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Translation Matters: The Centre for Transnational Media Research brings together young television researchers from twelve countries

With the third iteration of the Transnational Television PhD course, 19 more excellent young scholars from across the globe joined Aarhus University’s hub for networking and the exchange of transnational television research, the Centre for Transnational Media Research.

2021.06.16 | Cathrin Helen Bengesser

Television and streaming services bring audiovisual cultures from around the globe to our homes. TV culture from different places, its processes of production and circulation in the world is of interest to transnational media researchers. In the last week of May, 19 young TV researchers from 12 countries met virtually at Aarhus University’s Centre for Transnational Media Research to discuss matters of translation in global TV culture. In its first online version the Media and Journalism Department’s Transnational Television PhD course was no less of an opportunity to meet and network across borders than the previous courses held in Aarhus in 2017 and 2018.

Participants and television from 12 different countries

The PhD students and early career researchers who participated in the course are affiliated to research institutions in 12 different countries, spanning the world from South Africa and the Americas to Europe, India and Indonesia. But early starts and late nights across the continents were no obstacle to the participants eager to network and talk about their research after more than a year without international conferences. The diversity of trends and issues with which the young researchers engaged became obvious at the Watch Party, which started the course, where participants introduced their audiovisual objects of study: The Indian-Chinese action co-production Kung-Fu Yoga; Pan-Arab Drama series; historical Colombian TV; an Indonesian soap opera which talks about HIV; Japanese remakes of Korean drama; the Irish-British youth comedy Derry Girls; Postfeminist Chinese dating shows. Despite the variety of TV objects, participants shared their interests in the histories of local television cultures, the intersection of TV and society related to matters of gender, class and race, the distribution structures of international broadcasting and format trade as well as global fandoms, and what do we mean by quality TV in the world?

The value of translation in cross-border research

Over three days, PhD students and early career researchers encountered eight experts in the field of television studies, who shared experiences with different aspects and methods of transnational TV research, as a way to elucidate on the question of why “translation matters” when we study television’s movement across borders. Dr. Janet McCabe, Reader at Birkbeck, University of London, set the frame for the discussion of why “translation matters”. In the most practical sense, the translation of academic work by scholars in the field is key to building our knowledge about the diversity of television cultures across the globe. As the Editor of the International Journal Critical Studies in Television, McCabe has, for example, brought research by French scholars into the sphere of Anglophone television studies. This translation process, however, goes far beyond literal translations of texts. In her talk, McCabe used the French-British case to alert participants to the fact that even if countries are only a few miles apart, value judgements, methodological approaches and critical understandings can differ fundamentally. She reminded the young scholars that they themselves play a fundamental role in advocating for their national TV culture, as well as attributing value and understanding to their objects of study, translating it through their work for the discipline of TV studies. 

Transnational audiences: Australians watching Danish Drama, Danes watching British broadcasts

Viewers of television and what they make of TV from other countries are of key concern to transnational audience research. Associate Professor Pia Majbritt Jensen and Assistant Professor Cathrin Bengesser, both from the Department of Media and Journalism Studies at Aarhus University, shared their practical insights into the tastes and behaviours of TV viewers. In the Aarhus-based research project What makes Danish TV Drama travel? Pia Majbritt Jensen explored why Danish crime series are popular with viewers as far away as Australia. She found that the Danish dramas’ secret is the right mix of relatable characters, universal stories and difference from domestic and US television. Findings from the projects’ audience research in nine countries have recently been published in the collected volume, The Global Audiences of Danish Television Drama by Nordicom. While Pia Majbritt Jensen studied the success of Danish TV abroad, Cathrin Bengesser recently studied what young Danish viewers liked to watch. Together with Prof. Jeanette Steemers and Prof. Andrea Esser from King’s College, London, she looked at their screen encounters with Britain. In her talk she discussed ways in which to conduct audience research under conditions of social distancing as well as how to combine quantitative and qualitative methods in meaningful ways.

Global series adapting to local contexts: The case of Italy

When TV series and films travel across borders, they not only need translation in the literal sense through subtitles and dubbing, but they also need cultural adaptation. This was one of the topics Associate Prof Luca Barra from the University of Bologna focused on in his talk “Distorting Lenses and Distorting Mirrors. Translating Television and Television Research”. He started with reflections on the recent and global example of adaptation: Friends: The Reunion. Barra pointed the participants to the many distortions in which the programme came to Italian screens: A different broadcaster than the ones that shows Friends in Italy, different voice artists and a different type of lower quality dubbing in order to bring the special speedily to the Italian audiences. All these local contexts and adaptation have direct and indirect impact on the TV text and are thus relevant for our understanding of global hits, according to Barra. The second dimension of translation he addressed in his talk concerned the translation of scholarship in the field of TV studies. Over the past years, he has been involved in bringing a number of Anglophone classics to Italian readers, such as Jason Mittell’s Complex TV or Amada Lotz’s The Post Network Era.

Translating between Industry and Academia

On the last day of the course, Professor Hanne Bruun from the Department of Media and Journalism Studies at AU met the international PhD students for a Q&A about her experiences with TV production research. In preparation for the course, the participants had already listened to her video lecture on time and timing in production research, based on a Danish-language research article she published with Prof. Kirsten Frandsen in 2017. The article discusses the method of production studies and issues researchers face when planning observations or interviews. In the Q&A session Hanne Bruun talked about changes in the industry’s concerns about its future as well as the relationship between the TV business and academia. In her recently published research about scheduling television in the digital era, Hanne Bruun encountered the Danish TV industry as more open to researchers. This experience was not necessarily shared by the young researchers active in other parts of the world.

Strategies for planning media industry research and ways to tackle its challenges where the focus of the last two sessions of the PhD course. Professor Jean Chalaby from City University in London gave participants concrete tips for how to approach TV executives and ask the most relevant questions in the limited amount of time made available to them. Chalaby has two decades of experience in talking to members of the TV business in Europe, the US, Asia and the Arab world. His breadth of insight into the TV industry was the basis for his recent publication, The Format Age, as well as the application of the Global Value Chain approach to the Global TV business. Chalaby reminded participants that staying informed using domestic and international trade press is a must and will enable them to approach the right people with the right questions. Challenges of transnational industry research, however, not only include the complex challenges of staying up-to-date with what is happening in other countries, also the varying holiday calendars of executives can pose a problem for planning research. Following Chalaby’s talk, the co-hosts of the course, Associate Professor Susanne Eichner and Cathrin Bengesser helped the participants to strategize together about how to access reclusive industry stakeholders like Chinese Film production companies or Japanese broadcasters.

Being situated in so many different countries and parts of the world, the PhD course gave participants an invaluable opportunity to encounter TV culture and research done elsewhere in the world. They will stay in touch online and hope to meet again when academic travel resumes. The course was funded by the Graduate School at Aarhus University’s Faculty of Arts. Cathrin Bengesser organized the course in collaboration with Janet McCabe and Susanne Eichner, who is the co-director of the Centre for Transnational Media Research. The Centre will continue as a hub for activities that brings international media researchers together. 

Knowledge exchange