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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 3: Analysis of the French Subtitles of the Films of the Corpus


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Analysis of the French Subtitles of the Films of the Corpus

I will now examine in detail the French subtitles of the films in the corpus in order to analyse how AAE is translated into French. With regard to the subtitling of linguistic variation, Díaz-Cintas and Remael (2007: 184–5) argue that speakers can display very different ways of using language in speech, and that this diversity is often reflected in films:

The changeability of speech is […] one of its riches and, volatile as it may be, it is anchored in the community that produces it. That makes it all the more interesting for films, especially those aiming to offer a realistic view of society. As a result, film language in its narrowly linguistic sense, often reflects this changeability. In other words, even though both fictional and non-fictional film dialogue are also shaped by film’s other semiotic systems, they remain a reflection of society – if only a fictional one – since fiction is based on representations or interpretations of reality. And each society has not just one, but many ‘languages’.

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