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Strategies of Translating Metaphors in Foreign Movies employed by Iranian Subtitlers

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Omid Jafari photo The purpose of the present thesis was to investigate the approaches and strategies employed by Iranian subtitlers in the translation of metaphors into Persian. The material gathered for this purpose consisted of six subtitled films. The films were selected among those originally produced in English and subtitled to Persian. In order to have a contrastive analysis of metaphors and their translations, the movies dialogues and their subtitles were contrasted. At the first stage, metaphor was defined and with the definition in mind, metaphors in the movies were identified. After determining metaphors in each film, the translations of the metaphors needed to be identified and matched with the original ones. To this aim, the original metaphors and their Persian subtitled translations were compared and contrasted in order to track down the translations of the identified metaphors. Afterwards, the metaphors and their translations were listed in tables to investigate the most and the least frequent approaches and strategies employed by Iranian subtitlers in dealing with metaphors.

Key words: Metaphor, Subtitling, Translation strategies, Movies


In our modern life, the introduction of new technologies and subsequent boom in satellite, television and the Internet has made the world a much smaller place, allowing different people and so different cultures and languages to interact more frequently. As a result, film industries have been flourished and the role of audiovisual translator has been intensified. On the other hand, translation of metaphor which is an inseparable part of any language is also a daunting task. Dialogues of movies are sometimes replete with metaphors and require careful attention to be translated as thousands of movies are subtitled annually by various translators throughout the world and different strategies for translating metaphors are adopted by them.

1.Definition of metaphor

According to Newmark (1988a:104), “metaphor could be any figurative speech: the transferred sense of a physical word; the personification of an abstraction; the application of a word or collocation to what it does not literally denote, i.e. to describe one thing in terms of another. Note also that metaphor incidentally demonstrates a resemblance, a common semantic area between two or more or less similar things_ the image and the object”.

2. Strategies for Translating Metaphors

Newmark (1988b: 88) suggests the following strategies for translating metaphors:

(1) Reproducing the same image in the TL
(2) Replacing the image in the SL with a standard TL image
(3) Translating metaphor by simile
(4) Translating metaphor by simile plus sense
(5) Converting metaphor to sense
(6) Deleting
(7) Combining the same metaphor with sense

3. Subtitling

The first subcategory of audio visual translation (or screen translation) is subtitling. It is a complex form of translation in which the spoken language (source language) of a television program or film is translated into the written language of the viewing audience (target language).

3.1 Constraints of subtitling

Gottlieb (1992) explains that subtitler is faced with formal (quantitative) and textual (qualitative) constraints. Textual constraints are those imposed on the subtitles by the visual context of the film, whereas formal constraints are the space factors (a maximum of two lines are allowed, with some 35 characters each) and time factor. The duration of a subtitle depends on the quality and complexity of the text, the speed of the dialogue; the average viewer’s reading speed and the necessity intervals between subtitles.

Delabastita (1989) also mentions that subtitles are constrained forms of translation since the aural text must be rendered as segments of usually not more than two lines. In addition, due to the fact that people read more slowly than they speak, most subtitles represent summaries rather than verbatim accounts of what are said on screen. So, omissions are virtually unavoidable. He states that (1989, p. 200) “the constraints of space and time lead into the problem of selection as the translator has to analyze the source text material carefully to decide what should be transferred to the target text and what can or must be left out”.

4. Material

The material gathered for the purpose of this research consisted of six movies that were produced during 1992 to 2003 in English whose genres were drama since the chances of occurrence of metaphors in movies with such genres are perceived to be high. These movies included the American movies “O’brother where art thou?” and “Luther” and “The Red Violin” which were subtitled by Iranian governmental organizations of “Moasese Resanehaye Tasviri” and “Moasese Javane”. The other movies included three American movies: “The Scent of A Woman” and “Dogville” and “Eyes Wide Shut” which were subtitled by unknown underground companies into Persian.

5. Methodology

After collecting the required material, 100 metaphors (50 ones subtitled in governmental companies and 50 ones subtitled by underground companies) in all these movies were selected and a step-by-step procedure was followed to accomplish the purpose of the study. First each English metaphor was inserted into a table along with its Persian equivalent. In the next stage each metaphor was carefully studied to see how it had been translated into Persian. By comparing the metaphors and their translations, the strategies which were in use were identified and classified. Afterwards, final conclusions were made, regarding the most frequent approaches and strategies employed by the subtitlers in dealing with the metaphors.

Examples of metaphors and their translations

Here are some examples of the metaphors gathered from these movies and their translations:


Tom had now come up with a series of meetings on moral rearmamentwith which he felt obliged to benefit the town.

تام چندین گردهمایی ترتیب داده بود وبخشی را به پند و موعظه اختصاص داده بودو آنرا برای سلامت شهرمفید میدانست

In this part of movie the narrator refers to Tom who decided to guide the people of his own city. The metaphor which is applied here is about “moral rearmament” carried out in meetings arranged by Tom. People of Dogville are supposed to take part in such meetings and listen carefully to what Tom says. The subtitler has preferred to ignore the metaphor totally and transfer the sense of the metaphor.

A sweet, painful, seductive abyss

آثاری زیبا، فریبنده و بسیار پرزحمت

The metaphor which is used here refers to the Henson's home. The narrator on the movie says that the place which resembles an abyss seems to be “seductive”. But the metaphor is not reproduced in the target language correctly by the subtitler and the noun "abyss" is not translated well, so a nonsensical form has been made.

Your hands are surely the most alabaster hands I’ve ever seen.

تا حالا دستهایی به سفیدی دست شما ندیده بودم

One of the female residents of Dogville describes hands of Grace as pieces of “alabaster” stone which are so white and shining. The subtitler here does not attempt to reproduce the same metaphor and its image in the target language. Instead s/he chooses the sense of this metaphor to be transferred.


This town is rotten from the inside out  

این شهرازبیخ و بن پوسیده اس

“O’brother where art thou?”

One of the residents of Dogville is dissatisfied with the current situation of the city and asserts that the city and its people are leading a life full of corruption. He describes the city as being a “rotten place”. The subtitler has reproduced the same metaphor and its image in Persian.

Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow them, even unto your salvation.

بااین حال جاده شایداز نفس بیندازتان.آره دلخسته خواهیدشدولی همچنان آنها رادنبال کنیدحتی تا رستگاریتان

The blind man advises the men not to get disappointed in their seeking fortune. He uses the metaphor "your hearts grow weary" to predict the difficulties of their way to salvation. The subtitler here has replaced this metaphor with a standard target language metaphor.

A fool seeks logic in the chambers of the heart.

احمقی که دنبال منطق دردالانهای دل آدم میگردد

In this funny part of the movie the three main characters are having a stupid argument. One of them is trying to look for logic in his friend's remarks but the other one believes it is futile to find it in "the chambers of heart". The subtitler has changed the original metaphor to another Persian metaphor which is not commonly used in this language and therefore has culminated in a nonsensical rendering.

Pappy O'Daniel, slave of the interests...

پاپی اودانیل برده سود ومصلحت

At one important part of the movie there is an election campaign where one candidate is insulting his opponent before a group of people listening to him. He describes his opponent as a “slave of interests” which is supposed to have metaphorical aspects. The subtitler keeps the original metaphor intact and transfers it directly to the target language.

Ladies and gentlemen, the little man has admonished me to grasp the broom of reform and sweep this state clean!

خانوما و آقایون مرد کوچک منو نصیحت کرده که جاروی اصلاحات رو به چنگ بیارم

The candidate is lecturing and tells the audience that the little man present in the gathering has warned him to do some major reforms in the state. He employs the metaphor "to grasp the broom of reform" for this purpose. The metaphor is reproduced in the target language by the subtitler.

But life goes on.

ولی زندگی برقراره

The man says to the main character not to look for more investigation on the issue because his life might be endangered and demands him to returns to his ordinary and routine life. The metaphor he uses personifies the life of a living creature which moves and "goes on". This metaphor is translated into its sense only in the target language and its metaphorical aspect is not preserved.

“The Red Violin”

A curse hangs over you Madame

یه طلسمی برروی تو سایه افکنده خانم

The servant tells master's wife that she is going to have difficulty giving birth to her child due to a curse. She applies the metaphorical phrase "a curse hanging over you" which is translated to a standard target language metaphor in Persian by the subtitler.

Victoria, listen.
Our moment is dying…
What is this nonsense?

ویکتوریا گوش کن.لحظات ما در حال مرگ است.این بی معنایی چیست؟

The highly-skilled violinist has his lover departed for a long time for some reason. He gets depressed and writes her if she does not come back promptly his love towards her would be diminished. He writes "our moment is dying" which supposes moments as living creatures to be dying soon. The subtitler has reproduced this metaphor in Persian.

“Scent of a woman”

You in the mood for the white-bosomed slopes of Vermont?

حس وحال سراشیبیهای سفید ورمونت روداری؟

The boy is having a friendly chat with one of his friends. His friend suggests him to go on vacation in the Thanksgiving holidays. He proposes going to "white-bosomed slopes of Vermont" which is considered as a metaphor. This is translated to its sense in the Persian by the subtitler.

Down deep, the man is a lump of sugar.

دراعماق این مرد میتونی شیرینی رو پیداکنی

The boy gets angry with the harsh behavior of Frank, but Frank's daughter sympathizes with him and tells him not to pay attention to his exterior. She uses the metaphor "a lump of sugar" for describing her father's real character. This metaphor is translated to a standard target language metaphor by the subtitler.

These two gentlemen entertained me, and time flew.  

این دوآقامنوهمراهی کردن وزمان بتندی گذشت

Frank and the boy go to a restaurant to have lunch. They run into a young lady and start conversing with her till her friend arrives. The lady's friend apologizes to her due to his delay but the lady says it has been okay since she had a nice time with those two gentlemen. She applies the metaphor "time flies" to mean the passage of time. The metaphor is translated to another standard target language metaphor by the subtitler.

6. Results

Generally speaking, the most frequent strategies for translation of these one hundred metaphors applied by Iranian subtitlers working in governmental and underground companies were identified as follows:

Table 1: Statistical Analysis of Applied Strategies of Metaphor Translation in the Movies by Iranian subtitlers

Number of metaphors 100
Converting metaphor to sense 33%
Reproducing the same image in the TL 30%
Replacing the image in the SL with a standard TL image 17%
Deleting 2%
Translating metaphor by simile 1%
Translating wrongly     17%

As it is observed, five strategies of Newmark (1988) have been applied by Iranian subtitlers. The most frequent one includes converting metaphor to its intended sense which makes up 33% of the all renderings. Reproducing the same metaphor constitutes 30% of the translation procedures. 17% of the metaphors have been replaced with a standard metaphor in the TL. 2% of metaphors have been deleted and 17% of them mistranslated. The fourth and the seventh procedures of Newmark’s categorization have not been used at all by Iranian subtitlers.

Regarding the translation of Iranian subtitlers working in governmental organizations in particular, such statistics were obtained:

In the movie “O’brother where art thou?” there were fifteen metaphors and in the movie “Luther” there were eighteen ones and in the movie “The Red Violin” seventeen ones were detected.

Table 2: Statistical Analysis of Strategies of Metaphor Translation Applied by subtitlers in Governmental Organizations

Number of metaphors 50
Reproducing the same image in the TL 34%
Converting metaphor to sense 26%
Replacing the image in the SL with a standard TL image 16%
Translating metaphor by simile 2%
Translating wrongly 22%

The most frequent strategy applied by Iranian subtitlers working in governmental organizations for translating metaphors has been the first procedure suggested by Newmark(1988) as they have been replaced by the TL metaphors. The second most frequent one applied is the fifth procedure as converting metaphors to their intended senses. The third frequent strategy equals the second procedure proposed by Newmark as replacing the metaphors in the SL with standard TL ones. The fourth one relates to the third procedure of Newmark’s categorization as translating metaphors by simile. 22% of metaphors also have been mistranslated by them. As mentioned before the fourth and the seventh procedures of Newmark have not been used.

Table 3: Statistical Analysis of Strategies of Metaphor Translation Applied by subtitlers in Underground Companies

Number of metaphors 50
Converting metaphor to sense 40%
Reproducing the same image in the TL 26%
Replacing the image in the SL with a standard TL image 18%
Deleting 4%
Translating wrongly   12%

Regarding metaphor translations by Iranian subtitlers working in underground companies, the most frequent procedure has been the fifth one mentioned in this thesis which means most metaphors have been converted to their intended senses. The second frequent one relates to the first procedure which shows the metaphors have been reproduced in the TL. The third frequent one has been related to the second procedure which indicates the metaphors have been replaced with a standard metaphor in the TL. The fourth frequent procedure has been the sixth one regarding Newmark’s categorization which indicates the metaphors have been deleted. 12% of metaphors have been mistranslated which may pertain to the subtitlers’ lack of knowledge of English or the nature of metaphor.


As the results showed Iranian subtitlers generally preferred to turn metaphors to their senses or transfer the same image to the target language. Some differences between the subtitlers’ performance in underground companies and the ones working in governmental ones were also indicated since some formal regulations are imposed on subtitlers who work for governmental companies while the ones who work in underground companies may face no limitation and therefore they may have decided to turn lots of metaphors to their senses to make the process of comprehending the movies smoother for the viewers or maybe it has been due to limitations of time and space in subtitling. The researcher believes that the findings of this research could have beneficial implications for translation classes as well as any discussions regarding the translation of metaphor. It could also suggest ways of enhancing the field of metaphor translation with a view to reproduce more adequate translations of it. The findings of this research may also offer good insight into choosing any of the strategies mentioned, but much care must be taken regarding the cultural differences between any SL and TL and the identity of metaphor itself and also limitations of subtitling such as lack of adequate time and space. Moreover, there has not been much research on audiovisual translation, specially rendering of metaphor in audiovisual translation. So hopefully this research might be useful for further research.


Delabastita, D. (1989). Translation and Mass Communication: Film and TV Translation as Evidence of Cultural Dynamics. in Babel, 8 (4), 193-218

Gottlieb, H. (1992). Subtitling: A New University Discipline. in C. Dolllerap et al. (Eds.) Teaching Translation and Interpreting. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Newmark, P. (1988a). A Textbook of Translation. London: Prentice hall International (UK) Ltd.

------------- (1988b) Approaches to Translation. London: Prentice Hall International (UK) Ltd.

Published - July 2013

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