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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 4: Domestication/Foreignization: A Valid Framework for the Study of Subtitled Films?


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Domestication/Foreignization: A Valid Framework for the Study of Subtitled Films?

As the notions of domestication and foreignization have become one of the dominant shibboleths of an increasing number of translation specialists, it is perhaps surprising that AVT, and specifically subtitled films, has somewhat seldom been discussed in the light of these two concepts brought to the fore of translation studies by Venuti (1995). It was observed in the third chapter of this book that subtitled films are semiotically very rich objects, and that viewers are permanently reminded of their foreignness, both visually and auditorily: visually because of the text they have to read at the bottom of the screen when they are watching a subtitled film, and auditorily because of the foreign dialogue. The polysemiotic nature of subtitled films, whereby textual information (the subtitles) combines with other audiovisual cues (the images and the film’s soundtrack) makes them a very vulnerable form of translation, as well as a peculiar one, to say the least: a peculiarity of subtitling is that both the original and the translation are presented simultaneously to viewers. The possibility of clashes between source and target texts is therefore very great, as is often commented upon by translation specialists who point out the incoherence resulting from the juxtaposition of visual referents from the SL cultural sphere with textual referents from that of the TL. For instance, the use of features of AAE to translate banlieue French in Mathieu Kassovitz’s...

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