Book Review: The Routledge Handbook of Audiovisual Translation

Abstract watercolour spheres as decoration of textbook,  The Routledge Handbook of Audiovisual TranslationEdited by Luis Pérez-González as part of the Routledge Handbooks in Translation and Interpreting Studies series, this new book is textbook material but is still accessible to the nonacademic with an interest in audiovisual translation.

I spent my first two years of university studying translation and linguistics and, in hindsight, now regret not having stayed in that stream. While my work focuses on the end steps of the AVT process (whether subtitles or captions/SDH), I’m still interested in language and how it is not as discrete from the technical production process as most people think. Scholarly work in this area is being taken more seriously as the field has now been accepted as a bona fide academic discipline.

Because they were brought up by so many of the 32 leading scholars who contributed essay-chapters, I’d like to discuss the main themes I noted: changes in technology, obviously, but also inclusion, exclusion, and changes in quality standards (the latter being my favourite aspect, of course).

The book provides some history in terms of subtitles, captions, and translation in cinema and discusses some of the software options currently available. It’s interesting that where Alina Secară’s part (p.139, 141) mentions eyeglass development as a means of caption delivery, even that area is changing quickly as we saw in October 2018 with the National Theatre in London’s introduction of Smart Caption Glasses by Epson. There is also a return (for me) to some concepts I read about in books I reviewed and interviewed authors about, such as Nornes’s thoughts on abusive subtitling (p.460) and Dwyer’s on prosumers (p.442) and the politics of fansubbing.

There seems to be a tension between the inclusion and exclusion that can be found in AVT. As I understand it, inclusion involves the performativity (p.446) and widespread participation by various factions (p.419, 438, 442). Sometimes the work is done by collectives on Viki or Amara, for example, and sometimes by fewer contributors, such as individual YouTubers—whether it’s their own content or someone else’s. The idea of prosumerism is covered not only by Dwyer but also Díaz-Cintas (p.31), Pérez-González (p.31) and Jones (p.187). Dwyer introduced me to the element of play being part of the performativity (p.446), and it took me this second crack at the literature to understand the degree to which AVT not only involves various politics (e.g. participation) but also the economics of the social contracts that are understood in many unofficial or unsanctioned undertakings. Localization straddles the areas of inclusion and exclusion, both as an “act of homage” (p.446) but also a kind of bowdlerization, such as the de-anglicization of text in Harry Potter for an American audience (Guillot on Nornes’s corrupt domestication, p.38).

But all is not warm and fuzzy. There is exclusion that is perhaps inevitable with AVT. In her discussion of music-video fansubbing, Johnson (p.421) cites Pérez-González and the “widespread assumptions of the dominance of English in globalizing process.” Dwyer (p.441) talks about the “global language politics and hierarchies” by netizens or global citizens. In her chapter on AVT and activism, Baker notes that not only fansubbers but also most subtitlers and captioners are not credited, or at least work unappreciated, in anonymity or invisibility (Baker, p.456–57). In my own advocacy efforts, which call for subtitle and caption editing to be recognized by film awards as much as other technical contributions like sound editing, I will give shout outs to excellent translations for film (such as in Les Innocentes, 2016; I can’t find my original post praising the subtitler anymore, so if anyone knows their name, please contact me!). I don’t understand why title designers are front and centre, but the professionals who made the audience’s comprehension of the dialogue accessible aren’t considered worthy of a credit line. Secară (p.138) also quotes Rondin’s discussion of smart glasses as a solution “without interfering with the overall show.” Maybe this is just my politics, but it always sounds like providing caption users with the technology to take part in this cultural content is a pain in the ass and must not disturb the public, such as the public’s general distaste for open captioning, unfortunately supported by a deaf person in a recent piece. From what I hear in Deaf social circles and forums, the expectation isn’t perfection, just something that’s effective (not craptions, for example). Captioning excellence seems like it shouldn’t require advocacy for improvement. It’s not like we accept mediocrity in the latest smartphones. Anyway, that’s a jump I made in my thinking.

Of course, what I was most thrilled by were the chapters where AVT training and teaching are addressed and what the future of quality assurance will involve with legislation. For instance, here, the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) is forthcoming, and the AODA is in place, but my Twitter feed is full of justified complaints by people of all types of disabilities because standards on paper and actual, informed enforcement are not the same thing. Merchán’s chapter (29) about training and McLoughlin’s (30) about teaching and learning made me hopeful. I was thrilled to read about Ken Loach and his rejection of the traditional AVT-as-postproduction model because budgets don’t plan or allow for quality subtitling/captioning, and Liz Crow (p.506) seeing accessibility as integral to the production process rather than a lowly add-on. Pablo Romero-Fresco has a book coming out shortly, Accessible Filmmaking Guide (London, BFI), which I couldn’t be more excited about (and he’s graciously agreed to an interview with me once I’ve read it). Study of filmmaker/subtitler collaboration by the University of Roehampton and programs like the MA in filmmaking at Kingston University (London) addressing accessibility and AVT as par for the course also give me hope. I’m currently trying to impress upon colleges near me the importance of caption editing being taught as a foundational course and program requisite because all the ACAs and equivalents in the world aren’t going to eradicate the problem of craptions (as inaccessibility) if filmmakers aren’t taught the soft skills now. I can’t figure out why more postsecondary institutions aren’t scrambling to implement this, particularly when they advertise accessibility production as one of their training outcomes. Mohawk College’s Accessible Media Production is the only program where I can see the genesis of serious application to this in their curriculum.

I loved the quotation of Marleau from 1982 that Secară concludes her chapter with (p.142)—and here surtitling could easily be replaced by subtitling: “…surtitling and captioning services are not to be regarded as ‘un mal necessaire’ [sic] (‘a necessary evil’).” I’ve attempted to walk the walk in my rhetoric about this and have launched an award for excellence in captioning in the hope that we will raise more Loaches and Crows who will see captioning excellence as one of the foundational stones in the building of a film, and not as a requirement remembered just as the student is about to hit Send. The d/Deaf, hard of hearing, and many other types of caption users are not dismissible, and as I’ve written before, I’m not going to shut up about it. Fortunately, inquiries about the award from filmmakers are heartening: there is will—but also many barriers remain.

Pérez-González’s edited collection of essays by some of the top scholars in audiovisual translation today—for me—is summarized best in Romero-Fresco’s position that AVT services are an afterthought at best. He notes that the United Nations’ ITU Focus Group on Media Accessibility and filmmakers such as Tarantino and Iñárritu are trying to influence, respectively, the profession and the process by being involved in subtitling (p.510). I don’t see change being swift, but I hope that ten years from now we will see improvements in quality via subtitle and caption editing. Meanwhile, The Routledge Handbook of Audiovisual Translation  gives the student, academic, professional, and interested lay reader an excellent idea of the lay of the land in AVT. It will be interesting to see what has—and hasn’t—changed in education, standards, and enforcement by the time a second edition is published.


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