Language Lessons

It seems such a simple thing. What if television programs carried subtitles in the other official language, just as they carry subtitles for the hard-of-hearing?

You wouldn’t have to see these subtitles if you didn’t want to. But if you did, you could punch them up on your remote or your computer and follow along with the dialogue. They would just be an option on the closed captioning menu.

The Globe and Mail and the National Post do not publish in French, and Le Devoir and Le Journal de Montreal do not have English editions. They do not have to, they see no profit in doing so, and it would be flatly impossible. But the television networks and the signal providers can do so, there would be a clear public benefit, and it need cost them nothing.

It is a fact that most Francophones in Canada speak English, but pay negligible attention to English Canadian programming, just as it is a fact that most Anglophones do not speak French and pay less than negligible attention to French Canadian programming.

The country worries away at this, forever trying to get the two cultures to know, understand and appreciate one another. And yet, half a century after the B&B Commission, from novelists to TV personalities English and French Canada might as well be separated by an ocean.

Subtitles will not solve this problem, if it is a problem. They will, however, help someone trying to learn another language.

The beauty of subtitles is that they work both ways. You can either hear the foreign tongue and read along in your own language, or you can listen in your own language and read a transcription in the language you are trying to master. A 15-year-old in Kamloops working on his French can tune in to a program he already knows and enjoys – Trailer Park Boys, say – and get the French translation at the bottom of the screen. By the same token, he can seek out French language programming – an airing of Les Boys, perhaps – and hear how the words spoken on the screen correspond to English.

What if language teachers in middle and high schools across the country had this tool at their disposal, so that they could instruct their students to watch their favourite programs as much as they liked, but with the subtitles running underneath?

This is clearly a factor in how the Dutch and the Danes and the rest of the northern Europeans learn English. They watch television, and they import a great deal of British and American product. And Canadian too: you can catch Trailer Park Boys on Danish television. But they do not dub the programs. They subtitle them.

Danish is a notoriously difficult language to master. And yet it is surprising how much one can pick up in a couple of months as long as the subtitles are running. “Slap af!” is Danish for “relax.” “Slutspurt” is their word for a liquidation sale.

It is a technique crucial to the BBC’s splendid online language lessons. On its interactive Spanish instructional series “Mi Vida Loca,” everything that happens on screen is accompanied by both English and Spanish subtitles, but the subtitles can be disabled if one chooses, one or the other or both. Just starting out in Spanish? You may need the English translation at the bottom of the screen. Getting a little more confident? It’s the Spanish transcription that helps you better understand what is being said so rapidly.

So, we have the technology. We could, if we wanted to, pipe English/French translations of TV programs through our domestic cable, satellite and Internet service providers. We could require our program providers to do so, as a civic duty.

Any such suggestion would no doubt make them bridle. An additional expense, a demand on their bandwidth, and for what? A miniscule portion of the population who might find this a valuable learning aid?

But what if it cost the media corporations next to nothing to comply? What if it made them look good?

In this country, all major media deals have to be approved by the CRTC. Outright purchases of one broadcasting company by another are expected to come with a “public benefit” package worth 10 per cent of the sale price – a tithe, it seems. The transaction that saw Bell acquire CTV and the Globe and Mail was worth $2.3 billion, and hence the “public benefit” package was $230 million.

That is a lot of money to give away in a very short time. Read the roster of beneficiaries and toward the end it starts to look as though the purchaser is just handing out money willy-nilly. What if a percentage of such benefit packages were earmarked for an enterprise of unimpeachable national benefit, such that the benefactor would be saved the headache of hunting around for worthy causes on which to shower largesse? Something next to no-one would complain about, most would applaud, and that the private sector – as long as it is obliged to pay a tithe anyway – would be happy to support?

I mention this only for the consideration of the chair of the CRTC, Ted Rogers, Leonard Asper, Jean Karl Peladeau, Ivan Fecan, the Minister of Heritage, and the Commissioner of Official Languages. I don’t imagine these folks all commonly get together in the same room just to chat, or to play poker – but if they did, and there happened to be a meeting of minds, who knows?

How much would it cost to provide English/French subtitles on all Canadian programming? Or on all programming on Canadian channels? It depends on how ambitious one chooses to be.

Just as there are voice-recognition programs that allow simultaneous transcription of The National and Le point for the hard-of-hearing, there is software that will translate English text into French and vice versa. It’s not perfect by any means and it’s not cheap either. As Jesse Browner, a professional translator, pointed out in Slate, machine translation is fine at literalism but garbles when it comes to anything of nuance.

So, for example, Language Weaver, which Browner pegged as the best of the machine translation software, was perfect when it came to a headline from El Pais: “A wave of attacks left more than 100 dead in several cities in Iraq.” But here’s how it handled the first line of Don Quixote: “In a place of the Channel, whose name do not want to remember, has not much Time living a Hidalgo the spearheaded in shipyard, adarga Antigua, Rocín weak and galgo corridor.”

Yikes. If it does that to Don Quixote, what on earth is it going to make of Don Cherry?

The good news, though, is that apart from sports commentary most of what would have to be translated in real time is the stuff that happens in real time, which is to say, the news. And television news is rendered in precisely the sort of value-neutral, deadpan language that machine translation can handle. “A wave of attacks left more than 100 dead” is the type of sentence Peter Mansbridge reads every night.

Anything more playful with the language, however, would have to be translated by human professionals. Take Corner Gas. The jokes are so well crafted that any translation would have to do them justice, otherwise there is no point in rendering a translation.

So, English/French translations of domestic programming would likely require legions of professional translators. But why not? We think nothing of employing legions of storyboard artists for our very robust animation industry – in fact, it’s a good thing. The work of translators is just as demanding, and calls on a very particular skill.

This country already employs legions of professional translators, but most of them are just voices in our heads: they sit in soundproof booths at government conferences mouthing into microphones for people wearing earphones. No one ever learned a second language that way, and certainly not the people doing the translating.

Plus, it can’t be very interesting for the translators. If you had this skill, would you rather speak along with some droning deputy minister or have the luxury of time to figure out how best to translate Oscar’s use of the term “Jackass!” on Corner Gas? There is an entire episode in which Oscar tries not to say it, leading to a cascade of progressively funny synonyms. Translating that into French would require considerable ease and fluency in both cultures and languages. Precisely what we are trying to encourage and reward.

I am not saying that TV subtitles will usher in a fully bilingual generation interested and comfortable in one another’s culture, such that English sitcoms become a hit in Quebec, Anglos start downloading Francophone tunes, and from this mutual cultural understanding comes an entente that dampens thoughts of non-federal nationalism in Alberta and Quebec. No. That is never going to happen. (Although, in the unlikely event that it does, I hereby take credit and wish to be remembered to history as a father of re-Confederation.)

I make no further claim than that it can’t hurt. It can only help. We can do this and we should do this. We have the means, motive and opportunity. Hell, the BBC gives away its interactive language lessons for free on a website. We can’t muster subtitles on our own domestic programming?

To provide such a service as a matter of course would be the mark of an affluent, progressive nation genuinely wanting the best for itself and its constituent communities. Exactly what Canada hopes to be

Is that too much to ask? It seems such a simple