Close menu Resources for... William & Mary
W&M menu close William & Mary

Subtleties of subtitles

Many Americans know Cuba only in terms of missiles, cigars or a bearded man in a fatigue jacket and hat. And given the political tension between the U.S. and Cuba over the past 50 years, the lack of other knowledge about the nation in modernity is to be expected.

But one William & Mary professor and her students are working to bring a more nuanced understanding of Cuba to America and the rest of the world. Their mission is to make the Cubans’ own stories—captured on film—more accessible and comprehensible by adding subtitles in English.

“I think what we’re doing is creating a more complex vision of what it means to be Cuban,” said Ann Marie Stock. “I think we are providing students and scholars and film festival directors and attendees the opportunity to experience Cuba through the lens of Cubans.”

Going to the source

Stock, a professor of Hispanic studies and film studies, has been researching Cuban films since she first visited the country to attend a 1989 film festival while working on her doctoral dissertation about Latin American cinema.

“At the time, given the U.S.-Cuba political impasse, there wasn’t a whole lot of information moving back and forth and so it wasn’t possible to just go to and buy Cuban films,” she recalled. “I had to go to the source.”

The film festival shifted Stock’s focus to Cuba, and she began friendships with several young filmmakers.

“We stayed in touch and pretty soon I found I was privy to their experiences and was shown some of their materials, like rough cuts of films. I found myself in this wonderful position, as a scholar, of having access to information that no one else had,” she said.

Stock joined the William & Mary faculty in 1993, and immediately incorporated her research into her classes. She also directed about a dozen week-long academic and immersion programs in Cuba.

At the same time, Stock was attending conferences across the world and served as a consultant to groups who wanted more connections with Cuba. As she engaged with more and more people interested in Cuban culture, she wondered why information on Cuban filmmaking—and the films themselves—were not available.

“I kept thinking that somebody should take the initiative to get these films subtitled, put them on DVD and distribute them in the U.S.,” she said. “So, I thought about that and thought about that. Finally, the light bulb went on, and I thought, you know, maybe that’s what I need to do.”

And so she created Cuban Cinema Classics, an initiative to subtitle and distribute a series of award-winning Cuban documentaries to universities and cultural centers throughout the United States.

“What really excites me about this is that it’s a project I worked with students on,” said Stock. “We started with a handful of students and they learned a lot and loved it.”

Cuban Cinema Classics

The project has now grown into a two-part QEP/Mellon Course that Stock is teaching with Troy Davis, director of the College’s Media Center.

“The idea is to bring together Hispanic studies students with a lot of knowledge of Latin American culture with skills in translation and put them beside their film studies counterparts who have some knowledge of film production and film analysis and they share their skills,” said Stock.

Project headquarters are in the Media Lab, in the lower level of Swem Library, but Davis said that he and Stock have set up the subtitling process so that students can do it from just about anywhere. All they need is their laptop.

“When we thought about the process, we didn’t want the students chained to the computer while they were doing their subtitling,” he said. “So we designed a process where we essentially create a text file.”

The students watch the film as a low-res QuickTime movie while they edit a text file to enter the subtitles. Then, they go to the Media Lab and import their subtitle file into a computer that contains a high-resolution version of the movie. Davis explained that the low- and high-res versions of the films use the same time codes, which makes for easy synchronization. Working in a program called DVD Studio Pro, they can tweak the subtitles in the high-res versions.

“If all things go well, when they bring in that text file, it lines up properly,” said Davis. “They may need to change the font color or the size or where it fits on the screen, that sort of thing.”

But the subtitling process is not as simple as just translating, said Stock. A film soundtrack contains several aural elements—often appearing simultaneously. Dialogue is spoken at the same time that a song is being sung. There may be a sign or billboard bearing important information. Just what do you translate and subtitle—and what do you leave out?

“In some cases, it’s just the dialogue. In other cases, if the lyrics to the music are really important, the students translate those, too,” Stock said. “But sometimes the music is just background, and often people are talking over it and so they have to make a choice whether they choose one or the other. It’s impossible to have people reading both at the same time. That’s part of the decision-making process: Is what’s being said more important than what’s being sung?”

Jessica Boten ’10 said that space constraints also make subtitling challenging. She said that each screen has a practical 14- or 15-word limit for subtitles.

“We always have that problem when subtitling,” Boten said. “You have to be able to cut a 20-word sentence down without losing the meaning, which is something that we’ve really tried hard to work on. But it’s not easy to do. You always have to work hard to find the right words to get the point across without losing the meaning.”

Boten also said that it’s a challenge to maintain cultural context in translation.

“Sometimes there are sayings or things that just don’t translate into the English language, or something that the viewer won’t understand because they don’t understand the Cuban culture,” she said.

While some students work on subtitling documentaries, others are creating a documentary of their own—about subtitling. Sara Grant ’10 is a member of the crew working on the documentary, which is being produced so that it is accessible to both English- and Spanish-speaking audiences. They are taping some interviews in Spanish, with English subtitles—and vice versa.

“We go around to the different groups and film them subtitling,” she said. “Then we’re going to edit the whole thing together to create a final product that, hopefully, Professor Stock will be able to use to introduce Cuban Cinema Classics and give an overview of what we’ve been working on all semester.”

“We’re trying to make it accessible to everyone when Professor Stock brings it over to Cuba and wants to show it to a Spanish audience,” said Grant.

The students participating in the second part of the course in spring 2009 will create another documentary, this one about Cuban filmmaking.

“We’ll use footage that I filmed doing an interview with a Cuban filmmaker and clips from some of the films we’re subtitling and then some more original interviews,” said Stock.

On Location in Cuba

Through all of her experiences with teaching and researching Cuban cinema, Stock found herself wondering why there wasn’t a modern book on the subject. At the time, the most current book on Cuban cinema had stopped at about 1989, “when Cuba began to undergo some significant changes following the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” said Stock.

“Cuba lost its major trading partner, lost its symbolic model and found itself in the midst of a huge economic crisis and floundering. Given that socio-political, economic moment, you can imagine the implications for the cultural sphere. Making films had to happen very differently,” she said.

Cuba was struggling financially, and there wasn’t money to support culture like there once had been, said Stock. At the same time, internationally, new technologies were springing up.

“35mm film gave way to analog video which gave way to digital video, which meant that in a few short years, no longer was a huge studio apparatus necessary to make a film,” Stock said. “You didn’t need 200 people and truckloads of equipment. Suddenly one person with a handheld camera and a PC with some editing software could make a film.”

Those two “engines of transformation”—Cuba’s repositioning after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the new technology—collided “to create this really rich moment that I wanted to study by looking at cinema,” said Stock.

“So, how does a nation like Cuba collide with the global sphere and manage to preserve a sense of home and community and still interact and engage with the global marketplace?” she asked.

With that question in mind, she began working on a book. She conducted interviews with Cubans, people whom she termed as “street filmmakers”—Cubans with a variety of perspectives and opinions and who find their own ways to finance films. She wanted to ensure she included their voices and visions in the book. Stock’s book, On Location in Cuba: Street Filmmaking During Times of Transition, is due out next spring through the University of North Carolina Press.

“So, by reading this book, my intent is not only for readers to have an understanding of Cuban filmmaking in recent years, but also a sense of the complexity, the diversity, the nuances in perspectives of Cubans,” she said. “So I want readers to get to know some Cubans as people, as creators, and as human beings.


Stock said that she hopes her students will leave William and Mary with “some very concrete products disseminating their new knowledge.” She said that she thinks Cuban Cinema Classics is impacting her students and America at the same time.

“Students are engaged in original research and making discoveries and they’re not just writing papers that go in a file drawer, but they are actually packaging this in a way that it can be useful to others,” she said. “Our contact with Cubans has been limited by lots of factors, and I think it becomes very exciting to engage with real Cubans. I think we forget that it’s a very vibrant nation comprised of exceedingly diverse individuals. So it is very exciting for our students to connect with some of those individuals, to see that diversity, through their films.”

Additionally, said Stock, their work is having an impact on Cubans, particularly young Cubans like Karel Ducases, who made the award-winning documentary Zone of Silence—and asked Stock to subtitle it.

“Thanks to William and Mary students—thanks to our work—this young filmmaker will have an opportunity to place his creative output at international festivals,” she said. “This might be the step that moves him into the international sphere, and so it’s really exciting to make a difference in the lives of individual people, particularly in a country where we’ve had such tension and there’s been such a distance.”