The Delicate Art of Subtitling: Capturing the language of the banlieues.

I thought that today I would try to deal with a subject that is slightly alien to me, yet one which I find extremely interesting and something that everyone will have come across: the art of subtitling.

First of all, I have to admit that I am not an expert in subtitling, far from it. I have read up on the subject and done some work involving subtitling in the past and I just wanted to share and contextualise some of the unique challenges that it poses.

From a monolingual point of view alone subtitling is an extremely difficult task to get right and, as subtitling relies on the suspension of disbelief, the importance of the text extends beyond a simple communication aid to a piece of the drama in its own right where textual breaks can completely ruin the illusion.

When you look at the list of pre-requisites and constraints for a single piece of subtitling, the skill involved in the task of the subtitler is brought into much sharper focus. Take, for example, the fact that a subtitle can contain a maximum of 35 characters per line (including spaces and punctuation) up to a maximum of two lines – not even half a tweet to get across everything being rapidly churned out on screen. Then combine that with the facts that the average viewer can read a two-line subtitle of 70 characters in 6 seconds while the subtitle cannot run over a cut or change of scene, and your work is really cut out.

Furthermore, each subtitle has to be a coherent, logical unit in its own right, with line breaks appearing as if they are naturally-occuring. Take the example below: the first rendering of the line break is unnacceptable while the second makes the message more readable and coherent as well as adoping a pyramid shape (rather than the inverted pyramid of the first) which is always preferred by the human eye. Phew!

Why did you do it? Kevin

will not be happy.

should be

Why did you do it?

Kevin will not be happy.

This is not to mention the fairly obvious facts that the subtitle should also aim to synchronise as much as possible with the audio track all while ensuring instant comprehension without obstructing the importance and effect of the image on the screen, which serves to further complicate the task.

Although translation may seem like just a small addition given these strict constraints, it adds a great number of additional challenges – cultural, practical and linguistic in nature – such as the languages using differing amounts of characters or being spoken at different speeds, or even concepts being introduced that would normally require lengthy explanations for the target audience.

Next – as an example of some tricky subtitling – I want to look at a scene from the French film La Haine which, while it remains a favourite of French teachers here in England as the complexity of the language – with its copious amounts of slang – and the subject matter addressed make it an extremely interesting project for students, seems to have bypassed many French audiences. The film follows three friends in their early twenties from different immigrant backgrounds living in a ZUP – zone d’urbanisation prioritaire – (an impoverished multi-ethnic housing project) in the banlieues (suburbs) of Paris and chronicles their various struggles over a roughly 19 hour period.

The scene in question (click the image for the video) directly addresses their disconnect with the rest of Parisian society as the three friends attend a modern art exhibition in Paris. Linguistically, this disconnect is clearly demonstrated in the French through the colloquial nature of their speech and this is an extremely challenging issue for the subtitler to capture precisely, as they aim to express this fluctuating formality while battling the constraints listed above.

Here, the subtitler attempts to lower the register in English by using colloquial contractions such as ‘outta my way’ (0:13) or ‘Awwright’ (0:50) in Hubert’s speech before contrasting this with the more standard language employed when he is speaking with the two women. Another method used in an attempt to demonstrate this different dialect/idiolect is the substitution of their urban Parisian slang with a semi-African American dialect as the American translators were clearly of the opinion that this would resonate better with their target audience, only to be widely criticised for this ambitious and contradictory leap which only serves to complicate matters. In the clip above, for example, Hubert’s ‘mothafuckas’ (3:12) or Said’s reference to the black woman as ‘sister’ (0:37) which contrasts with the UK-version subtitle of ‘the black one’ – a slightly closer rendering of the French dialogue which avoids the confusion of adding another ethnic background into the dialogue – are both examples of this interesting, yet flawed, method of capturing the language of the banlieues.

These struggles to accurately capture the exact register of speech continue throughout the entire film and the role of subtitler in this case is an unenviable task! While this post only scratches the very surface of what is involved, I hope it has proven to be an interesting insight into the challenges that the role of subtitler offers up.


12 responses to “The Delicate Art of Subtitling: Capturing the language of the banlieues.”

  1. “La Haine […] remains a favourite of French teachers here in England…” – Guilty, I must admit. When I was working as a teacher, I used this film for my A-level class. Translating films is a complex area, there are so many things to consider. And slang in particular is challenging.

    1. Couldn’t agree more, I find the whole area really interesting.
      I remember when I was first shown La Haine in French classes it seemed like a completely new language with all that slang!

  2. I had the same feeling. Great film nevertheless.

    1. Without a doubt, one of my favourite French films.

  3. the fact that a subtitle can contain a maximum of 35 characters per line (including spaces and punctuation) up to a maximum of two lines

    Explain how exactly those are “fact[s].”

    1. Thanks for your comment. As Karamitrouglou’s (1998) attempt to define subtitling standards – which suggests the above limits – has gained quite authoritative status in the field, I felt that they could be succinctly labelled as facts. However, if you feel I have exaggerated their importance then it can easily be amended to the (more accurate yet more cumbersome) ‘widely accepted spatial contraints’ or something similar?

    2. Ofcom for example (they recommend a maximum of between 32-34 characters per line and no more than two lines). If you have other information that says differently, please share.That would be more constructive than your previous reply.

      1. My previous reply was for Joe Clark.

      2. Don’t worry, I guessed 🙂 Well said by the way.

  4. Kirsty Hutson Avatar
    Kirsty Hutson

    Great article. I’m currently working on my MA dissertation and am doing a subtitling project dealing with exactly these issues, although I’m actually working from German to English. I find slang in itself fascinating but add in the extra complications of trying to convert the spoken language into the written form and across languages and cultures all at the same time…phew, it’s a challenge! One that I really enjoy though 🙂

    1. You’ve got it right there! It was during my MA that I had the chance to do some subtitling and, although I haven’t worked in the area at length, you quickly discover the unique challenges it poses. Along with translating poetry, it’s probably the area in which you have to accept the most inevitable loss! Glad you enjoyed the article and good luck with your dissertation! 🙂

  5. […] If done poorly, it can turn a serious drama into a laugh-out-loud comedy. Although the typical challenges of translation are all there in the world of cinema, there are several other components that make this even harder […]

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