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Strategies in Subtitling Black English Movies

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Maryam Sadat Mousavi photoIn this age of globalization, digitalization, and the dominance of media, audiovisual translation has an increasingly important role to play in communication across cultures and languages. Technological developments have made audiovisual translation the most dynamic field in translation studies. Based on Gottlieb’s typology of subtitling strategies, the major aim of this study was to explore the most commonly used strategy in subtitling Black English movies. To do this, six original Black English movies were compared with their subtitled versions in Persian. This descriptive research was a qualitative attempt to describe and analyze the applied strategies.

The research question aimed to explore the most prevalent strategy. According to the obtained results, ’Transfer Strategy’ has been introduced as the most frequent strategy applied in the corpus of the research as well as each ST-TT pair.

Keywords: AAVE, AVT, Dubbing, SAE, Subtitling


Contemporary mass communication has created a new cultural situation in which translation plays an essential role. Diaz Cintas (2009, p.6 ) believes that “it is evident that the way in which we interact has changed and is constantly changing still, the main move being that from the page to the screen as text carrier, and these changes in their turn create new communication needs”. He also considers “Audiovisual translation” as a powerful activity, which is a significant form of intercultural communication. Delabastita (1990, p.97) assumes that “translation process in mass communication plays a very effective part in both the shaping of cultures and the relations between them”.

Technological developments have made audiovisual translation the most dynamic field in translation studies. According to Lambert (1997), media translation has revealed how easy the shift is from oral into verbal discourse and vice versa. He states that movies can be ’translated’ into written subtitles or rendered as dubbing or voice-over versions. Various new techniques of speech recognition make it possible to transfer speech from written into oral texts, or from oral into written formulation.

In addition, due to the interest of many people towards American and European films, there is a more demand for audiovisual translators. Diaz-Cintas (2008) refers to AVT as one of the fastest growing areas in the field of Translation Studies (TS), which in itself is experiencing an unprecedented surge in interest. Jorge Diaz Cintas (2003), in his informative survey, „Audiovisual translation in the third millennium?, refers to audiovisual translation as a highly visible area of translation, and reminds us of the need for university-level training instead of on-the-job learning, as well as of the need for more diverse and empirically-based research to replace speculative or prescriptive approaches. Diaz Cintas sees audiovisual translation as an increasingly important part of Translation Studies, itself a fast-evolving discipline.

Ballester (1995) (cited in Karamitroglou 2000, p.10) points out that “it is a well-known fact that audiovisual translation has always been considered inferior to (written) literary translation most probably because of the lack of cultural prestige in audiovisual mass-media, compared to canonized literature”. "Audiovisual" has for a long time been limited to training and education, for methods using pictures and sounds. Its meaning has gradually changed, more and more often referring to cinema and TV screens. In fact, multimedia communication is ubiquitous in daily life (Gambier & Gottlieb 2001, p.xi).

Bartrina & Espasa (2005) suggest that the role of audiovisual translation in contemporary international communication invites translator trainers to contemplate the different possibilities available when training translators for the modern mass communication market. Chiaro (2009) has been roughly divided western Europe into two major screen translation blocks: the UK, Benelux, Scandinavian countries, Greece and Portugal, which are mainly „subtitling nations? and central and southern European countries which are mainly „dubbing nations?.

Diaz-Cintas (2009, p.8) suggests that “films and other audiovisual productions now represent one of the primary means through which commonplaces, stereotypes and manipulated views about social categories (women, blacks, Arabs, homosexuals, religious minorities) are conveyed: dubbing, voiceover and subtitling enable such views to be made accessible to wider audiences unfamiliar with the language of the original production”.


What is important at the beginning is giving the definition of subtitling, comparing this practice with some of the other translation modes traditionally applied in the AVT, such as dubbing. Subtitling is the most common form of audiovisual translation. Delabastita (1989) addresses the debate of whether film translation, or rather subtitling, can be regarded as translation proper. Technical constraints require such an amount of reduction that many consider "adaptation" to be a more suitable term.

According to Luyken et al. (1991, p. 31) "subtitling is the translation of the spoken (or written) source text of an audiovisual product, usually at the bottom of the screen". Gambier (1994) defines subtitling as transferring, language from longer units to shorter ones, from spoken language to written text, from one language to another, and interpretation of verbal speech combined with numerous other cultural and socio-syrnbolic signs or with other types of semiotic systems.

Translator’s Strategies

According to Gottlieb (1992), the goal of adequacy- and even less equivalence is not always reached in any type of translation. To assess the quality of a specific subtitling, the rendering of each verbal film segment must be analyzed with regard to stylistic and semantic value. Based on his experience as a television subtitler, he has devised ten strategies which are used by subtitlers, including: 1) Expansion, 2) Paraphrase, 3) Transfer, 4) Imitation, 5) Transcription, 6) Dislocation, 7) Condensation, 8) Decimation, 9) Deletion, and 10) Resignation. He claims that these strategies can also be found in other type of translation. The following table is taken from Gottlieb’s (1992, p.166) categories of subtitling. This table consists of different types of subtitling strategies with the characteristics of each one, as well as the media specific type:

Table 1. Gottlieb’s Typology of subtitling strategy

Types of strategy
Character of translation
Media specific type
1) Extension Expanded expression, adequate rendering (culture-specific references)
2) Paraphrase Altered expression, adequate content (non-visualized language-specific items)
3) Transfer Full expression, adequate rendering (slow, unmarked speech)
4) Imitation Identical expression, equivalent rendering (proper nouns, international greetings etc.)
5) Transcription Non standard expression, adequate rendering (D; intended speech defects)
6) Dislocation Differing expression, adjusted content (musical or visualized language-specific item)
7) Condensation Condensed expression, concise rendering (mid-tempo speech with some redundancy)
8) Decimation Abridged expression, reduced content (fast speech, low redundancy speech)
9) Deletion Omitted expression, no verbal content (fast speech with high redundancy)
10) Resignation Deviant expression, distorted content (incomprehensible or ’untranslatable’ speech)

According to this table proposed by Gottlieb (1992), types 1-7 provide correspondent translations of the segments involved. Type 7 is often seen as the prototype of subtitling, and many critics confuse quantitative reduction (of the number of words etc.) with semantic reduction. However, in a condensation - as opposed to decimation _ the subtitle does convey the meaning and most of the stylistic content of the original. Normally, the only loss implied in a condensation is the loss of redundant oral language features - especially when dealing with spontaneous speech, as found in interviews etc. Even with planned discourse (drama, news commentary etc.) much of the reduction necessitated by the formal constraints of subtitling is created automatically, due to the diagonal nature of this type of translation. In cases where semantic or stylistic content does suffer in the process of subtitling, we are dealing with types 8 and 9. These strategies represent drastic cuts in the original expression, but through positive feedback from the audiovisual tracks, the translated version as a whole will often manage in conveying the message. Unlike types 5-9, which are all supposedly more common in subtitling than in printed translation, resignation (type 10) occurs in all types of verbal transmissions. In subtitling, this abortive strategy is often found in situations where the translator finds himself unable to render tricky idioms and other culture/language-specific elements because of negative feedback from the non-verbal track.

Black English

The concept of Black English (BE) refers to as "Black English Vernacular (BEV) or Nonstandard Negro English (NNE) by many linguists" (Wardhaugh, 1986, p.323).
According to Fromkin & Rodman (1988) the majority of United States dialects are, to a great extent, free from stigma, especially the many regional dialects. However, one dialect of North American English has been a victim of prejudicial ignorance. This dialect (actually a group of closely related dialects) is spoken by a large section of non-middle-class blacks; it is usually referred to as Black English (BE) or Negro English or Nonstandard Negro English. The distinguishing features of this English dialect persist for social, educational, and economic reasons. The historical discrimination against black Americans has created ghetto living and segregated schools, where social isolation exists, dialect differences are intensified. In addition, particularly in recent years, many blacks no longer consider their dialect to be inferior, and it has become a means of positive black identification.

Research Question

The research sought to answer the following question:

1. Which subtitling strategies are the most commonly used for Black English movies according to Gottlieb’s typology of subtitling strategies?

Theoretical framework

This study, which falls under the categories of subtitling strategies, follows Gottlieb’s model. Gottlieb devised a set of strategies used by subtitlers (1992, p.166). These include: (1) Expansion, (2) Paraphrase, (3) Transfer, (4) Imitation, (5) Transcription, (6) Dislocation, (7) Condensation, (8) Decimation, (9) Deletion, and (10) Resignation.


This research consisted of six Black English movies and their subtitled versions, all published from 1994 to 2009. In the following table, the information regarding the original Black English movies are provided. The data was retrieved from the internet Source http://www., Internet Movie Database (IMD).

Table 2. Elements of the Original English Movies

No. Original English Movies Director Release Date
Running Time
Pulp Fiction
QuentinTarantino 1994 154 min
Bad Boys
Michael Bay 2003 147 min
Big mama’s house
John Whitesell 2006 99 min
The Bucket List
Rob Reiner 2007 97 min
Tropic Thunder
Ben Stiller 2008 107min
Blood & Bone
Ben Ramsey 2009 93 min

Table 3. Elements of the Subtitled Movies

No. Movies Subtitling translator Running Time
1 پالپ فیکشن Korosh 143 min
2 پسران بد Mehrdad Jafari 143 min
3 خانه مامان بزرگه Soorena Asemooni 94 min
4 لیست بشکه Mmsh 94 min
5 تندر حاره ای Yahya Dust Ali 100 min
6 خون و بن Hamed 2004 93 min

Data Collection

In the first stage, the researcher started with full watching the English and subtitled versions of movies. In the second stage, the English and Persian scripts of movies were downloaded from the internet sources and In the third stage of data collection procedure, the researcher viewed English, i.e. the original versions of the movies along with subtitled Persian versions of each. Then, English and Persian texts of the selected movies were compared and closely examined, in order to find the most commonly used strategies. Finally, the researcher transcribed all the instances in the six movies. It means that, she made the collected data ready for the next phase of the research, i.e. data analysis.


1. Expansion:

They all coming out. (Big Mama’s House)

همش داره به واقعیت تبدیل میشه.

2. Paraphrase:

Something funny. ( Bad Boys)

خنده داره.

3. Transfer:

This really your hospital? (Bad Boys)

این واقعا بیمارستان توئه؟

4. Imitation:

Ain’t no Criss Angel. (Bad Boys)

کریس آنجیلی وجود نداره .

5. Transcription:

You firing the "ack-ack" gun? (Bad Boys)

تو از این تفنگای مسخره استفاده میکنی؟

6. Condensation:

But that shit ain’t the truth. (Pulp Fiction)

اما این واقعیت نیست.

7. Decimation:

Brooklyn be bagged and tagged beforehe get any cooch. (Tropic thunder)

بروکلین مرده قبل از اینکه کاری بکنه .

8. Deletion:

I like to wear his stomach skin like a unitard. (Tropic thuder)


9. Resignation:

That ain’t dancing. (Big Mama’s House)

اونا نمی رقصن.

Data Analysis

In the process of tracking down the samples, the collected data was first sorted and organized in tables. These data involved Black English instances of each movie. For this purpose, the researcher devised tables, consisting of the original and subtitled scripts and the type of strategy applied in subtitling that special discourse. In summarizing the results of the analysis of instances, the number of applied strategies was counted in all movies. Then, the frequency and the percentage of the different strategies used in subtitling that specific discourse was measured and were shown in tables as well as bar charts. Finally, tables were analyzed and their results were discussed.


The following table is the frequent and percentage of strategies among all data.

Table 5. Subtitling Strategies of Black English Instances of movies

Strategies Fr. %
1. Transfer
2. Paraphrase
3. Condensation
4. Expansion
5. Resignation
6. Deletion
7. Imitation
8. Decimation
9. Transcription

The above table represents strategies used in subtitling Black English from the most commonly used strategies to less commonly used one. As the distribution of strategies shows, out of 209 data collected by the researcher from six original Black English movies, eighty- two instances refer to transfer strategy. Thirty-nine instances refer to paraphrase. Thirty-four examples refer to condensation. Twenty-one examples refer to expansion. Fourteen examples refer to condensation. Deletion strategy involves six. Imitation and decimation are five, and three instances refer to transcription.

Subtitling Strategies in All Movies

Figure1. Subtitling Strategies in All Movies


As the summary of the statistical findings in the above figure presents, it can be concluded that among the subtitling strategies proposed by Gottlieb (1992): 1) the strategy of transfer is the most frequent strategy with 39.2%; 2) transcription is the least common strategy with 1.2%; 3) dislocation is not used in subtitling Black English among these movies. As findings show, source variations are substantially replaced with similar target variations. Although the majority of source variations are rendered in subtitling, just in a few cases, source variations are flattened out in translation. In this process, the effect of the original work is somehow reduced.

Concluding Remarks

The outcomes of the study are as follows:

1. Language variation constitutes a challenge for translators in general, and translators of texts to be subtiteled in particular due to various factors, such as cultural and linguistic differences between the source language and the target language, sociolinguistic differences, ideology factor, etc. In case of this study, the fact that most African Americans do talk differently from whites and Americans of other group, is obvious. In the process of audiovisual translation, the subtitler encounters the problem of whether to render a variation or not.

2. Since Black English has special characteristics, which are deeply embedded in the system of their language, they are difficult to be expressed in another language. Therefore, as the study reveals, what a translator does when s/he encounters these parts, is to maintain the function of the original work and to transmit this function to the target audience. The subtitler tries to maintain the intention of the original by using a word, item or sentence in the receptor language to reproduce the same effect or function.

3. What is important in subtitling audiovisual text script is writing a fluent written discourse, which resembles credible and true to life dialogues. Therefore, using items, which are understandable in the receptor language, is a way to move towards naturalization and localization of the subtitled movie. It also encourages the illusion that one is reading an original script rather than a translation. In subtitling audiovisual texts, it is also necessary to render linguistic information on the lexical, syntactical, and morphological levels.


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Maryam Sadat Mousavi obtained her BA in English Translating/Azad University of Tehran in 2008. She is MA Graduate from Azad University, Science & Research Branch. She is a writer and freelance translator.

Maryam Sadat Mousavi can be contacted at: m_mousavi19 at yahoo com

Published - August 2012

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