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 »  Articles Overview  »  Specialties  »  Art/Literary Translation  »  The Power of Film Translation

The Power of Film Translation

By Zenzka | Published  06/10/2005 | Art/Literary Translation | Recommendation:
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The Power of Film Translation
by Agnieszka Szarkowska

Whether domesticating or foreignising in its approach, any form of audiovisual translation ultimately plays a unique role in developing both national identities and national stereotypes. The transmission of cultural values in screen translation has received very little attention in the literature and remains one of the most pressing areas of research in translation studies.

Mona Baker and Braño Hochel (1997: 76)

Key words:

Film translation, subtitling, dubbing, domestication, foreignisation, target culture, source culture


The objective of this paper is to demonstrate the great power of film translation. This aim is accomplished by presenting the major modes of film translation, their world distribution and history, which are then followed by an analysis of dubbing and subtitling from the perspective of domestication and foreignisation.


ach country cultivates a different tradition of translating films and subscribes to one of the two major modes: dubbing and subtitling as far as cinema translation is concerned, or sometimes to a third, minor, mode—voiceover—in the case of television translation. The decision as to which film translation mode to choose is by no means arbitrary and stems from several factors, such as historical circumstances, traditions, the technique to which the audience is accustomed, the cost, as well as on the position of both the target and the source cultures in an international context (see Dries 1995). This paper will focus on cinema translation only, which is of course not to say that television translation is less worthy of academic investigation. On the contrary, analysis of television translation constitutes an excellent material for further research, and it is only disregarded here for reasons of clarity and lucidity of argumentation.

The first part of this paper sets out to present the above-mentioned translation modes and their world distribution, next trying to account for them from the perspective of history and culture. Subsequently, an attempt is made to show the enormous power that these modes exert on audiences and entire cultures. The paper aims to demonstrate that dubbing is a form of domestication whereas subtitling can be regarded as foreignisation.

Types of film translation

There are two major types of film translation: dubbing and subtitling; each of them interferes with the original text to a different extent.

On the one hand, dubbing is known to be the method that modifies the source text to a large extent and thus makes it familiar to the target audience through domestication. It is the method in which "the foreign dialogue is adjusted to the mouth and movements of the actor in the film" (Dries 1995: 9 qtd. in Shuttleworth and Cowie 1997: 45) and its aim is seen as making the audience feel as if they were listening to actors actually speaking the target language.

On the other hand, subtitling, i.e. supplying a translation of the spoken source language dialogue into the target language in the form of synchronised captions, usually at the bottom of the screen, is the form that alters the source text to the least possible extent and enables the target audience to experience the foreign and be aware of its 'foreignness' at all times.

Classification of countries by translation modes they employ

Before presenting the historical circumstances and their influence on particular cultures, let us have a closer look at the division of countries according to the type of screen translation they use (as presented in The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Translation Studies 1997: 244). The Encyclopaedia, however, does not differentiate between cinema and television translation.

First, there are the source-language countries, which in the contemporary world means English-speaking countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom, where hardly any films are imported. The foreign ones tend to be subtitled rather than dubbed. In Britain, film translation does not appear to be a significant issue as the great majority of imported films are American and require no translation.

Second, there are the dubbing countries, and this group comprises mainly French-, Italian- German-, and Spanish-speaking countries (sometimes referred to as the FIGS group), both in and outside Europe. In these countries the overwhelming majority of films undergo the process of dubbing. This is mostly due to historical reasons since "in the 1930s dubbing became the preferred mode of film translation in the world's big-market speech communities" (Gottlieb 1997: 310).

Third, there are the subtitling countries, which are characterised by a high percentage of imported films, and thus there is a great and steady demand for translation. Subtitling is preferred to dubbing in countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, Portugal and some non-European countries. In Belgium or Finland, where there are large communities speaking two languages, films are usually provided with double subtitles.

The last group, according to the Routledge Encyclopaedia, comprises voice-over countries—mostly those that cannot afford dubbing, e.g. Russia or Poland.

Such a division, however, seems to be a simplification as it does not differentiate between cinema and television translation. For example, Poland is listed as a voiceover country, whereas it mostly uses subtitling in the cinemas, except for some dubbed productions for children. Furthermore, in her article about linguistic transfer in Eastern Europe, Dries stresses different patterns between Eastern and Western Europe, especially a surprising preference for dubbing in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary, despite its high cost.

On the whole, it can be stated that especially in Western European countries dubbing is preferred in larger and more affluent countries, which can expect high box office receipts, whereas subtitling is used in smaller ones, whose audiences comprise more restricted markets. The cost alone, however, does not define the choice of translation mode. It is history that can shed some light on the question.

Film translation in historical perspective

In the times of silent movies, translation was relatively easy to conduct: the so-called intertitles interrupted the course of a film every couple of minutes, so the target language titles could easily be translated and inserted in place of the original ones.

The problem arose with the appearance of 'talkies' in the late 1920s. At first, American film companies tried to solve it by producing the same film (using the same set and scenario, but different directors and actors) in various language versions. However, this soon turned out to be unprofitable, as the films produced were of poor artistic quality and they did not win over the public. The studios that had been built in France for this purpose began to produce dubbed versions of films instead (see Danan 1991: 607).

Iwasaki Akira, a Marxist critic, found talkies "anti-internationalistic" because of the way the national character of films was emphasised by the sound (see Nornes 1999). The new invention "enabled Hollywood to avoid any interruption in its dominance of the international film market" (ibidem). Talkies guaranteed that the audience was very much aware of the source culture and its nature, and thus they helped cement Hollywood's leading position.

The introduction of talkies exerted a far-reaching influence on both larger and smaller countries. As film production costs rose, it became increasingly difficult for smaller countries to export their productions and—limited by their small domestic markets—their home production decreased, which led to a rise in film imports. As for the larger European countries, they "were better equipped to continue producing their own films, but were also faced with powerful American competition" (Danan 1991: 607). This situation, i.e. the wide gap between larger and smaller countries, was to be reflected later in the choice of the film translation mode: larger countries tended to dub imported foreign productions, while smaller ones settled on subtitling.

From the early 1930s until early 1950s American film companies reigned over the entire movie industry as they monopolised the recording equipment. During World War II the American film industry flourished, and as a result, in the period following the war "European countries were easily flooded with new films as well as with the 2500 backlogged American movies produced during the war" (Danan 1991: 608).

It took some time for European economies to recover, and in the 1950s larger states, such as France, Italy, Germany and Spain, introduced protective measures aimed at lessening the influence of American films in their territories. For instance, import quotas were imposed in order to protect domestic production, and special taxes were levied on imported films in some countries (France, Italy) which required that "profits by American companies had to be reinvested locally" (Danan 1991: 608). At the same time, domestic production in France, Italy, Germany and Spain was supported by the government through various subsidies and loans. By that time it was clear that film had become an extremely influential and profitable medium and everyone wanted to get the largest possible slice of the "film cake."

The table below shows that smaller European countries were producing fewer films than larger countries, and importing a host of both American and European films. As for the larger countries, protective policies introduced by their governments resulted in an increase in domestic film production and a decrease in foreign (mainly American) films importation. These policies also generally improved the domestic/imported films ratio in larger countries.

Domestic and Foreign Film Production in Selected Countries between 1951 and 1962
Italy W.Germ. Spain Sweden Denmark Finland Norway Nether. Total
Domestic Films 1915 1164 877 309 182 254 138 N/A
American 2613 2441 1162 2061 2209 2352 2251 2438 17527
British 482 461 307 581 458 442 625 670 4026
Italian N/A 372 340 198 133 256 203 393 1895
French 478 514 292 437 372 472 395 659 3619
W. German 293 N/A 153 230 428 367 346 749 2566
Swedish N/A N/A N/A N/A 155 134 294 N/A 583
Total imports 4406 4768 2816 3765 3898 4419 4478 5232
Domestic Films % of Total Films 30.3 19.6 23.7 7.6 4.5 5.4 3 N/A
Imported Film % of Total Films 69.7 80.4 76.3 92.4 95.5 94.6 97
(Danan 1991: 6091)

What follows is a brief account of the historical factors that influenced the choice of the film translation mode in some European countries.

There are several factors that contributed to the fact that France decided to adopt dubbing when it comes to translating foreign films. First, "France always felt it had a cultural mission within the film art form" (Danan 1991: 610). The French seem to be one of the few nations deeply concerned about the purity of their culture and they strive to protect it from any foreign (read: mostly American) influence. Second, "standardised French was (...) historically a successful instrument of political and cultural centralisation" (Danan 1991: 612). Furthermore, many French speakers believe that their language is superior, and some French speakers appear to be truly convinced that it has remained the lingua franca; at least that seemed to be true some years ago (see Hendrykowski 1984: 250). This view still persists in the official circles, which is reflected in how the Académie Française perceives its role now 2:

A la fin du XXe siècle, c'est une autre tâche qui attend l'Académie.

La langue a atteint la plénitude de ses qualités, qui en ont fait depuis deux siècles le langage des élites du monde entier. Le rayonnement de la langue française est menacé par l'expansion de l'anglais, plus précisément de l'américain, qui tend à envahir les esprits, les écrits, le monde de l'audiovisuel.

Le développement de l'anglais est souvent favorisé par l'irruption des nouvelles techniques, le développement accéléré des sciences, le rapprochement inouï que permettent les médias et les autres moyens de communication, tous facteurs qui bousculent le vocabulaire traditionnel et imposent à marche rapide l'adoption de nouveaux mots.

Le 4 août 1994 est votée la loi relative à l'emploi de la langue française (dite « loi Toubon »), qui favorise l'emploi du français dans les inscriptions, les documents publics ou contractuels, les services publics, les congrès, les médias, etc.3

In addition, the French have always perceived translation of any kind as a violation, which is clearly visible in the words of Victor Hugo expressing his views in the name of the entire nation: "when you offer a translation to a nation, that nation will almost always look at translation as an act of violence against itself" (qtd. by André Lefevere 1992: 14). And last but not least, one of the factors which contribute to the choice of dubbing as the film translation mode is the fact that the French are accustomed to hearing French both on TV and in cinemas due to a significant number of domestic productions dominating the market. Thus, such audiences automatically demand domestication in the form of dubbing. The foregoing reasons make the French dub rather than subtitle foreign films.

Germany, Italy and Spain form a completely different group. Just a few decades ago, they were fascist countries convinced of their own superiority and excellence, and the "post-war film industries were a direct legacy of earlier fascist governments" (Danan 1991: 611). The dictators were fully aware that "hearing your own language serves to confirm its importance and reinforces a sense of national identity and autonomy" (Mera 1999: 82). For example, in Spain:

Franco also ruled against any non-dubbed version in an attempt to keep the supremacy of the national language as the expression of cultural, political and economic power.

(Del Camino Guetiérrez Lanza 1997: 44)

Also in Germany and Italy, governments adopted regulations promoting or even enforcing dubbing as the mode of film translation. In Spain, between 1936 and 1975 there were over ninety ministerial guidelines (órdenes) published, which were a form of prescriptive censorship. Showing films in a foreign language was officially banned "because of the evil effects that film release can produce on society" (ibid.: 41):

Queda prohibida la proyección cinematográfica en otro idioma que no sea el español, salvo autorización que concederá el Ministerio de Industria y Comercio y siempre que las películas en cuestión hayan sido previamente dobladas. El doblaje deberá realizarse en estudios españoles que radiquen en el territorio nacional y por personal español. (ibidem) 4

The use of the native language, once obligatory under the pressure of the authorities, affected not only the translation strategy of the period but it also continues to determine the preference of the movie audiences in these countries for dubbing:

Therefore, it should not be surprising that movie audiences in Spain have become accustomed to the film-dubbing technique over the years. Bearing in mind that audiences are becoming larger and the general public does not tend to make an effort to read the subtitled text on the screen, it is not going to be easy to eradicate this long-standing tradition in Spain.

(ibid.: 44)

Like Spain, and due to the regimes that were in power before WW II, Germany and Italy were subjected to compulsory indoctrination, a remnant of which is now dubbing. "The three fascist countries realized the appeal and impact films with sound could have on the masses" (Danan 1991: 611). It is interesting to notice that even though the regimes ceased to exist, they indirectly continue to exert a profound influence today: "in an effort to build strong nationalistic states and spread fascist ideology, these countries nationalised and reorganised their respective film industries and created infrastructures that are still central to their film industries today" (ibidem).

In contrast to larger countries, such as France, Italy, Spain and Germany discussed above, smaller countries, like the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Portugal—to name just a few—followed a different path with regard to film translation. Their decision to adopt subtitling as the major translation mode was motivated by several factors: small size of their populations, which translated into limited receipts from box office tickets sales; low cost of subtitling in comparison with dubbing; presence of more than one language in a country (e.g. Belgium) where double subtitles in two languages are screened; significant number of imported films, etc.

The film industry, however, is not limited solely to Europe. The entire contemporary world is inundated with American productions. It all began at the turn of the 20th century when the United States began to establish its unquestionable position among the mighty of this world. By 1890, 'the frontier' had disappeared. It was the time for America to decide whether or not it would follow the footsteps of other empires and acquire some land for colonies, which at that time was the actual sign of power. The US, however, due to several factors, resolved not to imitate the traditional patterns. Instead, it expanded the Monroe Doctrine5 and became the world's dominant power by shifting the strategy to cultural and economic hegemony: "The United States has pursued massively exploitative neo-colonial policies, running local economies through multinational corporations without actually 'possessing' the countries as colonies" (Robinson 1997: 17). The so-called American way of life, the free market economy, and democracy became instant symbols of American culture. It is possibly through films—among other factors—that American values spread all over the world and began to signify universal, ideal, or standard values. This can be treated as another form of colonisation.

Film translation in the era of globalisation

"Globally, this is the age of mass communications, of multimedia experiences and a world where audiences demand the right to share the latest text, be it film, song, or book simultaneously across cultures" (Bassnett qtd. by Álvarez 1996: 1). Therefore, there is a huge demand for (mainly) American productions and, in response to it, markets are flooded with them.

The issue of power in translation seems to be especially pertinent and applicable to contemporary cinema. As a host of translation scholars has agreed recently, translation does not take place between words but rather between cultures. The text is perceived as an integral part of the world and not as "an isolated specimen of language" (Snell-Hornby 1998: 43). Consequently, the process of translation is seen as cross-cultural transfer, which is determined by the degree of prestige the source and target cultures have, as well as by their reciprocal relations.

English-speaking countries, and the United States in particular, have the upper hand and are pulling the strings in the movie industry today: "globalisation is generally synonymous with unidirectional Anglicisation, the dominance of the English language and Anglo-American culture at the expense of other languages and cultures" (Cronin 1996: 197). An interesting point that proves American dominance and its narrow-mindedness concerning other cultures are the 'Oscars' awarded annually by the Academy Awards, an institution which aspires to global renown, where among a host of categories there is one given to the best 'foreign' film, "where 'foreign' means anything that is not English" (Mera 1999: 79).

However, it is not only money that decides on the choice of translation mode. The choice of the translating strategy largely depends on the attitude of the target culture vis-à-vis the source culture, and it is not uncommon that it is political factors that determine the chosen mode. On the whole, Western European countries do not openly oppose American productions. In Arabic countries, on the contrary, there is a strong resistance towards adopting the norms and habits of the (American) adversary. In contrast and opposition to Hollywood, Indian cinematography, under the name of Bollywood, has developed and now flourishes in its own territory as well as in other countries with strong anti-American attitudes. Some experts claim that "globalisation isn't merely another word for Americanisation—and the recent expansion of the Indian entertainment industry proves it" (Power & Mazumdar 2000: 52). Moreover, being anti-American in the Middle East works in Bollywood's favour. It is "the non-American quality of Indian movies that draws audiences" (ibid.: 56). Quite naturally, many people are more likely to choose a film concerning issues familiar to them.

In conclusion, it becomes apparent that translating films is not merely a linguistic problem but rather an activity that is "conditioned to a large extent by the functional needs of the receiving culture and not, or not just, by the demands made by the source films" (Delabastita 1990: 99).

Dubbing as a form of domestication

Domestication is here understood—after Lawrence Venuti—as "translating in a transparent, fluent, 'invisible' style in order to minimise the foreignness of the target text" (Munday 2001: 146). The result is that all foreign elements are assimilated into the dominant target culture, thus depriving the target audience of crucial characteristics of the source culture, which is also shown in the following quote:

The dominant trend towards domestication in translating from American English over the last three centuries has had a normalising and neutralising effect, depriving source text producers of their voice and re-expressing foreign cultural values in terms of what is familiar (and therefore unchallenging) to the dominant culture.

(Hatim and Mason 1997: 145).

To put it differently, domestication is the approach that favours and privileges the target culture over the source culture, moving the author/creator towards the reader/audience. Translation is often seen as a form of conquest (see postcolonial translation theories, e.g. Robinson 1997) and can even become an expression of nationalism. It is a process which includes not only translating a text, but also other related actions:

Translation is often regarded with suspicion because it inevitably domesticates foreign texts, inscribing them with linguistic and cultural values that are intelligible to specific domestic constituencies. This process of inscription operates at every stage in the production, circulation, and reception of the translation. It is initiated by the very choice of a foreign text to translate, always an exclusion of other foreign texts and literatures, which answers to particular domestic interests. It continues most forcefully in the development of a translation strategy that rewrites the foreign text in domestic dialects and discourses, always a choice of certain domestic values to the exclusion of others. And it is further complicated by the diverse forms in which the translation is published, reviewed, read, and taught, producing cultural and political effects that vary with different institutional contexts and social positions. (Venuti 1998: 67).

Dubbed films may frequently appear to the viewer to be brand-new products rather than transformed ones; a dubbed film ceases to be a 'foreign' film in order to become just a film. "In the international marketplace the film original thus functions as a transnational decultured product; it becomes the raw material that is to be re-inscribed into the different cultural contexts of the consumer nations through the use of dubbing" (Ascheid 1997: 40). As has already been established above, audiences which are accustomed to dubbing, when hearing their own language feel reassured as to its importance "wychodząc z bezceremonialnego założenia, że 'cały świat' mówi po francusku czy angielsku" 6 (Hendrykowski 1984: 250). Thus, dubbing decreases the sense of 'otherness' and is an excellent example of domestication.

Dubbing can also be perceived as "an assertion of the supremacy of the national language and its unchallenged political, economic and cultural power within the nation's boundaries" (Danan 1991: 612). By implementing policies, governments of dubbing countries stressed the importance of the existence of one standardised national language, often banning the use of dialects in order to strengthen the national unity. For example, in Italy, where the process of country unification was completed only in 1870, there were still many regions in 1920s and 1930s in which only local dialects were spoken, while modern Italian was virtually a foreign language. Mussolini ruled that all the imported movies had to be in standard Italian, which made the cinema a major means of imposing a national language.

Among all kinds of film translation, dubbing is the one that interferes the most in the structure of the original. Many critics raise objections as to its authenticity. In principle, dubbing is considered by some to be less authentic than subtitling because "the original performance is altered by the addition of a different voice" (Mera 1999: 80). The unity of the soundtrack inevitably undergoes reprocessing and it is more difficult for the viewer to believe and trust the new voices of—often very famous—actors. Therefore, in many dubbing countries, e.g. in Italy, some dubbing actors are used consistently with a particular actor. This, in turn, may lead to insuperable problems, as was in the case of one Italian dubbing artist who dubbed the voices of both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for a number of years until the two actors met on the set of Heat in 1995. For obvious reasons, another actor was needed to substitute for one of the stars. This, however, did not satisfy Italian audiences, who felt there was something wrong with Pacino's voice as it was not what they were used to hearing.

Some claim, however, that it is dubbing—and not any other form of screen translation—that can aspire to being the 'ideal' form of film translation in terms of faithfulness, on the assumption that strictly linguistic considerations should not determine the overall value of a translation. In dubbing, the translator has to be faithful not only in the theatrical sense but also in terms of phonological synchronisation (see Pieńkos 1993: 131). What is more, dubbing is closer to the original in the sense that as far as the viewing process is concerned "only decoding of the moving images and sound are required" (Mera 1999: 80), which actually seems to be more authentic.

In dubbing there are frequent incongruities between what real actors say and how they move their lips, and the dubbed voices, which affects the audience, largely on a subconscious level. However, recent technology has developed a method of digital alteration of real actors' lip movement in order to fit new translated dialogue:

The slight tampering with the image by adapting the movements of the characters' lips to the dubbing script has yielded magnificent results whenever it was implemented and can ultimately solve the infamous shortcomings of lip-movement dischrony, especially in close-ups.

(Karamitroglou 1998)

What is more, having the voices of the original actors on separate tracks, which has been made possible only recently thanks to new technological advances, enables retaining the original background sound as well as the music and special effects and thus "smooth blending with the new dubbing voices" (ibidem). On the one hand, this will improve the quality of dubbed films, but on the other it will augment interference into the original even more.

Undoubtedly, dubbing is a powerful target culture-oriented tool which makes the source text conform as much as possible to standards held by the target culture, which in fact is consistent with Venuti's definition of domestication.

Subtitling as a form of foreignisation

Foreignisation is an approach to translation which can be described as "sending the reader abroad," as Venuti aptly put it (qtd. by Munday 2001: 147). It is a method which assumes that the translated text does not 'pretend' to be an original (as is the case with domestication) and where the foreign identity of the source text is highlighted—which makes the ideological dominance of the target culture impossible. Foreignisation privileges the source culture, and it evokes a sense of 'otherness,' emphasising the foreign nature of a film.

Amongst the major methods of translating films, subtitling involves the least interference with the original; in other words, it is the most neutral, minimally mediated method. Therefore, it is subtitling that contributes to experiencing the flavour of the foreign language, its mood and the sense of a different culture more than any other translation mode. This is mainly due to the fact that the original soundtrack and dialogues are not tampered with, as is the case in dubbing. Moreover, "hearing the real voices of the characters not only facilitates understanding in terms of the specific dialogue or plot structure, but gives vital clues to status, class and relationship" (Mera 1999: 75). Although there are significant cuts in the length of the dialogues due to the intrinsic nature of subtitling, much of what is lost can be compensated for while hearing the original.

Subtitling is becoming a preferred mode of translation not only owing to financial considerations—it is much cheaper to satisfy the expanding needs of film markets by providing subtitles, which are more economical and easier to produce—but also because "to viewers in subtitling countries, the economic advantages are secondary; retaining the authenticity of the original production is paramount" (Gottlieb 1997: 310). For these viewers, subtitling is a more authentic mode than dubbing. The audience is not allowed to forget about the foreignness of a translated film and is constantly reminded of its authenticity as it hears the original dialogues throughout the film.

Because English has been the lingua franca in the modern world for a number of years, knowledge of this language has increased dramatically and is now widespread. For example, in Greece over 60% of people between the ages 15-28 hold the Cambridge First Certificate (see Karamitroglou 1999). Accordingly, many people (in the subtitling countries) go to cinemas because they are offered a unique chance to listen to the original English dialogue; they only consult the subtitles when they find it necessary. However, this situation increases the criticising power of such people and makes them act as experts in the field of subtitling, which in fact they are not. Obviously, dubbers do not have to confront such a problem, as the audience is not given a chance to compare the original dialogues with their translation. Interestingly, because of the 'otherness' that subtitling emphasises, it can sometimes be perceived—in the case of non-English speaking films—as "a hindrance to the potential enjoyment of a film or television programme by the narrow-mindedness of the English speaking nations" (Mera 1999: 79).

In recent years there has been a considerable rise in the interest in multiculturalism and national diversity, along with the departure from the notion of melting pot. For several decades almost every country in the world has cultivated its own unique tradition of filmmaking as well as rendering foreign productions into the target language. Certain styles have come to be known and instantly recognised by viewers world-wide. Translation in the form of subtitling seems to go along those lines. While meeting and satisfying viewers' expectations and curiosity concerning other cultures, it ensures the originality and hence the foreignness of films. At the same time, unlike dubbing, it allows the original soundtrack to be retained and thus "the integrity of a holistic performance to be preserved" (Mera 1999: 75). Thus, the characteristic features of particular artists' style are maintained and insights into the characters can be gained "through the inflections of their voices" (ibidem).

It is frequently the case that during the course of a film there appear some non-verbal signs, e.g. notices, tokens, trademarks or road signs in the background. These seem to give away dubbing, which attempts to function as the original; at the same time the signs give more credibility to subtitling, which from the very beginning makes it clear that what the audience is watching is actually foreign. It is also easier for the subtitler to explain the meaning of the sign by inserting a subtitle with the target language equivalent (e.g. in capital letters or italics to differentiate it from spoken utterances), than it is for the dubber to solve such a problem.

The foreignisation of a film can be augmented by the fact that subtitling involves a change from a spoken medium, the original, to a written medium in the form of one- or two-liners at the bottom of the screen. Mera claims that: "subtitles change film from an audio-visual medium to a more literary medium which requires a greater level of attention from a viewer than a dubbed film" (1999: 79). However, latest research with regard to the cognitive activity required by subtitling from viewers (see Delabastita 1990: 98) demonstrated that reading subtitles does not require a conscious cognitive effort on the part of those accustomed to this mode of translation. People who read subtitles do not exhibit the typical eye movement patterns of 'ordinary' reading behaviour. Rather, their eyes tend to make no more than a few quick jumps from one keyword to another. The whole process of subtitle perception tends to be largely automated, so much so that viewers who have no need of subtitles find it hard to avoid reading them (ibidem).

The obvious downside of subtitling are the enormous shortcuts made in the process. Some researchers counted that as much as half of the original dialogue is lost due to the spatial constraints (see de Linde & Kay 1999). The translator not only translates but also resolves which fragments to omit, which of them are irrelevant, and which are vital to the target audience. In an attempt to convey 'the core' of the script, translators often forget that it is not only the dialogues from the main plot that constitute the substance of a film. Other factors, such as various dialects, idiolects, register or expressions of politeness, which frequently undergo reduction, can be equally important in the full comprehension of a particular work. Consequently, "the minor subtractions that litter these scenes may not seem significant in terms of the general understanding, but during the course of a whole film they add up to a large number of drastically altered meanings" (Mera 1999: 78).

On the other hand, there are instances in which subtitlers patronise their audience by supplying the subtitles which are obvious and transparent. For example, some commonly comprehensible expressions like "yes" or "no" are rendered unnecessarily in countless cases. Also various onomatopoeic expressions such as "Grrr! Grrr!" (in Cinema Paradiso) leave at least some of the viewers dissatisfied, as they feel they are looked upon condescendingly. Sometimes, however, some onomatopoeic expressions vary from language to language, as is the case with some other animal sounds. For instance, in Snatch one of the protagonists imitates the sounds made by a pig, saying: "oink oink", which was—quite understandably—rendered into Polish as "chrum chrum" since those two onomatopoeic expressions differ noticeably. All of the foregoing clearly reflects the crucial role of the translator in the translation process.

From the discussion above, it clearly appears that subtitling can be considered part of the foreignisation realm: the crucial role of the source culture is stressed, foreign identity highlighted and the influence of the target culture minimised.


Films can be a tremendously influential and extremely powerful vehicle for transferring values, ideas and information. Different cultures are presented not only verbally but also visually and aurally, as film is a polysemiotic medium that transfers meaning through several channels, such as picture, dialogue and music. Items which used to be culture-specific tend to spread and encroach upon other cultures. The choice of film translation mode largely contributes to the reception of a source language film in a target culture.

On balance, there is no universal and good-for-all mode of translating films. As was stated above, the methods are dependent upon various factors, such as history, tradition of translating films in a given country, various audience-related factors, the type of film to be rendered, as well as financial resources available. What is also of primary importance here is the mutual relationship between the source and target cultures, as it will also profoundly influence the translating process.

All things considered, the two major translation modes, i.e. dubbing and subtitling, can be said to occupy the two opposite ends of the domestication-foreignisation continuum. As it was shown in this article, dubbing is a domesticating strategy which neutralises foreign elements of the source text and thus privileges the target culture. In contrast, subtitling is an example of a foreignising strategy since it stresses the foreign nature of a film and it is a source-culture-bound translation. It is clear that translated material can be domesticated or foreignised to different extents, and hence be placed somewhere along the domestication-foreignisation continuum.


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1 "These figures were based on three types of statistics provided by various official agencies or governments. In some countries, the actual numbers of imported films were provided; in others, the numbers of released films were reported; in some other cases the numbers were based on films submitted for censorship. In spite of minor inconsistencies, combining the three kinds of figures provides a significant way of comparing film imports" (Danan 1991: 613). Other information concerning the sources used in the chart can be found in Danan (1991).

2 Source: (January 2005)

3 At the end of the 20th century, the Académie is challenged with a new task. The French language has a host of qualities which for two centuries have made it the language of the elites in the entire world. Its area of influence is threatened by the expansion of English, or more precisely American English, which has been encroaching on the minds, writings, and the world of audiovisual media. The spread of English is often favoured by invasion of new technologies, rapidly developing sciences, unprecedented 'shrinking' of the world, which is facilitated by media and other communication means, and all other factors revolutionizing traditional vocabulary and quickly imposing new words onto the language. On 4 August 1994 a law was enacted concerning the use of the French language (known as the 'Toubon law'), which encourages the use of French in writings, public documents or agreements, in public services, conferences, media, etc." (translated by Magdalena Kaczorowska)

4 "Movie projection in a language other than Spanish is prohibited unless permission from the Ministry of Industry and Commerce is granted; the films in question always must be dubbed. Dubbing shall be done in Spanish studios located on Spanish territory and by Spanish personnel" (my translation).

5 One of the cornerstones of American foreign policy concerning, among other things, non-colonisation.

6 "blindly assuming that the whole world speaks French or English" (my translation)—or any other language used in dubbing, for that matter.

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