Documentary Translation Workflow

This Guest Blog has been written by our good friend, Joel Sharpe. Enjoy!

In this post I’m going to explain my process working with translation on a recent film I did for NGO As Green As It Gets in Guatemala. Like most documentarians, having very little budget to deal with means creating a workflow that requires as little time with a paid translator as possible. Here is how I dealt with it.

Disclaimer: I came into the project with three months worth of one on one Spanish classes under my belt and I cannot emphasise enough the huge advantage of having done this. You’ll see in my steps below that knowing even a little bit of the language went a very long way. I found that the best way to learn is one on one with a teacher (lessons are often available via Skype) at very low cost. Or a good starting point I found is with Duolingo.


When filming interviews I always had with me either a translator or somebody from AGAIG that would lead the interview. It was recommended to me before hand to actually have the translator do on the spot translations when the subject finished talking so that I’d have some on camera translations to follow. If you don’t know the language I’d definitely recommend this. Instead, I decided to let the interviews flow naturally without a break for translation. I found that it made the interviews more relaxed, especially when discussing harder issues.

When sitting down to edit, I found that my spanish was adequate enough to do a rough first pass selecting as much relevant content as possible. If you capture on camera translations you can do the same. In Avid I marked all the moments I thought were relevant, added notes on what I thought they were talking about and placed these selects into a new timeline. I narrowed down 1.5 hours of interviews to 30mins. Or effectively hours of work for a translator.


I then sat down with a translator who firstly explained exactly what the subjects were talking about and then roughly translated those segments into text form. This helped me to narrow down the selects even further and remove segments that were less eloquent than desired before the translator spent time putting it down on paper.


Using the text I sorted segments into the topics I wanted to cover by colour coding . This gave me my basic structure which I worked down until it effectively became a usable paper edit.



The next step was to get it to work on screen, which as always takes a little bit of massaging. Again, with a little bit of Spanish the whole process was made easier, being able to follow along with the translations without a need for subtitles made editing fast. After that it was cutting as per usual and adding in subtitles to get the whole thing working for an English speaking audience.

The last step was to bring the translator back in to do final corrections and make translation decisions based on the context of the edit. In my opinion I think this step is really important. Language is crucial especially when people are going to follow along mostly by reading and hearing with less time to focus on the cinematography. The words should be well chosen and capture the true essence of what message you are trying to convey. A good translator will come up with great solutions and think of things you’d never have taken into consideration, like choosing words and phrases that all english speaking audiences will understand.

So, that’s how I dealt with translation on a limited budget. I hope that this helps anyone facing similar hurdles. What have you learnt from this workflow and what tips can you offer yourself?

One Response

  1. Muhannad Faza
    Apr 19, 2014 - 08:03 PM

    Good day
    I am a freelancer translator, Jordan, long experience in translation documentaries films and other type of TV productions, spent more than 6 years with DD International as freelancer translator, proofreader IQC(Image quality control), SQC (simulation quality control) and sync issues.



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