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Every English-speaking viewer of Israeli television has their favorite subtitle gaffe to recall: There's the girl who said, "Let's kiss and make up," whose efforts at making amends translated into a cosmetic act of contrition; or "the woman in labor" who became in Hebrew "isha beHistadrut," a trade unionist suffering from a bad contract rather than contractions. And don't ask what a mess can result when someone "kicks the bucket."
Aya Gazit, the head of Channel 1's subtitle department, has the full picture of what's involved in screen translations.
Gazit, who also trains Israel Television's translators, notes there are many restrictions that make her work so challenging.
The first problem is space: A one-line subtitle can be only four to five words long and the viewer has just three seconds to take it in. Cable companies can often run two-line subtitles, but the state television usually needs the second line for the Arabic translation.
Unlike literary translations, there is no room for footnotes, no going back, and although viewers get an idea of context from what they see, they are also freer to make up their own minds about what should have been said. (No wonder many of those who call in to complain are native English speakers.) There is also a problem of synchronization.
But there are also certain tricks of the trade, such as dropping words like "so" and "well," ignoring swear words in action dramas and stealing time in sitcoms from the canned laughter - TV's equivalent of the redundant three exclamation marks (!!!).
Translating comedies is a serious business, although Gazit, who calls The Simpsons "my baby," says she enjoys the challenge. Here the cultural context, gags, word play and slang provide additional hurdles. On the day we speak, Gazit is working on an episode entirely in rap. Her son, a newly discharged soldier, has been mobilized to go over the Hebrew and make sure it doesn't lose something in the translation.
"Sometimes you have to be very creative," says Gazit. She notes that the Hebrew word "melonit" (literally a little hotel) was the invention of a translator desperate to find the blue-and white equivalent of a motel.
Other hazards, particularly on the non-commercial Channel 1, include the ban on covert advertising, which precludes the translation of many brand names and leaves the translator with the sentence: "He grabbed a Coke" thirsting for help.
"You have to accept that you can't translate everything, particularly as people speak faster than they read so it just doesn't fit," explains Gazit. "You just have to take the essence."
Gazit clearly loves her job but admits that when you translate movies and shows for a living it is very hard to switch off.
"When I go abroad, going to a movie is such fun," she says.
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