Subtitling humor - The analysis of selected translation techniques in subtitling elements containing humor

Master's Thesis, 2009

62 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents


1. Translation and audiovisual translation
1.1. Subtitling
1.1.1. The semiotics of subtitling
1.1.2. The constraints of subtitling
1.2. The pragmatics of translation
1.2.1. Speech acts
1.2.2. Gricean maxims
1.2.3. Implicature and explicature
1.2.4. Presupposition
1.3. Relevance Theory and translation
1.3.1. Relevance Theory and pragmatics
1.3.2. Interpretive use vs. descriptive use
1.4. Covert translation vs. overt translation
1.5. Dynamic equivalence vs. formal equivalence

2. What is humor?
2.1. Forms of humor
2.1.1. Wordplay
2.1.2. Irony
2.1.3. Parody
2.2. Humor and Relevance Theory
2.3. Translating humor
2.3.1. The translatability of humor
2.3.2. Solutions to problems in translating humor

3. Translation techniques in subtitling elements containing humor
3.1. Preliminary considerations
3.1.1. Condensation
3.1.2. Inflectional condensation
3.1.3. Referencing
3.1.4. Decimation
3.1.5. Name deletion
3.1.6. Transposition/structural conversion
3.1.7. Modulation
3.1.8. Substitution
3.1.9. Paraphrase
3.1.10. Literal translation
3.1.11. Neologisms
3.1.12. Augmentation
3.2. Conclusion

Primary sources
Secondary sources
Movie sources
Internet sources

List of tables


With the development and growing popularity of new technologies, audiovisual translation is becoming of paramount importance in recent translation studies. One of the most intricate forms of translation is subtitling because of its semiotic composition and limitations. In addition, different kinds of movies can be found in the media, for example comedies, that also involve particularly intricate aspects. One of them is humor, which requires extra attention. This multifarious phenomenon entails handling language- and culture-specific elements. While watching a subtitled foreign comedy, we do not realize what a complex process the translator has carried out. For example, in the case of a subtitled comedy, the translator has to deal with the limitations of subtitling and the difficulties that result from the language and cultural discrepancies. This means that a successful end product is only accomplished due to the hard and creative work of a professional translator. For this reason, I will study the idea of how humor is best rendered in subtitles. The core of this paper will focus on evaluating selected techniques used in translating humorous excerpts of movies.

The theoretical part of this paper comprised of two chapters will thoroughly study audiovisual translation, especially subtitling, Relevance Theory and humor with special focus on its translation. In the first chapter, I will introduce several themes concerning translation and audiovisual translation: intrasemiotic (which contains interlingual and intralingual translation) and intersemiotic translation. Next, the notion of subtitling as well as the semiotics and constraints of subtitling will be presented. Following that, I will discuss the main notions of pragmatics: speech acts, Gricean maxims, implicature, explicature and presupposition as well as their relation to translation. These notions are closely related to Relevance Theory, which is the approach to the translation study of this paper. Additionally, two types of translation, specifically covert and overt, and two types of equivalence, namely dynamic and formal, are also discussed. Going further, the second chapter will define humor and address specific aspects pertaining to the forms of humor: wordplay, irony and parody. In addition, humor will be reflected upon in relation to Relevance Theory. Language- and culture-specific issues present in humor are a contributory factor in certain difficulties regarding the translation of humor. For this reason, the issue of translatability will be explored. After discussing the problems of translating humor, I will consider available strategies that can overcome these difficulties and smooth the process of translation.

The field of audiovisual translation has been explored thoroughly by many scholars who have suggested taxonomies with reference to given forms of translation, in particular subtitling or voice-over, and aspects of translation, in particular language- and culture-specific matters of slang. The practical part, which is the third chapter, will deal with translation techniques that I have selected from these studies and, which is new in the field of translation study, will asses their application specifically in subtitling humor. To clarify, the chapter will exemplify and discuss the techniques a translator can use when translating humor. The following techniques will be examined: condensation, inflectional condensation, referencing, decimation, name deletion, transposition/structural conversion, modulation, substitution, paraphrase, literal translation, neologisms and augmentation. Crucial as the techniques are, I will look into their use within particular contexts. Their application will be illustrated by authentic excerpts taken from the recently produced box-office comedies Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Love Actually and Scary Movie 3. Using Relevance Theory as a reference point, the final intended effect of humor will be the focus of this study. In other words, I will attempt to scrutinize whether the humorous effect is achieved in each of the target texts.

Summing up, this paper aims to discuss the main issues pertaining to subtitling and humor with reference to Relevance Theory. As both subtitling and humor cause some challenges for the translator, both possible problems and possible solutions will be considered. In the case of a subtitled comedy, the audience is supposed to interpret the intended humor supported by a written text and image.

1. Translation and audiovisual translation

Translation may be defined as follows:

Replacement of textual material in one language /SL [source language]/ by equivalent textual material in another language /TL [target language]/.

(Catford 1985: 76)

In line with the above-mentioned definition is the explanation suggested by Tomaszkiewicz (2006: 64-65), according to which translation is moving or transmitting a sense or meaning rooted in one place to another area surrounded by a different context. It is the translator who interprets the text, finds ways to make it understandable to the new audience and retains textual equivalence. The text communicated in one language must be expressed in the second language by means of interlanguage transfer. Similarly, Pisarska and Tomaszkiewicz (1998: 205-206) state that the main function of any translation is to convey the sense of the source text, which can be based on words or, as in film translation, on words, image, music and sound. Moreover, there are three types of translation:

1/ Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language.
2/ Interlingual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of some other language.
3/ Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems.

(Jakobson 1985: 70)

This chapter first attempts to define the concepts of the Jakobson’s division. Next, the classification of audiovisual translation and the audience’s preferences for the different methods of audiovisual translation are presented. Then the following sections discuss the specificity of subtitling as well as pragmatics and Relevance Theory in translation.

To start with, both intralingual translation and interlingual translation are types of intrasemiotic translation. Gottlieb (2005-2007: 3) asserts that this form of translation is present when “the sign systems used in source and target text are identical; a case of semiotic equivalence.” To clarify, intrasemiotic translation occurs when the source text uses a verbal sign system and the translated text does the same. Moreover, intralingual translation involves the interpretation of a text within one language, whereas interlingual translation operates with texts in two different languages. As a result, in the latter case, there are two messages, created by different systems of signs, which are supposed to be equivalent (Jakobson 1985).

When it comes to contemporary explanations of translation, Tomaszkiewicz (2006: 69) states that no matter whether it is interlingual or intralingual translation, the sense of the target text should have the same communicative effect as the source text. Next, she enumerates differences between these two types of translation, namely the number of authors, text size and the time of creation. Interlingual translation usually has different authors and intralingual translation usually has the same author, who uses paraphrase to explain a concept or a phenomenon in different words. Additionally, a paraphrase is often shorter than a typical translation proper. There might also be a discrepancy in the time of text creation. In intralingual translation, it may be created at almost the same time as the original, whereas in the other translations the resulting text can be produced a long time after the source text.

Intersemiotic translation occurs when something in one system of signs is explained in another system of signs. This can be performed in two directions. For example, there can be a written description of people seen in a photo or the photo can make what is written visual. This concept can also relate to the transposition of one meaning to a different system, which can be exemplified by pictograms conveying unambiguous language information at the airport or in the street (Tomaszkiewicz 2006: 66-67).

Having discussed the definition and typology of translation, one can proceed to the notion of audiovisual translation, also called screen translation, which, according to Gottlieb (2005-2007: 13) is “the translation of transient polysemiotic texts presented onscreen to mass audiences.” By definition, non-static image is part of the translated text. What is more, the term, screen translation, is broader, as it encompasses not only television and video, as in audiovisual translation, but also other products available on screen, such as computer games, Internet and CD-ROMs (Diaz-Cintas 2003: 194). Moreover, Gambier and Gottlieb (2001) take the numerous ways of conveying messages into account and use a broader notion, that is multimedia translation. In comparison, before these names were introduced, the term film translation was originally used. It has been modified over the course of time.

Language in audiovisual translation can be transferred in written form (e.g. subtitling) or spoken form (e.g. voice-over or dubbing). Subtitling will be thoroughly discussed in the following sections. In voice-over the movie volume is lowered and the translated text is read by another person, who comes to an end a moment earlier than the source conversation in order to let the viewer hear the original voice. In dubbing, the complete original soundtrack is replaced with a set of voices and sounds of the target language. When using this method, synchronization of the picture’s motion, especially the movement of the actors’ lips, is necessary. This means that the translated text must be coordinated with the audiovisual stimuli and the form employed (Diaz-Cintas 2003: 195).

Gottlieb (2005-2007: 7) classifies the most dominant forms of audiovisual translation, namely dubbing and subtitling, as intrasemiotic. He states that dubbed translations “retain the semiotic composition of the original,” and subtitling, even though it is diasemiotic, meaning that the channel shifts from the spoken into the written, does not change the verbal element of the original. In a subtitled movie, the verbal communicative channel that is speech takes the written form, which is also verbal. Additionally, “the semiotic composition as such is not changed through subtitling, although the semiotic balance is undeniably shifted from predominantly aural to predominantly visual text reception” (Gottlieb 2005-2007: 11).

However, Gottlieb (2005-2007: 12) also admits “that with semiotically complex entities such as various online texts and other electronic media products, categorization is not always a matter of course.” The classification of audiovisual products can vary according to the aspects under which one considers them. Accordingly, Tomaszkiewicz (2006: 77) claims that intersemiotic translation is an ambiguous term and, according to the research perspective, may refer to different phenomena. As a result, she approaches audiovisual translation in a broader way and admits that recent studies localize intersemiotic translation as translation for mass media communication (Garcarz 2007: 105, Tomaszkiewicz 2006: 67). Hence, intersemiotic translation takes into account more than the translation of the linguistic message by means of non-linguistic signs, or vice versa. To clarify, in some circumstances audiovisual translation, especially subtitling, is intersemiotic because it interprets not only verbal, but also nonverbal elements of the original such as image or sound.

Preferences for certain methods of audiovisual translation (dubbing, subtitling and voice-over) are different all over the world. As for western Europe, dubbing is popular in the larger countries like France or Spain, subtitling in the smaller ones: Greece or the Netherlands. When it comes to eastern Europe, Diaz-Cintas (2003: 196) asserts that “Romania and Slovenia prefer subtitling, whereas the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria tend towards dubbing.” He also affirms that voice-over is common in some countries which belong to the Commonwealth of Independent States and Baltic States. With regard to Luyken et al. (1991: 112), “audience preference is, in the first place, determined by familiarity and conditioning.” This implies that the receivers are most fond of the method they are accustomed to, which can change if a different method becomes common. Diaz-Cintas (2003: 196) adds that this interrelation can be valid since there are countries where two methods are present. In Poland, for example, dubbing is used in cinema productions for children but rarely for the older audience, whereas subtitling is predominantly used in cinemas but hardly ever displayed in TV productions, where voice-over is dominant (Burkhanov 2003: 163, Belczyk 2007: 09).

All in all, translation is a complex phenomenon that includes the form of audiovisual translation. One of the most popular methods of this kind of translation is subtitling. The following section introduces some specifics of subtitling.

1.1. Subtitling

Subtitling is “written text, usually at the bottom of the screen, giving an account of the actors’ dialogue and other linguistic information which form part of the visual image (letters, graffiti, and captions) or of the soundtrack (songs)” (Diaz-Cintas 2003: 195). In other words, the movie contains “a printed target text” which delivers the source meaning to the target viewer (Burkhanov 2003: 160). In addition, this paper focuses on subtitling as an interlingual phenomenon, which means that the spoken discourse in the source language is translated into written text in the target language (Gottlieb 1998: 247). Polish cinemagoers can easily enjoy American or British movies when supplied with Polish subtitles that are added to the original English version. This section discusses subtitling in more detail and reflects on the advantages and disadvantages of incorporating this method.

Mostly due to the shift of mode from the spoken to the written, the translated text is shortened. This gives a rise to a dispute over the process of subtitling formation. Bogucki (2004: 30-35) asks whether subtitling is translation or a type of adaptation of the source discourse. In fact, subtitling is not the same procedure as in the case of a screen adaptation of a book. Subtitling is translation proper, which carries the sense of the multimedia-based discourse from one language to another. It involves analysis and many decisions on the part of the translator. For example, some information must be added and some must be left out. To clarify, in some circumstances the image must be explained in the subtitles. In addition, according to Gottlieb (1992: 163), subtitles can be open (not optional, “received with the original film or television version”) or closed (“optionally added to the original version”). Furthermore, Gottlieb (1992: 162) describes subtitling as having the following components:

written (Subtitles are not received via hearing as in the case of dubbing.)
additive (The translated text provides a supplement to the original.)
immediate (“As opposed to non-synchronous translations, where the receptor – reading a book, for instance – controls both time and duration for reception” (Gottlieb 1994: 270). With subtitles, however, the audience can not go back or slow down the material.)
synchronous (The original and the translated text are received at the same time, contrary to simultaneous interpreting.)
polymedial (This means the coexistence of two or more channels delivering the meaning of the source text.)

The above-mentioned characteristics show how profoundly complex and distinctive this form of translation is.

Furthermore, there are pros and cons of employing subtitling. On the one hand, subtitles cover some part of the screen and make the viewer read the added text. For this reason, the story may be followed with difficulties because the eyesight is not fully focused on the actors. On the other hand, subtitling leaves the original unchanged, unlike dubbing, and lets the viewer have contact with the original live language. Subtitling is strongly preferred in some countries in virtue of the ease and low cost of production. For instance, Antonini (2005: 211) states that, in Italy, subtitling became common in translating TV programs “when satellite TVs and MTV started opting for this much cheaper form of language transfer.” More to the point, subtitling can in general be utilized in audiovisual productions created for different purposes, such as in intralingual subtitling done for a deaf or hard-of-hearing audience (Diaz-Cintas 2003: 199). Here, subtitling works within one language.

Summing up, subtitling can be describe as a multifaceted concept that has its pros and cons. Moreover, in order to comprehend how best to approach the task of subtitling, one must first analyze its semiotic composition thoroughly.

1.1.1. The semiotics of subtitling

Tomaszkiewicz (2006) states that one cannot easily distinguish between the study of semiotics and the study of semiology, as they are defined very similarly: the study of signs and their meanings. Moreover, Crystal (1997: 403) says that, “language can also be studied as part of a much wider domain of enquiry: semiotics or semiology.” Nevertheless, according to Tomaszkiewicz (2006), it is not significant which name is used while discussing how image functions in communication. This section focuses on the complex semiological structure of subtitling and possible strategies that deal with redundancy, which results from the complex structure of subtitling.

Pisarska and Tomaszkiewicz (1998: 214) suggest that the coexistence of many semantic signs that results in sense is transferred, in audiovisual translation, from one semiological complex to another:

Semiological complex AAbbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthaltenSemiological complex B

(Pisarska and Tomaszkiewicz 1998: 214)

This means that there are two different semiological complexes, namely the original and the subtitled. Garcarz (2007: 111) claims that the movie communicative value should be assessed not only on the basis of the linguistic elements’ equivalence, but also the coherence between the verbal and non-verbal elements separately for the source text and the target text. Thus, the translator is supposed to deal with two semiological complexes. Furthermore, a movie is polysemiotic as it is communicated via more than one channel. Gottlieb (1998: 245) states that the translation goes beyond the language alone, especially in audiovisual translation where the translator handles a polysemiotic movie which has four communicative channels:

(a ) the verbal auditory channel, including dialogue, background voices, and sometimes lyrics
(b) the non-verbal auditory channel, including music, natural sound and sound effects
(c) the verbal visual channel, including superimposed titles and written signs on the screen
(d) and the non-verbal visual channel: picture composition and flow

(Gottlieb 1998: 245)

To clarify, in audiovisual communication, the sense may be transmitted via text, sound, music and image. Table 1 shows that subtitling together with the polymedial discourse is a polysemiotic form of translation, that is the movie is received via all four available channels. Additionally, subtitling is also diasemiotic because the channel of the original is different from the channel of the translation (Gottlieb 1998: 245).

Table 1. Typology of translation (Gottlieb 1998: 246).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Considering the multiplicity of channels, one may claim that redundancy, unnecessary information, is inevitable. Gottlieb (1998: 247) lists two types:

intersemiotic redundancy – the occurrence of the same information in two channels
intrasemiotic redundancy – information is repeated in one channel

In such circumstances, subtitling involves redundancy minimization. Therefore, “complex structures are simplified, patterns of politeness are hard to preserve and – as opposed to authentic spoken language – the phatic dimension of language disappears” (Szarkowska 2005: 243). Additionally, the translator can use reductions which, according to Kovačič (1994: 247) can be “either partial (‘condensations’) or total (‘deletions’).” For example, condensation can be used when the information is repeated in one channel, which, according to Gottlieb (1998: 247), can take place in “spontaneous speech.” A translation may be needless when the action seen on the screen lets the receiver arrive at the intended interpretation or when set greeting phrases that carry no new information to the overall story are uttered.

In conclusion, although subtitling has the most complex semiotic structure compared to other translation forms, receivers who are accustomed to it should not have to put “conscious cognitive effort” into reading the subtitles (Delabastita 1990: 98, as cited in Szarkowska 2005: 237). Nevertheless, the polysemiotic structure of the subtitled movie contains many obstacles that a translator has to overcome. Therefore, one is advised not only to be aware of the intricate nature, but also of the constraints that are present in subtitling.

1.1.2. The constraints of subtitling

The complex nature of subtitling, discussed above, gives rise to many constraints. Subtitling as an artistic translation process is constrained by formal (quantitative) constraints (also called technical constraints) which arise from the fact that subtitles should be integrated with the accompanying communicative channels (text, image and sound) and the receivers’ reading speed ability (De Linde and Kay 1999: 5-6). In other words, these constraints are related to the location of subtitles in a given space and time. Therefore, the audiovisual environment leads to spatial and temporal restrictions (De Linde and Kay 1999: 5-6). Here, the aesthetic issues have to be taken into account. The visual images have to work with the audio stimuli (Burkhanov 2003: 163-164). Additionally, subtitling involves textual (qualitative) restrictions that refer to the language, the style, the target audience and cultural differences (Gottlieb 1992: 162-164).

With regard to formal (quantitative) issues, subtitles are constrained by space and time. The spatial matters concern the screen size, character number and shape that affect legibility (Gottlieb 1992: 164). The subtitles can be arranged on the screen covering the two-thirds part of its width (Luyken et al 1991: 44). They should not be longer than two lines and each line can contain from 24 (Tomaszkiewicz 2006: 113) to 35 (Gottlieb 1992: 164) or even 40 (De Linde and Kay 1999: 6) characters in a row. Karamitroglou (1998) asserts that with the number of 40 characters, the size of the font would have to be reduced. As a result, the subtitlers would be smaller and less easily legible, which could hinder successful filmic message comprehension. One can also vary the font to mark songs or quotations. Tomaszkiewicz (2006: 114) underlines that translators are advised to take into account the length of the sentences. There is a tendency to cut long sentences into two and join short ones bearing in mind that a complete idea should be in one line. For example, in the Polish language:

Wiecie co? Kupię ją.

I tak powinnam kupić prezent dla dziecka.

(Knocked Up)

The first line of the above example means: You know what? I’ll buy it and the second line of the above example means: I should buy a present for the baby, anyway. Moreover, Belczyk (2007: 37) claims that the first of the two lines should be shorter than the second. As a result, the screen is more uncovered. With reference to the position of subtitles, they can be:

– centred for film applications;
– left-justified or centred for TV and video applications.

(ESIST: 1998)

In other words, the subtitles can be centered or left-justified but there should be a consistency in application. When it comes to the limitations of time, which arise from the fact that a receiver’s reading rate is slower than the rate of the conversation taking place on screen which leads to considering the appearance of a subtitle on screen in a given time and for a given amount of time. In keeping with this factor, Gottlieb (1992: 164), with reference to Hanson (1974), claims that “according to Swedish studies from the early seventies the average television viewer needs 5-6 seconds to read a two-liner (of some 60-70 characters).” This statement agrees with Tomaszkiewicz (2006: 114), who ascertains that subtitles should be displayed from 1.5 seconds to 6 seconds. Otherwise, the subtitle may either go unnoticed if the exposure time is shorter than 1.5 seconds, or br read twice if it stays on the screen longer than 6 seconds. In addition, the subtitles must be seen 0.25 seconds before the original conversation starts, which excludes full synchronization with the accompanying audiovisual stimuli (Karamitroglou 1998, Garcarz 2007: 137). The subtitles disappear with the next scene or two seconds after the original sentence is uttered. A further constraint arises when the information contained in the subtitle is not easy to comprehend and, to make matter worse, the action seen on screen distracts the viewers’ attention from the written subtitle. De Linde and Kay (1999: 6) argue that the reading rate of the average receiver may be affected not only by “the quantity and complexity of the linguistic information in subtitles,” but also by the kind of message that is conveyed via image. To illustrate, when viewers watch Scary Movie 3 and see rappers in a scene who are rapping to a fast rhythm for a big audience, they want to follow both the action on the screen and the subtitled lyrics of the song with slang that obscures meaning. In this case, the translator may need to decide what is crucial to translate and what can be omitted. Schwarz (2002) opines that “a complete transcription of the film dialogue is not possible. Both the physical limitation of space on the screen and the pace of the spoken word require a reduction of the text.” Accordingly, Garcarz (2007: 136) states that 30%-40% of the original text disappears. Indeed, for the above reasons, shortening or simplifying in subtitling is inevitable and necessitates translating the essence of dialogs that can be comprehended with the support of information obtained from the screen (Garcarz 2006: 113). As a result, “only relevant information can be put on screen” (Bogucki 2004: 14).

The textual (qualitative) constraints concern the language, the style, the target audience and cultural differences. This implies that they are related to the content or, as their name suggests, to the text itself. Gottlieb (2001: 22, as cited in Bogucki 2004: 115) states that “what we read in the subtitles is often less personal, less insulting or less funny than what the source-language actors said and meant.” The constrained environment is a hindrance to retaining the register and style of the original (Bogucki 2004: 116). Moreover, the differences between spoken and written language make the condensation and omission of expressions like “actually, well, you know, etc.” expedient (De Linde and Kay 1999: 4). It is also worth remarking that “when satirical programs present puns referring to verbal phenomena such as source-language specific homonyms, and jokes presupposing a detailed knowledge of people and places in the source culture,” the receivers may not comprehend the text (Gottlieb 1992: 165). Thus, the translators who face language- or culture-specific limitations are advised to take into account the knowledge or the cognitive environment of the target audience.


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Subtitling humor - The analysis of selected translation techniques in subtitling elements containing humor
Wroclaw University of Technology  (Institute of English Studies)
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Audiovisual translation, Subtitling, Relevance Theory, Humor, Translation techniques, Untranslatability
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Magdalena Panek (Author), 2009, Subtitling humor - The analysis of selected translation techniques in subtitling elements containing humor , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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