Subtitle Translation in Greece: A Moral Dilemma of Maintaining the Integrity of a Work or a Copyright Infringement?
Nowadays, the globalization of video distribution and the immediate transfer of information laid the foundations of a new audiovisual era, where every work could be presented in different audiences around the world. Even if some countries prefer the method of dubbing foreign films, the most common technique for a work to reach a wider audience is subtitles.
Greece belongs to the countries that renounced the dubbing method and follow faithfully the translation of foreign audiovisual texts with the help of subtitles.[i] Subtitles are text derived from the dialogue or commentary in audiovisual works (films, television series, video games etc.) and are usually displayed at the bottom of the screen. In other words, subtitles are a translation of the dialogue in a screenplay. Therefore, this means that a bad translation could possibly alter the meaning of the work to the foreign audience.
There are several instances in Greece, especially regarding audiovisual works that air to Greek TV stations, where the audience that knew the original language of the work detected mistranslations that alter the meaning of the dialogue. Also, Greek TV stations tend to translate the dialogue while maintaining a conservative look regarding the audiovisual work itself. For example, back in 2013 Star Channel aired Suburgatory (2011–2014), a TV series about a teenage girl who has to adapt to her new suburban life after her father moved her away. In the first episode of the series, a girl asks the main character “Are you a lesbian?”. When the episode aired on Star Channel, the subtitles appeared as ‘Είσαι αγοροκόριτσο;/Are you a tomboy?’. According to Aris Dimokidis (2013), for the past few years
Greek television has not only been able to say things by its name, but has come to say comedic, sometimes racist, things. Like putting a ‘beep’ on the word gay, or translating the word ‘lesbian’ as ‘tomboy’, ‘not so woman’, or even the classic ‘spinster’.
There are several other examples that prove that Greek TV stations usually alter the meaning of a scene with false subtitle translation. For example, Star Channel also airs Two and a Half Men (2003–2015). In one scene, Charlie (Charlie Sheen) makes fun of the way his brother dresses by saying it is ‘gay’. The subtitles translated ‘gay’ as ‘σαχλαμάρας/silly’ avoiding the actual translation of the word. In another scene of the same series, a girl complains that she cannot reach orgasm. At the same time, the Greek subtitles read ‘μου λείπει η χαρά/I miss joy’, thus compromising the original meaning.
The question that arises from this tactic is if this mistranslation pattern of foreign audiovisual works is just an ethical dilemma that TV stations face in order to decide whether or not they will keep the essence of the dialogue intact or if it constitutes a copyright infringement. Audiovisual works are considered as works of art, and therefore can be protected by copyright if certain requirements are met. But, before I go any further, I have to clarify what is copyright.
Copyright law protects ‘original works’ and this term is defined in the Berne Convention (article 2, paragraph 1) as follows: ‘literary and artistic works shall include every production in the literary, scientific and artistic domain, whatever may be the mode or form of its expression’. Such literary and artistic works include books and other writings, such as scientific texts, works of architecture, applied arts, dramatic, choreographic, musical, audiovisual, photographic works as well as any other works of authorship (Bimbaite 2004: 17).
One of the main problems concerning copyright law is the element of territoriality. It is generally agreed that in principle copyright laws are territorial in nature (Koumantos 1988) and therefore there are approximately 150 national laws on copyright (Sterling 2002: 272). Every country has its own laws and every copyright statute gives protection only inside the country the law comes from. Of course, a lot of international conventions and multilateral or bilateral agreements regulate this area in order to achieve a law harmonization regarding this matter. Since the practices of these mistranslated audiovisual works are happening in Greece, this article will focus only on the Greek legislation, and more specifically on the Law 2121/1993 (Greek Copyright Act).
Based on the Greek law, the director of an audiovisual work is considered as its author and therefore he/she is the initial copyright holder; however, every collaborator of a collective work has copyrights regarding his/her work.[ii] Every creator acquires exclusive and absolute intellectual property rights, including the right to his/her exploitation and the right to protect the author’s personal bonds with the work (Delicostopoulou 1993: 23). This means that copyrights are divided into two broad areas of the author’s rights: economic rights and moral rights. Moral rights are independent from economic rights and remain with the author even after the transfer of the economic rights (Article 4(3) of the Law 2121/1993). As a member-state of the European Union and as a country whose legal system is based on civil law tradition, Greece protects moral rights in its copyright law.
Even though moral rights are connected with the personality right of the creator, they are linked with a specific piece or work and they are not used in order to protect the personality of the author as a whole, but his/her expression through this particular work of art. According to article 4(1) of the Law 2121/1993, the moral rights protected by the Greek law are five: the right of disclosure or dissemination, the right of paternity (or the right of attribution), the right of integrity, the right of the author to have access to his work, and the right of repudiation.
The key to the subtitle case is the integrity right. Based on the Greek copyright law, every author has the right to the prohibition of any distortion, editing or other modification of his work, as well as any offence of the author by the terms of presentation of his/her work to the public. And since moral rights are linked with the author and cannot be transferred or waived by any means, every indirect or direct act that could harm the integrity of a work is a copyright infringement.
Returning to the example of the airing of Suburgatory by Star Channel, this specific dialogue was fully altered. The dialogue intended to question the sexuality of the main character, but the translation adapted a conservative agenda and removed the main context of the scene. This action can be interpreted as a modification of the integrity of the work and can be considered as a copyright infringement. And since audiovisual works are collective works, this action can be conceived as a violation not only of the director’s copyrights as the main author of the work, but also of the screenwriter’s moral rights since this wrong translation directly affects his/her work too.
Of course, since no one took legal actions regarding similar cases of wrong translation of subtitles of audiovisual works, there is no legal case in Greece proving the aforementioned hypothesis. But since the European law harmonization, we can see what is happening in other European countries. In the European continent, the rules about the protection of moral rights are stricter in comparison with the US and this affects the audiovisual industry sector. An example that proves my hypothesis regarding the Greek subtitle case is an Italian case in which filmmaker Pietro Germi’s son successfully sued a television company for interrupting Germi’s movie, Serafino (1968), for commercial breaks. The court held that ‘even a single commercial break in a film constitutes an alteration of the work’s integrity and therefore violates the director’s moral rights’ (Clark 1989: 6). From this example we can see that moral rights and more specifically the integrity right are strongly protected, even by common things like commercial breaks.
In conclusion, moral rights help artists and their heirs protect their personality which is embodied in their works and this doctrine is widespread in the whole Continental Europe. This means that a wrong subtitle translation of an audiovisual work can constitute an infringement of the integrity right of the author and therefor can be considered an illegal action.
Bimbaite, M. (2004), ‘When is a Parody a Violation of Copyright’, International Journal of Baltic Law, 1: 2.
Clark, J. (1989), ‘Italo Court: TV Ad Breaks Violate Moral Rights of Pic’s Helmer’ Variety, October 18-24.
Delicostopoulou, A. (1993), ‘Copyright in Greece’, Managing Intellectual Property.
Dimokidis, A. (2013), ‘Vrikame telika giati Logokrinontai Agarmpa oi Ypotitloi sta Ellinika Kanalia/We finally found out why subtitles on Greek channels are censored’, Lifo [online], 24 July, 2013. Available at https://www.lifo.gr/team/bitsandpieces/40100 . Accessed 31 August 2019.
Greek Law 2121/1993 on Copyright, Related Rights and Cultural Matters (Official Journal A 25 1993).
Koumantos, G. (1988), ‘Private International Law and the Berne Convention’, Copyright 24.
Sterling, J.A.L. (2002), ‘International Codification of Copyright Law: Possibilities and Imperatives’, International Review of Intellectual Property and Competition Law, 33: 3.
The Berne Convention on Literary and Artistic Works of September 9, 1886 (as amended by October 2, 1979).
[i] Some of the exceptions of this general rule are usually telenovelas from Latin America, especially the ones that were screened in Greece in the 1990s, and animation films and TV series intended to be viewed by kids who do not yet know how to read.
[ii] For example, the screenwriter holds the copyrights of his script, the composer is the holder of the rights for the music of a film, etc.