19 - Subtitling
"My weekly letters to her, reporting on all sorts of things, climaxed in the proudly ornate signature, with the following words underneath: ‘In spe poeta clarus’»1.
Subtitling is a complex form of translation, involving, as it does, the transfer from oral language into written language. Moreover, it is sometimes an intersemiotic form of translation.
There are two kinds of subtitling: one used as a physical aid (for hard of hearing) and the other used as a linguistic aid (for those who aren’t familiar with the language spoken in the audiovisual text. Sometimes, such distinction is considered similar to the distinction between intralingual and interlingual subtitling, but the two phenomena do not always coincide.
Subtitles as an aid to intralingual translation are becoming more widespread. For those who have some rudiments of the language spoken in the audiovisual text, but not enough to easily decipher the same text in the spoken version, the written text helps connect pronunciation to the graphic form, and also to understand how the sound must be mentally divided into single words. Typically, neophytes to a language have a hard time in establishing the division between words. The tendency is to mentally match the divisions between words, whatever their effective reason, to the speaker’s pauses.
Therefore, we can identify four types of subtitling:
- intralingual, as a physical aid
- intralingual, as a linguistic aid
- interlingual, as a linguistic aid
- interlingual, as a physical aid
It is not necessary to repeat that intralingual and interlingual translation are expressions of the same kind of process and have manifold analogies. Some researchers are careful to try to understand if and when subtitling can be considered a form of translation. For researchers adhering to the principles of total translation the question is easily answered, since it is clear that it is one of the forms of translation contemplated by Jakobson since 1959.
From a semiotic point of view, the most interesting form of audiovisual translation is subtitling as a physical aid, since it is a mixed intrasemiotic and intersemiotic translation. Let us see how.
Oral discourse is formed by a text – easily transcribable if there are no space-time limits – and by the so-called "super-segmental traits", formed by intonation, inflexion, tone, timbre and in short all features of the vocal execution of a (sometimes imaginary) written score. Pirandello expressed his idea on this point very well:
How often does a playwright, when listening to the repetitions of one of his works, shout: "No, not that way!" contorting himself as if in torment, for the irritation, the rage, the pain of not seeing correspondence in the translation into material reality, that must necessarily be another’s, that inception and that ideal execution that are his only his?2
Acting – and more generally, oral discourse – emerges as one of the many possible executions of a same written text. The hard of hearing, even when they can see the actors’ gestic expression, their corporeity and their expressive movements, can’t perceive an actor’s phonic execution of the verbal text of the audiovisual; that is why the subtitles must also give, more than the verbal translation of the text, an intersemiotic translation of the phonic non verbal part of the prototext.
In subtitling as linguistic aid, the prototext’s super-segmental traits get to destination not through the mediation of subtitles, but directly – and this is a fundamental difference from dubbing – because the original soundtrack remains intact and accessible to the user.
In subtitling as physical aid, there is a verbal (interlingual or intralingual) translation accompanied by an intersemiotic translation in which there is a verbal synthesis of a message that, otherwise, would be lost. These are the cases when the subtitle contains expressions like "background music" "sudden noise" "crack" "kiss smack" etc.
The same kind of transfer of phonic super-segmental traits also occurs in dubbing, but in that case it is entrusted to the re-interpretation of the actor dubbing, a reinterpretation starting with the dubber’s vocal timbre itself.
Another fundamental difference between subtitling as a physical aid and as a linguistic aid lies in its supplementary or complementary nature as compared to the prototext. And this degree of complementariness is placeable along the adequacy / acceptability continuum.
If by "adequate translation" we mean that, to maximizing respect for the expressive potential of a prototext, which demands a great effort of the user – in terms of cognitive and cultural elasticity – and arrives as near as possible to the intact text, instead of demanding a text that is nearer the user; "acceptable translation" is the one that demands the least effort to the user, who can save himself that effort with little concern for the price paid in cultural and linguistic features of the prototext.
On this basis, it is possible to create a hierarchy of the types of audiovisual mediation starting from the more adequate to the more acceptable one:
- intralingual subtitling as a linguistic aid; it is a form of complementary translation, in which the prototext is intact and subtitling has the only aim of facilitating the fruition of the prototext as it is;
- interlingual subtitling as a linguistic aid; it is a mixed form, complementary and supplementary, of translation, in which the prototext remains intact but subtitling has not only the purpose of facilitating the fruition of the prototext as it is, because it provides also a written interlingual interpretation of dialogues; what it facilitates, therefore, more than the deciphering of the dialogues as in the language in which they are, is the understanding of their semantic contents;
- voice over; it is a mixed form, complementary and supplementary, of translation, in which the visual prototext is intact (but somewhat hidden), and the translated text has the purpose of facilitating the fruition of the prototext as it is; it doesn’t facilitate the deciphering of the dialogues as such in the language in which they are written, but only the understanding of their semantic contents;
- intralingual subtitling as a physical aid; it is a mixed form, complementary and supplementary, of translation, in which the visual prototext is intact but the audio prototext is missing, and subtitling has not only the purpose of facilitating the fruition of the prototext as it is, because it provides also a written interlingual interpretation of dialogues; what makes things easier, therefore, is not the deciphering of dialogues as they are in the language in which they are, but only the understanding of their semantic contents;
- interlingual subtitling as a physical aid; it is a mixed form of translation, complementary and supplementary, in which the visual prototext is intact but the audio prototext is missing, and the subtitling does not facilitate the fruition of the prototext as it is, because it provides also a written interlingual interpretation of dialogues; what it facilitates, therefore, is not the deciphering of dialogues as they are in the language in which they are, but only the understanding of their semantic contents in another language;
- dubbing; it is a supplementary form of translation, because the verbal prototext is completely suppressed; the purpose is not making easier the deciphering or understanding of dialogues, but their substitution with dialogues that are comprehensible to the user.
CANETTI ELIAS Die gerettete Zunge. - Die Fackel im Ohr. - Das Augenspiel, München, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1995, ISBN 3-446-18062-1.
CANETTI ELIAS The Tongue Set Free. Remembrance of a European Childhood, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, in The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, ISBN 0-374-19950-7, p. 1-286.
DE LINDE ZOé e KAY NEIL The Semiotics of Subtitling, Manchester, St. Jerome, 1999, ISBN 1-900650-18-5.
IVARSSON MARY CARROLL Subtitling, Simrishamn, Transedit HB, 1998, ISBN 91-971799-2-2.
PIRANDELLO L., Illustratori, attori e traduttori (1908), in Saggi, edited by Manlio Lo Vecchio Musti, Milano, Mondadori, 1939, p. 227-246.
1 Canetti 1999: 208.
2 Pirandello 1908: 237.