MA Valentina Ragni, PhD Audio-Visual Translation student

Valentina Ragni

My name is Valentina, I am from Veneto, a region in north-east Italy. Before coming to Leeds, I completed my BA at the University of Trieste, where I studied Translation and Interpreting with English, Russian and Portuguese (and, of course, Italian). I have been fond of languages for as long as I can remember, and this is why I have chosen to do a PhD in translation.

What made you want to apply to your course and to Leeds?

I initially came to Leeds to do my MA in Audiovisual Translation Studies (AVT). At the time there weren't many MA programmes that offered training in preparation for such a niche career, Leeds was one of the few universities offering the course I was interested in. Amongst those, I chose it as it struck me as a large, vibrant city with a lot to offer. I also liked the idea of not being in the capital, but to explore the north of England instead, which I had always enjoyed during my previous visits to York, Sheffield and Liverpool.

After having spent a year in Leeds for my postgraduate studies, I was completely sold. Following my MA I worked in the translation industry both as an employee and a freelancer, but I stayed in Leeds. When I decided to do my PhD on an AVT topic, I applied to different places and I was accepted at more than one institution, but I chose to stay in Leeds, not only because I already knew the quality of the University facilities and the staff, but also because I was so impressed with the city’s lively cultural and social life. 

What is it that makes you passionate about your area of study?

My PhD research looks at whether using subtitling – a form of audiovisual translation – can be a useful tool to learn a foreign language. 

I have always been fascinated by the specifics of translating for film and TV, whether it be subtitling, dubbing, audio description or the wealth of other translation practices that fall within the umbrella term AVT. During my MA, I was the only Italian native student in my group, the others being all English natives learning Italian as a foreign language. We worked on clips originally in Italian and translated them into English. Therefore, I was translating outside of my mother tongue: I was engaging in what, in technical jargon, we call ‘reverse subtitling’. Practising this and other types of subtitling regularly, together with watching many subtitled films throughout the year, I could feel that my English was improving like never before, and not just because I was living in the target country. It seemed to me to have something to do with the painstaking work of moving frame-by-frame through videos listening to dialogue repeatedly, and adjusting the translation of the audio to fit the temporal constraints of subtitles. Even months after seeing a clip, I could remember entire film conversation stretches, and certain foreign words are sculpted in my memory to this date. I started wondering whether what I was experiencing was simply due to the fact I was a translation student, or whether the clear didactic gain I drew from audiovisuals could apply to anyone learning a language. 

This is how the idea of my PhD was born, and why I am passionate about the potential of audiovisuals (especially subtitled video) to learn a foreign language: I have experienced some of the benefits on my very self. This first-hand experience motivated me to read and research the topic in more depth, and then drove me to embark on further academic study of this discipline.

What aspects of the course did you enjoy the most?  

PhD work is slightly different from both under- and postgraduate study. It is not a ‘course’ as such, there are no lectures and homework and deadlines. It is much more self-led, it involves setting your own deadlines and working towards your own milestones. I liked this aspect of it, the flexibility and responsibility that comes with it, although I understand it can be challenging at the beginning, when you are still getting used to this attitude towards academic work.

I also very much enjoyed going to conferences and meeting people who were working on the same topic. PhD work can be lonely, especially if you are the only person in your department working on a specific topic, so attending events such as conferences and symposia is not only a way of keeping in touch with the latest development in your discipline, but also an opportunity to meet people whose research interests are close to yours. That said, I liked being part of a community of postdoctoral researchers at Leeds, even if their specialisations differed from mine. With some of them I have built relations that go beyond academia, they became good friends with whom I am still in touch, even when they took up posts on the other side of the world. 

Last but not least, I absolutely loved teaching, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. During my PhD, I was lucky enough to be able to teach on quite a variety of courses, both lectures and seminars, ranging from Italian grammar to foreign language teaching approaches, from translation theory and interpreting practice to statistics. It was a very rewarding experience, during which I learnt a great deal, not just about the discipline I was teaching, but also about myself and the different student cohorts I taught. I would highly recommend to any doctoral student to put themselves on the line and take up this challenge: you will not regret it. 

What would you say about the learning facilities in your School and at the University in general?

I would say they are generally excellent, with some outstanding examples, such as the library and study space provision. In the last couple of years, not only has the largest library on campus, the Edward Boyle, been completely revamped, but a brand new site was also built, namely the Laidlaw library, which won a prestigious award for architectural excellence from RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects), and has a green roof, solar panels and bee hives (if you decide to come to Leeds, look out for the Laidlaw honey). 

Not only are the facilities good, but they also tend to improve every year. For example, more study spaces have been created since I started my PhD, with the introduction of a whole floor in Edward Boyle dedicated exclusively to postgraduates, as well as a new building, Botany House, dedicated to doctoral students in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies (of which the Centre for Translation Studies is part).

Moreover, during my time at Leeds, LCS has made some substantial contributions to research in my area, by funding courses and events on eye-tracking and eventually by purchasing a new, state-of-the-art eye-tracker (a machine that tracks a user’s eye movements as they complete experimental tasks). During my MA, several programmes relevant to the translation profession were available in specialised clusters, such as: subtitling software, voice recognition software, CAT (Computer-Assisted Translation) tools, Translation Memories and more. 

What other activities are available for students to take part in outside of their studies, and which ones have you tried out yourself?

There are plenty of things to do in Leeds outside of your studies. If anything, I’d say there is almost too much! Because I like gardening, I used my free time to do some volunteering at the Sustainable Gardens (an edible garden right in the middle of campus), and I was Allotment Coordinator for the LUU society Green Action for three years. 

If you are into history, Leeds industrial past is worth looking into. I very much enjoyed learning about John Marshall, the flax-spinning industry and the role Leeds played in the textile revolution in a visit at the Leeds University Stanley and Audrey Burton art gallery. I would also recommend a trip to the picturesque village of Haworth at least once, to visit the Brontë Parsonage museum, where you can see the house the Brontë family lived at and plenty of related artefacts and memorabilia. 

Finally, if you’re stuck in Leeds working on your thesis at the end of August, pay a visit to Chapeltown, the traditionally Caribbean area of Leeds that, every year during that bank holiday weekend, hosts the Leeds West Indian Carnival (whose first edition actually predates London's Notting Hill Carnival). 

What do you plan to do when you’ve finished your course, and how do you think the skills and knowledge you’ve developed at Leeds will help with these plans?

I am currently a short-term post-doctoral fellow at the Leeds research institute for the humanities, and a teaching assistant on a number of MA modules in the Centre for Translation Studies. The University equipped me with much of the academic skills I have today, first of all by organising the plethora of development courses I attended during my PhD (on Excel, statistical theory, SPSS, R, LaTeX, EndNote, MS Word for long documents, and so on), thus providing me with transferrable skills that are relevant to the academic job market. Second, by providing the right facilities (in my case, an eye-tracking laboratory and clusters with the specialised software I used in my research). Third, by hosting special events, such as conferences or guest lectures by external academics. Last, by allowing me to gain teaching experience, another element that can make the difference between being selected for an academic job interview or not.

The University also greatly contributed to the development of my academic knowledge, by providing all the written resources I needed to successfully complete both my MA and my PhD. For all these reasons, l can say that Leeds has definitely helped with my achievements so far and will be instrumental in shaping the next steps of my career.