Deutschland 83 – Exploring the challenges of subtitling

In the midst of a month that saw reading groups galore, Olympiad celebrations and the end of another Trinity term at Oxford, OGN hosted one further event, this time focussing on translation and in particular the challenges of subtitling.  The topic?  The highly acclaimed and highly watchable German TV show Deutschland 83

As part of Oxford Translation Day 2016 the editor of New Books in German and OGN’s former Coordinator Dr Charlotte Ryland ran an event looking at translation from a German perspective.  Deutschland 83, a German drama brought to British audiences by Channel 4 using English subtitles, seemed a fruitful topic to discuss and dissect.  With the aid of clips from the series and quotations from UK press reviews, the workshop explored the linguistic and cultural issues that arise during the translation process.

The popularity of the show suggests that it reached a far wider audience than is usual for ‘foreign language’ films/tv shows, where the use of subtitles often feels off-putting for those who are not familiar with the original language.  Of course, the rich subject matter – Cold War Germany, a young soldier being sent to West Germany as a spy for the East, myriad family complications and love interests – did much to recommend the programme to UK audiences, but the fact that viewers tuned in week after week arguably has much to do with its watchability and the high quality of the subtitles.

The group of approximately twenty attendees at the event – Oxford students, local teachers and pupils, other lovers of German – were first asked to consider some of the complexities of translation in general, before then focussing on the specific constraints of subtitling for film or television: How to reduce speech to short, readable lines?  How much context to give for cultural references?

Moving to Deutschland 83 itself, Charlotte presented a series of short clips for the group to consider – did the subtitles ‘match’ with the original German?  Was anything lost where there were in fact differences between the two?

The real challenge for the group then came as they were asked to attempt their own English subtitles, armed only with the transcribed German and a set of dictionaries.   It quickly became clear just how tricky it really is to produce a rendering that is concise, clear and culturally relevant!  All left the event keen to further explore translation and subtitling, and to re-watch the first series of Deutschland 83.  Here’s hoping for a second series very soon!

Nicola Deboys, OGN Coordinator