Fan subtitling: Game of Thrones gone Czech
In September, I finished and defended the thesis for my second Master’s degree in Linguistics and Phonetics and Translation Studies. In order to cross over into my main field of media studies, I chose to study fan subtitling in the Czech Republic. What I found were stories of aspiration and competition, generosity and flame wars.
One of the main inspirations for the choice of fan translation for my research was the fact that it is a subject at the intersection of two – or maybe even three – disciplines: media studies, translation studies (or translatology in continental Europe) and sociolinguistics. As much of sociolinguistics and translation studies don’t really care that much about media technologies and media studies don’t care all that much about the linguistic variety, I thought that a crosspolination of the three could bear interesting insights. My method of going and actually interviewing fan translators was considered spectacularly original in the field (translation studies) that mostly focuses on texts, although I also did some formal analyses of the texts themselves.
Fan translation is a well-known, but criminally underresearched field of intercultural communication. It is big especially in medium-sized linguistic communities such as Czech Republic, Greece, Romania etc. Quite often, many foreign TV shows first find their audience thanks to fan subtitles and only then they are picked up by national TV stations and translated professionally.
After some consideration, I decided to write about the fan translation/subtitling of the Game of Thrones HBO TV show. It has a solid fanbase thanks to the popularity of the original (translated to Czech) book and its Czech fan subtitles are among the most popular downloads. Czech subtitles for each episode usually emerge mere 10-12 hours after the US premiere. This takes a lot of dedication, work and organizing, of course supplemented by the ICTs.
My findings can be divided into three sections:
1) organization of work: Fan subtitles are a product of an international team of users. First of all, somebody must rip the closed captions from the digital version of the American broadcast. Then, another person (in my case, a lady from Romania) synchronizes the subtitles with the ripped video file that is already in circulation. Then, a translator picks up the synchronized subtitles file and sets out to translate into a national language, in our case Czech. Usually, there are more versions of Czech subtitles, but the most well established Czech fan translator out of those have attempted Game of Thrones, hlawoun, had initial support of the Czech fandom of the original book series, and therefore a core audience that was eagerly waiting for the subtitles and promoting them. Hlawoun was a 42-year-old secondary school teacher, who worked on the translations during his breaks at school. The translation of one episode usually took him 6 hours.
2) motivation and community: An extensive interview with hlawoun suggests that there are two main reasons for him to undertake fan translation – first, he admits he needs the subtitles for himself to better enjoy the show. That’s also one of the reasons why he started translating in the first place. Secondly, he gets positive feedback and gains recognition (and social capital) in the community. Another reason why started working as a fan subtitler is that he wanted to contribute to the community.
3) formal properties of the subtitles: Unlike the well-known and moderately well researched anime fansubs, subtitles for US network TV shows tend to follow the norms and conventions of professional subtitling. Their values, as discussed in the subtitling websites forums, are mostly in their availability and the speed with which they appear online. Many users also believe that fan subtitles are more faithful to the original. Of course, there are continues arguments about the quality of the translations. While most users just say “thank you”, there is a group of people who criticize others’ work and some are, obviously, more constructive than others.
The thesis is in Czech, but I will edit into an article in English and submit it to the Across Languages and Cultures journal.
An English abstract of the thesis follows:
This thesis aims to describe and explain the relatively new, but widespread phenomenon of amateur subtitling of scripted television series, and to propose a model that can be used to analyze this specific kind of translational practice in its social and technological context. For this purpose, we have adopted theoretical and methodological approaches from the disciplines of translatology, sociology and media studies, while highlighting the changing functions of audiovisual translation in contemporary society and the role of translational norms. Motivation for translating is explained using Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural and social capital.
In the empirical part, we apply the analytical model to a case study, which focuses on the on Czech amateur subtitling of the first season of the Game of Thrones television drama series. Using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, we describe and analyze the social context, the process of the translation itself, and the reception and resulting structural features of amateur subtitles compared to the official subtitles aired by HBO. A key informant interview with the amateur translator is used to shed light on the motivations behind and the logistics of his work. A qualitative analysis of the comments on the Titulky.com website provides a basic understanding of its users’ expectations as related to amateur subtitling. Then we analyze the translated subtitles themselves, focusing on their formal properties and the choice of units of translation.
Among the conclusions of this study is the finding that amateur translation is often conducted under server time pressure, because one of its main functions is to mediate the cultural capital gained from having watched a new episode of the series. Although norms of amateur subtitling are to a large extent influenced by professional norms, other values come into play, such as speed, fan dedication and the solidarity of the online community. When published, the subtitles undergo a collective critique, during which some errors or shifts in the translation may be repaired. Both the context and the process of amateur subtitling may nonetheless lead to translating on the level of individual words, and therefore to linguistic interferences from English.