Subtitling the Welsh

23rd October 2012

Uncle Bryn and Nessa may not speak much Welsh but according to Welsh Assembly figures 580,000 other people do.

Their televisual needs are met by S4C, which broadcasts only in Welsh with Welsh subtitles for the hard of hearing. S4C is unique in that their subtitles are also available in English, which allows everyone in Wales to enjoy the delights of the serial killer vicar in Pobol Y Cwm, the must-see soap.

S4C also shows live news and live rugby with English language subtitles available. Yes, that’s right. Live English subtitles of live Welsh programmes. So how do they do that?

Well, for the daily Newyddion news bulletins, Red Bee’s bilingual subtitlers simultaneously translate the Welsh down a phone line to a stenographer or respeaker, who produces the English subtitles. This is often harder to do than subtitling live telly directly simply because it’s very difficult for a simultaneous translator to speak naturally. Oh, and some of the Welsh names can be pretty confusing for those of us based elsewhere!

Rugby commentary is less relentless than news, so the bilingual subtitlers mentally translate the Welsh, simultaneously respeaking it in English to produce subtitles. Respeaking is hard and simultaneous translation is really hard, so this is an amazing feat of mental gymnastics. What’s the Welsh for “yikes”?

The biggest live subtitling challenge comes in August with the National Eisteddfod of Wales, a cultural festival which is broadcast live all week on S4C, full of difficult names and obscure references.

Another difficulty is that the bilingual subtitlers have to be fully aware of the different Welsh accents and dialects, no matter where they themselves are from. For instance there are different words for money, “pres” or “arian”, and keys, “allweddi” or “goriadau”. I also detected a certain North-South rivalry between the subtitlers as I was researching this subject, but as a Londoner I wouldn’t like to comment!

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