Interview with Tiina Tuominen

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Interview with Tiina Tuominen

Tiina Tuominen picture

Dr Tiina Tuominen currently works as a developer of subtitling and translation for the Finnish public broadcaster Yle and the MeMAD research project (https://memad.eu/). She has previously worked as a Lecturer in Translation Studies at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and in various roles at the University of Tampere, Finland, where she also received her PhD in Translation Studies. Her research interests focus on audiovisual translation and subtitling, particularly reception and audience studies, usability and user-centered translation, and translators’ workplace studies. She has co-authored the book User-Centered Translation (Routledge 2015) with Tytti Suojanen and Kaisa Koskinen. She has also worked as a freelance translator and subtitler for several years.

1. How did you first become interested in translation and in particular, audiovisual translation?

I started thinking about translation as a career when I was about 14. I loved reading and I was good at languages at school (at that point, I was studying English, German and Swedish in addition to my native language, Finnish). One day, my mother said that maybe I should consider becoming a translator. I thought that sounded like a good idea, and that was it.

Because of my love of literature, I was aiming for literary translation first, but I soon realised that I enjoy all kinds of translation. So, when I was finishing my MA in translation studies, a subtitling agency looked for freelance subtitlers on a student email list, and I decided to apply to get some translation experience. I got the job, but the agency went bankrupt soon after. Luckily, I had gained just enough experience to get another freelance position with another subtitling agency, and I worked there for several years. I had never thought I’d end up as a subtitler, because I thought I am too verbose to learn how to condense text effectively. Eventually, I found that I quite enjoyed the challenge, and there were so many intriguing questions related to subtitling that I even became motivated to do research on subtitling.

2. What are some crucial traits that a good subtitler has to possess?

Just like any translator, a subtitler has to have excellent language and communication skills in the source and target language, as well as excellent translation skills and deep knowledge of both cultures. In addition, a subtitler should be good at moulding and editing the target text, finding different ways of saying the same thing, boiling utterances down to their core meaning. This is necessary because the time and space for a single subtitle are limited, so the subtitler needs a lot of creativity to fit an accurate and stylistically appropriate translation on screen. Subtitlers should have a keen eye and ear for style and register, because they must create language that feels spoken and emulates the rhythm of the source-language dialogue, but at the same time is easy to read and understand. Subtitlers should have sensitivity to the visual and auditive messages to make sure that the subtitles are an accurate rendition of the entire audiovisual product and match their surroundings.

I also think there is a certain sense of humility to subtitling, because subtitles are not an independent creative work. They are a support text that helps viewers watch programmes in languages they do not fully understand, so the subtitles must leave enough space and time for viewers to watch the images, listen to the sounds, and generally follow the programme. Subtitlers need to be creative, but they cannot steal the show. Finally, subtitlers should be comfortable with technology and learning to use new technological tools, because they usually work with specialised subtitling software and other tools that keep developing quickly. It’s a long list, but all of this can be learned!

3. What do you think are some common misconceptions people may have about audiovisual translation and the subtitling profession?

I have a feeling that many people think subtitling is easy and doesn’t require any particular skills, that it is basically just watching films or TV and typing the words up. People also tend to think that subtitling does not take as much time as it actually does. Subtitling is a surprisingly invisible profession, considering how visible subtitles can be.

4. What would you say are the most challenging aspects of subtitling and why? Conversely, what would you describe as the most rewarding aspect of subtitling?

Subtitling is like a multidimensional puzzle, where the pieces almost fit but never perfectly: if you think of a brilliant translation, it may be too long for the screen; if you find the perfect moment for the subtitle to come on screen so it matches the dialogue, it may be just off the pace of the shot changes; if you think of the perfect pun, it may not match the images on screen; and so on. For me, the most challenging aspect of subtitling is having to live with slightly imperfect solutions. I could tweak my subtitles endlessly, but a subtitler has to learn to let go, recognise what is good enough and tolerate that when perfect is not possible. As for most rewarding, it is wonderful to be able to work with well written, well acted and generally well produced programmes, or with documentaries on interesting topics. Those can be some of the most difficult to work with, because you want to do justice to demanding material, but it is also very satisfying to finish a job like that. Subtitlers tend to encounter such a range of topics that they learn a lot every day, and I’ve always loved that.

5. As you describe in your article, “Negotiating the Boundaries of Professional Subtitling”, subtitling agencies can be unfair, the pay can be inadequate, and there is the risk of outsourcing: what would you say needs to change to improve the working conditions of professional subtitlers?

I wish I knew. The situation is troubling, and it is disappointing that the important work subtitlers are doing for the global distribution of culture and entertainment is not appreciated more. We could try to increase the visibility of subtitlers and subtitling by showing how challenging and interesting the work is and how instrumental it is in how the target-language audience experiences media products. It is also important for subtitlers to work together. Because many subtitlers are freelancers, they do not necessarily have a community of colleagues with whom to discuss working conditions or work together to improve them. There are many national and international organisations, such as Audiovisual Translators Europe (AVTE, http://avteurope.eu/), who are doing important work for subtitlers. Recently, organisations in several European countries have been creating national quality standards for subtitling, and that is a positive step towards subtitlers speaking up for their work. Another useful change would be for viewers to be more active and send feedback to channels, streaming services and distributors about subtitles. That would show that people care about subtitle quality, which could help professional subtitlers gain a stronger negotiating position.

Subtitling is like a multidimensional puzzle, where the pieces almost fit but never perfectly

6. As a teacher of subtitling at university level, how would you say your students have approached this subject, for example did you notice aspects they found particularly challenging?

I think the most challenging aspects of subtitling for students are the things that are different from regular translation. By the time students take subtitling classes, they have usually been taught how to translate well, e.g. that a translator should avoid omitting elements of the message from the translation. When I tell them that in subtitling, they may actually need to edit their text down quite radically, that can be difficult to get used to. Therefore, condensing text is a big topic of discussion in class. Timecueing subtitles is also something new and challenging to students, but students usually catch on quite quickly.

The best part about teaching subtitling is that students are highly motivated, because they get to work with exciting materials and use their creativity. The multidimensional puzzle nature of subtitling also means that there is never a shortage of things to discuss, and I always learn a lot from students’ insights as well.

7. You have researched into reception studies, which is the research into how audiences perceive and interpret translated texts. Could you tell us a bit more about why researching into reception is important?

Translation studies has given a lot of consideration to the target audiences of translations. For example, theories that discuss the function or purpose of a translation have to acknowledge the target audience in order to be able to talk about the function at all. However, for a long time, there was little systematic research into what actual audience members think about translations, how they read them, how they interpret certain aspects of texts and so on. Therefore, I think reception research is a logical extension of a lot of translation theory, and it is needed to answer some of the questions previously posed by translation studies. It is also needed for the practical purpose that if translators want to serve their readers well, they should know what those readers think and what kinds of translations work best in the actual contexts in which they are being read.

All of this is particularly important with audiovisual translation, because the translations are being received in a multidimensional context, where the viewers not only receive the translated text but a complex audiovisual product that they need to interpret at the same time with the translation. With subtitles, for example, viewers have to read them at a predetermined pace while also watching the programme, and it is useful to try to find out how that process unfolds.

it is disappointing that the important work subtitlers are doing for the global distribution of culture and entertainment is not appreciated more

8. ’Parasite’ director Bong Joon-Ho has very prominently expressed the desire that more people should be open to subtitled films. How do you think this incident will influence translation and subtitling and their reception – if at all?

It is difficult to say whether it will have any long-term effect, but the success of Parasite clearly brought positive attention to subtitles and subtitled films, so I think it was a good thing. There just need to be more of those to have a lasting effect. If people in the English-speaking world had more exposure to well subtitled foreign-language materials, subtitles might become a more ordinary aspect of film viewing, and foreign-language programming could have an easier route to the English-language market. With smaller languages in so-called subtitling countries, where foreign-language programming is more common and people are used to subtitles, there is less need for that kind of promotion, because people are already comfortable with reading subtitles (I won’t get into the debate between dubbing and subtitling here). Still, any positive attention to subtitles is a good thing anywhere, because it can get people talking about subtitling, and visibility can lead to positive changes. I would hope that Bong Joon-Ho’s comments would also alert filmmakers, distributors and those who commission subtitles to the importance of subtitle quality and what it takes to produce good quality – i.e. decent working conditions.

9. Is there a question which you would have liked us to ask you?

These were excellent questions, but in addition, I would have liked you to ask me what kind of subtitling research should be done more. My answer is that I’d like to see more reception research, of course, but also research on the subtitling process, i.e. on how subtitlers do their work and how someone develops subtitling skills, what an expert subtitler really does. I would also like to see more research that makes a real effort to bring academics and practitioners together and has practical significance to subtitlers. That is something I am working on at the moment with my colleague Hannah Silvester from University College Cork.


Janna Mack pictureInterview by Janna Mack. From Luxembourg, she has degrees in Linguistics, Education, and Translation from Glasgow University.