AVT – The Importance of Audiovisual Translation for Europe

An interview with Jorge Díaz Cintas, Senior Lecturer in Translation at Imperial College, London
© Michaela Fisnar-Keggler, 2010

Jorge Díaz Cintas was born in Barcelona, graduated in Modern Languages – English, German and French – at the University of Valencia, where he also obtained his doctorate in 1997 with a thesis on subtitling, the first ever written on the topic in Spain or in Spanish.

He has lived in England since 1989, teaching as an assistant and later as a visiting lecturer in several universities in London (South Bank, Kingston, London Institute). In 1994, he joined Roehampton University, where he developed a BA in Translation and an MA in Audiovisual Translation, one of the first ones in the UK. Since 2008 he’s been a Senior Lecturer in Translation at Imperial College London.

Jorge Díaz Cintas has written and edited numerous articles and books on audiovisual translation (see list at the end of this article*). Since 2002, he has been the president of the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation (
ESIST) and he belongs to the editorial boards of several translation journals. He is a member of the international research groups TransMedia and Trama.


Michaela: What exactly does AVT stand for?

Jorge Díaz Cintas: From a theoretical perspective, AVT is a scholarly field of study within the wider discipline of Translation Studies. Traditionally, it was considered to be a branch of translation parallel to literary or drama translation. One of the downsides of this perception is that the whole area was equated with the translation of films and many scholars used to refer to it as Film Translation or Cinema Translation. However, this is clearly a terminological misconception. AVT cannot be categorised only in terms of the genres it deals with, i.e. films, as it is obvious that audiovisual translators work with a panoply of programmes such as documentaries, DVD extras, sitcoms, advertisements, cartoons, reality shows, etc. Nor can it be restricted to cinema, as there are many other media that also resort to AVT to make their programmes available to foreign audiences, namely but not solely television and internet.

By way of a definition, AVT is a translational practice that works with source texts that combine two communication channels, audio and visual, and in this sense it stands in contradistinction with written translation or interpreting.

As for the activities subsumed within AVT, the main traditional ones are:

  • subtitling

  • dubbing

  • voiceover

  • narration

  • interpreting

In the 1990s, the field of accessibility to the media for people with sensory impairments was adopted as part of AVT and has proved to be one of the most fruitful and dynamic areas in recent years. Here, we can distinguish the following three main activities:

  • subtitling for the deaf and the hard-of-hearing (SDH)

  • audio description for the blind and the partially sighted (AD)

  • sign language interpreting (SLI)

Michaela: What is the cultural interest of AVT from a European perspective?

Jorge Díaz Cintas: In my opinion, and I think increasingly so in the EU’s opinion too, audiovisual communication in general, and AVT in particular, is truly essential for our (European) society. In these parts of the world, we’ve always needed translation to communicate with each other and it’s only natural that the increase in audiovisual output will bring a parallel increase in AVT. The European Parliament has clearly realised the power of the audiovisual word, as opposed to the printed word, to reach audiences and has taken swift action with the creation of their own television channel, EuroparlTV, where most material is subtitled in all EU languages. A pity, though, that the quality of most of their subtitles is so diabolical!

It can be argued that cinema lies at the heart of the European cultural model and it’s perhaps the best vehicle for all of us to get to know our neighbours and their idiosyncrasies. However, the distribution of European cinema among European citizens has always been our Achilles heel. We’re always dwarfed when compared to the USA machine and, except for notable exceptions, our films don’t seem to reach large audiences, or have the success that most USA productions have. The end result is that we seem to know more about the US way of living than about our own European culture. There are obviously many reasons for this poor performance, but the role of translation cannot be underestimated.
In a green paper published by the European Commission in 1994, they acknowledged that “A high quality of language transfer must be developed […] as it is the poor quality of dubbed and subtitled versions which is the real reason why programmes fail to reach other markets or turn [sic] to be flops – rather than the absence of such versions”.
Sadly, very little seems to have been done to remedy this situation. For instance, many European films are still distributed without a dialogue list that will help translators tremendously. Since most of our films receive funding from EU sources my question is, is it really so difficult to include a clause whereby all films that receive funding from the EU must be distributed with a properly detailed dialogue list? It’s a rather small step, but I’m convinced it’ll have a positive impact in the final product. Another way forward will be to make more information available to directors, producers and distributors on how to preserve high quality in AVT.

I don’t mean to say that the EU is idle in this field. Indeed, there are some attempts at improving the situation, like the
Study on Dubbing and Subtitling published by the Commission in 2007, or the creation by the Parliament of the LUX Prize, also in 2007, to facilitate the diffusion of European films in the EU by financing the subtitling and the kinescope recording of the winning film in the 23 official EU languages. But I somehow feel the efforts are misdirected, and quantity seems to prevail over quality. For instance, given the quality levels boasted by the Parliament on their own subtitled productions, one can only wonder whether financing that type of subtitling will really help the winning film to make a dent in Europe or to flop miserably. Like charity, I think quality needs to start at home.

Michaela: Is there a point in getting a Master's degree in AVT for someone who wants to translate subtitles?

Jorge Díaz Cintas: This is a particularly thorny issue for me and one in which I have developed in recent years. When AVT was virtually ‘invisible’ to everyone in academe – scholars, teachers, students, publishers – I was one of the many voices asking for Universities to be more in tune with the changing times and for new modules and courses on AVT to be developed. As early as 1998, I myself designed a subtitling module which was a final year option of a BA in Spanish. It proved very popular with undergraduate students and encouraged me to design and launch an MA in Audiovisual Translation in 2005, which is still running strongly at my previous institution. In a very short time span many undergraduate modules and postgraduate courses have mushroomed. Sadly, however, there seems to be a mismatch in the evolution of the educational and professional worlds. Translation rates in general haven’t seen the increases that most of us would have liked, and in AVT the stagnation has been particularly frustrating.

In my opinion, the audiovisual industry has on the whole behaved in a rather despondent way, where quantity and low rates tend to take priority over quality and decent levels of pay. The situation these days makes it difficult to make a proper living solely from AVT, let alone subtitling. Against this backdrop, having a Master’s degree focused solely on subtitling, as some are, seems to me a very unwise option indeed. Given the changing nature of the translation world out there, even embarking on a more comprehensive Master’s on AVT, dealing with other translation modes such as dubbing, voiceover and accessibility, might run the risk of producing overspecialised professionals.

Over the years, I have somewhat come to think that perhaps the best postgraduate training course is the one based on a solid, overarching overview of translation, where subtitling and other AVT modes are a part of it, as options, but not the only components. Of course, I still believe that students must learn about subtitling in their MAs or BAs, but as part of a wider academic programme and with a wider perception of the translation industry.

Michaela: What percentage of graduates (BA, MA) find work in the AVT field?

Jorge Díaz Cintas: This is a very difficult question to answer as I don’t think there are any reliable statistics that one could refer to. In my experience, quite a few students make headway in this world as freelancers in the beginning and only a handful manage to secure in-house positions usually as project managers, though I guess this is pretty much the same picture in translation in general.

Michaela: We get requests from students and translators who want to find out how to get into subtitling or where to start to find work as a translator of movie scripts, for instance. What advice can you give them?

Jorge Díaz Cintas: Because of its close links to the audiovisual media, subtitling is certainly a trendy activity for many students and practising translators and much more appealing than, say, translating washing machine manuals. This, evidently, makes competition in this field particularly fierce. Nonetheless, although entering the profession is hard, it is not impossible. In this sense, I have trained students in this area for many years and I’m glad to say that quite a few of them are now working professionally in AVT, both as translators and project managers.

Having some sort of training in subtitling is of course a clear bonus, and my first piece of advice to these people would be to try to take a course that would allow them to grasp the essentials of subtitling, including the use of some subtitling software. If they’ve already done some training, I usually give them a list of companies working in AVT that is also available in the book
Audiovisual Translation: Subtitling. Most of them advertise their positions on their websites and are willing to hear from prospective freelancers. Having an unusual language combination may well enhance their chances.

The other obvious route is to apply for a work placement or internship at some of these companies, but I will always advise them to be very cautious. An unpaid, long, full-time internship is not the same as a paid, short, and flexible one. Besides, if they have already done a Master’s on Audiovisual Translation, does it make sense to them to work for free, 9 until 5, for six months?

Michaela: Where can one find answers to such questions without having to start one's research from zero?

Jorge Díaz Cintas: These days, the internet offers such a wealth of resources and contacts. Increasingly, audiovisual translators are getting organised and there are now many professional associations providing help and support:

  • ATAA, Association des Traducteurs et Adaptateurs de l'Audiovisuel

  • Avtranslators.org

  • FBO, Forum for Billedmedieoversættere

  • NAViO, Norsk audiovisuell oversetterforening

  • STAW, Stowarzyszenia TĹ‚umaczy Audiowizualnych

  • Subtle, The Subtitlers’ Association

There are also quite a few
forums and yahoo groups where people exchange advice and information:

And, last but not least, there are also translation associations focused on AVT or with a working committee on this area, like
ESIST and the FIT Media Committee.

Michaela: Tell us about ESIST.

Jorge Díaz Cintas: ESIST is the acronym of the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation, which, by the way, is open to anyone from anywhere in the world, and not just from Europe. In a nutshell, ESIST is a non-profit association of higher education teachers, practitioners, academics and students interested in the field of audiovisual translation.

Since its foundation, ESIST has done much to facilitate cooperation between academics and professionals, and to introduce AVT to the curricula of several universities. There have also been some large-scale projects, such as the Comparative Subtitling Project, which surveyed subtitling standards from around the world in the year 2000, and the writing and adopting of the Code of Good Subtitling Practice.

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* Publications include: