Azpitituluak, a Project for Basque Subtitles

by Luistxo Fernandez

In 2008, I wrote an e-mail to Lawrence Lessig, the American lawyer that created the Creative Commons license pack and current presidential candidate for the 2016 Democratic nomination in the U.S. I had just found out that he was coming to the Basque Country to give a talk, and I wanted to suggest something to him…

At the time, Lessig was promoting one of his books: Remix. It’s an essay about the Internet-era creativity process: how ideas, cultural products, and even brilliant pieces of art, are created by the remixing of images and ideas so easily provided by the Internet. This plentiful and creative remix of this and that is already producing brilliant results, but it also faces legal challenges, as the idea of copyright and “intellectual property”, understood in a limited manner, can be applied to silence, censor, or prohibit creative remixes.

So, Lessig was to bring these ideas to the Basque Country. Great. I think you had to register somewhere for the talk, and I did so, but in anticipation of the visit, I was curious, so I reviewed one of Lessig’s talks on the Internet, one he gave about creativity in a TED Conference in 2007.

At a certain point in the talk, Lessig mentioned the community of Anime-fans in the US, lovers of Japanese animation. These communities of fans produce mixes of videos, translate subtitles from Japanese into English, and document all they can about their favorite series, characters and authors. One of the activities that subculture takes part in is that of “Fansubs”. That is, producing subtitles in English for Japanese releases as soon as they can, so the community can enjoy them in their original setting. Not all Anime-fans understand Japanese and can collaborate in the making of the Fansubs, but a small set of core enthusiasts with language skills can serve a much greater community well.

foto1So… having noticed this appreciation of the Anime phenomena in Mr. Lessig’s talk, I thought: Maybe I can write to him about this thing I have here, the Azpitituluak thing, the particular effort to create Basque subtitles for video-materials from all over the World?

It was obvious to me that Lessig would bring a well-rehearsed presentation about Remix. But it is also true that a dedicated speaker would also add touches here and there in the presentation, to customize it to a given audience in the setting of the conference, or the city where the talk takes place. So, I suggested adding some links and screenshots to him, which he could mention as a local example, the fan-based production of Basque subtitles, in order to give a local touch to his presentation.

foto2And, well, he agreed! Some of the Azpitituluak example involved Japense Anime, so he introduced a screenshot of Mononoke Hime, a brilliant movie by Hayao Miyazaki, with subtitles in Basque.

I felt proud that Mr. Lessig tugged on the bait I presented him. At the time, Azpitituluak Euskaraz, subtitles in Basque, this particular effort that I created, was recent and there wasn’t really any big body of subtitled material there. The comparison of Azpitituluak to the American fansub communities of Anime was totally out of proportion. However, Lessig’s presentation was improved, I think, with the local touch added, so it was good for him as well.

Azpitituluak.com was a new site at the time, just some months old, and there were just a handful of available subtitles on the site. I had begun consuming movies and TV series with subtitles in the early 21st century, with the availability of P2P networks to download materials. Of those systems, I am a regular user of BitTorrent, a very efficient P2P decentralized network where lots of video-materials are shared by users around the world. Hmmm, yes… we are those pirates that exchange movies and other things on the Internet.

foto3Most of that material was in English, and although I have some grasp of the language, I do really need subtitles to follow things on screen. So, I learned that there were Spanish subtitle sites where you could get little subtitle files that matched with the movies found on BitTorrent. And mixing the two files on the PC (and lately, on modern TVs with USB or HDMI plugs), you could enjoy a very nice experience. That was the 1st step: enjoying the experience. Then came the 2nd step: I wondered, how does it work? Why is it that a little subtitle file with an .srt extension synchronizes with a big .avi or .mkv file so I can see those captions? It turned out there were no real technical difficulties behind the thing. SRT files were just plain text files, where some temporal clues where inserted for synchronization. This meant that, if you had a SRT file with English subtitles well synched for, let’s say, Braveheart; it was just a matter of writing Basque sentences over the English ones in the file, and you had a Basque version for the film.

Well, my first trial wasn’t with Braveheart, that loooong movie. I chose Pixar’s Wall-E, because it was really cool, it looked suitable for my children to enjoy in Basque, but mainly because it had very little dialogue, so it wasn’t that much work to translate (I’m lazy by nature). The trial went well: I programmed a premiere with my children and several of their friends (most of them 10-year-olds), and they truly enjoyed it. By the way, that’s the age when a person begins to enjoy subtitled videos. At age 8, they begin to grasp the thing, but by 10, children can both follow the images and read the captions. I find this to be true for any language that they command by that age. Bilingual 11-year-old Basques have no problem getting Terminator with Spanish captions or Back to the Future with Basque ones, I guarantee. In the case of Basque children, because it’s possible to show them movies with English sound, I also do believe that captions will help them with their English learning.

foto4So, after that first example and some other movie that I translated, I thought that it might be interesting to share these materials, so others could enjoy Wall-E in Basque just like I did. I found some subtitle files here and there, scattered, but there was not a specific service since they could be found easily in Spanish or English. That’s why I decided to put a little effort into creating a website: Azpitituluak.com. It’s where I place subtitles that I create or find, but it’s also an open invitation so people can upload their own contributions.

It’s already been 7 years since the website was launched, and we do have almost 700 movie subtitles there, plus several short film materials and also some TV series episodes. However, there’s no such thing as a community: it’s more like several individual efforts which, from time to time, produce something. In this sense, it is easier to produce movies than TV series, which require a lot of coordinated work. The task of translating a given movie, on the contrary, is up to anybody willing to spend 15 hours or so on the task. It’s hard, but it’s doable. It’s like preparing a street race, let’s say: instead of taking a couple of hours for running in the neighbourhood over several days, you sit at the computer and translate some lines of dialogue into Basque.

I have no presumptions about the exposure that Azpitituluak.com obtains. I look at the page where I uploaded Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and I see that only a handful of people have downloaded it. But I’m happy with that, because I really did it just for two people: my daughter Lili and me, so she could enjoy this movie beside me on the couch, on a winter afternoon, and learn that Johnny Depp was a fine, young and handsome actor, long before he decided to be a clown in Pirates of the Caribbean. And if there are any more viewers besides my daughter, I am happy for them, I hope they enjoy it too. That Basque translation that I created is not a mass product, but I do think that it is one more piece of popular world culture now available in Basque. It will stay there at Azpitituluak.com, while I’m here, and I am hopeful that the archive will outlive me and also serve future cinema-loving generations of Basques.

foto5I do believe, much like Lawrence Lessig, that creativity is one of the most important motors a society must foster, in order to prosper. Like him, I also believe that remixing is a key aspect for creativity. Remixing not just in the sense of re-creating materials from previous ones, but also in a global cultural way. Cinema is a universal experience, dominated, in a commercial sense, by the U.S. cultural industry, but also a showcase of diverse cultures, some commercially powerful as well (Japanese anime, for instance, or the Bollywood industry in India), others not so much so but locally interesting. Enjoying these audiovisual experiences in their original setting, but with the help of one’s own language… I think that’s the best way to mix the world’s cultures into one’s head. I feel enriched since I have watched so many of these films in Basque… this story about Aboriginal Australians, this sexy thriller set in China filmed by Ang Lee, a documentary about Lance Armstrong’s astonishing lies… At the same time, I think that I have done a service to my children introducing them to the work of masters like Tim Burton, Hayao Miyazaki, John Lassiter of Pixar. Yes, we also watch a lot of Disney Channel crap, of course, but in the end, I think the visual and emotional experiences will add up and contribute a little to the sentimental education of my children.

foto6Of course, much of what I am telling you here is illegal. Yep. To be clear, in Azpitituluak.com we don’t offer movies to download. Just the dialogues of them, encapsulated in the tiny text files, which are the subtitles. The assumption is that, well, you need to match that file with the movie, and you can do that however you want. Of course, we know how it works, and certainly, we do offer information so you search a given filename for proper synchronization. However, in strict intellectual property copyright terms, the dialogues or captions of a movie are also subject to copy protection, and you cannot translate and distribute them, the same way you cannot re-publish your translation of a novel by a given, living author. Yet, that’s what we are doing.

Are other translators and I risking something by doing this? I don’t really think so. There have been moves against subtitle-gathering websites in several countries. A few of them have been forced to close. I don’t know of any personal judiciary problems for people yet. I have also seen some successful defenses of these sites on the grounds that they gather fan-material, that is, personally or collaboratively created files, and so there is no act of piracy. This defense is not always true: many files you find at Spanish or English subtitle-sites are not created by users, but ripped from webcasts or DVDs. However, there is user-content and fan-collaboration on all the sites, and besides, some of them may have commercial advertising, the sites don’t look like money-making machines ripping off dollars from anyone. In the case of Azpitituluak.com, of course, there isn’t even any advertising: the site only has costs, but they’re not so big, so I can manage with that (for the love of my language and blah blah).

foto7Anyway, supposing that Azpitituluak.com may face legal challenges in the future, we may add an additional line of defense in our case. We are doing it in Basque. It is a minority language with less than 1 million speakers, in which more audiovisual materials are never dubbed or subtitled. There is no commercial market for it (nor are there legal provisions for movie marketing), the local Basque TV ETB has a very limited budget for movie acquisition and dubbing, and there are even distributors that have hampered the distribution of materials in Basque (this has happened with Disney España). There aren’t Basque versions in the new Internet-based apps nor platforms like Netflix or others. So, if at the end of the day, in order to enjoy the works of Tim Burton, Andrei Tarkovski or Hayao Miyazaki in Basque, you have to do it circumventing market laws, copyright and so on, so be it.

Or, maybe, Lawrence Lessig wins the presidency in the U.S., and global copyright laws change for the better 🙂

 

Luistxo Fernandez is an Internet entrepreneur
@luistxo

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