What It’s Like To Be A Subtitler: Interview with Bogdan Honciuc

In the past couple of weeks I have been in contact with Bogdan Honciuc, a fellow Leo, Björk-obsessor and translator. I first came across his personal blog a number of years ago, but it only occurred to me recently that he would make an excellent guinea pig for my upcoming project – to interview professional translators from around the world to post on this very blog. My fellow translation students and I are always on the lookout for tips that might help us ease our way into the profession, and who better to ask than from the horse’s mouth?

Bogdan is a freelance, full-time English<->Romanian translator who currently resides in Amsterdam. His specialised fields include subtitling film and TV shows, and translating Non-governmental Organisation (NGO) and European Union (EU) affairs. We translators are a diverse bunch, so naturally my first question was how did you first get into the translation profession? It turns out Bogdan started out as an in-house translator for Mediafax, the main news agency in Romania, but also worked as a volunteer, then paid translator/interpreter for several NGOs. He got introduced into the world of subtitling through his best friend who happened to be working for Romanian television and needed his help. Soon enough he was hooked, so much so that he says that he considers himself “primarily a subtitler now.”

This statement I found very interesting. In most of the professional discourse I’ve read, “translator” and “interpreter” seem to be the two main terms used to describe a practitioner. Content and specialisation on the other hand are always secondary – i.e., translator first, specialist second. But why not use such a label? I don’t know about other translation students, but subtitling for me has always sounded so glamorous. That curious mix of colloquialisms, visuals and entertainment, it makes it all sound so exciting – maybe even the most exciting thing one could ever translate! (Why, indeed, would you want to translate anything else? I wonder.)

“I love it because it’s never boring – I never translate the same thing, I never subtitle the same episode or film, and anyway it’s much better (read: entertaining) than translating legislation, legal texts, specialised stuff. Plus, I get to work from wherever I want, therefore I was able to move to Amsterdam last year – even though I translate subtitles for Romanian television. Everything is done via the internet.”

Personally, though, I have always been unsure as to whether I really have what it takes to be a subtitler. My impression has always been that most subtitling involves translating directly from dialogues, i.e. without a transcript. This sounded like a nightmare to me, as my listening skills in Chinese have never been as good as my reading skills. (Indeed, if they were, wouldn’t I be studying interpreting instead?) But when asked as to whether he gets a script to work from when translating subtitles, Bogdan says, yep, he does: in almost every case!

“It would be not only unprofessional, but also almost impossible to translate a film or a TV show without a script. There are names that are spelled a certain way, there are words that sometimes you cannot make out (even though I have developed my listening skills to the point where I can sometimes correct a poorly transcribed dialogue), there are words that you have never heard before which would be impossible to find in a dictionary without seeing them in print. So yes, the script is essential for subtitling.”

This goes against everything I’ve ever read about subtitling. I remember one of the articles I read was by a subtitler working in the SBS Subtitling Unit, one of the largest multi-lingual subtitling services in the world. Though I cannot confirm this officially, I do remember the author saying that he was rarely given a script to work from. Instead he mostly did the subtitles by translating/interpreting directly from film itself. Perhaps, though, SBS is the exception rather than the rule in international subtitling. If this is the case there is hope for me yet!

However, this emphasis on providing the translator with a transcript can have its down sides. Sometimes, although very rarely, you might have a script without a video to go with it! As Bogdan says, this is worse than not having a script, because you might encounter utterances like “You seem happy” which are very difficult to translate into Romanian without knowing if the “you” is a man or a woman.
For copyright reasons, each television or subtitling company uses its own software, though this is not a big issue for the translator as they are quite similar to each other. Moreover, the way subtitles are actually translated varies from translator to translator. Some prefer to do the “empty” subtitles first (encoding them onto the video file) then fill them with the translated subtitles, while others translate the film first and encode the subtitles second.

Encoding the subtitles for a 45-minute episode can take up to three hours, while translating the entire episode can take up to six hours. This may change though, depending on the amount action/dialogue ratio in the film being translated. That is, a movie full of screams and car chases might be quite relaxing to translate, but if it’s a documentary where the narrator speaks almost non-stop, you can expect a longer job.

“It sounds like a lot of time, but think about how many things can be said, and are usually said, in ten minutes of a TV show. Sitcoms are the worst – they are the most difficult to translate because of untranslatable jokes, and they are shorter, therefore less profitable because we are paid by minute of film. But they’re my favourite, of course, exactly because they’re a challenge: like with acting, it’s so much easier to make people cry than laugh.”

In this case, Bogdan usually splits the project up into two days – encoding the first day, translating the next – though he also says he could do it all in one day if a deadline was approaching. On top of this there is a proofreader who checks both the technical as well as the linguistic parts of the translation job.

Bogdan’s first clients were people that noticed him while he was working as a translator for NGOs. He then worked as an independent interpreter for a couple of years prior to Romania’s joining the EU. He still occasionally works as a translator/interpreter for NGOs but not nearly as much as before the accession.

But how is the translation profession is regarded in his home country? In Romania, he tells me, the occupation is mainly perceived as a subsidiary of the notary’s office – translators are best known for translating birth certificates and other kinds of paperwork. Thus Romania has become a nation of migrants and notary offices are thriving. According to Bogdan, the translating and interpreting as a profession is not held in high regard, and that is directly linked to the poor salaries they receive. There are translators’ associations that are trying to change this, but his belief is that they are more interested in organising conferences and meetings rather than taking real action.

“Usually when I tell people that I translate films for television and I suddenly become this very cool person. It appears that no one has ever met a subtitler – and then the questions start, which are always the same. But the first thing a lot of people say is, ‘Oh I hope you’re not one of those terrible subtitlers, I’ve seen some bad translations lately…’”

I’m sure anyone who has even the faintest connection to the translation profession can sympathise with these kind of statements. What we can do to reverse these conceptions is another story for another day. At any rate, it has been illuminating to talk with Bogdan, and I thank him heartily for taking the time to answer my questions. If anyone has anything they’d like to ask, do leave a comment and I will pass it on.

1 Comment to "What It’s Like To Be A Subtitler: Interview with Bogdan Honciuc"

  1. Julia's Gravatar Julia
    28/01/2013 - 6:38 am | Permalink

    Hello! Nice article. I am just starting a subtitling course. I am Brazilian and speak english fluently. I am obssesed with movies and that would definitely be an area i would like to work with! Any tips on how to start? Thanks a lot!

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