​English surtitles for TU’s World War II play

Team of Getekend reaches out to an international audience with English surtitles.
In November, as part of a story about TU Delft’s World War II hero Frans van Hasselt, Delta announced plans for a 2015 historical play set in that very era.

GETEKEND, the university’s production, together with a team of professional theatre personnel, will be enacted in Dutch. However, the makers soon realised that the university’s international community would also be interested in a play about life at the university during World War II.

“Quite a few people said ‘what a pity’ that the play wouldn’t reach out to the internationals. That’s when we decided to explore our options,” said BaukeSteenhuisen, Assistant Professor, TBM, who led the production.

In theatre, especially operatic theatre, it is common to reach out to international audiences. In some instances, visitors are given booklets or leaflets with summaries of each scene. Some productions use ‘surtitles’. Similar to subtitles, these are word-for-word translations screened above the stage (hence ‘sur’ instead of ‘sub’).

“In the Netherlands we are used to subtitles. Unlike in other European countries, most shows and movies here are not dubbed but shown in English and have Dutch subtitles. We decided to take that route and worked with a professional scenario writer on the surtitles for the play,” said Steenhuisen.

This is especially tricky in theatre as one can’t time scenes down to the wire. Steenhuisen plans to manually change the slides with the surtitles to ensure that that the timing stays consistent with the actors on stage.

That’s not the only tricky part. Translation itself is never easy. Not only does the translator have to choose between direct literal translations, but often one needs to find idioms or references that make sense to an audience speaking another language. The team of GETEKEND soon found that there were some expressions and idioms that just couldn’t be translated and sometimes the entire sentence would have to be adapted.

“‘Ikschrik me rot’ is a very light version of ‘you scared the hell out of me’. It’s a phrase that’s hard to translate. Simple words like wat are often ‘what’ but in some places ‘huh’ or ‘hey’ seem more natural. Thankfully, it was easy enough to imagine the actors saying the same things in English and come up with appropriate titles,” he said.

Given the historical context of the play, there will be an introduction before the play begins. This will be in Dutch and in English. For now, the team is eager to spread the word about the titles among internationals. “When we approached DISS with the news, they were excited about the idea and the student organisation is now helping us market the event to internationals.”