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Dealing with Difference in Audiovisual Translation

Subtitling Linguistic Variation in Films


Claire Ellender

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.
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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.

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