Subtitling: Some Strategies – IELTS Academic Reading Passage

When movies made in one language are shown to speakers of another, the two methods of resolving the language barrier are subtitling and dubbing. Subtitling is the written translation of the words, usually appearing discreetly at the bottom of the screen, while dubbing is the recording of voices in the target language.

Dubbing, although seemingly more accessible to movie watches, comes with many disadvantages. For a start, it is expensive, hence it needs a large audience to justify the cost, yet even big films carry no guarantee of such commercial success. In addition, the dubbed voices may seem detached or inappropriate to the characters, or otherwise, the absurdity of having an undereducated American ranffian saying. ‘Je voudrais déclarer un vol’ becomes too much, affecting appreciation of the film. Finally, films and TV programs now have an increasingly rapid turnover rate, and subtitling is faster and more practical in such situations.

However, one should not assume subtitling is easier than dubbing. Subtitling requires careful strategies, and here I will outline some of them. In order to do this, a sample movie is needed, and the one examined here is an Italian movie subtitled into English. Comprehension of subtitles will always be affected by lack of familiarity with the values, beliefs, and interactive differences between the host and viewing cultures. The subtitlers need to be aware of this in order to translate true meaning. Thus, before beginning any work, a brief ‘cultural audit’ is absolutely necessary, involving a comparison of the two cultures in relation to the storyline of the movie.

The movie is set in the late 1960s, at a time when the wealth and materialism of American society was very high, contrasting the relative poverty of Italian village life. The plot tells the story of a poor couple who dream of winning large sums of money by gambling in a card game against a wealthy elderly American woman, who occasionally visits Italy just for that purpose. The final thematic assertion that there are more important factors than money reflects the warmth and solidarity of the Italian village in the face of adversity. Although these themes are universal, one could speculate that a Western audience might not like or identify with them as much, give the increasing urbanisation and materialism of their own society.

The most immediate translation issue relates to the movie’s title, ‘Lo Scopone Scientifico’, translates as ‘Scientific Scopone’, whereas the English title is, ‘The Scientific Card Player’. ‘Scopone’ is the name of a traditional Italian card game of great antiquity. Obviously, the translators could not use this name, obscure to the Westren viewers, but they insert a blander and inappropriate term. An even clearer subtitling lapse is that the betting is always done using, apparently, ludicrously high figures. Subtitles such as, ‘Let’s start with a million’ regularly jump out. This is a literal translation of the figures (in Italian lira), yet it is the dollar with which the English-speaking audience would associate. The result is an apparent lack of plausibility, changing the comedic nature of the film.

With respect to the specific subtitling used, there are five. Let us begin with the subtitle, ‘The old bag’s here.’ This is idiomatic in English, being an insulting term for an elderly woman. However, it is a simple expression comprising only two words, one of which is literally intended (‘old’). I would speculate that the same idiom occurs in Italian (that is, the direct translation of ‘old’ and ‘bag’ in Italian carries the same idiomatic meaning). This is the strategy of Transfer, where the full expression without time or space consideration is given. Otherwise, there could well be a closely aligned idiom, in which case the strategy would be Imitation, where there are similar lexical elements between both languages.

Continuing with idioms, we read, ‘Catches win matches’. This derives from certain ball games, such as cricket, where catching the ball after it is struck by the batsman contributes towards winning the game. There are no such sporting cultures in Italy followed. Thus, one can be certain that other words were used in the original Italian, but that these have a similar pragmatic effect (in meaning and idiomatic nature). The strategy used is thus Paraphrasing, where different expressions specific to the source language (Italian) and target language (English) are required.

Later on, we read, ‘A sign of destiny’. When this subtitle appears, there are actually two to three people speaking with equal force at the same time. Space and time constraints render it impossible to have them all translated, so only the quoted subtitle appears, using the strategy known as Condensation. Finally, we read scopa – an Italian word referring to a variation of the central card game. Being unique to Italy, there is no equivalent word in English, so the strategy used here is Regination, where the subtitler leaves the word in the original language. The meaning remains obvious from the context, and only in such minimal and unlikely situations does this strategy become acceptable.

Questions 14-17
Choose the correct letter A, B, C or D.

14. Dubbing can
A appeal to larger audiences.
B seem silly.
C increase appreciation of the film.
D be faster

15. Cultural audits
A look at one culture.
B are long and involved.
C help comprehension.
D are not normally required.

16. The movie which was examined
A has common human themes.
B has a surprising ending.
C is set in an Italian city.
D involves two main actors.

17. Scopone
A is a relatively new game.
B is known to the Western audience.
C is a bland term.
D has a variation called scopa.

Questions 18-22
Do the following statements agree with the information given in Reading Passage One?

TRUE if the statement agrees with the information
FALSE if the statement contradicts the information
NOT GIVEN If there is no information on this

18. The English title is a subtitling lapse.
19. Transfer and imitation are interesting strategies.
20. Paraphrasing is often used.
21. Resignation can be used in many situations.
22. Almost all Italians love scopa.

Questions 23-26
Match the translation example with its associated fact.

Write the correct letter, A-D, next to the questions.

A a practical decision
B clarified by the situation
C using other words, but with the same meaning
D probably exists in the source language

23. The old bag’
24. ‘Catches win matches’
25. ‘A sign of destiny’
26. ‘Scopa’