Multilingual Video Process, Part 1 (Shooting)

Making videos is an exercise in story telling, and most videos use words – spoken or written – to help tell the story. These words are powerful, and a good video producer/writer/director/editor usually needs a good grip on language.

But what happens when you are working on a project with languages you are not completely familiar with?

@patchets recently posed this question on Twitter-

anyone have a good workflow for translations? I’m editing a Chinese language doc and I’ve got a translator using a PC. Any suggestions?

My quick reply was suggesting a particular program, but I quickly realized that a longer answer was in store, one that would not fit in the 140 character of Twitter. So, I will be writing a three-part series on creating videos where language is an issue. In this post, I will talk about the shooting of the video. Next up will be editing the project, then finally, I will talk about the finished product.

I’ve worked on seven documentaries with languages other than my first language of English. I’ll draw on those experiences as examples of how I learned what works, and of course, what doesn’t.


Shooting for a multilingual film

Interviewing takes a high level of fluency
I was working on a video on a group of coffee growers in the Dominican Republic in the Spring of 2007. In addition to making the video, I was training, Ivory, a student at the local university on how to make documentaries. We would generally discuss an interview beforehand, and then he would ask the questions as I manned the camera. It worked well.

Then, one day I had to conduct some interviews, as we were on a short schedule and Ivory couldn’t make the shoot. Although I was able to communicate very well in Spanish, I found I still wasn’t good enough to interview. My fumbles made the subjects more agitated, as they were more intent on understanding me than on answering the question. Some interviews were almost useless because I couldn’t get the subject to relax. Since then, I’ve made sure to have fluent people available to interview for me.

Know what style of translation you need
There are two main ways of translating for the final project: subtitles and voice over.
I was helping to shoot a documentary in South Africa in Spring 2006. In a whirlwind of a week, we went from coast to coast across South Africa, crossing through many different ethnic groups. We had interviews in English, Afrikaans, Khosa, and Zulu. There was no way we were going to have (or perhaps more importantly, budget for) translators in the U.S.

The main editor/videographer decided to go with a BBC-style voiceover. We had only the main interviewee in the shot, but had mikes on both the interviewee and the translator.

Here’s the process:

  1. Interviewer asks question (English)
  2. Translator asks same question (Xhosa, for example)
  3. Subject responds (Xhosa)
  4. Translator translates the response (English)

(This round robin can get extreme- once I had to add a second intermediary to get between me and a rare Mayan dialect).

In post, the translator’s voice was put over the interviewee’s voice, so subtitles were not needed.

But I’m not a fan of voiceovers. The content, yes, is delivered, but I think a lot gets lost. The person’s inflection can add a lot of emotion that may not get translated. It feels more honest to me to hear their own voice. But that’s a matter you can have your own opinion on. So I’m a fan of subtitles. If you will have access to translators for post, or can do it yourself, only make sure that the interviewer is fluent.

So what it breaks down to:

  • know your end product
  • the interviewer MUST be fluent

Check back in soon for parts 2 (writing/editing) and 3 (delivering the video).

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  1. […] pm James old blog This is part 2 in a series of articles on how to create Multilingual Videos. The first part covered shooting. This part will cover what happens up to the point when picture is […]

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