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Mispronunciation in Subtitling

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Sarah Pybus photoWhether a translator aims to render a written text or the script for an audio-visual production in another language, where humour is concerned the ideal result would be for the comedic aspects of the source to be perfectly preserved in the target, affecting both audiences in the same way. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles that may prevent this aim from being fulfilled. One common problem facing the translator/subtitler is the variety of comedy used in the film; it may be very culture-specific, or, as we will see here, it may be based around the use of language.

The instructor may need to lead students to analyze complicated sentences before giving the assignment in order to prevent any “safe” translation versions.
The film I have chosen to focus on is a German romantic-comedy,Das merkwürdige Verhalten geschlechtsreifer Großstädter zur Paarungszeit (literally: The strange behaviour of mature city dwellers in mating season, also cited as Love Scenes from Planet Earth1), released in 1998 and directed by Marc Rothemund. Centred on a group of adults with unsuccessful romantic lives who all find happiness within the same day through a variety of bizarre incidents, the general humour of the film is fairly generic and could be translated easily into other languages. However, one scene in particular would cause problems for linguists translating into any language. Focussing on two characters, Tamineh (Anica Dobra), a German woman, and Marcello (Dieter Landuris), an Italian man, who meet when Tamineh discovers Marcello attempting to commit suicide from the roof of the building adjacent to hers, the scene derives its humour from Marcello’s mispronunciation of German and the way in which Tamineh corrects him. The difficulty for the subtitler working into English is rooted in the most basic facet of foreign languages; that is, the words that are mispronounced in German are entirely different in the target language.

There are two options open to the subtitler; attempt to render the humorous linguistic effects in the target language or standardise the source language effects when writing in the target language. In this instance, however, the importance of the humour outweighs the difficulty of translating the mispronunciations.

Extracts from the film

Before commencing, I would like to note that I have been unable to identify satisfactory solutions to the problems presented in the following extracts. Since most DVDs now offer subtitles for the hard of hearing in the original language, it would have been interesting to see how this scene was rendered in German subtitles, let alone those of other languages. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a copy of the film with this feature.

Extract 1

Let’s begin with the opening of the scene. The words emphasised in the scene are highlighted in both the German and the corresponding English:

Tamineh: Hey! Was machen Sie denn da?

(What are you doing?)

Marcello: Ich werde spingen.

(I’m going to jump).

T: Bitte?


M: Ich werde spingen.

(I’m going to jump).

T: Es heißt springen.

(Actually it’s ‘jump’).

M: (slowly) Sprin-gen .


The only word we need to concern ourselves with here is ‘jump’. However, there is no obvious way that a non-native speaker of English might mispronounce this word and while ‘springen’ has two syllables, ‘jump’ only has one. Thus when Marcello pronounces ‘springen’ slowly, emphasising both syllables, it may not have exactly the same effect in the English.

Extract 2

When the focus of the film returns to Tamineh and Marcello, they are in the same position as previously, Marcello relating to Tamineh the events that have led to his decision to commit suicide:

Tamineh: Ja und dann?

(And then?)

Marcello: Alles ist die große Katastrophe. Ich verkaufe das Geschäft in Turino und zieh zu ihr nach Deutschland. Ich mag Deutschland. Aber alles geht schief von die Anfangi an!

(It’s just a disaster. I sold the business in Turin and moved to Germany to be with her. I like Germany. But everything went wrong from the start!)

T: Es heißt Anfang.

(Actually it’s ‘start’).

This extract highlights two problems, one of which cannot be rendered in English. The German word ‘Anfang’ is a masculine noun and therefore ‘der Anfang’, rather than ‘die Anfangi’ as used by Marcello. This mistake cannot be transferred as the English language only has one version of the definite article. Therefore, focus would have to be given to the mispronunciation of ‘Anfang/start’.

Extract 3

The third extract highlights another issue facing the English-language subtitler. Although I did not highlight this in the two previous extracts, throughout the scene Marcello mispronounces the German ‘I’, ‘Ich’.

The mispronunciation of ‘Ich’ is, arguably, impossible to render in English as there is no obvious way to mispronounce ‘I’, and the best solution might be to ignore this feature when writing the subtitles.

Unfortunately, however, this particular mistake features prominently in the scene:

Tamineh: Das wäre kein Grund sich umzubringen. Da wär ich kein siebzehn geworden.

(That’s no reason to kill yourself. If it were I wouldn’t have reached seventeen).

Marcello: Aber ish liebe sie!

(But I love her!)

T: Ich ! Ich liebe sie!

(I! I love her!)

M: Du kennst Eva?

(You know Eva?)

T: Quatsch nein! Es heißt ‘ich’.

(Don’t be stupid! It’s ‘I’).

The way that Tamineh corrects this mistake adds to the humour of the scene; it is Tamineh’s repetition of ‘I/ich’ that causes Marcello to think that she is also acquainted with his girlfriend.

While it might be tempting to omit these mispronunciations in the subtitles, they are an integral part of the film as they lead to a punch line. The officious manner in which Tamineh corrects Marcello’s language is no coincidence. At the end of the scene he asks her:

Marcello: Was bist du von Beruf?

(What do you do for a living?)

To which she replies:

Tamineh: Deutschlehrerin.

(I’m a German teacher).

The entire scene has been building up to this moment.


A translator attempting to write a target language script for any variety of film will be confronted by allusions or phrases specific to the language or culture of the country from which the film originated. Some may be easier to render in the target language than others, as there may be equivalents in the target culture. However, when a translator is faced with something that they may not be able to transfer into the other language, they may be forced to consider whether it is integral to the film or whether it could, potentially, be ignored.

In some cases ignoring the problem is a viable option, but it may be too important to omit. In the case of the film examined here, the comedy of the scene is centred on mispronunciations made by a non-native speaker of German and the manner in which the other participant in the scene, a native speaker of German, corrects him. If attempting to translate the humour of a scene will interfere with other, more important, aspects such as plot development, then the subtitler may be forced to abandon any jokes. The problem in our case is that, without the humour, the scene has no meaning. Although the ultimate aim is for Tamineh and Marcello to realise that they are meant to be together, the scene is driven by the humorous use of language towards the aforementioned punch line, and if the subtitler were to script the scene in another language without including Marcello’s mispronunciations they would be forced to invent a new meaning for the scene to compensate for the loss in humour. Indeed, if the film were to be dubbed this would be less of a problem, but when the target audience can still here the original soundtrack it may potentially be obvious, even to a person who does not speak German, that the subtitles do not include everything that is happening on screen; the slow, deliberate way in which Tamineh speaks and the way in which Marcello copies her signals that she is correcting him.

1 "http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0157990/

Published - February 2013

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