Volume 16, No. 3
July 2012


Front Page


Index 1997-2012

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
Sea Stories, Musings, and Philosophy from a Life in Languages
by Jonathan T. Hine, Jr, PhD

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant and Worker Bee
Letter to a would-be translator
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

  In memoriam
In memoriam: Leland Duane Wright, Jr. — 1942 - 2012

  Translation Nuts and Bolts
Translation on the Basis of Frequency: Compliment and Compliment Response
by Narjes Ziaei

  The Translator and the Computer
Free Online Translators: A Comparative Assessment of www.worldlingo.com, www.freexlation.com, and www.translate.google.com
Claire Ellender, PhD
Olympic Targets
by Jost Zetzsche

  Book Reviews
Don Quijote en su periplo universal. Aspectos de la recepción internacional de la novela cervantina
Concepción Mira Rueda
And God Said—How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman
Reviewed by Gabe Bokor

  Science and Technology
Translators and Math: The case of approximators
by Brian Mossop

  Arts and Entertainment
Mispronunciation in Subtitling
by Sarah Pybus

Norms in the Translation of Southern American English in Subtitles in Brazil: How is southern American speech presented to Brazilians?
by Vanessa Lopes Lourenço Hanes

Translation and Politics
Screening Political Bias and Reality in Media Translations
by Mátyás Bánhegyi

Translator Education
Collaborative Learning in Translating a Travel Guide: A Case Study
by Elaine Tzu-yi Lee
Teaching Translation: A Look at the Way It Is in Iranian Universities and the Way It Should Be
by Sahar Farrahi Avval

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

  Translators' Tools
Siri vs. Windows Speech Recognition
by Laura Frädrich, BA and Dimitra Anastasiou, PhD
Translators’ Emporium

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies

  Translation Journal

Sugar Loaf


Norms in the Translation of Southern American English in Subtitles in Brazil:

How is southern American speech presented to Brazilians?

by Vanessa Lopes Lourenço Hanes


Brazilian culture is heavily influenced by American mass media, and for this reason many translation professionals have to deal with American English on a daily basis. However, until now no study has been carried out to verify how American dialects are dealt with by these professionals. Thus, the objective of this article is to report the findings of a study that verified how Southern American English is being translated in Brazil, particularly in motion picture subtitles. Based on the analysis of subtitles of three motion pictures, this article presents the norms currently guiding the translation of this dialect in Brazil, using the concept of norms as presented by Gideon Toury.

Keywords: dialect translation; Southern American English; translation norms.

t cannot be denied that English is currently the lingua franca of the world (Tonkin, 2003). And due to its prestigious position, in Brazil, like in the rest of South America, there are numerous scholars whose main object of study is the different aspects of the English language, including its grammar, phonetics, literature, teaching as a foreign language, among other fields. British and American English are both extensively studied and analyzed.

The objective of this article is to report the findings of a study that verified how Southern American English is being translated in Brazil, particularly in motion picture subtitles.
However, there is one vast field of American English that has not yet been approached in depth by Brazilian scholars: the Southern American English (SAE) dialect. Searching in the Brazilian scholar curriculum database Plataforma Lattes, where every researcher in the country is supposed to upload his/her curriculum and keep it updated, there were no results found regarding studies on this dialect, except for the ones connected to the name of the present author. Actually, further research has proved that this seems to be a worldwide phenomenon that extends itself to the area of translation: even though the translation of American English is studied by scholars throughout the world, somehow the translation of SAE has been neglected by academic circles in the Translation Studies field.

It could be argued that the lack of studies focusing on SAE translation in Brazil is due to the irrelevance of this subject for its national academy. However, this reasoning could be easily dismissed when the influence of American culture in the country is considered, southern American culture included. Books of authors like Mark Twain, as well as television series and movies portraying southerners are part of everyday life in Brazil, and thus, so is their translation into Brazilian Portuguese. 

Considering all the aspects mentioned above, the aim of this article is to present a study developed to understand how SAE is currently being translated into Brazilian Portuguese movie subtitles. The general idea is to discuss what Brazilian translators have been doing when facing this form of English speech in their professional path. Have they been using Brazilian dialects in the translation? How are they differentiating SAE from standard American English? What solutions have these professionals been finding to deal with this phenomenon? This article presents the results of a study carried out to debate and find some answers for these questions.

Sources of Southern American English used in the study

Many possible sources of translations of SAE were considered at first as an object of study to understand how the translation of this dialect is performed in Brazil. Initially, literary works were the most probable candidates. However, after further reflection the sources chosen to obtain SAE instances and their translations included subtitled motion pictures due to the comparatively short amount of text involved in the entire script, which would allow comparisons and analysis of more sources in their integrity.

It is true that many times fiction does not faithfully depict a dialect, particularly in cinema. Shuttlesworth (2007, p. 194) points out that “characters depicted through southern speech or as southern tend to fall into several stereotypes, many corresponding to stereotypical ideas about the South and southerners”. Other authors, for example, Bailey and Tillery (2000, p.1), agree that the media presents wrong ideas of what southern English is, :

Misunderstandings about what comprises SAE [Southern American English] are almost as widespread as the recognition of its distinctiveness. These misunderstandings in large part have been fueled by media portrayals in movies such as Gone With the Wind and in television shows such as The Dukes of Hazard that presented grossly exaggerated and inaccurate stereotypes of SAE.

 Nevertheless, there are some movie makers that are more careful to represent linguistic traces in a truer manner. This is the case of the Coen Brothers.  Joel Coen said, in an interview: “Part of what a character is is how he expresses himself […] You want to establish a character by showing him or hearing him instead of saying he is X, Y, Z” (Allen, 2006, p. 124). For this reason, three Coen movies were used in this study: O Brother, Were Art Thou? (2000), The Lady Killers (2004), and No Country for Old Men (2007).

It is important to highlight that SAE is not one single dialect. Many dialects fall under this general classification. Johnson and Montgomery (2007, p.1) explain that:

Although the South is the most distinct speech region in the United States, it is also the most diverse, little more uniform than the nation as a whole. Outsiders may think that all southerners talk pretty much alike, but southerners certainly know better. Some of the most unusual types of American English are found on the periphery of the South.


Still, the main objective of this study is not to explore what variety of SAE is being translated in subtitles in Brazil. The primordial goal is to comprehend how the largest variation from the (by far) most studied and prestigious foreign language in the country is being presented to the masses. Do they even realize that they are supposedly being exposed to a variation of American English? What identity is being constructed for SAE out of the United States through motion pictures, more specifically in Brazil?

Data collection: gathering SAE instances and their translations

Data collection was carried out using three tables, one for each movie analyzed. The tables had five columns: the first one presented the possible instance of SAE in bold, within its immediate context; the second one showed the official translation used in the Brazilian Portuguese subtitles of the movie; the third column presented a translation of the same instance made by the author of this article, previous to access to the official translations, in order to avoid any influence from them in the translation choices adopted; in the fourth column there was a definition of the SAE instance obtained from dictionaries and/or encyclopedias produced by well-known SAE or general English language scholars, like the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and the Dictionary of American Regional English, among other sources; and the last column presented the same instance found in well known southern literary works. Those instances of SAE for which no bibliographical support could be found were excluded from the study. Below is an example of the table used for data collection and analysis (Table 1).

Table 1: Instance of tables used for data collection and analysis

Source text


Translation 2


Instance in southern American literature

I'm not here to make a record, you dumb cracker.

Não vim aqui gravar um disco, seu idiota.

Não vim aqui gravar disco, caipira ignorante.

Flexner (1993) defines a cracker as a poor person who lives in rural areas in the south  of the United States.

“Their family had more money, more horses, more slaves than anyone else in the County, but the boys had less grammar than most of their poor cracker neighbors.” (MITCHELL, 1937, p. 4)

After submitting the three movies to this process, the following number of  SAE instances were found for each motion picture analyzed: 31 instances in O Brother Where Art Thou?; 21 instances in The Lady Killers; and 24 in No Country for Old Men.

During this process there was an aspect of the source text that stood out, and could potentially be determining during further analysis: many instances of SAE found in the three movies presented grammar distinct from normative English. Items like ain’t, hisself, double negatives, among others, were constant in the motion pictures consulted. In the first movie there were 12 cases (out of 31); the second one presented 14 instances of this sort (out of a total of 21); and the third movie also had 14 recorded uses of diverging grammar (out of 24 instances).

Data analysis: theoretical basis and step-by-step procedures

After gathering the information in three tables as mentioned before, all data was analyzed in order to answer the main question of this study, and demonstrate how SAE is currently translated in Brazilian subtitles.

The theoretical basis adopted for this analysis was the writings from Descriptive Translation Studies scholars, particularly the work of Gideon Toury.

This author affirms that there are principles that impose how translation is supposed to be done in a certain culture, within a certain time frame. These principles are called translation norms. In Toury’s (1995, p. 53) own words:

Being a translator cannot be reduced to the mere generation of utterances […] Translation activities should rather be regarded as having cultural significance. Consequently, ‘translatorship’ amounts first and foremost to being able to play a social role, i.e., to fulfill a function allotted by a community— to the activity, its practitioners and/or their products— in a way that is deemed appropriate in its own terms of reference. The acquisition of a set of norms for determining the suitability of that kind of behavior, and for maneuvering between all the factors which may constrain it, is therefore a prerequisite for becoming a translator within a cultural environment.

Thus, the present study looked for translation norms guiding the translation of SAE in Brazilian Portuguese subtitles, searching for patterns in the three movies in order to determine how, in general terms, this variant of the English language is recently being translated in Brazil.

The analysis also took into consideration the concept of polysystem as presented by Even-Zohar (1990), which is directly connected with the concept of norms presented above. This author encourages the comprehension of translation as an activity that depends on the relations with a larger system, the socio-cultural system.  For this reason, during the observation and consideration of all data obtained, this study tried to consider the complexity of the dynamic structure within which these translations exist.

The first step taken to find possible translation norms was to compare both translations of each instance, paying attention to any possible variations in the translation of the instance itself and of its immediate context, in the case of use of compensation strategies.

It is important to point out that the translators of the official subtitles could not be contacted due to confidentiality policies of the distributors in Brazil, which did not allow them to disclose the names and contact information of the translators involved.  Because of this, it was not possible to contact these professionals to obtain information on their familiarity with SAE, their difficulties during the translation, and other aspects that could have contributed to the analysis. In the case of the author of this study, the difficulties presented by the instances used in the analysis were mitigated by some knowledge of southern dialect obtained during a period of residence in the American south.

During the comparison between translations there was a considerable number of instances of identical or almost identical translations. However, at the same time there were some cases of extremely different translations and approaches, like for example in the translation of carpetbaggin’, used in the movie as an adjective. The official translation used in the subtitles ignored this lexical item and chose not to present any translation for it, whereas the translation of this author tried to express its historical and cultural content using the Portuguese word oportunista, which carries the sense of opportunistic in English.

The second step adopted was to evaluate each table as a unit, that is, congregate data regarding the grammatical classes of the instances translated,  the predominant register used in the source text and in both translations throughout the table, to begin to see a pattern built for the translations in each movie.

The third step in the search for translation norms was to compare the three tables developed, looking for similarities between translations of the same instances, and any other types of patterns that could give possible hints of guidelines conducting the practice of the (possibly) four different translation professionals involved in the elaboration of the subtitles, that is, the translators of the subtitles for the three films and the author of the study.

After these three steps, the results were that four norms currently regulating the translation of SAE in Brazil were found, as further explained in the next section.

Results: norms in the translation of southern American English in Brazil

Data analysis lead to four predominant translation norms in Brazilian subtitles with SAE dialogues. 

The first norm shows that dialect grammar structures that differ from standard American English tend to be translated as standard Brazilian Portuguese, that is, the dialect content disappears. 

The second norm found, however, points out that, in dialect instances where there were no grammar structures involved, the translators tended to use more colloquial Portuguese translations, even though no Brazilian dialect was ever used in any translation. The register adopted for such instances was more informal than the one apparent in instances with grammar variations.

The third norm discovered by this study was that the knowledge of the cultural background behind SAE has direct influence over the translation choices when facing the dialect studied. The case previously mentioned, of the translation of carpetbaggin’, illustrates this norm properly. For further exemplification, another case could be mentioned: in the second movie analyzed, at a certain moment one of the characters affirms that we done smote. But the translator of the official Brazilian subtitles, maybe due to lack of exposure to the cultural background of the movie, translated the done, which in the south of the United States is a variation of have, the auxiliary verb of the present perfect tense, as if it were don’t, the negative form of the auxiliary verb to do.  Therefore, the translations were quite different possibly due to the better or poorer knowledge of the background involved.

The last norm is, in part, the result of a combined analysis of the two first norms found, but also considered other elements throughout the translations, and it states that, in general terms, subtitle translations in Brazil do not express any of the peculiarities of the SAE dialect present in the sources used, choosing instead to have a more linguistically homogenized format. 

Considerations about the norms for the translation of Southern American English subtitles

The translation norms found in this study open many doors for reflection about the dialect studied and its translation in Brazil. However, the norms pointed out are specifically connected with film translation. In other areas, for example literary translation, the tendencies mentioned could not have emerged.

Therefore, based on this fact, before coming to any conclusions about the norms previously stated, it seemed interesting to briefly investigate if these same norms would apply to the translation of literature.

In this context, it was a very welcome surprise to find out that Milton (2002) had already carried out a short yet valid analysis on the Brazilian translations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain, an important work of southern literature, and written in dialect. The translation choices found in all four translations of the book do not present any attempt at translating the dialect using non-standard Portuguese. This corroborates the findings of the present study, reinforcing that it is not common for Brazilian translations to show differentiated choices for dialect source texts. 

Considering this information, it is important to ask: why is it that, in general terms, the dialect studied is not translated as dialect in Brazil? Milton (2002) gives possible answers to this question. This author mentions that one of the reasons could be that, due to low payment and short deadlines, the translator tends to take the easier way out, thus translating dialect as standard language.

Milton goes on, and mentions possible causes for this phenomenon rooted in historical aspects of Brazilian culture: he says that there is a conservative point of view in Brazil where there is no space for dialect in translations, which prioritizes standard Portuguese.

This reason pointed out by Milton is also mentioned by Robyns (1994) when he writes about the translation of SAE in France. This author makes it clear that the dialect studied disappears in French translations. This dialect—as well as others—is translated as standard French, similarly to the Brazilian approach.

Milton also affirms that, for literary translation, cultural and editorial norms play an important role in the acceptance—or, in this case, lack of acceptance—of the use of dialect in the translation. In fact, the author explains that, if the translator tried to use dialect in the translation, there would be a good chance of his work being rejected by the editor.  And, of course, in the case of film translation, the case could probably be the same: the ones who supervise the translator’s work—and maybe the market itself—could hamper new forms of translation initiatives.

This could explain the role of the fourth translation norm found in its polysystem: film translations, like literary ones, try to be what is expected from them, in order not to be discarded along with the professional responsible for them. 

Nevertheless, another question comes up in this debate: would the Brazilian audience of American movies really reject an alternative translation of the dialect? Wouldn’t it be possible to break the old paradigm that says that dialect should be translated as standard language?

While presenting the questions to be asked in order to establish the normative principles guiding the behavior of the audience towards film translation, Delabastita (1995) mentions, among others, the following aspects to be considered: What is the position of the source culture in an international context? Does it enjoy high prestige, or is it perceived as relatively devoid of interest? And: Does the target audience impose particular restrictions on the translator in terms of literacy?

Considering the first question asked, the answer concerning the dialect studied here is quite clear: no, southern American English is not prestigious in an international context, and not even in the American culture itself. This could be one of the motivations for translators and movie distributors not to invest in alternative translations: maybe the dialect is not seen as something relevant or interesting to the international audience in general, and therefore the Brazilian audience remains ignorant about the existence of this linguistic phenomenon.

Regarding the second aspect mentioned by Delabastita, the answer would be yes; the translator in Brazil has to deal with an audience with limited literacy skills, due to a historically poor school system.  The use of foreignization as described by Venuti (1995) could be badly received by the masses who watch subtitled movies. 

Finally, there is still another variable that must be considered in this analysis to explain the source of the resistance imposed to translate dialect in subtitles: orality. Oral and written language have different and particular characteristics. In the Portuguese language used in Brazil there is a clear distinction between spoken and written language; they are almost two different linguistic systems. And, according to Hatim and Mason (1993), a dialect is an essentially oral variant.  However, in some languages and cultures, including the English language and American and British cultures, there is a tradition of representing oral variants in written texts. There is no resistance in using spoken English in, for example, literary works: different English dialects can be found in books by great authors like Dickens and Faulkner.    The English language has, as Milton (2002, p. 57) puts it, “a tradition of proletarian novels.” Probably due to this tradition,  the English subtitles of the movies analyzed follow the dialect expressed in the discourse of the characters, with very rare exceptions due to considerations of space.   

Nevertheless, in Brazil spoken language is still considered inferior to standard written language, and is very infrequently portrayed in literary works. Thus, this kind of approach would not be expected in subtitled movies. In Brazil, in general terms, the use of slang or dialect compromises the status of the work. Citing Ong (1988, p.11), we (speakers of Brazilian Portuguese) suffer from an “inability to represent to our own minds a heritage of verbally organized materials [...] even when they have nothing to do with writing at all.”  Brazilians are members of a society committed to written, rather than spoken, language.

Probably this cultural background was the cause of the conservative approach adopted by the author of the study when translating the subtitles.  It did not seem viable to use a non-standard variant of Portuguese language to translate the dialect. Even though the possibility of using, for example, the Brazilian caipira dialect for translation was thought of, there was the concern of creating an automatic stereotypical load for the characters, like the stigma already present when the caipira dialect is used.  Hatim and Mason (1993, p. 41) express this conflict very properly when they say that to translate dialect as standard language makes one lose the special effect intended by the use of dialect, whereas translating dialect by another dialect may lead to undesired effects.

The only solution presented by this author, and, with less frequency, by the translators of the official subtitles, was the use of colloquial Portuguese in the translations to express at least this one characteristic of the dialect.  This attempt led to the second translation norm noticed.

Notwithstanding, based on the analysis carried out, this study led to the conclusion that, even though the translation of SAE is a relatively old practice, the analysis of its translation is still extremely new, complex, and full of possibilities. In general terms, this linguistic phenomenon has been almost ignored in Brazilian translations existing up to this date, being hidden by standard Brazilian Portuguese in target texts.   


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