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The concept of translation as retextualization. The contrast between Fidelity Criticism and Intertextuality. Definition of the terms subtitling and dubbing with a comparison with them. Oral and written language. The importance of non-verbal information from the images of a film. The pros and cons of subtitling and dubbing.



1. Introduction

2. Subtitling and Dubbing

3. Subtitling or dubbing? Which one is best?

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography



In general, there still seems to be a kind of prejudice against translation dating from the seventeenth century - the peak of "Les belles infidèles - a period of time in which translators were used to adding, omitting or even changing the meaning of the original text in order to achieve a clear and harmonic sound in literary translation. Considering that prejudice is something that dies hard, the present study is not designed to change the present attitude towards film translation adopted by non-specialised criticism. Criticising the translation process without taking into account the necessary theoretical knowledge of what really happens in the whole process - for instance in a real film translation process - tends to a biased and superficial analysis which most of the time is extremely subjective and leads to nothing but the depreciation of such an activity. Analysing the above, this study attempts to see film translation from the translator's perspective.

 The basic theoretical framework for this paper is the approach to language provided by Halliday's version of Systemic Functional Linguistics. Furthermore, his article understands "translation" as being "retextualization". Thus, the concept of translation is based on the notion that a translation is a retextualization of a text textualized previously in another language.

Operating with the concept of translation as retextualization, it seems also necessary to contrast the concepts Fidelity Criticism versus Intertextuality.

"Fidelity Criticism: The criticism of translation which depends on the notion of the text as having a single correct and permanent meaning, which must be respected by the translator, instead of the polysemous creation which the text in fact is." (FARLANE, Brian Mc: 1996)

"Intertextuality: A category much preferable to the notion of fidelity, Intertextuality includes many different kinds of creative relationship between texts. It manifests itself in a number of activities, such as translation, parody, pastiche, literary criticism and various forms of transcreation - a creative activity activated by the writer's response to a previous text." (FARLANE, Brian Mc:1996)

More specifically about film translation, Christopher Orr gives us a clear idea of how intertextuality can and must be used in the publication The Discourse on Adaptation, 1984.

"Within the context of intextextuality the issue is not whether the adapted film is faithful to its source, but rather how the choice of a specific source and how the approach to that source serve the film's ideology."

The aim of the present study is not only to define the terms subtitling and dubbing but also to compare how the terms' characteristics might interfere in the production and quality of the final result. According to Eliana Franco (1991), the characteristics of the process, the lack of linguistic and/or cultural correspondence between source text and target text are examples of factors that might influence the translator to render possible options. The corpus analysed was the film "Chicken Run", released in 2000 and directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park and its Portuguese version of subtitles and dubbing for DVD.

Subtitling and Dubbing

Subtitling and Dubbing are the two methods of language transfer in translating types of mass audio-visual communication such as film and television. Both have different characteristics and have until recently been largely ignored by the discipline of Translation Studies, which deals not only with audio-visual translation but also with written translation and interpretation (oral translation).

Subtitling can be defined as the process of providing synchronised captions for film and television dialogue (and more recently for live opera); while dubbing refers to any technique of covering the original voice in an audio-visual production by another voice.

In order to analyse the characteristics of both processes, let us have a look at a scene from the film chicken run:


English Subtitles

Portuguese Subtitles

Portuguese Dubbing


Who are you?

Where am I?

What's goin' on?

Ouch! What happened to my wing?

Quem são vocês? Onde estou? O que houve com a minha asa?

Quem são vocês? Onde estou? O que houve? Ai! O que houve com a minha asa?


You took a rather nasty fall.

Sofreu uma queda feia.

Você sofreu uma queda feia.


And sprained the anterior tendon.

I gave it a wee bit of a tweak and wrapped her up

Torceu o tendão anterior que liga o rádio ao úmero. Eu enfaixei

E quando caiu, deslocou o seu tendão anterior que liga o rádio ao úmero. Eu enfaixei. Depois dei um puxãozinho e enrolei a bandagem.


Was that English?


Que língua é essa?


You sprained a wing. She fixed it.

Ela pôs sua asa no lugar.

Ela disse que você deslocou a asa e ela pôs no lugar.

When comparing the Portuguese subtitles and the Portuguese dubbing, it can be seen that the language used is quite different. While subtitles prefer formal language, the language used is dubbing is more colloquial. This characteristic reflects the way languages can be used - which can be written or oral.

Considering scenes where there is a lot of information to be processed by the translator - it is a fact that the language used for subtitling needs to be more compact - it occurs not only because of space limits but also due to time constraints. Subtitles must generally compact all the information in only two lines of a maximum of about 35 characters each and the time available for display (from ½ to 1 ½ seconds) depends mainly on the speed at which the material is spoken.

In order to know what information is more relevant, the translator needs to take into account that the film viewers also receive non-verbal information from the images. That information can never be disregarded. Thus, speech redundancy can and must be extremely concise if we do not want the audience to spend the whole film only reading subtitles.

 Now, let us observe another scene from the film.


English Subtitles

Portuguese Subtitles

Portuguese Dubbing


We haven't even lifted off the ground. Why?

Por que não saímos do chão?

Ainda não conseguimos levantar do chão... Por quê?


Trust. I went over my calculations, and I figured the key element was trust.

Impulso. Revi meus cálculos. Está nos faltando impulso.

Impulso. De acordo com os cálculos que acabei de fazer e refazer, o elemento que nos falta é impulso.


I - I didn't get a word of that.

Não entendi nada.

Não entendi nada do que ela disse.


When birds like ducks and geese take off, what do they have? Trust!

Quando patos e gansos levantam vôo, eles dão impulso.

Impulso! Patos e gansos quando levantam vôo, levantam por que têm o quê? Impulso!


I swear she ain't usin' real words.

Continuo sem entender nada.

Ela não está falando a minha língua.


She said we need more thrust.

Disse que precisamos de impulso.


Ela disse que precisamos de impulso.


Oh, thrust. Well, of course, we need thrust. Thrust and flying are like... this!

Há! Impulso! Claro. Impulso e vôo são como isto. Isto é vôo e isto é impulso.

Há! Impulso! É claro que precisamos de impulso! Impulso e vôo são como isto. Isto é vôo e isto é impulso

Analysing this scene part, we can conclude that dubbing should not be seen as a rigid kind of phonological translation, in which source text is translated sound by sound. It is only designed to give the impression that the actors whom the audience sees are actually speaking in the target language. As it favours more colloquial language, it tends to be more "natural" and spontaneous when compared to subtitles. It also involves many stages besides that of language transfer and a number of additional factors might contribute to the quality of the dubbing. Indeed, it is not the purpose of this study to analyse those factors; which are, for instance, the use of up-to-date equipment, the choice of actors, the skill of the editor and of the sound engineering. Synchronisation is also a key term when talking about dubbing, since it has to be more visual rather than acoustic and depends to a large extent on the distance of the camera from the speaker.

Subtitling or dubbing? Which one is best?

To answer this question in simple words, one could say that the choice of one or other approach is just a matter of the preference of the country for which the new version is being produced. However, it can also be added that such a choice implies "cultural, ideological and linguistic" implications as it has been pointed out by some studies (see Ballester 1995, for instance).

One might say that subtitling is more "authentic", since it does not hide the original sound. It is also a much faster and a more inexpensive process. However, from the audiences' viewpoint, it requires more cognitive effort when compared to dubbing.

 On the one hand, the dubbing process involves less compression of the message and demands less cognitive effort. On the other hand, it can be fifteen times more expensive than subtitling due to its characteristics and also takes much longer to perform.

Talking about different countries, Gottlieb clarifies that subtitles tend to be favoured for tradition reasons in Scandinavia, The Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Greece, Israel, Egypt and throughout the Arab world. By contrast, dubbing is "the standard method of translating film and television in a number of European countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain." (see Dries: 1995, p.10).

It is also important to consider that dubbing can be seen as a way of "naturalising" an imported film and, at the same time, somehow minimise its foreign and its possible influence by completely concealing the original dialogue.


The conclusion drawn by this study is that dubbing and subtitling have different characteristics that must not be disregarded when talking about film translation. In other words, one cannot judge the subtitle or dubbing process without taking into account that they are two different kinds of audio-translation or retextualization. Of course, there are cases when the translation is not very accurate, but it certainly happens much less frequently than the critics tend to claim. It is also important to consider if the meaning disturbs the general configuration of the protagonist's construction of language or if it is just another way of saying the same meaning, considering all the context of the film's ideology.


BASLLESTER, Ana. The Politics of Dubbing. Spain: A Case Study, in Peter Jansen Translation and the Manipulation of Discourse: Selected Papers of the CERA Research Seminars in Translation Studies.

Dries, Josephine. "Dubbing and Subtitling: Guidelines for Production and Distribution, Manchester: The European Institute for the Media.

FARLANE, Brian Mc. Novel to Film: an Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation. Oxford University Press, 1996. 3-29

FRANCO, Eliana Paes Cardoso. Everything You Wanted to Know about Film Translation (But Did Not Have the Chance to Ask). UFSC, 1991.

GONÇALVES, José Luiz V. R. Processos Inferenciais Relacionados à Priorização na Tradução de Legendas de Filmes: o redundante e o relevante sob a ótica do Princípio de Relevância. In Estudos Lingüísticos 4. Teoria da Relevância & Tradução: Conceituações e Aplicações. FALE - POSLIN - UFMG, 2001.

GOTTLIEB, Henrik. Subtitling - A New University Discipline, in Cay Dollerup & Anne Loddegaard (eds) Teaching Translation and Interpreting: Training, Talent and Experience, Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1992.

MILTON, John Milton. Tradução: Teoria e Prática. Coleção Leitura e Crítica. Martins Fontes, São Paulo, 1998.

ORR, Christopher. The Discourse on Adaptation, 1984.

OXFORD Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English.Sixth edition Oxford University Press, 2001.

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