Dealing with Difference in Audiovisual Translation

Subtitling Linguistic Variation in Films

by Claire Ellender (Author)
©2015 Monographs 220 Pages


Subtitling films in another language becomes especially complex when the original language deviates from its standard form. Films that feature non-standard pronunciation, dialects or other varieties of language, especially when juxtaposed with more standard uses, are said to display «linguistic variation». As language use is central to characters’ identities and to a film’s plot, it is essential to retain the source language (SL) specificity as fully as possible in the target language (TL) subtitles so the target audience can experience the film as authentically as possible. Given its considerable difficulty, subtitling in this manner is often advised against, avoided or, when attempted, subjected to considerable criticism.
This book focuses on a collection of British and French films selected for the range of approaches that they adopt in portraying linguistic variation. Each chapter explores the challenges posed by the subtitling of such linguistic difference in the given films and the corresponding solutions offered by their subtitlers. Drawing on these findings and referring to contemporary thinking in the field of translation studies, this book argues that with insight and skill, linguistic variation can be preserved in film subtitles.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Tables
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Subtitling Scots: Translating Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting and Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share into French
  • Chapter 2 Southern Fairies and Northern Monkeys: Conveying British Dialects in the French Subtitles of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
  • Chapter 3 Transporting the Aquarium: Overcoming the Challenges of Subtitling Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank into French
  • Chapter 4 Police Patter: Retaining Linguistic Variation in the English Subtitles of Maïwenn’s Polisse
  • Chapter 5 The Trials of the Foreign: Preserving Linguistic Alterity when Subtitling The Terminal into French
  • Chapter 6 Dealing with Dialect: The Subtitling of Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis into English
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • Film Corpus
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

← vi | vii → Tables

Table 1

Accent / Pronunciation

Table 2


Table 3


Table 4

Juxtaposition of language varieties (heteroglossic nature of films) ← vii | viii →

← viii | ix → Acknowledgements

I am extremely grateful to the following publishers for their granting me permission to reproduce some of my previously published work:

Cambridge Scholars Publishing:

Ellender, Claire, 2015, ‘Dealing with Dialect: The Subtitling of Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis into English’ in Jorge Díaz-Cintas, ed., 2015, Audiovisual Translation: Taking Stock (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing).

Norwich Papers:

Ellender, Claire, 2012, ‘Coping with Cockney: Subtitling Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels for a French-Speaking Audience’, in Jean Boase-Beier, ed., 2012, The Next Big Thing. Norwich Papers: Studies in Translation, 20 (Norwich: University of East Anglia Press), 85–105. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 → Introduction

The particularities of subtitling

The subtitling1 of foreign-language films – which consists in providing a synchronized written translation of the films’ oral dialogue or narrative and presenting this at the bottom of the screen – is a highly specific and notoriously difficult task whose multiple challenges have been widely acknowledged and discussed in recent years. Unique in nature, the subtitling of foreign-language films can be theorized according to each of Jakobson’s three categories of translation (1959 / 2000: 114). It is interlingual (translates text from one national language to another), intralingual (involves rewording or reducing the source language (SL) before interlingual translation can take place) and intersemiotic (transforms language which is used orally in the SL into a written form of the target language (TL)) (Boase-Beier 2012: v).2 Thus, in addition to handling the interlingual challenges which are posed by translating the source text (ST), subtitlers must respect rigid spatial and temporal constraints (Luyken et al. 1991: 156) in order to both synchronize their text with the film’s soundtrack and image and to account for the reading capabilities of the TL audience ← 1 | 2 → (De Linde and Kay 1999: 4–7).3 Furthermore, when transforming the oral SL into a written form of the TL, they must suggest orality in their writing and ensure, at all times, that the TL corresponds to the images of the original film. Subtitlers are, as Díaz-Cintas points out (2003: 43–4), particularly vulnerable as their translations can, potentially, always be compared to the original (SL) text.

Linguistic variation in films

From an intersemiotic perspective, the transfer from oral SL to written TL will always pose challenges regarding register. Even spoken language which may be classified as relatively ‘standard’4 is typically more informal than the written word, and this oral register is reflected in grammatical and lexical uses. Clearly then, the more a film contains language which deviates from a standard (oral) TL register, the more challenging the task of subtitling becomes.5

← 2 | 3 → Characters in a TL film may display use of non-standard6 pronunciation (or accent), indeed dialect (accent, grammar and lexis) (Hughes and Trudgill 1996: 3; Trudgill 2008: 8),7 or yet other varieties of language – including slang, specific jargon or excessive use of vulgarity – which indicate their belonging to a particular group (Díaz-Cintas and Remaël 2007: 191). These uses can exist alongside, and be directly juxtaposed with, more standard registers of language. This phenomenon will henceforth be referred to as linguistic variation.8

The multilingual film: A Bakhtinian perspective

Films containing linguistic variation may also be described as being multilingual in character. In recent years, much literature has been published on the translation of such films which feature not only one or more national ← 3 | 4 → languages, but also different dialects, sociolects and idiolects (Bartoll 2006; Bréan 2012).9 Whatever the particular manifestation of multilingualism, the presence of this phenomenon provides significant information about the social and cultural background of different characters (Federici 2009); it thereby establishes the characters who belong to particular social or ethnic groups in relation to each other, assists in constructing the narrative and, fundamentally, helps the film to ‘make sense’.10

When seeking a paradigm which can assist in understanding texts containing considerable linguistic variation, a prominent point of reference in mid- to late twentieth-century critical theory is the work of the Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, and the Circle of thinkers to which he belonged.11 The Bakhtin Circle’s work is unified by the concept of dialogism, which draws on the notions of dialogue, interactivity and interrelatedness (Lodge 1990: 5). This concept first emerges in Voloshinov’s 1929 treatment of spoken language in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Beginning with the word, Voloshinov (1929 / 1973: 86) conveys the interactive, responsive character of this unit of language: ‘A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another […]. [It] is a territory shared by both addresser and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor.’ The Circle’s more developed concept of dialogism can, in a number of respects, be ← 4 | 5 → brought to bear on the corpus of films on which Dealing with Difference in Audiovisual Translation focuses.

First and fundamentally, Bakhtin applies the principle of dialogism in order to theorize the coexistence of, and interrelationships between, any one national language and its ‘sub-strata’. This phenomenon, termed heteroglossia, is defined concisely as ‘internal differentiation, the stratification characteristic of any national language’ (1940 / 1981: 67). These internal strata may take the form of various registers and codes within one national language, or any subversive or non-standard use of that language. As such, they represent social variety, which is certainly a prominent feature of all multilingual films.

Second, in the opinion of the Bakhtin Circle, all language is ideological; it reflects the opinions or ‘world views’ of those who use it. As Bakhtin (1934–5 / 1981: 291) explains: ‘All languages of heteroglossia, whatever the principle underlying them and making each unique, are specific points of view on the world, forms for conceptualizing the world in words, specific world views, each characterized by its own objects, meanings, values’. Clearly, the different linguistic strata which can be witnessed in the speech of a film’s characters are always communicative of their particular ideologies and personalities.

Third, if, as the Bakhtin Circle believes, subjects are created through the act of addressing language to others (‘In dialogue a person not only shows himself outwardly, but he becomes for the first time that which he is’ Bakhtin 1929 / 1984: 252), and if all language is inherently ideological, subjects who speak a particular variety of language may be considered to belong to a particular group. More contemporary thinking in Sociolinguistics extends this concept and considers speaking a particular variety of language as a marker of belonging to a social group. Conversely, not speaking that variety of language may result in being excluded from that group (Giles & Giles 2013).12 This phenomenon is a significant feature of all of the films under examination in the present study.

← 5 | 6 → Fourth, when considering exchanges between all individuals, be these members of the same or different ‘social strata’, between one or more national languages, Voloshinov (1929 / 1973: 85) states that the language which a speaker uses is always determined by the nature of their relationship with their addressee:

Utterance, as we know, is constructed between two socially organized persons […]. The word is oriented towards an addressee, toward who that addressee might be: a fellow member or not of the same social group, of higher or lower standing (the addressee’s hierarchical status), someone connected to the speaker by close social ties (father, brother, husband, and so on) or not.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (August)
Bakhtin heteroglossia dialect linguistic variation subtitling non-standard language
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. X, 220 pp.

Biographical notes

Claire Ellender (Author)

Claire Ellender is Maître de Conférences in Translation at the Université de Lille III in France and is an academic member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI). She is the author of a number of publications in the field of translation studies, including her recent monograph, Preserving Polyphonies: Translating the Writings of Claude Sarraute (Peter Lang, 2013). Alongside her teaching and research, she also works as a freelance translator.


Title: Dealing with Difference in Audiovisual Translation