Volume 7, No. 1 
January 2003

B. Schwarz





From the Editor
Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Index 1997-2003

  Translator Profiles
How Not to Become a Translator
by Per Dohler

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
It's a Small World
by Steve Vlasta Vitek
Translation: A Market in Crisis?
by Danilo Nogueira

Translators Around the World
Análisis de la demanda de traducción en un organismo público en las islas Baleares—El caso de la Dirección General de Economía
Lluch i Dubon, Ferran y Belmonte Juan, Roser
In Memoriam
Harvie Jordan, 1943-2002
by Patricia Bobeck
David Orpin, 1946-2002
by Geoffrey Pearl

  Literary Translation
Language Ambiguity: A Curse and a Blessing
by Cecilia Quiroga-Clare
Translation of Literary Style
by Song Xiaoshu, Cheng Dongming

  Translator Education
Translator Training & the Real World: Concrete Suggestions for Bridging the Gap — Part 1
Translator Training & the Real World: Concrete Suggestions for Bridging the Gap — Part 2

  Arts & Entertainment
Translation in a Confined Space—Film Sub-titling—Part 2
by Barbara Schwarz

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor

  Translators’ Tools
Close Windows. Open Doors
by Marc Prior
Translators’ Emporium

Translators’ Job Market

Letters to the Editor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
Translation Journal
Arts & Entertainment

Translation in a Confined Space—

Film Sub-titling
with special reference to Dennis Potter’s “Lipstick on Your Collar”
Part 2

by Barbara Schwarz


(Continued from the previous issue)

9. Culture Specific Terms

Although more and more concepts are shared and understood between different cultures, there are still many terms and expressions which reflect the morals and values of a particular culture and have no true equivalent in the TL. To deal with these cultural terms successfully, a translator has to be not only bilingual but also bi-cultural. There are two main strategies when dealing with cultural frames and they are known as 'domestication' and 'foreignisation'. Venuti (1995:47) points out that "all translation is fundamentally domestication and is really initiated in the domestic culture". The idea of 'foreignising a translation' was introduced by Venuti (1995:4) and he defines this process as "taking the reader over to the foreign culture, making him or her see the (cultural and linguistic) differences". In a sub-titled film, the reader is immersed in the foreign culture by listening to the SL and seeing unfamiliar behaviour, sights, sounds and music. The sub-titles therefore do not need to emphasise the foreign aspect of the original work, rather they must act as an interpretation. They must provide a TL version filling gaps in knowledge and make the narrative easily accessible for the audience.

Before discussing some examples, a strategy will be introduced which may provide help in rendering these cultural terms. The technique is known as 'chunking' and explained by Katan (1999:147-57). 'Chunking', is a term taken from the world of computers and refers to the change in size of something. Katan introduces three different types of chunking:

a) 'chunking up'

The translator is analysing a specific term and puts it into a more general context. The change of size therefore, moves from a narrowly defined term to a broader definition. For example,

Granny Smith -> an apple -> fruit -> food

b) 'chunking down'

Here the strategy is reversed and the starting point is the generic term, which leads to the more specific one.

c) 'chunking sideways'

Here, the size is not altered but the translator tries to find other examples which are on the same level or belong to the same class. For example,

Williams Pear -> Granny Smith

pear, banana, orange -> apple

vegetable, cereal -> fruit

The chunking moves from the very specific (proper name) to the level of the class term (kind of fruit), to more general terms (food).

Katan (1999) points out that there are different ways in which these words can be linked. This technique can be applied on all levels of a text, word, sentence, paragraph or complete text and provides the translator with alternatives.

The strategy of 'chunking sideways' is of particular interest when rendering cultural terms or any so called 'untranslatables'. The examples are grouped together according to topics and the strategies applied in translation vary from chunking to elaborating.

9.1. Locations and geographical references

These terms presume knowledge by the spectators which are part of the SL culture. When translating these terms, sub-titlers must be aware that the TL audience may not be familiar with the expression and that additional information is needed to clarify the term. The opening shot of 'Lipstick on Your Collar' shows an office, with men in suits working at their desks. Pictures on the wall, which include Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill may give some clues to the kind of office. While the SL audience has to work out who these people are and what timeframe the story is set in, the TL audience receives help from the sub-title:


(British War Office, 1956)

The translator, who acts as the interpreter for the TL spectators has decided that this information is required to fill a gap in assumed knowledge.

In the next example, the expression presumes knowledge of London:

Im Bahnhof Waterloo

At Waterloo

Linguistic competence alone is not sufficient to interpret this expression correctly. British viewers understand that in the context of this television series 'Waterloo' refers to the train station in London. This knowledge is not shared by the TL audience, hence the slightly elaborated TL version (Bahnhof - train station). In other parts of the dialogue, the information is supplied in the ST, however only in implied form. For example, when Private Francis arrives late at the War Office, he has to explain to Colonel Bernwood, what has happened. As Bernwood remarks, the War Office is "slap in the middle of Whitehall" and none of the officers present can imagine how anyone could get lost in central London. Francis, who is from Wales and has never before been in this big city, tells the officer that he asked a policeman for directions:

(Colonel Bernwood)

Wo war das?

Wo fand diese Begegnung statt?

And where was this?

Where did this encounter take place?

(Private Francis)

Trafalgar Square. Mit den Steinlöwen. (...)

- Und dann ? - Er zeigte
auf so ein grosses Gebäude. Es ist ... (...)
Es hatte Säulen und Treppen,
und ich ..

Trafalgar Square. With the stone lions, Sir. (...)

- And then? - He pointed
to this big building, Sir. (...)
It had pillars and steps and I ...

TL speakers who are familiar with London, know instantly what building Private Francis entered, as soon as they hear the words 'big building' and 'pillars and steps'. They may smirk in unison with the officers, while the TL audience has a knowledge deficit and cannot follow the joke. Potter builds up some suspense before providing the full information:

Aber es war voller Bilder, Sir. (...)

- National Gallery.

... but it was full of pictures, sir. (...)

- National Gallery.

An elaboration of the sub-titles is not necessary, particularly as English speakers from outside Britain will have the same knowledge gap as the TL spectators.

Geographical knowledge on a grander scale, as referring to countries and continents is shared by more people. This does not mean however, that the terminology is the same. For example,

Ich sage nur, wir sind nicht der Nahe Osten.

We're not the Middle East, are we?

In this example, translator must be aware of interference. While 'Far East' can be rendered word by word to Fernost, this does not apply to the 'Middle East' (*Mittlerer Osten) and translators must not be fooled by this 'false friend'.

9.2. Money

The treatment of money in the context of fiction differs greatly from that of a financial report. The terminology is often vague and the actual value bears no consequence in understanding the narrative. Slang expressions add to the colour of the language used and conjure up some nostalgia. Many languages use slang terms for money, either generically as in 'bread', 'lolly' or 'dough' in the SL, with equivalents in the TL, Moneten, Mäuse or Zaster (Breitsprecher 1994). Wallace, whose creative use of language has been described before in chapter eight, loves using any kind of unusual expression to surprise, shock and amuse his listeners as well as himself.

Ich gebe meinen Zaster aus,
wie ich will.

I spend my spondulicons as I see fit.

This rarely used term is only listed in specialised dictionaries, as for example the 'Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English' (Beale 1984):

spondulicon(s) is a low perversion (-1923) of spondulicks

This example illustrates, how one single expression, particularly if it is dated or obscure can lead to extensive research. The translation to Zaster is successful, both in the informal register, as well as the use of a term which appears rather dated.

In addition to the generic terms, there are slang words to refer to specific coins or notes as for example, 'a tenner' which has a direct equivalent in the TL ein Zehner, with the difference that the SL term refers to a note and the latter term to a coin. In British English for example, one also finds the term 'quid' in place of pound or 'bob' for the now obsolete Shilling. These informal expressions have to be recognised by the translator and then put into some form which is both comprehensible to the TL audience while retaining some of the informal register of the SL culture. Here are some examples from 'Lipstick on Your Collar', which is set in the 1950s, when pounds, shillings and pence were legal tender.

Das hab ich für einen Schilling gekriegt.

I got this for a bob.

The translator has correctly rendered the slang term and replaced it with the TL spelling of the neutral term 'shilling'. In the next example, the problem lies in the pronunciation of the money terms, which are not obviously connected to their spelling.

3 Schilling und 2 1/2 Pence

Three and tuppence halfpenny

3 und 2 1/2-Scheiss-Pennies

Three and tuppence-bloody-halfpenny

The two-pence piece has evolved to 'tuppence', while the coin worth half a penny is pronounced as 'hāpn?' (TCOD, 1964). Once these colloquialisms are understood, they must be turned into an intelligible TL version. The translation is slightly elaborated by inserting 'shilling' in order to make the utterance intelligible. This additional information is helpful to the TL audience, while the literal translation of 'bloody' to Scheiss-Pennies is again closer to 'translationese' than natural German. One could render it to lausige Pennies or simply leave it out.

The money matter gets even more complicated in the next example, where the translator decides to avoid introducing yet another term and to express the amount in shillings:

Es handelt sich bloss um 2 1/2 Schilling.

Look here, we're only talking half a crown.

For this conversion it is necessary to know that one crown is worth five shillings (TCOD, 1964). It can be assumed that neither 'half a crown' nor '2 1/2 Shilling' mean much to a non-British audience of the 1990s. The decision to stay with the already familiar monetary terms therefore is in the interest of the viewer.

9.3. Dated terms

The language of the television series 'Lipstick on Your Collar' contains words which are no longer used and carry the flavour of a bygone era. This does not only apply to terms concerning money, like shillings and crowns but also to words like 'wireless'. When rendering these terms, the aim must be to find the true equivalent in the TL, that is, a word with the same meaning which has also been replaced by a more 'modern' one. While Radioapparat or Rundfunkgerät have similar connotations to that of 'wireless', they are not used in the sub-titles. This must be due to their length. With twelve and thirteen characters respectively, they would occupy nearly half a line, while the more modern Radio leaves space for the rest of the utterance. As mentioned in other contexts, translation for sub-titles is a balancing act, between finding the best solution from a point of translation and from the point of a compact sub-title. While the dated aspect of the word is lost, the meaning is retained.

In addition to dated words, there are also expressions which are no longer in use as for example 'see you later alligator'. It is often difficult if not impossible to find out where such expressions originate. There is evidence however, that this saying was popular during the 1950s as it topped the charts as the title of a rock song by Bill Haley in 1956 (App. 2). Dennis Potter left nothing to chance and his careful use of language is based on well founded research of the period the play is set in. Translators must keep this in mind and respect the authenticity when rendering these expressions. This does not mean that there will be an equivalent saying but the translator used the same informal register:

Auf ein ander Mal, Süsser.

(Another time, sweetie-pie.)

9.4. Non-verbal signs

Non-verbal communication is part of most cultures and to understand fully the meaning of an utterance, one must be able to interpret facial expressions, gestures and body language. This is of particular importance for a translators working for the screen, as part of the meaning can be encoded and conveyed to the viewer purely visually. The translator has to recognise these non-verbal clues and act as a cultural mediator, supplying the audience with the necessary information. If the signs cannot be understood and are vital for the narration, they must be conveyed verbally and included in the dialogue.

In related cultures like English and German, encoded meaning of gestures is often shared and can either be translated, or if visible on screen left without any further explanation. For example, when Brigadier Sanders enters the War Office, everybody gets up to show respect to this high-ranking officer. He then signals to them, by raising his hands and moving them down, that they can all sit down again. This non-verbal sign is also familiar to the TL audience and does not need further treatment.

In another scene, Sylvia responds to a neighbour with a vulgar hand gesture. The mad organist Harold Atterbow who is obsessed by her, pesters her in the street late at night and they have a loud argument. Someone shouts out of a window:

Heda! Schluss mit dem verdammten Krach.

Oi! pack up that bloody row.

Sylvia shows him the two-finger-sign, which although not part of the TL culture, is not translated or explained in the dialogue. While the precise meaning may not be understood, the general tone and choice of words make it clear, that the sign stands for some kind of obscenity. Taking into account the target audience, it can be assumed that they possess some knowledge of English culture and will be able to interpret it correctly.

Non-verbal gestures can also appear embedded in the dialogue. For example,

Nicht zu fassen.

Nasser dreht uns eine lange Nase...

I can't believe it.

This Nasser putting his fingers to his nose ...

This gesture, indicating that 'one does not think much of someone' is shared by both cultures and allow the translator to stay close to the ST by using the equivalent TL idiom.

9.5. Taboos and other 'untranslatables'

One of the most difficult areas in this television series, is the use of bad language or swear words. The first step for the translator is to recognise the term and understand how 'bad' it is. Native speakers intuitively know which term is more vulgar than another. For example, 'shit' is generally considered to be more vulgar than 'damn'. As Kidman (1993) points out, there is a general principle of a "hierarchy of obscenity" and the difference in degree includes both qualitative and quantitative aspects. It must also be taken into account, that taboo areas change with time and social mores. During the 1950s, the time of this series, swear words were in less widespread use than today. This is reflected in older editions of dictionaries, which do not include such terms. A translator may therefore resort to the help of native speakers, to fully understand the nuances between the different expressions. It is also important to know who would use which expression and in what circumstances. In 'Lipstick on Your Collar' one deals mainly with language of men within the context of the army. Once the translator has established the type of expression and the degree of obscenity, he can then try and find an equivalent. As the swear words are connected to taboo areas, this will differ substantially from culture to culture. German and English are related languages and cultures and both share taboo words referring to sex, sex organs, bodily functions and religion.

When finding equivalents, the technique of 'chunking sideways' may be of help. This means, that one is looking for a swear word with the same degree of vulgarity. For example,

Herrgott. Was für ein Dreckloch.

Christ, what a dump.

While the TL shares the Christian tradition with the SL culture, the term 'Christ' is not used as an interjection. 'Jesus' on the other hand has a true equivalent in 'Jesses'. In the example above, the translator has applied the 'chunking' strategy, looking for examples in the same semantic field which are used with similar frequency. The translation to Herrgott (good God) is successful. The expansion of the expression in the following example works similarly well, as does the second part of the sub-title:

Herrgott nochmal! Du brutaler Mistkerl.

For Christ's sake! You sodding bully.

9.6. Proverbs and fixed expressions

One can expect that at least some of the proverbs and idioms will have equivalents in related cultures. The use of specialised dictionaries like for example, 'A Polyglot of Foreign Proverbs' (Bohn 1968) is of great help in rendering these terms. For example,

Spare in der Zeit,
so hast du in der Not.

Waste not, want not.

Fixed expressions are more difficult to find, as they are often not listed anywhere. The following translation is an excellent example of a true equivalent:

...nicht jeder Hinz und Kunz
arbeitet im Kriegsministerium
...not every Tom, Dick and Harry
works at the War Office.

Many idiomatic expressions however, can be found in good dictionaries. The sub-titles are full of successful renderings, using TL idioms retaining the same register. Here are just some examples:


to toddle off


common as muck

die heisseste Nummer

best looking bint








to drive you 'round the bend

Finally, there is the area of wordplay which is obviously also culture-specific. It will however be treated separately in the following chapter because of its frequent use in Potter's serial and its particular resistance to standardised translation methods.


10. Puns and wordplay

Wordplay is often based on the different meanings of homonyms or similar word forms. Delabatista (1999) differentiates between 'horizontal and vertical wordplay'. The first is based on similar linguistic forms which are present in the same sentence, as for example 'traduttore - traditore'. The latter on the other hand, functions with an association which is not part of the phrase itself as for example, 'Love at first bite' (love at first sight).

As the play is intrinsically linked to word forms and sounds of the SL, they cannot simply be rendered into the TL. Delabatista (1999) gives a good overview of strategies for dealing with wordplay. Here are some options which can be used for sub-titles:

  1. Pun -> pun: the SL pun is rendered by another pun in the TL which can differ more or less in form, semantic value and the way in which it is embedded in the context.
  2. Pun -> no pun: a pun is rendered simply by a phrase, retaining one or both meanings of the wordplay. The play with sounds however, is lost completely.
  3. Pun -> stylistic means: in order to replace some of the lost effect of the wordplay, other stylistic means (alliterations, rhyme or repetition) are used.
  4. Loss and gain: to compensate for a loss in one part of the text, a pun will be inserted in a place where the ST has none.
  5. Pun -> 0 : The pun is simply left out and not rendered at all.

The dissimilarities between languages create obstacles which often cannot be overcome. This applies particularly to the area of wordplay. Rather than give up, translators should embrace the challenge, says Nornes (1999), who describes these 'moments of untranslatability' as 'privileged encounters with the foreign'. Nornes goes on to say that "they are also opportunities for translators to ply the highest skills of their craft". In his article 'For an abusive Subtitling' (1999) he promotes the view that abusive sub-titlers do not attempt to smooth the "rough edges of foreignness into easily consumable meaning", but refer the viewers back to the SL text. "Abusive subtitles circulate between the foreign and the familiar, the known and the unknown, just as they shift between sense-for-sense and word-for-word modalities." It is now time to turn to our example and see how the translator of 'Lipstick on Your Collar' has dealt with puns.

The first example is from a scene where Sylvia has an argument with the mad organist Harold Atterbow. He is infatuated with her and has paid her for sexual favours. Sylvia is talking to a third person who is present at the scene:

Er ist Organist.
Er kam sogar schon im Scheiss-Radio!
Aber ich spiel nicht
auf seinem Scheiss-Organ. Nie mehr.

He plays the organ and he's even been
on the bloody wireless.
But I don't play his bloody organ
any more, no more I don't.

This pun in the ST works on the homonymous word 'organ' which can refer to the musical instrument as well as parts of the body, including the penis. The syntactic frame is also part of the wordplay, in that there are only minor changes to the structure. There is an element of repetition, though with a change of subject: 'he plays the organ' to ' I don't play his (bloody) organ'. The strategy the translator used in this example, is reproducing the pun, based on the same word (organ - Organ). The TL word Organ is treated as in the SL, although it does not cover the same meanings. While it can be used in the medical sense to refer to parts of the body it does not cover the musical instrument. To keep the lexeme Organ, the syntax of the first sentence has been changed from Er spielt die Orgel, to Er ist Organist. While this sentence reads perfectly natural in the TL, the pun does not have the same effect as in the SL and appears rather artificial or 'translated'. It may be helpful to try a different approach and base the pun on another part of the sentence, as for example on the verb 'play' (spielen):

Er spielt die Orgel und
kam sogar schon im Radio!
Aber ich spiel nicht mehr mit.
Nie mehr.

While there is some loss in the direct sexual reference, this version retains the syntactic frame with the repetition and allows for a more natural flow.

In the next example, the translator replaces the ST pun with another one in the TL:

- Übersetzen, du Dummi.

- Aber es ist ein Brief.
Ich meine ... es ist ein Brief.

- Ja, wenigstens kein blauer.

Translate it, nig-nog.

- But it's a letter,
well, I mean, it's a letter.

- Yeah, and it's not a French one neiver.

This conversation takes place between Private Hopper and Private Francis. Francis is concerned about translating letters (from Russian) because he regards them as private. The ST changes 'Russian letters' to 'French letters' which in turn is a euphemism for condom. The TL version uses a similar kind of vertical wordplay, alluding to another kind of letter. Here the reference is ein blauer Brief (a blue letter), which can be translated as 'a notice to quit' (Breitsprecher 1993). The pun reads well but loses the reference to a language and does not fit the context nor the character. There is a complete change of register from informal to formal or from steamy, sexual allusions to a spotless and sanitary office environment.

With no possibility of wordplay based on the TL word Brief (letter), one may have to resort to more unconventional methods, as for example those described by Nornes (1999). He strongly disagrees with the view that the language of sub-titles should be invisible and encourages experimentation. Nornes mentions a French New Wave film (Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, 1973) in which the sequence of sub-titles was interrupted with the following remark:

[Untranslatable French Pun]

Nornes suggests that if a film breaks with cinematic conventions, it may be appropriate for the sub-titles to do the same. This could apply to Potter's television serial which makes use of an unconventional production style. While the idea of experimentation is certainly welcome, the above mentioned solution appears very crude. If one applies it to our example, it would read like this:

- Übersetzen, du Dummi.

- Aber es ist ein Brief.

Ich meine ... es ist ein Brief.

[Unübersetzbares Wortspiel]

[Untranslatable English pun]

This kind of sub-title maybe unconventional but for the audience it has little merit. It interrupts the dialogue and disturbs the flow of the narrative. If no satisfactory solution can be found, translators must have the courage to leave out the wordplay altogether.

Playing with language can also include word coinage, alliteration or rhyme. These however, are far less prevalent in Potter's plays. The next example deals with an alliteration based on similar sounds. As the musical aspect of language is intrinsically linked to the SL, it is rare that alliterations can be rendered retaining both sound and meaning.

Gebrauchen Sie ab und zu Ihre Birne.
Ich hab schon zuviel Papierkram.

Use your bonce once in a while, will you?
I've got more than enough bumph.

The wordplay is based on the similar sounds of the informal terms 'bonce' and 'bumph'. The rendering is excellent, however the alliteration is lost completely. As mentioned above, the loss in this part of the dialogue may be compensated for somewhere else, where the ST has neither alliteration nor a pun.


11. Specific problems

In addition to cultural terms, this chapter deals with some phenomena which are unique to the SL culture. They are all connected with language and the tradition of playing with it. Anagrams, acronyms, rhyming slang and cryptic crossword puzzles are all part of British everyday culture. This fondness for playing with words is not a matter of education, but occurs in all social classes. Potter makes use of these creative linguistic expressions in his plays and they will now be examined more closely. It is obvious that such phenomena present enormous challenges to a translator, who is often unable to find equivalent terms in the TL.

Most texts have parts which appear to be so difficult to render that translators might simply give up and declare them untranslatable. Hofstadter (1997) takes the opposite view and suggests that these difficult terms cause the translator to be particularly creative and imaginative. He goes on to say that it is useful to produce different versions, thereby exploring different possibilities. The change in language results in some loss but can also be the source of some gain. This advice is helpful when trying to deal with the following:

11.1. Acronyms

These words, which are formed from initials of other words are generally used for institutions and organisations. The concept of the 'acronym' is shared by both SL and TL cultures and does not need to be explained. The acronyms which occur in 'Lipstick on Your Collar' however, are not of a formal kind but represent a more playful use of this technique. They are often used by teenagers to encode taboos. The two examples mentioned involve a reference to the other sex.

In the first example, Private Francis explains an acronym to his aunt. He spells it out and then fills in the words.

SWALK: Sealed With A Loving Kiss

The acronym itself has no semantic value. This allows the translator to retain the content but not the form and recreate a version for the TL:

MELK: Mit Einem Liebevollen Kuss (with a loving kiss)

The only criterion for this version is that the letters are put together in such a way that they can be easily pronounced using TL phonemes.

The second acronym is used by Corporal Berry, who shouts out 'NORWICH' to his wife, whenever he opens the front door of his house. In this case, the acronym is not a nonsense term, but refers to the name of a city. Similarly to the example above, a vulgarity is encoded in a neutral term. The name of the city is of no relevance to the narrative. For translation this means that the term can be changed to either another city name or any other word. While the form does not need to be retained, the sexual connotation must be carried across. In our example, the sub-titler has decided to leave the term as in the SL and find TL words which fit the initials:

N-O-R-W-I-C-H KNickers Off, Ready When I Come Home

Na Olle, Rock Weg Ich Comm Heim

This rendition is an excellent example of a successful recreation of the TL. A careful analysis of the components will show how close the TT is to the ST while using the correct register and content.


'well then' is an informal and slightly pushy way of asking somebody to do something.


is an informal term referring to 'my old lady'


the piece of clothing of the SL version has been changed to 'skirt'



Ich comm heim

is a word by word rendition of the ST

Strictly, it might seem that spelling komm with a 'c' is a mistake, but it is in keeping with the SL. NORWICH relies on spelling 'knickers' with an 'n' which only goes unnoticed as the word appears in the spoken rather than the written form.

11.2. Rhyming slang

Some background knowledge is essential when dealing with this next problem. Rhyming slang is closely linked to English and Australian culture and even though its use has declined, it still forms part of general knowledge. Rhyming slang is a part of cockney vernacular, which originated in the East End of London. It is based on the idea, that a conjunction of words rhyme with the word which is actually meant. For example,

dog & bone -> telephone / plates of meat -> feet / struggle & strife -> wife

To make the message even more obscure, the word pair is often abbreviated to the first word, as for example, "Use your loaf and think next time". The full expression is necessary to make sense of the utterance: "loaf of bread = head." It is generally suggested that this coded speech was used by street traders to conceal illegal activities. In order to know what was going on in the underworld, the police had to learn this slang and through the publication of these collections, rhyming slang became known throughout the community. (App. 3)

Before discussing how such expressions can be rendered, here is an example from Potter's play. Here, rhyming slang is used by one of the soldiers to Private Francis. As he is not from London but from the countryside, he is not familiar with the expression and does not understand it. Francis is answering the telephone and repeats what his colleague tells him:

- Wo sind sie?

- Where are they?

- Wir wissen's nicht.

- Zum Jimmy Riddle gegangen.

- We don't know.

- Havin' a Jimmy Riddle.

- Er ist mit den anderen Offizieren
zum Jimmy Riddle gegangen.

- He is havin' a Jimmy Riddle, sir, with the
other officers. (...)

- Was? - Pinkeln! Ein Reim auf piddle:
Jimmy Riddle!

- What? - A piss, a piddle, a Jimmy Riddle.

The TL culture has no equivalent type of slang and the concept of a rhyming pair is unknown. Nevertheless, the translator decides to stay close to the ST and provide the necessary information as part of the sub-title. The first change is due to TL syntax. The question term wo (where) can only be answered by the verb 'to be' and a location (Sie sind zuhause. (They are at home)) or a motion verb with a location (Sie gingen in die Stadt. (They went to the city.)) The translator therefore changes the ST sentence with the verb 'to have' to 'they have gone to Jimmy Riddle'. The most difficult part occurs in the last line however, when the full rhyming slang is uttered. The sub-title inserts an explanation Ein Reim auf piddle: Jimmy Riddle (a rhyme on piddle: Jimmy Riddle). It is not obvious to the audience however, that pinkeln is a translation of 'piddle' and they may still wonder who Jimmy Riddle is. It must be remembered that a sub-title is displayed on the screen for only a few seconds and the audience therefore has a very short time to read the words and make sense of them. This kind of translation seems to be more appropriate for a written text, where the reader can ponder over a sentence or passage. It might have been better to lose the rhyming slang altogether and resort to a much freer translation. One can create a TL dialogue with a similarly embarrassing content. 'Having' a piddle' can be rendered to the equally informal Ich muss mal pinkeln which is often abbreviated to Ich muss mal, leaving out the verb 'piddle'. Private Francis who often stutters could repeat the first part of a sentence Ich muss mal which does sound ambiguous. It gets resolved in the last line, where the utterance is completed ('he had to go to a meeting'). In addition, Sitzung is also a slang term used when referring to visiting the toilet. The embarrassing situation of Private Francis talking to an officer is perfectly retained, using colloquial TL:

- Wo sind sie?

- Wir wissen's nicht.

- Ich glaube, er musste mal.

- Nein, ich mein'- er musste mal -

er musste zu einer Sitzung.

11.3. Footnotes

Difficult expressions with no equivalent in the TL often need additional information. This can be supplied in different ways. In a written text, translators may insert the information as part of the text or add a footnote depending on how much knowledge must be given to the reader. In film, the technique of paraphrasing is often used for cultural terms. The main problem is set by the constraints of space and time which do not allow the translator to elaborate the term too much. Sub-titles must be there as an aid for the audience to follow the narrative and as such should flow along with the dialogue. An explanatory note which is not part of the dialogue does not facilitate reading and can be more irritating than helpful. In the following example, a joke is based on two meanings of an acronym which only works if both are understood:

Kurz und gut, diese Abteilung des
militärischen Nachrichtendienstes,

Briefly then,
this section of military Intelligence

MI (BO) ist ...

MI (cough, cough) bracket B O bracket is ...

Wissen Sie, was BO bedeutet?

You know what B O means?

( b.o.: body odour = Körpergeruch)


- Das ist, wenn man nicht ...

- Nein, Sir.

- Hmm, it's when you don't ...

- No, Sir.

- Battle Order: Schlachtordnung.

- Jawohl.

- Battle Order. - Yes, Sir.

The translator supplies the additional information in brackets, by underlining the initials of the acronym and giving both SL and TL versions of the term. The second time this term occurs, the joke is explained by providing the alternative version in both languages. To avoid information in brackets and ensure a better flow, one could have tried to incorporate the footnote into the dialogue. For example,

- Wissen Sie, was BO bedeutet?

- You know what B O means?

- Ja, body odour,
das ist doch Körpergeruch?


- Nein, Sir.

- No, Sir.

11.4. Spelling

The spelling of English words is the cause of many problems and even debates. This is due to the fact, that over the last centuries pronunciation has moved further away from the spelling. Unlike many other languages, where these changes led to spelling reforms, English has proved reluctant to introduce changes. Traditional British spelling is full of remnants of earlier versions of a term and this makes the task of writing considerably more difficult for learners. Spelling errors, in conjunction with syntax and style can therefore give clues to someone's education.

Potter makes use of this when providing two samples of writing, one by the mad organist Harold Atterbow, the other by Sylvia. Following an accident, in which Atterbow runs down Sylvia's husband, the organist ends up in hospital. When Sylvia comes to see him, he tries to bribe her not to tell the police about their sexual encounters. He scribbles a message on a piece of paper with the following content:


£ 100 IF

The message is written in abbreviated form, but without any spelling errors. The TL version sub-title uses capitals to set it apart from the dialogue and replaces the pound sign with the actual word. This is consistent with other monetary terms and facilitates reading.

Sylvia then replies, by writing her own message:


£ 200

(obstructed by sub-title)

Potter characterises Sylvia as uneducated by her accent and choice of vulgar words. The bad spelling in her writing emphasises this. The message contains both a straightforward spelling error, (buger with one 'g') and a syntactic error which is based on confusion of homonyms. The missing apostrophe in 'your' changes the pronoun and contracted form of the verb 'to be' (you're) into a possessive pronoun (your). The rendition is done successfully, retaining the spelling problems by inserting three common spelling errors:

(komst -> kommst, Scheiser -> Scheisser, fiken -> ficken).

11.5. Crossword puzzle

Potter appears to enjoy using many cultural terms and references and even includes a passage based on cryptic crosswords. This type of riddle is very much part of everyday culture with puzzles appearing in most daily papers. Rather than a simple synonym type question, the clue is in cryptic form, implying the use of anagrams, spoonerisms, palindromes, abbreviations and other playful uses of language. (App. 4)

Na los. "In charge, flankiert von
europäischem Offizier." 6 Buchstaben.

- Seien Sie still. - Was ist das Kürzel
für in charge (verantwortlich sein)?

Na los!. So löst man das.



Die Auflösung wird Sie belustigen.

Also: "I-C" in der Mitte des Wortes.
Bleibt der Europäer: ein Wort mit vier
Buchstaben (d.h. ein Kraftausdruck)
Da kommen mir einige in den Sinn.

Come on, 'In Charge', flanked
by a European officer, six letters.

- Shut up. - Yeah, what's short for
'in charge'?

Come on, that's how you work these sorts

of things out. I-C, that's short for 'in charge'.


Ah, but I think the answer would amuse you.

You got IC in the middle of a six letter word,
right? So what you got left is a European
who is a four-letter word and
I can think of quite a few of those.

This passage poses a range of challenges and problems to the translator. Firstly, the TL audience is not familiar with the concept of cryptic crosswords. The complicated clue is explained in the dialogue, taking the audience through the process step by step. The terms are of course in English and the sub-title contains some SL terms, as for example 'in charge'. To clarify the expression, it is underlined in the sub-title and a translation is provided in brackets.

The next problem is connected to the idiom 'a four-letter word'. While the aspect of counting letters in crosswords is familiar to TL audiences, the second meaning of the word, namely the reference to taboo words cannot be rendered. The explanation provided in brackets (this means a swear word) is therefore not helpful and may even confuse the audience who cannot understand the connection between the European and a swearword. It has been mentioned before that some things are lost in translation and in this case it would have been beneficial to accept the loss.

Bleibt der Europäer:
ein Wort mit vier Buchstaben
Da kommt mir einige in den Sinn.

The final solution of the complete six-letter word is not provided. There will only be a small minority of crossword aficionados in the SL audience who may solve the problem in the short time available. The solution (pol-IC-e) is certainly not part of the narrative. The overriding pragmatic attitude of the translator for intelligibility justifies the slight changes in the sub-title.

There is another area which provides some particular translation problems. Here the linguistic structure is determined by another source, namely music. The translation of song texts will be addressed in the following chapter.


12. Translation of Songs

In many of his works, Potter used songs to show the thoughts and fantasies of his characters. In 'Lipstick on Your Collar', these are often songs related to the young soldiers in the War Office, dreaming of women. In one sense, the music is used for its ambience. The 1950s rock'n'roll constantly reminds one of the post-world war environment with its dated attitudes and culture. From another point of view, the music is far more important. It is intertwined with the narrative. For the translator, songs bring most of the problems of poetry (rhyme and rhythm constraints) while still having to conform to syntactic rules and retain the content.

When they are presented, the sub-titles will usually be shown two lines at a time to viewers who are simultaneously following a tune with lyrics (even if they do not understand them). The natural tendency is to try to read and fit the words into the original song. While it may not be possible to find rhyming words, it may be possible to keep some of the character of a song by preserving rhythm. To this end, the sub-titler can search for words with a similar number of syllables and even word stress. This will enhance the pleasure for the viewer, who can read along with the SL version.

In the translation of the songs in 'Lipstick on Your Collar', a general pattern becomes apparent. While the significance of the song texts for the narrative has been recognised, little attempt has been made to preserve the rhythm. The translations are generally much too literal and the poetic and musical aspect of the texts are lost. To illustrate some specific problems of sub-titling, the title song will be examined. The title song 'Lipstick on Your Collar' of the serial appears at the start of each of the six parts and sets the mood for the play. Here is a transcript of the SL text and the TL sub-titles:

Du hast mich ganz alleingelassen
beim Hitparaden-Tanz,

When you left me all alone
at the record hop

hast gesagt, du gehst kurz raus,
trinkst nur mal ne Limo.

told me you were going out
for a Soda pop

Du bist ne ganze Weile weggeblieben,
ne halbe Stunde oder mehr.

you were gone quite a while
half an hour or more

Dann bist du zurückgekommen,
und Mann oh Mann, was seh ich da:

you came back and man oh man
this is what I saw:

Lippenstift am Kragen
hat Dich gleich verraten.

lipstick on your collar
told a tale on you-ou

Lippenstift am Kragen
sagt mir, du warst untreu.

lipstick on your collar
said you were untrue-ue

Darauf kannst du deinen letzten Dollar
verwetten: Zwischen uns ist's aus.

bet your bottom dollar
you and I are through

Denn Lippenstift am Kragen

hat dich gleich verraten.

for lipstick on your collar
told a tale on you-ou

-- (repetition not translated)

told a tale on you
told a tale on you

As most rock 'n' roll music of that era, this song is American and therefore uses different pronunciation and slang from the dialogue of the British play. Translators must recognise this, comprehend idiomatic expressions and know how to render them. It is also important to identify the register and transfer it to the TL. For example, slang expressions must be rendered using appropriate TL slang terms. As Newmark (1993) points out, slang and idioms are closely linked to culture and a particular period. An older term which is rendered into today's slang may sound totally out of place. Newmark states that the most correct term, namely the exact equivalent in the SL may be so obscure to the present audience, that it interrupts the flow of reading sub-titles. The overriding decision in finding the appropriate slang term, must be the intelligibility of the sub-titles. The audience must be able to understand the text quickly taking into account the short time the title is displayed.

The informal register and language of young people in the ST is mainly linked to words like, 'record hop' and 'soda pop'. The appropriate register is reflected only minimally in the choice of vocabulary in the TL version, as for example with Limo, a short form of Limonade (lemonade). The term record hop is rendered by the rather lengthy and unnatural sounding compound Hitparaden-Tanz. Taking into account that the play is set in the 1950s, one may use the slightly dated word Diskothek instead of the more recent version Disco. The informal register however, not only manifests itself in vocabulary, but can also be expressed in other ways. The translator applies a strategy whereby the informal tone is shown in shortened forms and contractions. For example, indefinite articles like eine are shortened to 'ne, verb forms loose their endings as for example, seh' instead of sehe and pronouns appear as contractions ist's (ist es).

The choice of vocabulary is often the result of a compromise, particularly when rendering poetry or songs which must adhere to rhyme or meter. The correct register, the sound of the word and the restricted space available all contribute when looking for the best term. For example, the more informal word for verraten is verpetzt. The more formal version (verraten) in the first two verses (told a tale on you-ou) matches the four beats of the line. The repeated verse at the end of the song however, falls on only three beats and the shorter informal version verpetzt would be more suitable. The choice of two different lexical items for the same TL word can be justified, as both words are used in everyday speech and would in no way disrupt the flow of the TL text.

Some of the problems with the line-length of the TL are caused by the choice of tense. While the ST verse is written using the preterite, the translation is done using the perfect. The perfect is formed by an auxiliary and a participle (hast gelassen (has left)), thus being longer. In practice, the German perfect and preterite are usually interchangeable and the shorter, simpler tense may usually be better suited for songs.

As songs are crafted texts and not spontaneous speech, a freer rendering should be considered. In general it can be said that the translation stays too close to the original ST. In related languages, like English and German there are sometimes instances where a word by word translation is possible. This applies to the line

Mann oh Mann

man oh man

which is carried across and works well also in the TL. In most cases however, these idiomatic expressions have to be rendered by finding the equivalent idiom in the TL. For example the literal rendering of

Darauf kannst Du deinen letzten Dollar verwetten

bet your bottom dollar

is not idiomatic in the TL and much too long to match the number of syllables the line requires. The shorter and simpler expression Darauf kannst Du wetten (you can bet on that) has the correct meaning and fits the rhythm of the song better.

If one applies all the strategies described above, one can shorten the TL version by ten percent, better matching the rhythm of the music. Sub-titles which can transfer content and mood in a more condensed form will be welcomed by the spectator. For comparison, the shortened version is set against the original TL sub-title version:

 Du hast mich ganz alleingelassen
beim Hitparaden-Tanz,

Als Du mich alleine liess't
In der Diskothek,

hast gesagt, du gehst kurz raus,
trinkst nur mal ne Limo.

sagtest nur, du gehst kurz raus
trinkst nur mal ne Limo

Du bist ne ganze Weile weggeblieben,
ne halbe Stunde oder mehr.

Warst schon weg ne ganze Weil'
ne halb' Stund oder mehr.

Dann bist du zurückgekommen,
und Mann oh Mann, was seh ich da:

Kamst zurück und Mann oh Mann
was muss ich da seh'n:

Lippenstift am Kragen
hat Dich gleich verraten.

Lippenstift am Kragen
hat Dich gleich verraten.

Lippenstift am Kragen

sagt mir, du warst untreu.

Lippenstift am Kragen
sagt du hast gelogen.

Darauf kannst du deinen letzten Dollar
verwetten: Zwischen uns ist's aus, denn

Darauf kannste wetten
zwischen uns ist's aus, denn

Lippenstift am Kragen
hat dich gleich verraten. (76 words)

Lippenstift am Kragen
hat dich gleich verpetzt. (69words -10%)

As the transcript above shows, repetition of verses can simply be left out. The meaning has been understood and no additional information has to be carried across to the TL version. Pauses in sub-titles will be appreciated by the audience who can fully concentrate on the visual content of the film.


13. Blemishes and flaws

It will have become apparent that the text by Dennis Potter is riddled with difficulties mainly due to concepts which are intrinsically linked to the SL culture and language. While this play is only one example and thus not representative of all scripts, it serves to illustrate particular aspects and problems. While everyone strives to achieve the best possible translation, some blemishes and flaws may go unnoticed. To put these problems into context, one must remember that in the case of our example, the complete television serial 'Lipstick on Your Collar' lasts six hours. In other words, compared to the length of the text, there are few flaws. These can be divided into those which are not strictly correct compared to the ST or do not read particularly well and those where the translated version does not make sense.

The first examples are more blemishes than flaws. The translation of the first one is not strictly correct, although the change is insignificant in terms of the story line. In this scene, Aunt Vicki is packing sandwiches:

Eins mit Käse, eins mit Gurken,
eins mit Corned Beef.

(one with cheese, one with pickle, one with corned beef.)

One cheese and pickle, one corned beef.

The two sandwiches in the ST are rendered into three in the TT. Another blemish is the literal translation of 'hush hush':

- Verpasse ich etwas?

- Still, still, lausche wer's wagt.

- Am I missing something?

- Hush, hush, listen who dares.

In the context of the special intelligence section at the War Office, the meaning of the informal term, written in hyphenated form, would be more suitable as it emphasises the atmosphere of secrecy:

- Verpasse ich etwas?

- Streng geheim, lausche wer's wagt.

- Am I missing something?

- Hush-hush, listen who dares.

Flaws are more noticeable, when the translation is correct but the TL version does not read naturally. As pointed out earlier, certain passages would have benefited from a freer approach. In the case of the much used 'bloody' or 'shagging', it must be recognised that the TL has no true equivalent. The most important factor when rendering these terms is the frequency of use and place in the hierarchy of swear words or put differently, how 'strong' the expression is. This aspect is also linked to the period the play is set in. The translations of 'bloody' with Scheiss and 'shagging' with verfickt, appear much more vulgar in the TL and would not have been much used during the 1950s.

As mentioned above, there is frequent use of vulgar language in 'Lipstick on Your Collar' and the expressions range from commonly used to obscure ones. Potter seems to have had a penchant for colourful swear words as these found their way into most of his work. In 'The Singing Detective' (1986) for example, one finds a different, though not less varied collection, carefully chosen to fit a contemporary setting. The translation of these however, is no less difficult. For example, one would be hard pressed to find a good equivalent for the expression 'Jesus Christ on a bike' (p. 43). The rendering of such sayings demand considerable creativity by the translator. It is exactly this freer approach which is lacking in 'Lipstick on Your Collar'. The translations stay much to close to the ST and often appear stilted and unnatural in the TT. For example,

Jesus in verschissenen Windeln,
was für ein Leben.

Christ in shitty napkins, what a life.

To capture the meaning, one could have applied the technique of chunking sideways to the complete sentence. The religious interjection at the beginning can be kept, while applying a much freer approach to the rest of the sentence. The message can still be retained, though in a way which reads much better in the TL:

Herrgott nochmal!
Was für ein verschissenes Leben.


The problem of staying too close to the ST becomes even more serious when the translation no longer makes any sense. In the following example, Major Hedges comments on a betting tip he had received. He implies that the tip was completely wrong by carefully distorting a standard idiom.

Der soll sich doch
so verdammt gut auskennen.

Ein Pferdearsch kennt den andern, wie?
(one horse arse knows another)

Supposed to be in the bloody know.

Straight from the horses arse, hey?

In comparison to the ST, the TT does not refer to betting and the sub-title does not make any sense. One way of rendering this expression would be to take the equivalent proverb in the TL and change it, trying to achieve a similar effect. The equivalent proverb aus erster Hand (first hand) does not offer possibilities to turn it into something equally vulgar as in the SL. Specialised dictionaries with proverbs and idioms as for example, Duden (Vol. 11) or webpages, as for example http://wordreference.com.de/Translation (App. 5) can be helpful when trying to find a fitting expression in the TL. In this case, no suitable idiom was found. While losing the wordplay and vulgarity of the utterance, the translation must retain the content to comply with the narrative. This can be done by using another idiomatic expression, conveying the meaning:

Keinen Pfifferling wert, dieser Tipp. (Not worth anything, this tip.)

A similar problem occurred in another scene, where the literal translation can no longer be understood by the TL audience. In this example, Major Hedges complains about his long working hours in the office:

Von neun bis fünf, was?

Über einen Scheisstisch gebeugt
wie ein indischer Hausierer, was?

Dafür bin ich zur Armee gegangen?

Nine to five, eh?

Stooped over a bloody desk
like a bloody box wallah, eh?

That's what I joined the army for, eh?

The main problem in the sub-title is the expression indischer Hausierer. While the components can be understood, the expression does not exist in the TL. The 'Dictionary of Slang and unconventional English' (Beale 1984) gives some clues to the SL expression:

box-wallah : native peddler, gen. itinerant: Anglo-Indian coll.; from ca. 1820-2. Hence, pej. a European commercial man, Anglo-Indian: 1934

The problem, a result of a literal translation is manifold. Firstly, the term Hausierer (peddler), contains the lexeme Haus und carries the connotation of someone moving from house to house, selling things. Hedges however, complains about being stuck at his desk all day, not moving at all. The second problem is connected to the geographical reference indischer (Indian) whose origin can be understood from the dictionary entry. Unlike the colonial past of Britain, which is reflected in borrowed terms in the language, the TL culture does not have this connection. Idioms in German which refer to hard work are:

arbeiten wie ein Pferd (to work like a horse)

arbeiten wie ein Kuli (to work like a coolie / slave)

While these expressions do not capture the image of someone 'stooped over a desk' they still are good equivalents. The latter of the two appears particularly suitable. The word is borrowed from Hindi "quli" (COD, 1964) and has a distinct exotic flavour, similar to the expression in the SL. Its original meaning implies hard physical work but it can also be used figuratively to refer to an 'exploited worker'. By using some informal synonyms for 'to work' (abrackern, schuften = slave away), one can retain both register and flavour, while turning it into good colloquial German:

Von neun bis fünf rackere ich mich ab
hier an diesem Schreibtisch.
Schufte wie ein Kuli. Und dafür
bin ich zur Armee gegangen?

I'm grinding away from nine to five
at this bloody desk,
slaving like a bloody coolie.
That's what I joined the army for, eh?

Translators must keep in mind that the overriding goal is to provide the audience with intelligible sub-titles. The TL version must be understood without any clues from the ST. A freer approach in conjunction with the correct register and vocabulary will ensure that idiosyncratic speech can be retained.


14. Conclusion

After having discussed the many aspects of this highly specialised area of translation, it is even harder to understand why it has been neglected in the literature. Even though it has been around since the beginning of the 'talkies' in the late 1920s, very little theory has been developed. Due to the increase in mass communication in more recent times, translation for the screen has become more important. It should be noted that many inhabitants of smaller countries, such as Holland, Switzerland or Denmark, may read more sub-titled films than translated books or magazines. The interest in 'translation for the screen' has also been reflected by the fact that some universities (Université de Lille, France & University of Copenhagen, Denmark) have introduced specialised courses (Gottlieb 1998). This is certainly justified in view of the many additional constraints translators work in, compared to those who render written texts. The translators' work is recognised as their name is mentioned in the film's end credits.

Sub-titling can be defined as a written, additive, immediate, synchronous and polymedial translation (Gottlieb, 1998). The spoken word appears in the written form, added onto the screen, following the pace of the dialogue and complementing the other channels (video and audio), thus making the film accessible to non-native speakers. Translators must not only be proficient in the SL, they also must have a good understanding of the SL culture. They need a good command of the TL with immaculate spelling and grammar as well as a vast vocabulary to turn the dialogue into intelligible sub-titles. Translators decide what is important for the narrative and what is redundant in order to condense and reduce the dialogue. They should also strive to retain as much of the original style including word play and poetic use of the language. Finally, the sub-titles should have a rhythm, that is flow at a regular pace to facilitate reading and thus enhance the enjoyment of the film.

Sub-titles may also reach a different audience compared to other forms of translation. There will be multi-lingual viewers who do not need translation and at the other extreme, there will be some with no understanding of the source. In between, there will be viewers who need some help following the narrative. For them, the sub-titles serve as a guide available when necessary. For all of the audience, sub-titles protect the film's integrity, character and expressiveness. The gap between cultures may be bridged, but the foreign aspect of the original text is not hidden.

The preceding sections have sometimes appeared very critical of the sub-titles of 'Lipstick on Your Collar'. This is of course quite unjust. Sub-titles are normally consumed at the pace of conversation and not even visible long enough to be the topic of academic scrutiny. The only reasonable criticism from the previous sections is that the translation tends to stay too close to the ST and would have benefited from a freer treatment. Perhaps the failure to attempt to make the song texts fit the rhythm is both a disappointment and a missed opportunity.

Finally, the role of the proof reader / editor must not be underestimated. It is important that a native speaker scrutinises the sub-titles to improve clarity and adequacy and maybe enhance the natural flow of the dialogue. Conferences between translator and editor can ensure that any problems of the story line or linguistic content can be clarified with the best possible result. And the desired end-product is a sub-titled film where the audience is not aware that they are reading a translation, but are fully immersed in the world on the screen.


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