Gained in translation: PSU Italian classes create English subtitles for documentary

Portland State University students studying Italian put their language skills to the test by translating parts of a documentary about Italy's gay community into English — with the hope that a wider audience would be able to enjoy the film.

Students in Angela Zagarella's second- and third-year Italian classes translated the script for "Fuori," an episodic documentary that shares the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Italy.

The idea for the project came about when some students had asked Zagarella about the status of gay rights in the predominantly Catholic country. She didn't have anything that was up-to-date so she began looking for videos online and came across "Fuori," which translates to "Out" but is also an acronym for Italy's first gay rights group in the 1970s.

Each segment was about 15 minutes long and was shot in different Italian cities. The first part told the story of a gay person or couple, while the second part showed them interviewing people on the street about their thoughts and feelings toward homosexuality and gay rights.

"You would see the way people responded, the jokes they made, the city, the way people spoke with accents, the way people dressed," Zagarella said. "There was a lot of culture besides the gay-rights issues they were talking about. It was so rich that I thought this is something that my students would love and I wish I had the subtitles because it was only in Italian."

Zagarella reached out to the directors, Chiara Tarfano and Ilaria Luperini, and convinced them to send her the script in exchange for an English translation that they could use as subtitles.

With subtitles comes an opportunity for the directors to market the self-financed film outside of Italy. Zagarella said she would also help them enter it into QDoc, Portland's queer documentary film festival and the only festival in the U.S. devoted exclusively to LGBTQ documentaries.

Zagarella assigned the script translation as a class assignment and her students worked for several weeks to complete three segments. The key was finding the best way to say something, sometimes having to condense the dialogue to maintain the gist of what's being said without overwhelming the audience with too many words to read.

Zagarella, who is not a native English speaker, let her students take the lead but helped them with local cultural references that were unfamiliar to them.

"They were very motivated," she said. "They saw that their work was valuable and so they were attentive, present and engaged. Lots of culture questions came out of the conversations that these people in the documentary were having."

After completing the project, the students were also able to Skype with the two directors for an hour, giving both sides the opportunity to ask each other questions.

Hanna Israel, a second-year student, said the project not only helped her and her classmates get a better grasp on the language — the accents, colloquialisms and intonations — but it also gave them a glimpse into the views of Italian people.

For Israel, who identifies as queer, the project held more meaning and impact than other assignments that simply asked them to translate a book excerpt.

"I felt more invested in the project and making sure I was translating as well as I could because the project was important," she said. "Being able to share these stories of people in the Italian LGBTQ community, it was very emotional and I'm so grateful I was able to be a part of it."