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Formal vs. Dynamic Equivalence in Subtitling: The Case of English Movies with Persian Subtitles

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The present study was carried out to determine which type of equivalence (formal or dynamic) is used in film subtitling. For this purpose, a number of English sentences and their corresponding Persian equivalents were selected from three English movies with Persian subtitles. Then, it was determined whether formal or dynamic equivalence has been used in rendering them into Persian. The results of this study indicate that formal equivalence is the first choice in subtitling. In other words, subtitlers tend to use formal equivalence as their first port of call. However, formal equivalence does not work in all circumstances. There are some cases when formal equivalence is not possible, or when dynamic equivalence is preferred over formal equivalence. In this paper, we identified some of these cases which include explicitation, collocations, phaticisms, idioms and proverbs, modulation, adaptation, ideology and ellipsis. In these cases, subtitlers resorted to more dynamic forms of equivalence.

Key Terms:

Formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, subtitling.

1. Introduction

In 1964, Eugene Nida published his famous book, Toward a Science of Translating, in which he contended that since no two languages are identical, either in the meaning of symbols or in the ways in which they are arranged in phrases and sentences, it stands to reason that there can be no absolute correspondence between languages. That is, there are no such things as identical equivalents. Therefore, a translator must seek to find the closest possible equivalent. He introduced two different types of equivalence: one which is called formal and another which is primarily dynamic. Nida defines formal equivalence as follows:

" Formal equivalence focuses attention on the message itself, in both form and content. In such a translation one is concerned with such correspondences as poetry to poetry, sentence to sentence, and concept to concept. Viewed from this formal orientation, one is concerned that the message in the receptor language should match as closely as possible the different elements in the source language. This means, for example, that the message in the receptor culture is constantly compared with the message in the source culture to determine the standards of accuracy and correctness" (1964, p.159).

Besides, he believes that this type of equivalence "is designed to permit the reader to identify himself as fully as possible with a person in the source-language context, and to understand as much as he can of the customs, manner of thought, and means of expression" (ibid). Formal equivalence is thus the "quality of a translation in which the features of the form of the source text have been mechanically reproduced in the receptor language: (Nida & Taber, 1969, p. 201). In fact, a general tendency towards formal rather than dynamic equivalence is characterized by, for example, a concern for accuracy (1964, p. 159) and a preference for retaining the original wording wherever possible. In spite of its apparent limitations, however, formal equivalence is sometimes the most appropriate strategy to follow (Shuttleworth & Cowie, 1997). What is important is that formal equivalence is not the same as literal translation, and the two terms must therefore be kept distinct. Hatim & Munday (2004) distinguish the two terms in the following manner:

While literal translations tend to preserve formal features almost by default (i.e. with little or no regard for context, meaning or what is implied by a given utterance), a "formal" translation is almost always contextually motivated: formal features are preserved only if they carry contextual values that become part of overall text meaning" (p. 41).

In contrast, a translation which attempts to reproduce a dynamic rather than a formal equivalence is based on the principle of equivalent effect (Nida, 1964). Dynamic equivalence is the quality which characterizes a translation in which "the message of the original text has been so transposed into the receptor language that the response of the receptor is essentially like that or the original receptors" (Nida & Taber, 1969, p.200). Nida (1964) states that "a translation of dynamic equivalence aims at complete naturalness of expression, and tries to relate the receptor to modes of behavior relevant within the context of his own culture" (p.159). Carrying out such a translation will entail such procedures as substituting TL items which are more culturally appropriate for obscure ST items, making linguistically implicit ST information explicit and building in a certain amount of redundancy to aid comprehension.

The best known example of a dynamic equivalent is seen in the decision to translate the Biblical phrase "Lamb of God" into an Eskimo language as "Seal of God" due to the fact that lambs are unknown in Polar Regions. In this case, the culturally meaningful item "Seal", which shares at least some of the important features of the SL expression "Lamb", has been substituted for it.

 Finally, it should be noted that these two methods are not absolute techniques but rather general orientations. In fact, what experienced translators seem to do most of the time is to resort to a formal kind of equivalence initially, reconsider the decision in the light of a range of factors, and ultimately make a choice between formal or dynamic equivalence (Hatim & Munday, 2004).

2. Statement of the purpose

The present study is carried out to investigate which type of equivalence is used in film subtitling. In other words, it is attempted to find out whether formal or dynamic equivalence is the first choice of subtitlers when subtitling English movies into Persian.

3. Method

3.1. Material

This study focuses on three English movies with Persian subtitles. The titles of these movies are "Ring 1", "Ring 2" and "Proposal", all of which are available on the market. The reason for choosing these movies is that the quality of subtitles is excellent, and there are very few mistakes compared to other English movies with Persian subtitles.

3.2. Procedures

In this study, we will go through a number of procedures in order to investigate the type of equivalence (formal or dynamic) used in film subtitling. These procedures are as follows:

1)     A number of English sentences and their corresponding Persian equivalents are obtained from three English movies with Persian subtitles.

2)      The type of equivalence used in rendering the English sentences into Persian is determined.

3)      The reason for using dynamic rather than formal equivalence in some cases is explained.

4. Results and Discussion

The sentences obtained from the movie "ring1" are as follows:

1) What do you think? تو چی فکر میکنی؟ 

2) I think we should go to the island together.   من فکر می کنم باید با هم به جزیره بریم

3) I know that Aiden recently lost his cousin. .من می دونم که ایدن اخیرا دخترخاله اش رو از دست داد

4) My son lost his best friend three nights ago. پسرم بهترین دوستش رو سه شب پیش از دست داد.

5) He's just trying to deal with it. فقط داره سعی می کنه با این قضیه کنار بیاد.

6) I had a nightmare. من یه کابوس دیدم. 

7) Aiden drew these last week.  ایدن اینها رو هفته گذشته کشید.

8) I spent four hours on the Internet. چهار ساعت توی اینترنت بودم.

9) Hello, Officer Ray. How are you doing? ؟ سلام سرکار ری. حالتون چطوره

10) We shouldn't be in her room. ما نباید توی اتاق اون باشیم.

11) You said she died three nights ago? شما گفتید اون سه شب پیش مرد. 

12) She was the one who was there when that happened.

اون کسی بود که وقتی اون اتفاق افتاد با کتی بود.      

13) Show it to me. به من نشونش بده.  

14) You don't want to see that tape? تو نمی خوای اون نوارو ببینی؟ 

15) That tape didn't scare you?  اون نوار تو رو نترسوند؟

If we take a close look at these sentences, we will find that most of them have been translated formally. Only five of these sentences (5, 6, 8, 9 and 12) have been rendered dynamically. If we analyze these sentences, we could discover the reason. The Persian equivalents of the sentences number 5&12 contain explicitation. In other words, the translator has included the words "قضیه" in number 5, and "کتی" in number 12 to give more explanation to the readers in order to help them understand the movie better.

The sentences number 6&8 have been translated dynamically simply because of the difference between English and Persian collocations. That is, we can have a nightmare or spent time on the Internet in English, but in Persian, we typically see a nightmare (کابوس دیدن), not have a nightmare (کابوس داشتن), and we use the verb "to be" to talk about spending time on the Internet (در اینترنت بودن).

As for the sentence number 9, we know that it is an expression used for greeting. According to Newmark (1988), these expressions are used for maintaining friendly contact with the addresser rather than imparting information. He calls them phaticisms because they are part of the phatic function of language, and asserts that they should be translated by standard equivalents which are not necessarily formal. Consequently, the translator has rendered this sentence by a functional (dynamic) equivalent "حالتون چطوره" which has an approximately similar function in Persian. 

Now, we will go through the sentences obtained from the second movie “Ring2”, and will analyze them to see what type of equivalence has been applied to render the English versions into Persian.

1) Are you taking the tape? داری نوارو می بری؟

2) She was afraid.    اون ترسیده بود.

3) He drew my picture.اون عکس منو کشید. 

4) We set her free. ما اونو ازاد کردیم 

5) Where are your horses now?  اسبهای شما الان کجا هستند؟   

6) Stay close honey زیاد دور نشو عزیزم.

7) Business is business. . حساب حساب است کاکا برادر

8) I don’t know why we lost power. نمیدونم چرا برقمون قطع شد.

9) I want to watch it alone.  می خوام تنها تماشاش کنم.

10) I saw her face. من صورتشو دیدم.

11) Did she have her baby here? بچه اش رو اینجا به دنیا آورد.

12) I think it’s a message from your wife. من فکر میکنم این یه پیام از همسرتونه.

13) We’re a large family, so we’re careful. ما یه خوانواده بزرگیم. بنابراین مراقبیم.

14) I’m not tired Nova.  من خسته نیستم نوا.

15) What’s wrong with you?تو چه مشکلی داری؟ 

Most of the above-mentioned sentences have been translated formally. Even some of them have been rendered word-for-word (No. 2,5,10 and11) by only changing the word order. However, six of them have been translated dynamically for a number of reasons which will be discussed here.

The sentences number 4, 7 and 15 are idioms or proverbs which are peculiar to the English language and culture. Thus, they cannot be translated formally. Rather, a natural and dynamic TL equivalent which has an approximately similar meaning to the SL word or expression should be used. 

The sentence number 6 has been rendered into Persian using a procedure called “modulation” by Vinay and Darbelnet (1958 cited in Venuti, 2000). They define modulation in the following manner:

Modulation is a variation of the form of the message, obtained by a change in the point of view. This change can be justified when, although a literal or even transposed translation results in a grammatically correct utterance, it is considered unsuitable, unidiomatic or awkward in the TL (p. 89).

Instead of using a formal equivalence such as "نزدیک بمون عزیزم ", the translator has changed the form of the original because the above sentence, although correct, is somehow awkward in Farsi. Persian speakers would usually use a sentence like "دور نشو عزیزم" when they want their children to stay close to them.

The sentences number 8&11 have not been translated formally, as there are some fixed English collocations in these sentences which are not typical in Persian. In Persian, we cannot say "برق رو از دست دادیم = we lost power". Rather, we would say something like "برقمون قطع شد " or "برقمون رفت". Similarly, the fixed English collocation 'have a baby" means giving birth to a baby. As a result, it cannot be translated formally. Instead, we should use Persian collocations such as بچه دارشدن" ", "بچه به دنیا اوردن "or more formally "زایمان کردن " and "فارغ شدن ", which have the same meaning but different forms.

 Finally, we will deal with the sentences obtained from the last movie, “Proposal”.

1) I can’t help you.  من نمی تونم کمکتون کنم.

2) John, dinner’s ready.  جان شام حاضره.

3) We ask this to Christ, the son.  ما این را از عیسی مسیح پیغمبر خدا می خواهیم.

4) I wanted to talk to you about my editorial.   می خواستم درباره سرمقاله ام باهات صحبت کنم.

5) You like my tree house?  خونه درختی منو دوست داری؟

6) You can invite John if you want.   می تونی جان رو دعوت کنی اگه بخوای.

7) She seemed a little reluctant. اون یه کم بی میل به نظر می رسید.

8) Stability in the family has a special importance for us.  ثبات در خانواده اهمیت ویژه ای برای ما داره.

9) Actually, I’m here to help you. در واقع من اینجا هستم تا کمکت کنم. 

10) Lord, you are quick to show mercy.   خداوندا تو رحمتت را به سرعت نشان می دهی.

11) Kathy, this is my direct number at the department.    کتی این شماره مستقیم من تو ادارس.

12) Tired of interviews?  از مصاحبه ها خسته ای؟

13) Comfort his family and friend by the power and protection of the Cross.

. خانواده و دوستانش را با قدرت و حمایت خود آرامش بخش

14) Helen, this is a matter of national security. هلن این یه مساله امنیت ملی.

15) I saw him too, Mrs. Cooper. منم دیدمش خانم کوپر.

As can be seen again, most of the sentences have been rendered formally, and only five of them can be considered dynamic equivalents. Following Vinay and Darbelnet (1954 cited in Venuti, 2001), the sentences number 3 & 13 can be called cases of “adaptation”. As they put it:

“Adaptation is used in those cases where the type of situation referred to by the SL message is unknown in the TL culture”. In such cases, translators have to create a new situation that can be considered as being equivalent. Adaptation can, therefore, be described as a special kind of equivalence” (p. 91).

In the sentence number 3, the phrase “the son” has been translated as “پیغمبر خ&#`1583;ا” because of ideological reasons. Muslims do not consider Christ as the son of God. Therefore the translator has used a dynamic equivalent which is in line with the Islamic Ideology. The same thing can be said about number 13 since the phrase “the power and the protection of the Cross" has been rendered into Persian as “قدرت و حمایت خود” in which “ خود” refers to "God", and not the "Cross". This is due to the fact that "Cross" is a sacred object in Christianity, and refers to the "cross" on which Jesus was crucified. However "cross" has no power or protection in Islamic ideology.

Furthermore, the sentences number 5&10 have been translated using a strategy called transposition. Transposition involves replacing one word class with another without changing the meaning of the message. In the sentence number 5, the English noun "tree" has been rendered as the Persian adjective "درختی". Similarly, in the sentence number 10, the English adjective "quick" has been rendered as the Persian adverb "به سرعت".

The sentence number 12 contains ellipsis. In other words, the verb and the subject have been omitted from the full sentence “Are you tired of interviews?”. In Persian, it is impossible to preserve this ellipsis, and carry out a formal translation such as “ خسته از مصاحبه ها”, for it does not make any sense. Therefore, the translator is obliged to add the omitted elements (the verb and the subject), and translate dynamically.

5. Conclusion

The analysis of the English sentences and their Persian equivalents obtained from three different English movies with Persian subtitles revealed the fact that subtitlers tend to use formal equivalence unless they have good reasons not to do so. In other words, the first choice for subtitlers is formal equivalence, and they use this type of equivalence in most circumstances. However, there are some cases when formal equivalence is not possible or cases when dynamic equivalence is preferred over formal equivalence. In this paper, we identified some of these cases which include explicitation, collocations, phaticisms, idioms and proverbs, modulation, adaptation, ideology and ellipsis. However, there are many other cases which make subtitlers resort to dynamic equivalence, but a more comprehensive study needs to be done in order to detect these cases and come to a more conclusive result.


Hatim, B. & Munday, J. (2004). Translation, an Advanced Resource Book. Canada & United State of America: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Newmark, P. (1988). A Textbook of Translation. New York: Prentice Hall International.

Nida. E.A. (1964). Toward a Science of Translating: With Special Reference to Principles and Procedues Involved in Bible Translating. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Nida, E.A. & Taber, C. (1969). The Theory and Practice of Translating. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Shuttleworth, M. & Cowie, M. (1997). Dictionary of Translation Studies. UK: St. Jerome Publishing.

Ventui, L. (Ed.). (2000). The Translation Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge.


Published - July 2009

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