Interview: Tessa Dwyer, author of Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation

Cover of Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation by Dr. Tessa Dwyer, showeing a film still of a young Asian couple in a dramatic setup, with the subtitle, "There's something I haven't told you yet."

RW: Hi, Tessa! Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I found your book  Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation very timely, and it provoked many questions and some new thinking for me.

I started my university studies in translation, but I was surprised to learn about “value politics” in translation, which certainly wasn’t something I heard about 35 years ago. Could you provide a sort of elevator-pitch definition for readers?

TD: Perhaps because I come from a different disciplinary background – Film and Screen Studies – the “value politics” of translation immediately stood out to me when I started to engage with intercultural viewing practices and, especially, subtitling and dubbing. In fact, it was an encounter with “value politics” that really sparked my sustained interest in the topic. I was writing about Hong Kong action films in my MA thesis, using some French critical theory. My supervisor suggested I read the French theory in the “original,” yet had no qualms about my viewing of subtitled Hong Kong action films. Obviously, there are hierarchies in place about when and why translation does, or doesn’t, matter. What I found ironic was that a very learned translation of a French theorist by someone with expert knowledge of the field was not deemed worthy of serious analysis, while the less than stringent (to say the least!) subtitling of the Hong Kong film industry flew completely under the radar.

In Film and Screen Studies – especially Anglophone film theory – translation is so undervalued and un-theorised that it is almost entirely invisible. Despite the canonical centrality of European filmmaking, for instance, in the development of film theory and culture, the role of translation and the inter-cultural basis of much theorisation is almost entirely ignored. Translation speaks to reception contexts, over those of production/creation, and for this reason, it is often regarded as utterly inconsequential or, worse, as an affront to the creative process and to authorial vision. In this way, translation threatens the core stakes upon which so much of film and screen culture remains invested. That, I guess, it why I find it so fascinating and why I love how translation can demonstrate in myriad ways how the very distinction between production and reception breaks down. Everyday practices of subtitling and dubbing can really challenge so many assumptions and biases in the way we understand and discuss film and screen.

So much for an elevator pitch!... more like a meandering rumination.

RW: That’s great: all helpful!

You discuss critiques of subtitles which include elitism. Do you think wider access to film and video through prevalent video-on-demand streaming services is reducing this problem, which perhaps was more of an art-house issue for foreign films in the past?

TD: This is certainly something to consider. The disruptive influence of streaming platforms is immense, and as I argue in the book, the global media flows enabled by online networking are affected, at every turn, by language difference and translation. These recent industry shifts really bring issues of translation to the forefront of our changing media landscape. So yes, I think that streaming services are set to impact significantly on attitudes to subtitling and dubbing, yet it is too early to tell how this will play out. In 2014, there were predictions that Netflix would cause the demise of dubbing within Europe by providing timely access to content in its original language. However, by 2018, Netflix was streaming dubbed versions of shows by default, claiming that even when audiences insist they prefer subtitling, dubbing keeps more people watching.

RW: You cover issues around translation studies in your book, and current focus on content accessibility has certainly made this area more important than ever. Do you see audio-visual studies increasing in popularity, either as a result of demands for accessibility or because of the globalization of video content (VODs, gaming, etc.)?

TD: Yes, as I mentioned above, I think that the advent of streaming services is increasing attention exponentially on screen translation and localisation (including fan translation and crowdsourcing) and hence, burgeoning areas of research are emerging within Translation Studies. Content accessibility is definitely on the agenda in terms of industry regulation and policy, while global streaming services are having to prioritise translation and localisation. In 2017, for instance, Netflix launched the custom-built HERMES subtitling and translation test and indexing system, which it claims will allow them to “resource quality at scale” through standardised testing and unique identifiers, enabling it to use “metrics in concert with other innovations to ‘recommend’ the best subtitler for specific work based on their past performance.”

RW: Cultural misappropriation in the arts is a hot topic at the moment. Can you share some advice for young or emerging filmmakers, who might be trying to be more creative in order to get a foothold and visibility in a noisy film climate, about how and why to avoid détourning?

TD: Well, I think cultural misappropriation is an ongoing (perhaps necessary) risk attached to many forms of intercultural communication and creation. Détournement was a radical, activist strategy that sought to upset boundaries and challenge modes of thought and politics. It didn’t shy away from cultural misappropriation, but rather, confronted it head-on. It set out to offend and to shock. My take on all this is that intercultural modes of production and reception are vital, essential elements of mediatisation – no matter how risky. We need to recognise this and consider the complexities of translation involved in everyday practices and modes of engagement. I would rather that misappropriation continue to surface as an issue, than that creatives simply avoid engaging beyond their own safe cultural borders and boundaries.

RW: You talk about abusive and corruptive translation and quote Derrida about translation: “... it necessarily violates even as it devotedly follows or respects the original.” As a copy editor of books, I find my profession needs to walk a fine line between being “at once violent and faithful” in helping but also maintaining the author’s voice. “Nornes locates translation abuse within populist practices like anime fansubbing.” I feel the same way about self-publishers who think Grammarly can replace professional editing or who just want to ignore all writing conventions in the name of creativity. But your book seems to make a reasonable, unemotional examination of fansubbing. You changed my black-and-white thinking about it—well, brought my righteous indignation down a notch or two! Just as editors should not encourage grammar policing, what can you say to people who really bristle at fansubbing?

Let’s start with a provocation: maybe translation is, at heart, a fan activity?

TD: Let’s start with a provocation: maybe translation is, at heart, a fan activity? What motivates someone to labour so intensively and minutely with another’s text or creative work, if not some form of respect, devotion or fandom? Of course, the professionalization of the industry means that naturally many translators now routinely labour on works they do not love in any sense, but if we try to think about the origins of the practice, in scholarly and religious contexts say, the fan sense of investment holds.

Speaking from outside the field of professional translation – without the need to defend my own territory – I think it’s easier for me to appreciate the creative and sometimes subversive nature of fansubbing. Also, I’m interested in what fansubbing shows us about global media industries broadly. Fansubbing alerts us to very interesting things that are happening within global media flows, articulating gaps and loopholes, challenging politics, re-purposing technologies and, in some ways, helping to shape the future of global media industries.

Fansubbing is thought to have begun in the US when TV networks stopped broadcasting anime titles like Astroboy and Gigantor. Fans simply went in search of content themselves (sourcing video tapes directly from Japan or Hawaii), which then needed to be translated. As they set about translating for themselves, they discovered the extent of cultural adaptation/appropriation and reworking involved in the US TV broadcasts, and came to see their own translations as more faithful and authentic, and ultimately as safe-guarding the texts. This history is important as it shows how professionalism is by no means a guarantee of quality, due to corporate agendas, industry conventions, cultural attitudes and others factors.

Also – I should mention that many professional audiovisual translators are themselves very interested in fansubbing, and feel that there are many lesson to be learnt. Minako O’Hagen, for instance, notes the benefits of collaborative, peer-to-peer working environments with in-built feedback and mentoring mechanisms. O’Hagen and others also point to the value of expert genre knowledge as something that the industry is learning from the example of fansubbing. Netflix’s Hermes tool is a case in point: the aim is to match the right translator with the right content.

... we should value, not fear, fansubbing...

One of the major reasons why we should value, not fear, fansubbing is due to the fact that many language communities around the world are underserved by online offerings and by professional translation. Collaborative fansubbing provides a means to do something about the inequalities that persist in online modes of screen media access. While Netflix has expanded into 190 (out of 195) countries across the world, it only supports around 20 languages. The Netflix Vietnam service, for instance, offers a very limited range of Vietnamese-subtitled content, and so, once again, viewers resort to fansubs, using websites like

RW: Some people might be surprised to learn about subversive and spontaneous translation of films by audience members; online, I recently learned about lektoring. These brought to mind my days watching shadow-cast performances at The Rocky Horror Picture Show! You also talk about the “participatory” nature of today’s popular and public realms in the area of media consumption. Recently, an article I had posted, about the “good enough” attitude to captions being unacceptable particularly in terms of accessibility, was criticized by a competitor as being too simplistic. I know your book focuses on debates around translation in subtitles, but what’s your opinion on accepting a “good enough” level of captioning? (And you don’t have to agree with me. )

TD: I think it’s always important to advocate for high standards in captioning and other forms of media translation – especially in relation to policy guidelines and regulations. Yes, good enough is not an attitude that industry bodies should take on board, nor translation professionals. And yet, I would never want to dismiss the efforts of amateur, volunteer and community translators, who largely labour at the task of translation in response to industry gaps. I agree whole-heartedly that machine translation can never substitute for human translation and perhaps streaming platforms like YouTube that offer automatic captioning tools are creating such a misconception. The fact that captioning is often unedited is indeed a sign of discrimination and shows a lack of commitment by governments and media industries. It’s an important issue, and one that I think fansubbing and DIY captioning can actually aid. The battle isn’t against amateurs lending a hand where they can – it’s about governments and corporations avoiding their responsibilities and obligations. This is largely what fansubbers are also battling against: lack of access. So why not join forces and get fansubbers to champion the cause and help advocate for change? (n.b. Viki did this when it joined with deaf actor Marlee Matlin in the Billion Words March campaign.)

RW: If I ever teach a course on caption and subtitle editing, Speaking in Subtitles is going to be one of the books on my required reading list, and it really should be a staple on cinema studies intro courses. Although it’s academic, it’s packed with interesting information for general readers that will open their eyes to subtitling and captioning issues that go way beyond craptions and typos: literacy, ethics, politics, media piracy and guerilla efforts, cultural capital, interactivity, quality control, “thick translation” and User Generated Content, massively open translation, CT3—community, collaborative and crowdsourced translation, and Viki. Even the term animé is demystified. And thank you for setting us straight on the word for @#$%&! to represent prohibited expletives: grawlixes or “obscenicons” (Dwyer, pg 120; Díaz Cintas, pg 13). Finally, you’ve provided me with the terminology I needed for a future article I’ll be posting about more creative applications of captions: “integrated subtitles.”

Is there anything else you’d like to share? Perhaps something that didn’t make it into this book?

TD: I’ve published recently on barrage cinema in China (where viewers text comment onto the movie screen) – which relates tangentially to subtitling as a text-on-image mode! I’m also developing a fansubbing project around an in-production Spanish-language web-series called Distancia (watch the trailer here).

RW: I love the discussions around language and vocabulary in the barrage cinema article (“assault,” “bullet subtitles,” “hecklevision”!), and I'll keep an eye open about Distancia. Thank you again, Tessa!

TD: Thanks so much for this positive feedback. It’s truly gratifying to hear that you have found something of value in my book (despite its occasional forays into academic abstraction), and that it even has use for someone working in the industry. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments and enquiries and look forward to catching your next post. So, the pleasure is all mine – thank you!


Headshot of Dr. Tessa DwyerDr. Tessa Dwyer is a Lecturer in Film and Screen Studies. Prior to arriving at Monash, she taught Screen and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, and worked as a researcher at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University. Tessa is a member of the inter-disciplinary research group Eye Tracking the Moving Image (ETMI) and president of the journal Senses of Cinema (

Tessa’s research focuses on screen translation, language difference and transnational reception and distribution practices. She holds an Honours and MA degree in Fine Arts (Film) from the University of Melbourne, and a PhD in Screen and Media Culture, also from the University of Melbourne.

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ASL Resources for Hearing Students

[Pre-video intro: When you’re starting out as a hearing person learning ASL, there is a wealth of info available but it can be hard to sift through it all and find the most helpful. Sure, loads of people get into Switched at Birth and new signers love This Close, but picking up a few signs from shows is not the same as having resources that are pedagogically sound, meaning they’ll actually help you learn and retain material. The rest is up to you. You’ll have to practise and review regularly, or it’s not going to stick.

I’m a <cough> mature learner which means I have to do way more review than my 20- and 30-something classmates. Unlike some of them, my hearing is not imminently disappearing, although it was checked and determined to have some loss on top my Ménières disease, tinnitus and hyperacusis. I use captions and find I’m needing them more and more. But even those in my classes who are hard of hearing or have CIs or hearing aids need to do the homework, review and look for additional resources.]

Video on YouTube on my Reel Words | No More Craptions! channel. Images included in the video are not reproduced here.

[Video transcript: I’ve spent the last year exploring some ASL learning resources and would like to share my impressions. I’m not endorsing any, just giving my personal reactions as a hearing learner. I also am not saying they are all correct or perfect; be aware that like any language, there are regionalisms to sign language, even within one (like ASL), and as a newbie I am no expert. I’ll talk about apps, websites, books and meetings.

One caveat though: BSL is VERY different from ASL, so watch the source of resources. I can’t understand BSL, but I do watch films on BSL Zone as part of cultural studies, though.

Start with finding a class offered by a local association or approved, certified course. As someone pointed out to me, you never want to learn from a hearing person, just as it’s best not to learn any other language from someone who doesn’t have it as their mother tongue. I’m in my third level of one at the same place of instruction, where the curriculum is Signing Naturally by Dawn Sign Press.

Signing Naturally is a course widely used in classroom settings, and it uses multiple learning styles. The workbook includes CDs which cover learning material, vocab review and extensive supplementary material, such as elements of storytelling, which is particularly important to Deaf culture.

I like the fact that even in parts published 10 years ago, it’s LGBTQ friendly, it includes racial diversity in its actor casting, and the material is usable and real: no "See Spot run" equivalents. The stuff I learn is what I actually need when I interact in Deaf social situations (more on that later). I haven’t seen any disability diversity, ironically*, in the casting, but I’m only partway through Book 2, so perhaps that comes up later. The second book is better in that vocab review is appended to the end of each lesson rather than each unit, which is easier to study with. It uses photos of the actors with superimposed directional arrows and other non-manual markers, and these are clearly visible in the videos. Vocabulary is presented in a non-glossed way, which is in keeping with ASL pedagogy, so that you aren’t looking up word-for-word equivalents. This may seem like a drawback to newbies, but trust me, it makes perfect sense once you as a hearing student get going and learn more about the language and culture. So, with no traditional vocab lists, I have a lot of paper clips and stickies for stuff I need to review more often. The only problem with the curriculum I have encountered is that the textbook needs copy editing and a professionally produced index, and I don’t say that as an editor/indexer (which I am) but because I find it hard to access some information as a student.

Another wonderful part of the course is their inclusion of profiles of prominent Deaf people and reproductions of art by Deaf artists. Both are key to broadening the hearing person’s learning about Deaf culture. They also discuss communication and etiquette, which is also invaluable.

Finally, the course has a website with corresponding video libraries, so if I’m not home, I can practice some vocab, for instance, while I have some time to kill. It only has a one-month free trial before you have to pay around $15US for access to the videos, but once you’ve paid, you have access for good: so while I am now in the video library for Book 2, I still have access to those for Book 1, which helps me review. Also, I was having trouble loading videos on my iPhone’s default Safari, but they advised me to try accessing via Chrome on my phone, which worked, and I appreciated the quick and useful customer service.

I can’t comment on other curriculums. I did ask for access to a review copy of one of the “Green Books” by Charlotte Baker-Shenk and Dennis Cokely out of Gallaudet University but didn’t hear back. I got the impression they are used for more “serious” students of ASL, such as those going through for eventual training in ASL interpretation at the post-secondary level, rather than Signing Naturally, which seems more directed at non-professional goals, although Dawn Sign Press does also offer the Effective Interpreting Series by Carol J. Patrie, for professional ends.

Another curriculum option for the determined and self-disciplined student is Lifeprint or “ASLU” by Dr. Bill Vicars, available online for free (incredibly), although course completion can only be recognized by certified schools using it. This was started, it seems, as a labour of love by Dr. Bill and is well known as a great resource, both as a course and for its dictionary functions. His classes are posted online to follow along with the online lesson plans, and he has seemingly endless video resources which have been updated over the years. He does have a Donate button, there is a separate site for fingerspelling practice, and he and his wife, Belinda G. Vicars, are indefatigable admins for a lively, helpful and engaging Facebook page.

I use Lifeprint for the weeks between my course’s terms. I learn extra signs and information, and I reinforce what I have learned. You can learn more about ASLU here and check out his homepage for the shocking number of resources available. His presentation of hand shape and non-manual markers suits my learning style to a T. Dr. Bill discusses similarities in signs, provides hyperlinked cross-references, and his sharing of nuances of Deaf culture are invaluable to hearing people. Considering he and Belinda are both faculty at California State U at Sacramento, they’re dedicated contributors to the free online fabric of ASL resources.

If you’re not looking for official learning yet and just want to dip your toe in the water, there are a gajillion resources online to let you check out ASL and see whether it’s something you might be prepared to commit to learning.

Who doesn’t love Marlee Matlin? She has an app called Marlee Signs—a tiny bit outdated IMHO. (Am I a horrible person for saying that?) There’s competition in app world, and I’m afraid this one didn’t keep me using it. Like many, it comes with a basic starter pack and adds others for about $2–3. It also has a Baby Signs package. Who knows? Maybe it’s right up your alley. Definitely worth a look.

A definitely sexier and hipper app is, appropriately, The ASL App by Ink and Salt LLC. Lots of people are drawn to it as a starting point for good reason. Aside from including people well known in both the Deaf and hearing cultures, such as Nyle DiMarco, the app comes with about 6 free packs or $9.99US will get you everything, including updates. I snapped it up. The reason this is so useful is that it includes truly useful content. Although my curriculum teaches beer and wine, it doesn’t include how to sign wasted, selfie or stalker, for instance, or a bunch of social media terms that come up in real conversation. It’s great for current colloquialisms to get you by, but a dictionary resource or course it is not.

They also have ASL with Carebears, Speak2Sign (which looks like a B2B training resource) and the ever-fun Nyle’s Stickers for iMessaging, which gives good bang for the $1.39. The thumbnail for the latter is a cartoon, but the app is augmented video: it’s even better than it looks. I’d love to see it available for Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, and Instagram, too. They created Cardzilla, too, discussed later. You can learn more on their various social media platforms also.

I suck at fingerspelling (doing and reading), so I needed an app! I like Spell by Wit Dot Media. Word lengths and speeds increase with success, and what is very helpful to me is that the hand shapes change direction: you will not always be signing with someone dead-centre to you, so you have to learn to recognize fingerspelling from different angles. The app is clear and simple.

I’m not great at some numbers, either, such as ordinals, ages, or year dates, and I’ve included a...  decent info from 1 to 100 at

I and a bunch of other people were looking for an app from which you could insert handshapes for alphabet letters into various social media, so Signily looked promising. Save your $1.39. It doesn’t work, even when you allow its access on your phone’s keyboard options as per their troubleshooting. We’re all ticked! If you know of another one that works, please share!

I hate, hate, hate using the phone and, by extension, Skype, Zoom and Facetime. But a Deaf friend recommended the app Glide, which I confess I haven’t forced myself to use to contact her yet. It looks like they’re also developing CMRA, “the camera for Apple Watch,” fyi/if you’re into that sort of thing!

Speaking of chatting with Deaf folks, I attend social coffees where D/deaf, HoH and ASL-fluent hearing people go to chat/keep up their language skills, and they are very gracious about welcoming people like me with my kindergarten ASL. There, as in class, it’s “voice off,” meaning you don’t speak vocally both as a courtesy and to encourage language development. But there are times when you just don’t have the sign vocab and can’t fingerspell an entire paragraph or question, so people often use their phones to type out messages. The ASL App folks created Cardzilla, which is insanely useful in its simplicity. Instead of opening Notes and getting tiny print, it starts out with really large letters (which even I don’t need my glasses for) and conversation is easily passed back and forth. With swipes you can see your history, faves, share via Airdrop, shake to clear, and it will resize automatically if you want a long text extract to fit on one screen. Love it. Apply your saved Signily $1.39 to buying Cardzilla!

Another godsend in the reference line is Signing Savvy. There are soooo many resources available, but this seems to be a very reliable one. I’ve even seen my teachers check a few things on it. They have a good website, which is perhaps best known for the Word of the Day that is available on social media and/or daily email notifications. With each WOTD is a corresponding sentence using it in context, again with real-life sentences, not stupid examples. The BEST part of SS, like The ASL App, is the turtle function! You can slow the video down and watch it slowly for as many times as you need to, until you can parse and reproduce the sign! It can be set to as slow as ¼ speed or as fast as 2x, and you can print out the frames. There is a personal dictionary function you can create, the videos can be enlarged, there are variations presented, they have hand shape/NMM/facial grammar/movement descriptions (my greatest requirement) and a memory aid (ditto). Generally there is the same guy doing the WOTD and the same woman doing the sentences, so you aren’t distracted by changing presenters and individualisms. It’s consistent and the dictionary search function is excellent. The catch? The online free version is okay, but all these features are available and augmented by paying for a subscription. I saved 64% by signing up for a 3-year subscription for $129.95 US ($167CAN) which sounds like a lot but works out to 15 cents/day! Getting the membership and extra functions (I’ve only mentioned a few) was a no-brainer. I note they also have a new Chat service where you get 30 mins for $20US with a Deaf expert (credentials provided on the site), which is on par with tutoring fees where I live.

Finally, I want to cover an old-school resource: a bound and printed paper book: The Canadian Dictionary of ASL by the University of Alberta Press. Now, before you roll your eyes, there are many advantages to using a nonscreen resource like a printed dictionary, including the ability to be fortuitously distracted by nearby information, rather than having to search intentionally for it electronically. This 840-page book has over 8700 signs relevant to ASL—as it is used in Canada. This is hugely important because, just as no language course can cover all regionalisms, my textbook often presents American signs that we then have to unlearn and then learn the Canadian version.

The dictionary, by Carole Sue Bailey and Kathy Dolby, is well laid out. For instance, the front endpapers give quick access to alphabet and numbers, while the back ones review basic handshapes (not the same as letters; these are some of the building blocks of signing). The extensive front matter includes almost a hundred pages on numbers, time concepts, geographical place names and pronouns, before the entries proper begin. Line drawings are clean and clear, and even fingerspelled entries are presented. Like any good dictionary, different meanings get their own entries but I like that even these have discrete presentations, so a verb and an adjective are clearly divided for instance. Same-signs, alternates, and discrete cultural applications are often given. So signs for pee (sorry, that’s just what I flipped to!) are divided into general, women’s/girls’, men’s/boys’ and animals’ entries! This is a rich language!

But I wondered, having been published in 2002, how up to date it was, so I decided to look for some newer words. Internet is in there. So is email and spreadsheet. Even the Oxford Canadian Dictionary (English language) 2nd ed. is as old as 2006, and with the internet, language changes too quickly to afford updates in Canadian [word lists] in our publishing climate.

What’s important is that I can look up toque, Saskatoon, parliament, toonie, and slow—both the Atlantic and more westerly signs for it!

I hope the opinions about these resources help. If you know of other excellent ones, feel free to share on Twitter, Facebook and my website. I’m generally searchable as Reel Words Subtitle and Caption Editing.




* NB: I do not subscribe to the medical model of deafness, so my comment about a video not having disability diversity is not about "being handicapped" but rather that the Deaf community encourages Deaf talent, and I thought this awareness might extend to using actors with additional accessibility barriers to being hired in acting.























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