Volume 3, No. 3 
July 1999

Fotios Karamitroglou



Translation Journal
Art & Entertainment

Audiovisual Translation at the Dawn of the Digital Age:
Prospects and Potentials

by Dr Fotios Karamitroglou
University of Athens, Greece

1. Introduction / Technology and translation

Once technology was thought as something remote, obscure, to be afraid of. Translators who were used to the traditional pen and paper were terrified by the prospect of having to learn the “mechanics” of word processing; even more so when they started thinking that computers could be rendered so powerful that with the deployment of machine translation they could start losing their jobs. Time heals everything, and the initial fears soon gave way to an attempt to reconcile with technology. Terms and concepts once thought to be part of a limited jargon started to enter the everyday lexicon of common people. Technology was never alien to the needs of the common people anyway; its proclaimed aim has always been “to serve the needs of the common people, to improve their quality of life.” Leading the way in a pioneering and revolutionary fashion, however, it was bound to provoke reactions. We translators should also remember the fact that the first computer was built for translation purposes: to decode encrypted messages during World War II, namely to reveal information written and encoded in another language.

2. Digital technology in audiovisual translation

2.1 DVD, DVB, digital sound and the Internet

Digital technology has already given us all kinds of modern equipment. Computerised data processing plays an integral part in most of today’s appliances. The latest trend bears the name of DVD. DVD stands for Digital Versatile Disc and looks like a CD. The more appropriate term would be DVD-ROM, since, like CD-ROM, it is used for storing data. The main difference is that whereas CD-ROM has a storage capacity of around 700MB, DVD-ROM has a storage capacity of 4.7 to 17 GB, [something which has been achieved by a) expanding the number of “pits and lands” on the disc, namely the places where the “0”s and the “1”’s can be stored, b) shortening the width and the distance between the spiral tracks, and c) by placing up to 2 layers of optical surface one on top of the other, on a 2-sided disc].

Digital technology is our modern friend. It is here to help us, to expand our potentials.
Broadcasting of digital signals called Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) is another recent breakthrough. Unlike analogue broadcasting it can include the simultaneous transmission of a number of signals, thus involving a large amount of information. As it is easily understood, DVB is the mass communication aspect of DVD. Broadcasting of audiovisual information for mass communication purposes is what we know as “Digital TV.”
    We might not be so familiar with DVB or DVD but we are certainly more familiar with sound digitalisation: we all know what equalisers are. The ability to separate sound channels while producing sound, as well as the ability to separate tracks while recording sound, has not left translation unaffected.
    But what has definitely not left translation unaffected is the exponential growth of the Internet. Translators now feel less alone. With a click of a button they can access stored information of all kinds, including dictionaries, terminology banks, and archives. They can feel part of the information superhighway, they can publicise one of their translation-related problems in one of the Internet newsgroups and receive the solution from someone whose existence was unknown and who may live in any nearby or remote part of the world. It is obvious that this time we are not talking about translation for the purpose of communication but communication for the purpose of translation.

2.2 Digitalisation and subtitling

One of the translation areas which was most affected by the advent of digitalisation is that of audiovisual translation, i.e. subtitling and revoicing. The effects of digitalisation were manifold.
    Starting with DVD, its ability to store an immense amount of data made it possible to store entire films as well. After the birth and development of MPEG21 software technology, one can sadly announce the death of VHS. The videos of the present—and not the future anymore—look more like CD players; it is just that they play DVDs instead of CDs. Their benefits do not derive only from the infinitely enhanced picture quality and the ability to have multiple angles of shooting for our favourite cinema scene or football chance. The ability to store up to 32 languages in the form of subtitles should sound like music to the translator's ears. It was estimated that by the end of 1998 in the US alone more than 800,000 households should possess DVD players and more than 1,700 film titles should be available2 The forecast for Europe is that by the year 2000 more than 600,000 units will have been sold and the estimated annual film output should exceed 700 titles a year3. And we are not only talking about subtitles for the main feature films: the accompanying a) biographical information on the actors, producers, directors, b) the numerous behind-the-scenes documentaries on how the film was shot, and c) scenes from other related film features, for example, will also have to be subtitled.
    DVB brings new horizons to subtitling by introducing the notion of live/simultaneous subtitling. Bill Clinton’s inaugural speech in 1993 and his testimony for the Lewinsky case were subtitled live by the Dutch agency NOB4. In Britain there have been cases of live intralingual subtitling (e.g. the Queen’s speech following the death of Princess Diana). This time, however, we are talking about live interlingual subtitling, an immense project which will have to come into existence if the idea of digital TV is to go forth. In the digital packages that will be offered to viewers, a number of foreign satellite channels will be available and some of them will be all-news channels, like BBC 24. For those channels in particular, live subtitling is a solution which has received careful consideration by countries that are accustomed to reading subtitles. There is a number of obstacles that have to be overcome. All kinds of alternatives are considered. The Greek audiovisual translation agency LUMIERE Hellas, for example, is currently examining the prospect of machine-aided human translation. Other agencies are experimenting with live interpreters and velotypists or are looking at the prospect of live interpreters and speech recognition systems. We see therefore that sound digitalisation can also be employed in subtitling.
    The already established application of digitalisation in subtitling can be found in numerous subtitling software systems. TV and video subtitling is now being performed using PC/Windows based programs. Apart from the pure subtitling programs, however, a number of affiliated software packages has been launched in order to facilitate the subtitling process. VIDCACHE for example is a system of automatic VHS image processing and direct storage on the computer’s hard disc. The audiovisual translator / subtitler does not have to waste precious time while searching or replaying slowly and inaccurately the starting and finishing points of a source utterance using his video buttons; this can now be done with high precision and speed offered by the arrows of his computer keyboard.

2.3. Digitalisation and revoicing

Digitalisation has had an impact on revoicing as well. Dubbing seems to have a better future in the digital era and this is because the inherent difficulties and defects of this particular method seem to have been largely overcome with the help of digitalisation. This achievement has a double background. First of all, the quality of sound has been greatly improved. By analysing and re-synthesising the voice of our dubbing actors we can now achieve an intonation pattern, timbre, tone and pitch that are almost identical to those of the original actors. Furthermore, the ability to have the voices of the original actors on separate tracks allows us to retain the original background sound, as well as the music and effects, and opt for smooth blending with the new dubbing voices. Dubbing is also enhanced by our recently acquired ability to interfere with the original image. The procedure that Japanese animators follow to change the lip movements of their drawings in order to synchronise them to a (most frequently) French script has already drawn the attention of advertising companies as well as individual film producers. This slight tampering with the image by adapting the movements of the characters’ lips to the dubbing script has yielded magnificent results wherever it was implemented and can ultimately solve the infamous shortcoming of lip-movement dischrony, especially at close-ups. The need for multiple live/simultaneous translations of satellite TV programmes—as a result of the launch of Digital Versatile Broadcast explained above—will not be met by subtitling alone. As a matter of fact, this will be the odd solution out. Live media interpreting will take the protagonist’s role. And since interpreting for TV is not the same as interpreting for the court or a conference, a new language transfer service is about to boom.
    Furthermore, the enhanced storage capacity of DVDs will have a positive effect on dubbing too. Just like we will be able to store subtitles in up to 32 languages, we will be able to store dubbing tracks in up to four different (stereo) languages. This means work for both us translators and dubbing actors.

2.4 Digitalisation and its effects on mainstream translation

The effects of digitalisation on mainstream translation lie primarily in the expansion of the Internet. A great range of dictionaries is now available for online use. The Greek subtitling agency LUMIERE Hellas are already creating the platform for a 24-hours a day access to a versatile combination of such online dictionaries and terminology banks, an action that will minimise in-house time expenditures. Other mainstream translation agencies have already set the example.
    On top of that, the arrival of the project funded by the European Commission under the code name POP-EYE and the initiation of its follow-up OLIVE, both attempting to provide online access to video material on the basis of accompanying linguistic material associated with the stored video data will enable multiple stations to trace massive amounts of archived information, primarily in the form of subtitles. A number of TV stations around Europe have already expressed interest in the projects, the French ARTE, the Belgian BRTN and the Dutch TROS being amongst them. Sadly enough, both systems provide searching in 4 languages only: English, French, Dutch and German. Apart from these two projects, however, DG XIII has already created a wide range of tools and corpora related to purely textual archives and are currently undertaking many more. These could become a great reference source to mainstream translators since they will now be able to resort to intertextuality for inspiration for their translational dilemmas.

3. Digitalisation and translation training

This new reality has to inspire all those burdened with the task of translation training. Although the European Commission still seems to be oriented towards a multi-lingual, multi-cultural environment, this prospect seems to be challenged by the emerging power of the English-dominated Internet. Furthermore, one cannot ignore the fact that modern translation agencies around the globe seem to be more keen on hiring professionals with a thorough knowledge of a specific (scientific or other) field and only some vague knowledge about translation rather than the other way round. Translation as an aspect of humanities, focusing on theory at the expense of hands-on experience and the rapidly evolving technological achievements has a very limited future. Translation within the scope of science and technology, though, can have a very wide range of applications.
    It becomes obvious then that, now more than ever, academic institutions teaching translation will have to:

  1. establish closer ties with the translation industry by trying to establish more obvious links with agencies and networks around the world, thus promoting graduate opportunities,
  2. attempt to invade the area of second language teaching, since current reality shows that we are heading towards a unified European people with an at least bilingual capability, and
  3. attempt to invade the areas of other arts and sciences by promoting translation modules within these arts and sciences, so that we can have trained specialists.
All these presuppose one thing: adherence to technological developments. To be more specific, it must be ensured that prospective students of translation should possess:
  1. thorough knowledge of word processing and of the capabilities of the various existing programs
  2. thorough knowledge of the Internet and Internet-related tools like e-mail programs and newsgroups,
  3. optional knowledge of computer programming,
  4. familiarisation with existing online resources like dictionaries, term banks, archives and the like,
  5. familiarisation with existing translation software and their capabilities,
  6. introduction to artificial intelligence theory, information systems engineering and the structure of networks,
  7. familiarisation with machine translation and its prospects.
Moreover, and since media communication is expanding, institutions that host courses in translation in general should carefully consider the integration of both audiovisual translation and multimedia translation modules. For institutions offering courses on technical and specialised translation, it would be preferable to focus on two or three scientific areas rather than a variety of them. For institutions offering courses on literary translation, it would be preferable to focus on two or three areas of literature rather than a great variety, and consider the possibility of offering translation/adaptation modules for dubbing purposes, which undoubtedly requires more artistic skills.
    Finally, institutions that host courses on interpretation should not neglect the growing need for media interpreters and should therefore consider offering modules for the audiovisual parameters of such a task.
    At the same time, however, translation agencies around the world will have to protect the profession not only by promoting copyright issues but also by sponsoring research into translation and by standardising the qualifications for entering the profession.

4. Conclusion

Digital technology is our modern friend. It is here to help us, to expand our potentials. In any case, we were the ones who created it. We must treat digital technology as a fact; we should not forget that it has already become and will continue to be a part of our everyday lives. Those who master it first and most effectively will have a serious advantage over the rest. Instead of anticipating its evolution to adapt to our needs, we should be ready to adapt our expectations to its prospective evolution. Digitalisation is the future. And as it seems, the future is here and we must be prepared for it.