Audiovisual translation. Subtitling as a new form of translation

Essay 2015 5 Pages

Interpreting / Translating



This article sheds light on subtitling as one of the most important forms of translation which has a huge impact on modern communication worldwide. If written text-translation has ruled over intercultural communication over the previous centuries, subtitling drives most of the modern contemporary audiovisual productions proliferating in this globalized world, where international dialogue and interlingual communication have become so complex and so vitally important. In this perspective, the technological and artistic innovations advanced in the twentieth century such as the film industry and television broadcasting made imperative the emergence of new forms of translation such as subtitling, dubbing and drama translation.


It is evident that the translator, like a researcher, must relish the challenge posed by the fresh problems that continually arise in the course of providing a reliable version in one language of texts produced in another. It should be noted that, though there might seem to be general agreement that translation is a kind of linguistic activity, the problems that crop up in any type of translation are likely to be not merely linguistic but sociocultural too. In this respect, translation is not only a linguistic activity since “we don’t translate languages but texts, and these are an integral part of the world around us, invariably embedded in extralinguistic situation dependent on their specific social and cultural background”( Snell-Hornby 1991:10).

In fact, the real impetus gained from translation studies in the early eighties has been the shift from the sentence to the text and the language system to language use. Thus, translation becomes primarily a sociocultural activity which presupposes not only language competence but also extensive factual and encyclopedic knowledge as well as familiarity with the everyday norms and conventions of both source language and target language and culture (see Hatim &Mason(1990) and Newmark(1981)).

However, translation and its different forms are regarded as a communicative interaction between different communities. Still, it seems important to stress that translation has to function for its purpose in the target language. A translation, Otainen (1991) claims, has always “a purpose in relation to not only the source language author and the translator, but also to the target language readers, publishers, critics as well as time and place, and culture in particular”. Accordingly, any translation which doesn’t fulfill its function is poor translation however equivalent it may be.

Subtitling: a unique form of translation

It goes without saying that subtitling, in our globalized world, has become the Troy horse for the audiovisual corporation (Television, movie production, video…) to reach a wide range of viewers for socioeconomic and cultural reasons. This means that formidable demands are going to be made on translators charged with subtitling which requires the skilful use of all the aids now at our disposal: dictionaries, computers, computer-programmes and the main prerequisites of translation. The latter points to the fundamental steps of the translation process such as competence of text reception and analysis, research competence, competence of text production and, of course, linguistic and cultural competence (Nord (1991:47), see also Mc Alester (1991:293) and Houbert (2005:108)).

Noteworthy, subtitling has not been considered translation proper since, apparently, it differs from the classical concept of text translation which includes literary, scientific and institutional texts (Gottlieb (1991)). Such a view emanates, in fact, from the bias established by the written translation practices throughout history. However, regarding subtitling as not a form of translation could be also attributed to the notion of ‘text’ mainly conceived as belonging to the written form of language. To put it otherwise, “written texts typically have a more formal language style and a higher lexical density coupled with a “simpler” sentence structure, while spoken language which is the object of the subtitler- is characterized by elements of redundancy and repetition, a complex sentence structure and an informal language style”(De Linde & Kay ( 1999:26)).

In this way, interlingual subtitling differs from text-translation. Luyken (1991:153) refers to a definition of translation as a process in which a message in one language is replaced by the “same” message in another language. Consequently, he argues that subtitling cannot be seen as a form of translation, since only the language component in a message which comprises a whole range of audiovisual signs (such as images, sounds, acting, language) is replaced. Opposing this view, Gottlieb (2001:9) defines “text” as any message containing verbal material and translation as any process “in which a text is transferred from one speech community to another and where verbal elements are replaced by other verbal elements”. Gottlieb’s argument is more convincing because it takes into account the new media in which translation nowadays also occurs. Therefore, it should be that it is necessary to apply a flexible and heterogeneous definition of translation which leaves room for a whole range of empirical realities.



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Title: Audiovisual translation. Subtitling as a new form of translation