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Subtitling African American English into French

Can We Do the Right Thing?


Pierre-Alexis Mével

In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, African American character Mookie throws a rubbish bin through the window of the pizzeria he works for, which is owned by an Italian American family. Translators often find themselves in a position of moral ambiguity similar to that of Mookie: at the nexus between cultures, translators have to make clear statements through their choices, with sometimes dramatic consequences.

Drawing on the fields of translation studies, sociolinguistics and film studies, this book analyses the French subtitling of African American English in a corpus of films from the United States. After describing African American English and analysing how this variety is often portrayed in films, the book explores the implications of resorting to the use of non-standard forms in the French subtitles to portray linguistic variation, paying special attention to the consequences of juxtaposing two linguistic varieties on screen. This book goes beyond the mere case study and examines the relevance of the concepts of domestication and foreignization in the context of subtitling.

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Chapter 2: Subtitling and Linguistic Variation


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Subtitling and Linguistic Variation

Films often try to portray reality not only visually, but also in terms of the language used by the characters. The dialogue in the films of the corpus work with the images to give the viewers a sense of what the community of AAE speakers is like. Dialogue is but a part of a complex polysemiotic system, to which subtitles, especially when they are intended for a foreign audience, add a further level of complexity. Subtitling is a specific form of AVT which will have to be defined clearly before we can tackle not only its own linguistic and technical complexities, but more specifically translational issues linked to non-standard varieties. AAE is a variety of English with very specific structural properties. Analysis of the subtitling into French brings to the fore issues related to the representation of a specific linguistic variety in a translation, as well as to the polysemiotic nature of subtitling.

This chapter is not an exhaustive list of all the technical and linguistic constraints of subtitling – which could all be discussed at length – or of the particular problems translators have to deal with when they are writing subtitles: there are some very good textbooks such as Subtitling (Ivarsson and Carroll 1998) or Audiovisual Translation: Subtitling (Díaz-Cintas and Remael 2007) and more recently Audiovisual Translation (Pérez-González 2014) which have mapped out the constraints specific to subtitling in a very clear...

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