Translating stories from “Beside the golden door”
It’s important to get the words right when you’re entrusted with the story of a young woman seeking asylum in the US so that she can earn enough to return the money her parents paid in ransom to her kidnappers in Honduras. When you don’t speak the same language as her, and she’s counting on you to make her voice heard, you need someone you can trust to translate her words.
Jess Beck’s Austrian grandfather barely avoided the Nazi concentration camps and was only able to escape to the United States thanks to the kindness of a stranger. Three of her grandparents are immigrants. This family history has, no doubt, contributed to Jess’ sense of social responsibility and, as a documentary director, producer and writer, motivated her to create a film about the plight of modern-day immigrants. Her documentary, “Beside the Golden Door” tells the stories of those travelling from various regions of Central America to the US as they struggle to seek a life that guarantees safety and other basic human rights.
Take 1 has supported Jess and her team with over 700 minutes of Spanish to English; mixed English and Spanish; and English transcripts for the production, which is still a work in progress. We caught up with Jess to find out more about the project and, specifically, how she and her team are using transcriptions and translations to shape the storylines and accurately relay the participants’ experiences.
What inspired you to make this documentary?
I am an outspoken activist around several political and social justice issues and am involved in various community initiatives in New York City, one of which is the immigration rights group New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC). In January of 2019, NSC recruited volunteers to travel to the San Diego/Tijuana border to provide support to members of what was colloquially referred to as The Caravan – thousands of migrants that traveled together from various regions of Central America to seek entry into the United States. Myself and my filmmaking partner, Kevin Brown, both experienced documentarians, volunteered in a journalistic capacity. We ended up capturing such a breadth of incredible stories that we felt the only way to do them justice would be to create a longer-form piece – either a feature-length documentary or a multi-part documentary series, and this project was born.
Did you have translators with you on the shoot or how did you deal with the language barrier with interviewees on location?
Most of the interviewees spoke Spanish only. Fortunately, both myself and my filmmaking partner speak enough conversational Spanish to communicate on a basic level and connect emotionally with our participants. However, I find it crucial to utilize a translator while shooting interviews as well as translation services in post-production to ensure that we are accurately and fully communicating the nuances of each participant’s story.
How did you hear about Take 1 and why did you choose them for your project?
I created a post seeking recommendations for a transcription service on the Facebook group Women Working in Reality TV, a network of more than 18,000 women working in nonfiction production throughout the U.S. and beyond. One response sang the praises of Take 1 and I chose this company based on efficiency, reliability, accommodating working style, security/privacy measures, and reasonable rates.
Take 1 transcribed over 700 minutes of English and Spanish material for you, what are you going to do with these transcriptions?
Receiving these transcripts felt so momentous! My first step is to review them for sound bites and moments that I am shaping into a script for a pitch reel. I’ll be using this teaser to apply for grants which would provide the funds I need to complete additional shooting and edit the final film. I’ll be relying heavily on the transcripts all the way through the process!
How did you provide Take 1 with your media and will you use digital or paper-based transcriptions for the next stage of your process? Can you give us some detail about your workflow?
The most convenient way for us to provide our footage to Take 1 was to share a link that contained each individual file we wished to have transcribed and/or translated. We named the Mp4 files with the file name we wished the transcribers to assign to the associated transcript, and provided additional instruction for the transcript style, naming conventions and speaker identification using the form Take 1 provided at the start of the job. Take 1 transcribers reached out with further questions regarding individual files or transcripts as needed and the process worked quickly and seamlessly.
My process for shaping many hours of footage into a film utilizes both paper and digital transcriptions. My first stage is a little old-school — I print out all transcripts and split them into binders categorized by storyline. Then I read through each binder and underline the most impactful and/or relevant moments. I also make notes in the margins that help to further categorize the bites. The next stage involves locating these bites in the digital files and organizing them digitally into categorized documents. I then cull from these documents to create a script. The script goes to my editor, who strings out the footage, and we use that as a jumping-off point to shape it into a cut.
Why was it important to you to have the footage professionally transcribed and translated?
At first I attempted to utilize my network of Spanish-speaking friends and supporters to transcribe our footage, but I came to realize that the task would be insurmountable — both from a coordination standpoint and because of the length of time it would take. I also discovered that the consistency and professionalism that a company like Take1 could provide across transcripts would be a beneficial if not crucial asset for accurately relating our subjects’ stories.
What are the biggest challenges of producing mixed-language productions and what advice do you have for other producers doing so for the first time?
Good translation is absolutely crucial for telling a story accurately without skewing the meaning intended by the speakers. In-the-field translators are human – it’s natural for someone translating in situ to take liberties, often without even realizing it, for any number of reasons – maybe they’re in a rush so they’re summarizing, or perhaps they are unintentionally acting on their own biases. As documentary filmmakers, we already risk subjectifying our participants’ stories simply by behaving as the conduit for telling them. Add in a translator and you have an additional layer of potential story refraction. Having footage professionally translated after it’s captured provides a backstop against perpetuating inaccuracies.