Thursday, January 13, 2011

Remembering Cathy Carey

A sane person in a world of madness

A true heart and a friend

Cathy Carey died last night

My colleague and confidant

She is forever young

Cathy Carey

Here is what may be her last published piece, entitled in one publication Sayonara, adios, goodbye:

Earlier this month, the 30 or so subtitlers still employed by SBS TV after several rounds of cutbacks in recent years were informed by station boss Shaun Brown that at least 10 of them must go in the coming weeks, and probably more later.

The gloom that pervades the unit could not be further from the excited mood that prevailed over 25 years ago when it was established. Subtitlers at SBS TV have been part of a team which has produced arguably the world’s finest subtitles in a unit built from scratch starting in the early 80s. Over the years, their work has allowed viewers to enjoy programming from around the world through their provision of English language subtitles. Drama – ranging from Lebanese sitcoms to Garcia Lorca – documentaries, children’s programming, even opera. Programs which could be quirky or weird or wonderful, but above all, distinctive – you didn’t need a watermark on the screen to know you were watching SBS.

The standards developed over the years at the SBS subtitling unit mean there is a lot more to creating subtitles than simply translating, a challenging enough task in itself.

The subtitles are prepared using a purpose-built computer program. Each subtitle must contain no more than a certain number of characters, and must remain on screen for a determined length of time to ensure that viewers can easily read it. The timing of the subtitle must correspond to the spoken word on screen, but it must also allow for contingencies such as camera angle changes. Where songs or poems are subtitled, the translation must replicate the rhythm of the original as well as the meaning. The process is much more laborious than a simple translation, and creating subtitles for a feature film may take up to a fortnight.

Once the subtitles are completed (usually by a native speaker of the language in question), they are checked by an editor (usually a native speaker of English). There may be discussions to be had about ambiguities and cultural sensitivities, as well as punctuation and grammar. Employment in the unit was gained only after exhaustive tests to assess candidates’ knowledge of the culture associated with their language as well as their translation skills.

In addition to their subtitling responsibilities, subtitlers were called on by newsreaders, journalists and others to check pronunciation of foreign names, and they also previewed and assessed overseas programs being considered for purchase. SBS subtitlers took their expertise around the world; Aboriginal broadcasters in Central Australia and European linguistic conferences alike benefited from the unit’s prowess.

In an era when SBS prided itself on being the world’s only multicultural, multilingual broadcaster, the quality of SBS subtitles set a benchmark worldwide. It was work for lovers of words and film, and the subtitling unit provided a home for aspiring novelists, poets and filmmakers, as well as people who simply delighted in making the products of other cultures accessible to a wider audience. In the days when SBS saw its role as providing an alternative to the programming seen on other channels, a majority of SBS’s programs were in languages other than English, with subtitles. Providing services to News & Current Affairs, Local Production and even Sport, the subtitling unit lay at the heart of SBS TV.

But the heyday of the Subtitling Unit was shortlived, as programming of foreign language material, once the broadcaster’s raison d’etre, was downgraded.

The advent of advertising, initially only between programs, was quickly followed by a policy of excluding non-English language programs from prime time. Leaving aside the morning worldwatch broadcasts, which are not subtitled, it’s now not unusual for the SBS-ONE schedule to feature only one or two non-English language programs a day. There have even been days when there is no subtitled foreign language content at all (on SBS ONE). Don Quixote and Mozart and Lebanese soap operas have made way for Top Gear, Mythbusters and Big Love. When the pursuit of ratings rules, Inspector Rex alone finds a home in a prime-time slot.

The announcement about the most recent cutbacks was unwelcome but not unexpected. Subtitlers had been apprehensive about a recent review of the unit conducted without consultation with staff. The audit found that the unit was inefficient, and Brown stated that in future more films would be bought complete with subtitles done overseas to avoid the cost of doing them in-house (in times past, most overseas-created subtitles have been regarded as failing to meet SBS subtitling standards).

Some of the staff slated for redundancy are happy enough to go; as foreign-language programming has dwindled, people originally employed because of their language skills spend much of their time writing the teletext subtitles (Closed Captions) for the hearing-impaired for English-language programmes. Sub-editors’ duties now include identifying “natural breaks” in programs for insertion of commercials. (Not an easy task – just where are those breaks in, say, Tosca?)

Those of us who had the good fortune to work in SBS’s subtitling unit over the last 20 or so years must now acknowledge that those exciting days are over, and they will not return. SBS has moved on, and so must we. But we can be proud to have contributed to a thrilling period in Australian television, which was as remarkable as it was short-lived.

Cathy Carey has worked in various capacities at SBS TV including stints as a subtitler.

Here is some more of her writing.

I'll miss her forever, but I'll remember her as she is.

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