Yet the latest must-see mini-series and Hollywood blockbuster need no longer herald frustration and confusion for the blind and partially sighted. Audio-description is a service that, through headphones, provides additional narration to describe the body language, facial expressions, costumes or stunts that help convey what's going on. There is a skill to providing this narration - and that's where the University of Surrey's new Masters programme in monolingual subtitling and audio-description comes in.
This one-year MA programme starts this September and comes hot on the heels of the university's MA in audio-visual translation, which is now approaching the end of its first year. The programme equips students with the skills to work in subtitling.
This is a big growth area due to rising sales of DVDs, which often showcase one film in up to 10 languages. It requires a specialist translator to capture the humour or horror on screen and turn it into a faithful, yet succinct, subtitle. Subtitling has also, like audio-description, been given a boost by government legislation designed to improve the accessibility of media and communications.
"There are quite tough targets for subtitling on TV, which are ratcheted up every two to three years," says Dr Margaret Rogers, the director of the University of Surrey's Centre for Translation Studies. "The audio-description targets are starting much lower, but they, too, are being gradually increased."
The centre also offers an MA in translation studies and students can pick from an expanding range of languages - from Chinese to Norwegian - to pair with English. Students can also opt to specialise in translating legal, science and technology or economic texts. It is believed that the world market in translation is worth up to $15bn (£8.38bn) and is increasing by as much as 25 per cent each year.
You don't have to be a news junkie to understand why a subject that promotes understanding and awareness of different nations and cultures might be growing in popularity. Translation studies started life in the late 1970s and, during the course of three decades, has added student numbers, course options and new approaches with surprising rapidity. The standard text, Translation Studies, now in its third edition, is selling more copies today than when it was first published in the 1980s.
"Interest in the subject has increased massively," says its author Professor Susan Bassnett, who is head of the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies at Warwick University. "It's driven by the mass movement of people around the world, the opening up of China and the spread of English around the globe, which means more and more people are becoming bi or tri-lingual."
But this growth in popularity is not evident among English speakers. Bassnett says a typical seminar group at Warwick can include students from as far afield as Cameroon, Nepal and Ecuador but just "a minute handful" from the UK.
"People are just not qualified to do translation in the UK, which is deranged when we are talking about more globalisation, closer links with Europe, and particularly in the light of recent events and our failure to understand the Islamic world," says Bassnett. "Language is the heart and body of culture. You cannot separate them."
It's not just a question of transcribing the foreign words into English. The translator has to capture the images, the nuances and the context of the words in order to faithfully reflect the meaning of the original.
Dr Rogers says a good translator must be a good writer and a creative thinker. "You can't just rely on a dictionary because nothing is like for like," says Rogers. "There are all sorts of decisions that go way beyond the dictionary that are to do with interpretation, taste and judgement. The dictionary is just the starting point."
Other institutions to offer Masters programmes in translation studies include University College London, Leeds University (which also offers an MA in screen translation), Heriot Watt and Hull University.
Some useful contacts:
Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies at Warwick University: www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/ctccs/
Centre for Translation Studies at Surrey University: www.surrey.ac.uk/lcts/lcts.htm
Institute of Linguistics: www.iol.org.uk
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