but as translators, we have to reflect the tone of the original text, and this was how people with disabilities were seen back then. Once I started translating the subtitles, I understood why words like these were commonly used to talk about disability or disabled people. Disability was considered a disease. Disabled children were often not allowed to study at the same schools as “normal” children, and if they did attend the same school they were hidden in another classroom in the basement.
I also researched the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Section 504. Despite this law protecting the rights of disabled people, for a long time it was not enforced, and it was even vetoed by President Nixon. This was the first civil rights law in the United States that prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal financial assistance. It set the stage for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Another interesting element of the film was the change in discourse over the years. In the seventies, some politicians were against remodeling train stations, for instance, because it was unnecessary spending if just “a few people” needed ramps or better access. Unbelievable. We’ve come a long way and while there’s always more to be done, accessibility is a term that’s resonating in the translation field as well. And that made me wonder about the task and role of the translator in society, and how we can help others access content that would otherwise be inaccessible for them.
Creating Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
This brings me to the second task I was assigned: SDH (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing). I had to work from an English template, which included all the cues, so half of the job was already done. In the process, you convert regular subtitles into SDH subtitles by adding sound descriptions and speaker IDs and re-dividing the text, because the character limitations may be different and because you are introducing extra text, you need more time and space. In this specific case, there were 1662 regular subtitles, while SDH subtitles reached 1870. The guidelines to convert regular subtitles into SDH ones are usually provided by the client or project manager. Sometimes spotting is provided, but usually the transcriber must also do the spotting.
In SDH, sound descriptions are sounds that may have an impact on the plot and that the viewer needs to know about for a better understanding of what’s going on. Speaker IDs are included when it’s not clear who is saying what or when the narrator is not seen onscreen. I was lucky enough to have an English SDH reference file and only had to translate sound effects and IDs in the file, but this is quite an unusual case. For most SDH tasks, you start from scratch, and that’s when your good judgment takes the lead. I realized that the best way to achieve the desired result is to watch the whole video without sound and with subtitles on. If you can understand the whole plot and laugh, cry, be terrified, shocked, or outraged, then your job is done. Of course, the acting and directing are responsible for some or all of these emotions, but subtitles, SDH, closed captions, dubbing, and audio description pave the way to an immersive experience and democratize audiovisual materials. There are 466 million people in the world with disabling hearing loss. This is over 5% of the world’s population. 34 million are children. Unless action is taken, by 2030 there will be nearly 630 million people with disabling hearing loss. By 2050, the number could rise to over 900 million.
The protagonists of this documentary went a long way from the teenagers in the crazy “psychedelic” camp of the sixties until their rights were properly acknowledged by the government and society as a whole. They taught me that no fight is over until it’s over, and that empathy is what makes us human. Subtitlers have also come a long way, and quality SDH and close captions are the norm nowadays, rather than an exception to the rule.