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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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 dialectas well as othersis translated as standard French, similarly to the
Milton also affirms that, for literary translation, cultural and editorial norms play an important role in the acceptanceor, in this case, lack of
acceptanceof 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 workand maybe the market itselfcould 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
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
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
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