Documentaries: Problems and Solutions

Mir i Bòria, Jordi
Quaderns Divulgatius, 12 1999

First of all, documentaries deal with a specialised theme with educational ends. Their scripts are written to be spoken, or in other words, they do not aspire to the spontaneity of a conversation and thus require the use of a more formal level of language. The phonetics need to be terse and well articulated, though not overly so.
We shall distinguish between scientific documentaries and historical documentaries. The particular problem presented by documentaries of the historical type (ethnographic, geographical, musical, literary, etc.), originally made in the English language, are the place-names which are not found in encyclopaedias and specialised books. In such a case, it is necessary to check the pronunciation in the original language of the region or otherwise bear in mind how it has been resolved in the closest languages. Confusion and disorder reign in the cases of names of streets, avenues, and passages in English when traditionally they have not been translated in cinema, for example "Marble Arch" and Piccadilly Circus". It is also necessary to be alert to the pronunciation of proper names which are not "Catalanised" and the names of faraway tribes and ethnic groups. The best-known authority on such matters nowadays is the Comissió de Normalització Lingüística (Commission for Linguistic Standardisation) of channel 3 (Catalan-language) television, which periodically publishes its findings.
The problem faced by the translator of scientific documentaries about physics, chemistry, biology, and so on, but above all in the case of natural history, is the very limited source material in Catalan of names of plants and animals which are not native to Catalan territory, which are the ones that always appear in documentaries. The method is first to find the scientific name and then the vulgar or common name in Catalan, but it is complicated. One may also attempt to identify the animal or plant using an encyclopaedia, terminological dictionaries, monographic studies and data-bases on Internet, or consult Termcat (the Catalan Terminology Service), which is an efficient and reliable service, but slow for the needs of documentary translators.
To conclude, the specific work of the documentary translator is very similar to that of the investigative journalist. One needs at least a minimal knowledge of the maximum number of subjects, and also to know people specialised in the matter to hand in order to help resolve a problem at any given time. One needs as much source material to hand as possible, either on paper or in digital format so that the translator's work is increasingly professional, smooth and, to sum up, better done.