Poem: Channel Nothing

The TV’s full of Norwegian banter
like a soundtrack going backwards and just
off-screen a drunk falls into the cake
      but nobody moves:

that is, they move from the Nordic
state of doubt to the Arabic then
back again via Disneyland and if you
      blink you miss it

like the quote you thought you saw:
“I couldn’t help giving birth to a Negro!”
or the landscape painting titled
      “Bruce Buys a Truck” —

you’re there at the edge of the frame
wearing a smile and waving. Things look
odd from the top of a truck — lurid, somehow,
      blurred by speed

and badly out of focus like the alcoholic
sliding down the screen through the subtitle
that brands his forehead with the
      odd marriage customs

of the Norsemen and their tawny guests.
Is that a lion? Or a Bantu “being” a lion?
Come out, Simba! Bruce the White Hunter sleeps
      under the table tonight.

During the 1980s I worked for some years as a part-time subeditor of subtitles at the Special Broadcasting Service in Sydney, which from February 1985 broadcast television programs in dozens of different languages from around the world, subtitled into Australian English. The subtitling unit was large, various and immensely talented in dozens of languages.

Initially the television channels used by SBS in Sydney were VHF Channel 0 and UHF Channel 28. The VHF channel had very poor reception, and was dubbed “channel nothing” by the staff. In those days there was no advertising on the station; this cancer was introduced in 1991 during the reign of Executive Director Brian Johns, a Labor appointee.

A friend, the late Martin Johnston, a poet, suggested I apply to work there, and I did, in the early 1980s. At one stage I looked around the subeditor’s room and counted seven published poets among the staff.

One day Martin and I had a two-hour friendly argument about how to spell “OK” in subtitles. Martin argued for “O.K.” on the grounds of etymology and historical accuracy, which I gladly conceded were important; but I countered with the commonsense view that spelling it like that made it look as though the speaker was shouting “OK!” (rhymes with “KNOCK!”), when in fact the word had become, after a hundred or more years of daily use, just another word in English like “yes” or “maybe”, and should be spelled “okay”, like so.

I can remember the time when I was subediting an episode of an Arabic soap-opera (that is, helping a native speaker of Arabic to render conversation in the sound-track into readable English subtitles that made sense to a largely Australian-born audience). One of the characters said something like “If you rebuff this angelic woman’s attempts to offer you affection” (slight pause, new frame) “… she will become a devil and will curse you.” Like most Arabic-language soap-operas, the script was rendered into Classical Arabic, so it would be easily comprehensible in all Arabic-speaking nations, whatever their local dialect, and this admonition, to me, had a lovely balance, like a well-turned couplet in English. I thought of Congreve, and asked if this would suit: “Heaven has no rage (new line) like love to hatred turned,” (new subtitle:) “Nor Hell a fury (new line) like a woman scorned,” a couplet from William Congreve’s 1697 play “The Mourning Bride”. “Perfect!” exclaimed my Arabic-speaking friend. “That’s just what he is saying.”

In another Arabic soap-opera (we did dozens) a problem gambler ruefully considers his losing streak: “Why not risk my last few coins? How could I be worse off?” This time Bob Dylan seemed apposite: “When yuh ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”

The quote “I couldn’t help giving birth to a Negro!” was actually suggested by the translator as an exact version of a line in the script. After a long and worried discussion involving quite a few translators and subeditors, we all agreed that those were the exact words used, no colloquialisms were involved, and that was how the subtitle had to be. Life was always a bit strange at SBS.

Because of the limits of technology and people’s reading ability, there were precise limits on the size, shape and duration of the subtitles we created. We wrote in pencil (to allow for the many revisions we made) on a grid twenty-two boxes wide, as the characters produced by the subtitling machines (Tore Seem brand, now extinct, originally built in Norway) fitted twenty-two characters on the width of the typical television screen. No more than two lines were permitted at one time, otherwise the print covered the action on the screen. Two seconds long was the shortest duration we were allowed to use (any less and the subtitle could not reliably be read), and I think eight seconds was the maximum: after that, fast readers became bored.

I thought for a while there that we would develop a new poetry form, briefer than the haiku, but with better sound.

Of course there were occasional scenes where no subtitler (or reader) could keep up, where for example two or three people were engaged in a furious, fast argument. We just had to leave some things unsaid, or unsubtitled.

And there were some metaphorical phrases used in everyday speech that simply defied translation. I remember watching one episode of a rural drama from Eastern Europe. We subeditors always watched the programs with the draft script provided by the translator in hand, because even though we usually didn’t know the language, we had to check the timing of each speech, see what was going on and get a feel for the period, the milieu, the social classes, and characters’ temperaments. I kept hearing one phrase used by different characters in different contexts, each time translated by a different English term: “This is unfortunate”, “Darn it!”, “You go to hell!”, “I’m not your friend!” and so forth.

It worried me, and I asked the translator what was going on; why has she used such different terms to translate this one clearly-audible phrase. “Maybe you could tell be what the phrase means,” I asked her, “in a literal sense. Then we could see if these different terms really fit in with its meaning.” She was a lovely old lady with gentle manner and silver hair. She smiled sweetly.

“Well, John,” she said, “It’s just a phrase used commonly, that means different things in different contexts, and I think if we translated it literally, it would seem too forceful for the context.”

“Yes, but what is it?” I persisted.

She sighed. “Oh well. If you must know, it means, literally, May a pig sexually assault your grandmother. That’s putting it politely; in the original it is more blunt. It’s used very commonly. It doesn’t have the same impact in the original culture. It’s just a harmless phrase people use all the time.”

“I see,” I said. “Of course you were quite right. I’ll leave your translation just as it is. Thank you.”

You live and learn.