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More than Words: Interlingual Subtitling in a Bilingual Country – Translating and Subtitling Corporate Videos

Nowadays, more and more companies and organizations use video as part of their marketing strategy. However, if you’re based in a bilingual country, making these videos accessible in both national languages can be challenging. That is where audiovisual translation comes into play. By the way, the bilingual country referred to in this article is not Canada but Belgium!

By Susanne Verberk

Subtitling as a form of audiovisual translation

Companies that use video in their corporate communications will find that there are several ways of making video content available in multiple languages. One option is to have separate language versions, where, for instance, a voice-over is recorded in many different languages. In this article, however, we will focus on the translation of corporate web videos by means of subtitling.

The best known form of subtitling is interlingual subtitling, in which the subtitles render a concise translation of what a speaker is saying in another language. Sometimes, this can even include two languages at once (bilingual subtitling). For example, if you were to watch a movie spoken in English in a Belgian cinema, you would find that the upper row of each subtitle shows the French translation, while the lower row has the Dutch translation, thus making sure both official languages are covered.

In web videos, bilingual subtitles can be used as well, but most of our clients prefer to have “monolingual” subtitles. This does not necessarily mean that there is only one spoken language in the video, since it is perfectly possible that a French speaker (who is subtitled in Dutch in our case) is alternated by a Dutch speaker (who in turn is subtitled in French).

Case study: The Belgian Foundation against Cancer

The Belgian Foundation against Cancer is a national organization whose main aim is to finance scientific research, but they also offer support to cancer patients and their families and they try to raise awareness about the disease. They have a website in both national languages (Dutch and French on which they regularly publish short videos. Apart from that, they also have a YouTube channel. In fact, an English introductory film can be found there as well: 3 minutes to discover the Belgian Foundation against Cancer. Even though this particular film has an English voice-over, the Foundation usually has their videos subtitled, and this is where our services are called upon.

In general, the videos are more or less three minutes long and they usually consist of short interviews with one or two speakers. If the interviewee speaks French, he or she is subtitled in Dutch and vice versa. The on-screen texts are in both national languages. This applies to the name of the Foundation and their web address and also to the questions that are asked – the videos don’t have a visible interviewer since the questions are presented on-screen.

The subjects covered reflect the main goals of the Foundation. This means that we can get interviews with medical specialists on cancer research, but also patient testimonials and information on how to prevent the disease. All videos are meant for the general public, so attention is paid to make sure the content isn’t too complex for a layperson – this is especially the case for videos on scientific research.

Translating and subtitling web videos

Subtitling is in itself a challenging form of translation because there are several technical restrictions the subtitler must take into account. First of all, people speak faster than they can read. As a subtitle is a written version of a spoken text, this means you have to shorten the text in order to allow the viewer enough time to actually read the translation. Second, there is only a limited number of characters per subtitle line, so we have to make sure that our translation fits in the two lines. That is why a subtitle doesn’t always contain everything that is said.

However, we still need to convey the interviewee’s message without omitting vital information or over-simplifying, and this can be tricky, especially when subtitling medical specialists. Now, as a general rule, subtitles should be understandable by people who have had a high school education. But a doctor will still use different words from a patient when talking about the same disease, so this should be reflected in the subtitles as well.

In general, when translating medical specialists, we will of course mention specialized terms, but we try and limit it to one term per subtitle and the terms have to be explained. Fortunately, this is taken into account during the interviews as well, so the specialists will try and explain what they do and how they do it in a way that the general public will understand. The picture below shows a screenshot taken from an interview with a French-speaking professor who is talking about mesothelioma and tumour resistance.

more than words1

This particular subtitle says: “A mesothelioma is a tumour of the pleura.” As you can see, the subtitle has one specialized term (“mesothelioom,” meaning mesothelioma – the Dutch word for “pleura” not being too specialized).

In the next sentence, the word “pleura” is explained:

more than words2

So, here, the professor explains that the pleura are membranes surrounding the lungs.

Also note that the professor’s name and position are kept visible by placing the subtitle a bit higher on the screen.

Another aspect of working with corporate clients is that they want to review the translation before it is added to the video. This, too, presents a challenge for the subtitlers because of the technical restrictions explained above. After all, we need to shorten sentences and respect the maximum number of characters that can be used, whereas clients are sometimes inclined to even add information in the subtitles “just to make sure people will understand.” Finding a solution that convinces the client that the translation is “complete”, while making sure the subtitles respect the technical guidelines, can be quite a challenge  at times.

Another example of a video we subtitled for the Belgian Cancer Foundation can be found on their website. That particular video is a testimonial in which both a patient and a psychologist are interviewed. The patient talks about how she deals with the disease and how she enjoys the beauty treatments she is offered by the Foundation, while the psychologist explains how she got involved in the project and became a voluntary beautician.

more than words3

Screenshot of Chris, a patient explaining how the beauty treatment and the massage afterward keep her pain-free for the rest of the day so she can skip her medication (the last part of the sentence is placed in the next subtitle). This particular subtitle says: “After a massage like that, I’m no longer in pain for the rest of the day.”

more than words4

Hilde, a psychologist who trained to be a voluntary beautician (and who treats Chris), is talking about her work. Here, she says: “For me, it all depends on the contact, on how people leave here.”

The language used in this particular video is more informal than the professor’s explanation and the subtitles therefore reflect this.

So, even though the end client is the same and the technical guidelines are also the same, the way we deal with the translation is different, which is why subtitling varies from one day to the next.

Susanne Verberk (MA) has been working in the (audiovisual) translation industry since 1998. She founded her own company, called Nevero, in 2007. Nevero is a language business that concentrates mainly on audiovisual translation and media accessibility (translation, subtitling, as well as live and prerecorded audio description). She works with a group of freelancers who translate, subtitle and describe, mainly to and from Dutch, French and English. For more information:

susanne verberk

1. 3 minutes to discover the Belgian Foundation against Cancer, by Stichting tegen Kanker (Belgian Foundation against Cancer), published on their YouTube channel on 25 November 2015.
2. Mesothelioom: hoe wordt een tumor resistent? | Prof. Cataldo legt uit. [Mesothelioma: how does a tumour become resistant? | Prof. Cataldo offers an explanation]. by Stichting tegen Kanker, published on their YouTube channel on 23 November 2015.
3. Témoignage: Hilde, conseillère en beauté pour la Fondation [Testimonial: Hilde, beautician for the Foundation] by Fondation contre le Cancer (French website), video also published on their YouTube channel on 20 November 2015.

N.B. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

I warmly thank Wim Symoens, Manager of Clickable Video, for giving me his full support to write this case study on the work we do for his client, the Belgian Foundation against Cancer.

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