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Subtitling to bring distant lands closer

Subtitling to bring distant lands closer

Multilingual communication is the process of connecting previously unconnected people and ideas. This means that by nature Language Service is a field that provides frequent, interesting puzzles. Fortunately, Skrivanek staff and specialists love the challenge of multilingual puzzles – our work attracts a good number of people who are driven by intellectual curiosity and a genuine passion for language.

Recently we fulfilled a project creating subtitles for a film about the Lepcha people, of whom there are at most about 65,000 still living in the world. The largest portion of them live in a northeastern corner of India and their language is considered “Himilayish”. One of the hill tribes of this region who farm in rocky, hilly terrain, the Lepcha grow corn, buckwheat, millet, rice, cardamom, oranges, and other foods. They are known for beautiful basketry and pride themselves on being a peaceful people.

In a short documentary film about the Lepcha people created by a European travel channel, viewers see them working the land with hand tools, a simple plow and oxen. The work is directed by one of their men who calls out instructions as he gestures. Toward the end of the short film, they gather and sing together, laugh and dance. Clothed in traditional garb, some also wear eyeglasses, and one or two have smart phones they glance at.

The film contains scenes of another way of life that the film’s creators wanted to share with an international audience, and while the images are captivating on their own because the Lepcha life is so much different from most western lives, there is another element that pulls us into their world faster than the images can do alone: language. We hear the Lepcha voices as they speak, shout, and sing, and in order to bring them even closer to a large foreign audience, the film has subtitles in English. For those who know English, the subtitles lift the Lepcha individuals in the film up out of their vast distance into a realm where we can begin to understand and relate to them.

As the company chosen to translate the film’s content and create accurate subtitles, Skrivanek worked with the film makers and Indian language professionals to pin down enough of the scattered dialog and singing to render English phrases that made it clear what was happening minute to minute. According to the Skrivanek project manager, it was an interesting job and a somewhat difficult one. While established procedures for communication and subtitling are clear on Skrivanek’s end, coordinating with the Indian counterparts was challenging at times, yet essential because of the rare nature of the Lepcha language. But we persevered through daily communication and exchanges of ideas with the Indian agency until we were able to deliver a strong finished product to our client. In fact, we have received requests to do more such projects for the travel channel.

In addition to watching a documentary with subtitles in order to understand a foreign language, people have many other reasons to use subtitles as they watch film and video:

  • Impaired hearing
  • To keep content private and not disturb others in the vicinity
  • Audio quality is poor or inconsistent
  • To more easily take notes on educational material
  • To save battery power
  • The environment they are in has a lot of noise

These are all compelling reasons to consider subtitling your video and film resources. Our subtitle translators are experienced and possess the cultural understanding of both source and target language that enables them to choose accurate phrasing in every instance. When the source content takes place a world away in a rare language, we source the linguistic expertise required to do the job. And often one of the benefits of doing this work are that unusual, beautiful thoughts are captured in the subtitling translations, to be shared with foreign audiences in distant lands. Like the words of this song the Lepcha people sang outside during a break from their agricultural work:

Don’t worry I am not starting any war,

We are not slaves of a king.

I am also not a priest,

Don’t worry for any evil spirit.

We are kind people

Who give love and take love.

We are called Lepcha.



J. V. McShulskis



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