I have a lovely profession, says Monica Scheer, who has been a translator for Swedish Television for more than 30 years. And she speaks with enthusiasm about language and words and about trying to imagine how other people express themselves.
She was lucky, she says, once upon a time, when she got the job at Swedish Television. Her studies of English and French should really have resulted in a profession as a language teacher. But one day she saw a feature on the TV news where translators were sitting with earphones on, translating from a tape recorder. It seemed so interesting that she applied for a job at Swedish Television. And she got it. Monica Scheer has had one of the now eight permanent jobs as a television subtitler for 34 years. The television company also employs around 80 freelance subtitlers.
English, French, Italian and then Russian, which she learned in later years, are her languages. And nowadays she claims to be so egoistic that she does not want to teach others, only continue to learn herself. But that is probably not altogether true. Monica Scheer is happy to convey in different contexts what she knows about translation and tells people of her experience. She has for instance given lectures on TV translation at the University of Stockholm for the translation courses in French and Russian.
To get a job as a TV translator you have to have at least 40 academic points or the equivalent knowledge of two, preferably three, foreign languages. It also requires a documented feeling for the Swedish language and its shades of meaning; you must be a good stylist and have a concern for correct language. Furthermore, there are informal criteria for becoming a good translator, criteria that are not very easy to define. Among other things, its a question of empathy into the way people express themselves. You have to be a little bit of a writer, says Monica.
It is a creative profession but within frames set by someone else. I work with a living dialogue. You must enter into other peoples way of thinking and their way of expressing themselves. How would this 80-year-old lady formulate herself, or this young boy of 15? Especially that bit, to try to put oneself into another persons shoes is what makes the job such fun, she says.
Moments of bliss
Monica mostly translates drama, feature films, interviews etc. The TV translator has got two lines of 34 spaces each to summarize what is said in 6 seconds. The work thus has its restrictions. I may have found a smashing phraseand then it is one letter to long.
The text should also be timed accurately. A decision has to be madeexactly where are those think units where the subtitle has to change? A think unit is a keyword for Monica. The two thirds of the dialogue that gets into the subtitle must be accurately timed.
An important quality for a translator is suspiciousness, she says. No one claims that I have to know every word in the film, but I must understand when I dont understand. Guessing is not recommended. Neither is skipping something that you have not understood. Even if it could be tempting, since the translation always means shrinking the dialogue. But of course you have got to know that what you omit is really something that is not essential to the context.
Moments of bliss: For instance when you have been listening to a tape over and over again and you are unable to make out what they are saying, you consult your colleagues, and then finally, after the umpteenth time, someone grasps what is actually being said.
The contrary? Well, that is when you are at home watching a program that you have translated and you realize that that was not the best way to express it. Though you dare not watch that often, Monica adds with a laugh.
Re-melting is another concept that Monica Scheer frequently uses to explain the art of translating. He who has a natural talent for the job should be able to re-melt, she says. This is also something that you cannot learn in the same way that you can learn the technical side of the job. This re-melting is also one of the most thrilling things in everyday translating life. Monica tells us with enthusiasm how she trains her aptitude for re-melting. She eavesdrops on the bus in order to learn new ways of expression, or starts a conversation with someone who seems to be interesting. In Swedish or Italian or Russian or French...
Its easy to feel envious of such language skills that allow fluent conversation in a series of different languages. Nevertheless, it requires hard and continuous effort to keep up and enlarge ones linguistic abilities. By visiting the Goethe Institut in Stockholm from time to time, for example, Monica keeps her high-school German alive.
One-third of her TV colleagues are men. One reason that they are so few is probably that it is not a career profession, according to Monica. The salary, however, is not bad; it is more or less the same as that of a secondary school teacher.
Several of Monicas freelance colleagues are now trying their luck in Brussels, the administrative capital of the European Community. And surely those jobs are well paid. But they require translating a lot of tedious administrative texts. Is it worth it? she asks herself. And the answer seems to be no. But she has got nothing against trying new fields. Seven years ago an editor asked her if she would like to translate a novel from English, and she felt both flattered and humble before such a task. But it went well. And since then she has translated three French novels and an Italian one. In addition to her TV job.
Monty Python her favorite
At Swedish Television, subtitling was computerized relatively recently, some six or seven years ago. Earlier the translator herself was present at the time of the transmission of the program, sitting there pushing a button every time a new title was due. Now the whole of Sweden is watching what my thumb is doing, Monica used to think. And among colleagues you could hear comments like: What nice button-pushing you did yesterday!
Nowadays the picture part and the subtitle diskette are each run from their own machine as the programs are transmitted. Both are provided with a time code. It is the translator who is in charge of the coding, so that the subtitle is shown at the right moment.
Monty Python is the absolute favorite among all the translations that Monica has done. She mentions Life of Brian for the cinema and Fawlty Towers for TV. Monty Python was the pinnacle of my career, the funniest thing I ever translated. I must inform John Cleese of that, she thought, and wrote him a fan letter. In the well-formulated answer was an invitation to come and visit them when she came to London. So Monica can boast of having been invited to dinner with John Cleese and his wife in their home. And yes, he was exactly as nice and witty as you would expect.