Volume 17, No. 2 
April 2013

  David Bannon


Front Page

Select one of the previous 63 issues.


Index 1997-2013

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
Have Language, Will Travel
by Robert Ewing Finnegan

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant and Worker Bee
Networking 101
byDanilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini
Translation—an ageless profession
by Katia Spanakaki

  Translators and the Computer
The Ukrainian Cornucopia of Tools
by Jost Zetzsche

  Medical Translation
La historieta como instrumento para la divulgación médico-sanitaria: Aspectos pragmalingüísticos
Blanca Mayor Serrano

Translation and Politics
Trauma and Translation: Bearing Witness
by Fatima Sakarya and Sidney Shaievitz
Soviet Censorship and Translation in Contemporary Ukraine and Russia
by Nataliya M. Rudnytska, PhD

Arts and Entertainment
When Correct Grammar is Wrong-ish—Grammaticality, Ungrammaticality, and Usage-based Theory in Film Subtitles
by D. Bannon

Science and Technology
A Glossary of Olive Oil Taste Testing (Spanish-English and English-Spanish)
by Soledad Sta. María

Translator Education
How Approaches of Teaching English Can Be Used for Teaching Translation?
by Omid Jafari

  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
Translators’ Emporium

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal
Arts & Entertainment

When Correct Grammar is Wrong-ish

Grammaticality, Ungrammaticality, and Usage-based Theory in Film Subtitles

by D Bannon


Film subtitles must replicate the grammar of the original screenplay. This article addresses the nature of grammar and syntax in acquisition and common usage, the definitions of grammatical and ungrammatical as related to movie dialogue and the role ungrammaticality play in subtitle translation. It also evaluates the changing nature of grammar and how usage-based theory applies to translators. Practical examples illustrate these points: Jargon; Historical Epics; Character Voices; Formal Speech; The Case of "You"; and Dialect, Accent, & Slang. Finally, it asserts that a subtitler must search for phrasing appropriate to the script and genre. Good grammar or not.

ubtitles model the grammar of the original dialogue—right, wrong or indifferent. Some purists insist that all film translations observe perfect grammatical niceties, asserting that subtitles are an international learning tool. This argument has a certain theoretical appeal but is flawed in practical application. Adjusting the grammar of the original screenplay and failing to replicate any improprieties that exist in a film is a grave disservice to the viewers.

The translator must grasp the subtle nuances of both languages and attempt to break the same linguistic ground that the original did.
No translation is perfect; all must make allowances. Subtitlers know that their work is one of adaptation, negotiation and replication. Yet deliberately delivering a translation that fails to represent the original in its entirety veers dangerously close to blatant alteration. Indeed, the pure grammar argument itself is based on a questionable premise—that entertainment can or even should serve as a classroom. Communications theorist Neil Postman asserted:

“Sesame Street” and its progeny, “The Electric Company,” are not to be blamed for laughing the traditional classroom out of existence. If the classroom now begins to seem a stale and flat environment for learning, the inventors of television itself are to blame, not the Children’s Television Workshop. We can hardly expect those who want to make good television shows to concern themselves with what the classroom is for. They are concerned with what television is for.

Subtitlers are concerned with what films are for: entertainment. The task assigned by the program’s distributor and, tacitly, by the viewers, is one of accuracy in translation, not that of an imposed classroom. This is not to suggest that proper grammar does not have its place.

A subtitler must know proper English usage before daring to alter it, just as a jazz musician launches into thematic variations from a solid foundation of technical expertise. As linguist Guy Deutscher succinctly noted: “Without the rules of grammar, for example without the rules for ordering words in the sentence, one would not be able to communicate coherent thoughts, even with as many concepts as one likes.” What’s true for language and music is equally true with film grammar. From the grandmaster of muscular movies, John Huston:

I have been speaking of style, but before there can be style, there must be grammar. There is, in fact, a grammar to picture-making. The laws are as inexorable as they are in language. . . . They must, of course, be disavowed and disobeyed from time to time, but one must be aware of their existence.

Huston observed that knowledge of film techniques comes before variations in style. So it is with language. Indeed, the translator’s burden is doubled—a subtitler must be proficient in the source and target languages. Only after learning the rules of usage in both may a translator capably communicate grammatical variations in subtitles.

Grammatical & Ungrammatical

What is and is not grammatical remains a point of contention. First a grammar must be identified. “One way to test the adequacy of a grammar,” observed Noam Chomsky, “is to determine whether or not the sequences that it generates are actually grammatical, i.e., acceptable to a native speaker, etc.” Ironically, Chomsky is the champion of the popular “nativist” theory that grammaticality is innate, primarily the result of genetic predisposition, yet his assertion about acceptability for native speakers is not unlike usage-based theory. As Deutscher noted, with usage-based theory “there is no need to invoke genes in order to account for grammatical structures, because these can be explained more simply and more plausibly as the product of cultural evolution and as a response to the exigencies of efficient communication.” Though its adherents are currently in the minority among linguists, usage-based theory can claim illustrious antecedents. “Society is the workshop in which new [words] are elaborated,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to John Adams in 1820. “When an individual uses a new word, if ill-formed, it is rejected in society; if well-formed adopted, and after due time, laid up in the depository of dictionaries.” For the working translator, the definition must be practical and grammatical. Here linguist Joan Bybee provided a solid starting point:

While all linguists are likely to agree that grammar is the cognitive organization of language, a usage-based theorist would make the more specific proposal that grammar is the cognitive organization of one’s experience with language. . . . The result is a cognitive representation that can be called grammar. This grammar, while it may be abstract, since all cognitive categories are, is strongly tied to the experience that a speaker has had with language.

For translators, the changing nature of languages must be understood in the original and reproduced in translation. Grammar is by nature shaky and volatile. Even the most clear cut rules fail in common usage. Linguist Andries W. Coetzee posited two hypothetical claims: “(i) even grammatical forms violate some constraints (i.e. grammatical forms do not have to be perfect), and (ii) there are degrees of ungrammaticality (i.e. not all ungrammatical forms are equally bad).” No writer better illustrates this point than Mark Twain. His dialogue is precise. It is pure. Grammatical improprieties are legion, but never spurious or trivial. “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in Green Hills of Africa. “. . . it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that.” Readers may argue Hemingway’s point but there is no doubt The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has significantly influenced American colloquial speech. Twain loved language, toyed with it, reveled in it. There is no excess. He chose his words carefully. In doing so, he gave readers as perfect an image of a sunrise as the English language can provide:

Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!

Any subtitler—any writer—would be proud to pen such prose. Twain is the best example of how improper grammar can be the right choice for natural character voice. Indeed, slavish grammaticality shackles the translator to the detriment of subtitles.


Many common expressions are poor grammar, but because they persist, audiences are used to them. When a trite phrase occurs in the original, a similar English cliché may suit. The viewer’s eyes will immediately register the well-worn expression and the flow of the scene will move forward. One example is the use of rhetoric in courtroom dramas, from Perry Mason to Law & Order. It often goes like this:

LAWYER: Isn’t it true you were at the corner of Cliché and Trite?

SUSPECT: No, I wasn’t.

This is atrocious grammar. The correct answer is either, “Yes, it is not true,” or “No, it is true.” However, “isn’t it true” is so common in US courtroom dramas that viewers will unquestionably recognize it as TV legal talk. Translating this as “Were you at the corner of Cliche and Trite?” is accurate, clear and proper, but lacks the legalese flavor audiences enjoy.

Each film has its own unique jargon, particularly police procedurals, historical epics or medical shows. A subtitler needs reference material that matches the dialogue. The original screenwriter did the same thing; and then adapted the jargon to add a sense of verisimilitude to the program. The subtitles are yet another step removed: first the source material; second the screenwriter’s adaptation; and finally the translation of the screenplay. The translator is best served by using the jargon most common in similar US programs. In this case, as in many others, grammaticality does not immediately signify communication.


Chomsky unequivocally stated that grammar does not by definition have to make sense. “Grammar is best formulated as a self-contained study independent of semantics,” he wrote. “In particular, the notion of grammaticalness cannot be identified with meaningfulness.” This conclusion is essential for the subtitle translator. In understanding that proper grammar does not necessitate meaning to the viewer, the translator is free to focus on only those phrases, equivalents and idiomatic expressions that communicate to the audience. This communication demands attention to the original dialogue over attention to grammatical detail. Chomsky illustrated this point:

The notion “grammatical” cannot be identified with “meaningful” or “significant” in any semantic sense. Sentences (1) and (2) are equally nonsensical, but any speaker of English will recognize that only the former is grammatical.

(1) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

(2) Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

Such examples suggest that any search for a semantically based definition of “grammaticalness” will be futile.

Noam Chomsky provided one of the best definitions of syntax: “Syntax is the study of the principles and the processes by which sentences are constructed in particular languages.” Many adherents of the proper grammar in subtitles school seem to be insisting on syntax that reflects a somewhat stuffy grammaticalness, yet as Chomsky pointed out, “A grammar mirrors the behavior of the speaker who . . . can produce or understand an indefinite number of new sentences.”

Good subtitles read as the original dialogue sounds. More to the point, viewers remember the translation as though they heard the actors actually speaking in English. A daunting task indeed. Linguist Derek Bickerton commented on a challenge that all translators recognize: “In fact, the more closely you examine syntax, the more complex you find it to be and the more widely its complexities show up, even in the allegedly ‘simple’ speech of everyday usage.” A subtitler is not always faced with everyday usage. Far from it. But even historical epics have a voice and tone that fits the dialogue patterns of the screenplay. They must be observed, even when they are not grammatical in the accepted perception of the term.

Historical Epics

People and the fictional characters they create have unique styles of speech. Brief or long-winded; eloquent or hesitant; literal or rhetorical. Some people revel in the form and sound of words. Others see language as a vehicle of necessary utility. Observe the clipped eloquence of the subtitles for Criterion’s release of Kurosawa Akira’s The Seven Samurai (1954):

KAMBEI: You embarrass me. You’re overestimating me. . . . Listen, I’m not a man with any special skill, but I’ve had plenty of experience in battles; losing battles, all of them. In short, that’s all I am. Drop such an idea for your own good.

KATSUSHIRO: No sir, my decision has been made. I’ll follow you, sir.

KAMBEI: I forbid it. I can’t afford to take a kid with me.

Kambei, of course, is anything but a loser and the young samurai learns much by following him. Early in the film Kambei shaves his head to pose as a monk while saving a child. For the rest of the movie he rubs the bristles when distracted—a physical indicator as telling as his terse dialogue. Criterion’s re-release of the film featured a new translation that retained the pacing and dignified phrasing of the Kambei character:

I’m at a loss. You think far too highly of me. . . . Just hear me out. There’s nothing special about me. I may have seen my share of battle, but always on the losing side. That about sums me up. Better not to follow such an unlucky man.

A subtitler must identify the screenwriter’s interpretation of an historical piece relevant to the original target audience, not the period in which the show takes place. Lord Sudley addressed this point in the introduction to his translation of The Three Musketeers: “In his historical romances Dumas made his characters talk as they would have talked in his own day, not as they talked in the period with which he was dealing.” The tone and style of a screenplay is usually written with the current viewers in mind. For example, the attitudes toward a young couple crossing class boundaries in The Seven Samurai represent the views of the time in which it was filmed. They certainly do not reflect a 16th-century Japanese perspective.

This is particularly true with comic relief characters, who invariably serve their purpose with humor and asides appropriate to the audience. Most historical epics have characters whose jokes may not be topical but will invariably appeal to the viewers. In the Korean television program, East of Eden, a comic character frequently mutters what everyone else is thinking but dares not say. Her dialogue is endearingly straight-forward but laced with the rustic speech patterns of her country background, as in Episode 45, when she shakes her head at the plot’s mismatched identities:

Ugh. I can’t keep up with who’s related to who anymore.

Of course, “who’s related to whom” is proper usage, but few people speak that way—particularly not comic relief. Improper grammar is exactly right in capturing the dialogue’s bantering charm. Correcting the original would be an insult to the viewers and would rob them of endearing character voices. The subtitler, then, has a two-fold translation challenge:

1. Create subtitles that reflect the period of the program content;

2. Create subtitles that reflect the period for which the screenplay was written.

Clare Sullivan discussed this issue in an essay on her translation of Un martes como hoy (2004) by Cecilia Urbina. The short novel is set in the American Old West, as related by modern Mexican characters whose speech patterns have been influenced by Hollywood westerns. Sullivan reveals how she nearly lost sight of Urbina’s artistry in pursuit of period accuracy. “The initial mistake, which was rooted primarily in the dialogue, was an honest one” wrote Sullivan on her translation, “springing from a translator’s instinct to authentically render period language.”

The parallel plots deal with a modern love triangle between the storytellers themselves and the wildly exaggerated Old West fantasy of Francisco Videgaray. For the latter plot Sullivan chose expressions completely at odds with truly period dialogue, but perfectly suited to the storytellers perceptions of the Old West, including frequently hokey clichés rooted in film. Sullivan explains the goal of this exaggerated phrasing:

It served to shed light on the deeper meanings of the novel that might not have been present had I executed either a word-for-word translation, or one that stayed ‘truer’ to the period speech that suffused the Francisco tale. Though I can conceive of a sense in which this might be considered bad translation (at least in the narrow sense), in the end I believe it serves the reader by inviting deeper entry into the novel.

This does not mean every period piece should be adapted to modern slang. If slang must be used, it properly belongs to the period in which the program aired. As translator John Hollander pointed out, “Probably the most satisfactory and effective translations will have the virtue of being appropriate to their literary and historical milieus.” For example, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) features a character who agrees with everything by exclaiming, “Totally!” It’s dated, true, but a part of the film and loved by its many fans. Subtitles for Halloween must identify similar slang from 1978 in the target language to capture the charm of the original. Translating it to 21st-century slang would be all wrong. Yet classic films should be translated with modern viewers in mind. Richard Howard observed “it must be acknowledged that all translations date; certain works never do.” Howard continued: “Time reveals all translation to be paraphrase, and it is in the longing for a standard version of a ‘beloved’ work that we must begin again, we translators—that we must overtake one another.” It is difficult to find phrases that appeal to the current audience while honoring the original. Anthony Briggs discussed this balance in the notes to his 2005 translation of War and Peace:

Language changes and, without worshiping modernity for its own sake, publishers recognize the need to accommodate new readers by using phrasing more closely attuned to their way of speaking. . . . On the other hand, it is most important not to over-modernize. Tempting though it may be, I cannot use popularized phrases like ‘buzzword’, ‘oddball’ or ‘hooliganism’.

Character Voices

Linguistic styles are not uniform within any given gender, race or background. Certainly there are similarities, but also vast differences, even among those reared in the same household, who went to the same school and had the same types of friends. With subtitles the translator’s job is to identify the quirks of dialogue that indicate each character’s unique speech pattern.

Most people have certain phrases they prefer, whether knowingly or not. For example, in a stressful situation, one might preface a remark with “actually . . .” or “now I think on it . . .” or any number of variations. These stall words give the speaker time to organize thoughts. Similar phrases often rear their heads in screenplays. Although the actors are reading lines and don’t need stall words, screenwriters know this is one of the best ways to give a sense of natural speech to the dialogue. Writers, actors and the characters they portray all have favorite phrases, whether a simple “just” or more complete expressions, such as “the way I see it.” The better programs use this to telling effect, as in David S. Ward’s tight screenplay for director George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973):

LONNEGAN: Mr. Shaw, we usually require a tie at this table. If you don’t have one, we can get you one.

GONDORFF: That’d be real nice of you, Mr. Lonniman!

LONNEGAN: Lonnegan.

Later the joke has a memorable payoff when Lonnegan loses his temper:

The name’s Lonnegan! Doyle Lonnegan! You’re gonna remember that name or you’re gonna get yourself a new game! Ya follow?

This scene introduces Doyle Lonnegan and his favorite pet phrase, “Ya follow?” For the rest of the film, whenever Lonnegan is threatening, “Ya follow” tags the end of the line. These tag lines are essential to many screenplays and must be translated carefully.

Dialogue indicators evolve naturally in common speech and usually occur at convenient breath points. Most well-written screenplays use indicators for colorful characters that can be replicated in the subtitles. In the epic Korean historical drama, Queen Seondeok, an important character doesn’t make an entrance until Episode 21, when he waltzes in fully-realized with shaggy clothes and unique speech patterns that other characters call, “His funny way of talking.” There is an odd lilt to his voice at the end of most lines, almost a tonal shrug. These are not questions, per se—merely statements with a haphazard quality. To reproduce his rustic dialogue and odd phrasing, the subtitles add a “yeah” at the end of many statements, matching the smug charm of the character: “People need meat, yeah? To stay strong, yeah?” This repetition matches the character’s heavy accent in the opening scenes. Later, the accent is toned down but crops up occasionally as a reminder of the young man’s background. Similarly, in the subtitles, “yeah” is used in moderation for the same purpose.

Formal Speech

Formal characters lean toward perfect grammar, as do well-educated individuals. Often well-phrased grammar is seen as a type of verbal politeness. This should be avoided when writing subtitles for a sympathetic or comic character. Oddly, proper grammar is ideal for villains and rather stiff heroes, as illustrated in this excerpt from The Lone Ranger TV Writer’s Guide: “The Lone Ranger at all times uses precise speech, without slang or dialect. His grammar must be pure.” Precision in speech distances the audience from the speaker, which is correct with some characters and lethal to others. When this occurs in the original dialogue, eliminating contractions will have a telling effect. Grammatical niceties may be observed by characters in subservient roles or those hoping to appear so. Polite phrasing may be sardonic or a thinly-veiled insult, as discussed by Peter Trudgill:

In English the desire to convey an impression of politeness may well often lead to a greater usage of standard linguistic features, but the reverse is not true: the usage of more ‘correct’ language does not necessarily indicate politeness. It is perfectly possible to employ high status pronunciations and standard grammatical forms together with impolite lexis and other signals of distance and dominance.

The use of polite terms in a confrontation is illustrated in Episode 48 of East of Eden, when young prosecutor Dong-wook confronts the older gangster Dae-hwa. The screenplay is riddled with volatile phrases, ranging from formal to informal to demeaning. Dong-wook’s dialogue is uniformly denigrating; Dae-hwa’s escalates to exaggerated politeness:

DONG-WOOK: Such wisdom and refinement from a man whose tactics are so crude?

DAE-HWA: Did you say ‘crude’, SIR?

DONG-WOOK: Chairman Shin gets in your way, you put him in the hospital. You send your boys to rob my house.

DAE-HWA: Now hold on, SIR.


DAE-HWA: ‘Mister?’ I visit your little village, you call me whatever you like. But this is MY house. No one disrespects me in my own home.

The source dialogue’s use of “mister” matches the same usage in English. It is often a term of respect, but can also be quite sarcastic. Dae-hwa uses an exaggerated polite verb ending and a term for a young noble (yangban) to remind Dong-wook of his manners. Dong-wook’s reply is snide. In context, using “sir” and “mister” communicates this hostility. Later Dong-chul enters the room. Dae-hwa addresses Dong-chul, downshifting from polite forms to demeaning verbs. Although his dialogue is invidious, he is not speaking to the prosecutor, and so is free to let loose bitter invective:

DAE-HWA: And just in time. Perfect timing, in fact. Take Mr. Punk Prosecutor out of here. I can’t stand his whining, I swear. He crawls in here making accusations. Maybe baby didn’t get his breakfast? Lil Mr. Grumpy didn’t use a single respectful term, not once. What’re you waiting for? Take the baby out.

Dae-hwa belittles Dong-wook’s youth and inexperience. The subtitles use terms like “punk prosecutor”, “baby”, “brat”, and “lil Mr. Grumpy”. This culminates at the end of the scene when he shouts directly at the prosecutor: “Run home and tell daddy!” By shifting from exaggerated politeness to insulting terms, the source’s inventive use of verbs is displayed in the subtitles, giving the audience a sense of the scene’s escalating emotions.

Not all formal phrasing need be distancing. For example, in the Korean drama I Really, Really Like You, the First Lady and her son, Dr. Jang, have a studied, correct style of speech that is always proper in the original script. The subtitles display this by decreasing the number of contractions, eliminating slang, and at times using terms that might seem a bit stuffy with anyone other than these characters. In Episode 20 the middle-aged First Lady refers to Bong-sun’s boyfriend as “your young man.” Similarly, in Episode 26, Dr. Jang uses the informed lingo of a connoisseur:

Wine is difficult to explain, complex and delicate. It was vibrant on my tongue, slightly bitter on the finish.

An educated tone can also come off as arrogant. In Episode 23, an assistant accuses the head chef of having a “cavalier manner”, which captures the original’s cumbersome phrase and the dialogue’s accusatory tone. Grammatical propriety can be subtle. In Episode 19, the president and head chef jokingly bicker about which of them cared for the young heroine as a baby. “Do you know that I’m the one that reared you?” asks the chef. “The President saved and raised me,” she answers.

This dialogue distinction illustrates that a mountain girl might use the colloquial “raise” while the president and chef, educated men, would use the grammatically correct “rear”. Meaning is as much a question of usage as definition. Linguistic scholar Deborah Cameron:

. . . people do not learn most words from dictionaries but infer their meanings from hearing them used in particular contexts: we may all differ slightly in our beliefs about what words ‘really mean’ . . . because the meaning of words is ultimately a matter of the way the community uses them in talk. Unless they are compulsive users of dictionaries, this will be determined by contextual inference, and meaning will be inherently unstable.

The Case of “You”

Many languages have varying levels of formality. The word “you” serves as one of the best examples, a form of address that employs different terms for essentially the same meaning. Translator Robin Buss explained: “Every European language except English (in which ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ have long been archaic except in some dialects) has kept the second person singular for use with intimates, close friends and relatives.” This is illustrated in the Buss translation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo:

MONTE CRISTO: You know, Haydée . . .

HAYDÉE: Why do you not say tu to me, as usual? Have I done something wrong? In that case, I must be punished, but don’t say vous to me.

Compare this to the anonymous translation published in 1846, which sidesteps the forms of address completely:

MONTE CRISTO: Haydée, you well know.

HAYDÉE: Why do you address me so coldly—so distantly? Have I by any means displeased you? Oh, if so, punish me as you will; but do not—do not speak to me in tones and manner so formal and constrained!

Buss asserted the 1846 translation “makes very little sense here, because Monte Cristo has said only three words (four in the translation) since entering the room, which is frankly not enough to provide grounds for her accusation. The point is that one of the three words is the formal, second person plural, vous.” Buss had a point. Observe the telltale tu and vous in the original French:

MONTE CRISTO: Haydée, dit-il, vous savez . . .

HAYDEE: Pourquoi ne me dis-tu pas tu comme d’habitude? ai-je donc commis quelque faute? En ce cas il faut me punir, mais non pas me dire vous.

However, subtitles do not enjoy the luxury of space and time that is afforded literature. Explanatory notes do not belong on-screen. In The Last Cavalier, translator Lauren Yoder smoothly inserted a helpful explanation in the text itself:

‘Can you tell me?’ Spurred by curiosity, Mademoiselle was using the informal tu form with her friend Claire, though normally in conversation they used formal address.

This question of formal and intimate terms comes up frequently in subtitle translation. A character is miffed that his lover uses the standard form of you or, conversely, another is insulted when the intimate form is used inappropriately. Translating either simply as “you” would make any extreme reaction to the term jarring and out of place.

If this scene from The Count of Monte Cristo were subtitled, the translator must make a radical approach. Explanations are intrusive and would disrupt the film, as would the insertion of French terms that are not essential to the plot. Such niceties belong in literature and are part of its joy. For practical subtitles, however, the translator must substitute the formal vous with equally formal English phrasing.

MONTE CRISTO: Miss Haydée, you know . . .

HAYDÉE: Why don’t you call me Haydée as usual? Have I offended you? Punish me if you must, but do not call me “miss”.

In the above exchange, viewers hear the forced formality in the count’s tone and see Haydee’s hurt reaction. They read in the subtitles the immediacy of her despair, emphasized by the use of a contraction in contrast to the Count’s stiff mode of address. No further explanation is necessary, nor is there time to provide one. When spacing is at a premium, the translator must observe the context of the scene. If the character uses the formal you, subtitles may represent this with stiffer phrasing and decreased contractions to indicate a stylistic change that is echoed in the actor’s tone and delivery. If intimacy is indicated, increasing contractions and using shorter, less structured expressions will replicate the impact of an informal you.

Dialect, Accent & Slang

Dialects can be baffling to recreate in subtitles, but not impossible. The lead character in the Korean drama I Really, Really Like You has a nearly unintelligible dialect. Not merely an accent, which can be difficult enough, she speaks in a dialect that seems like a whole new language to people in Seoul. This is illustrated in simple ways, such as in Episode 16 when Bong-sun brings flowers for a little girl’s “mama”. The girl doesn’t recognize the term, so Bong-sun must rephrase: “Ahhh… I brought these for your mother.” In English, “mama” and “mother” are so similar that anyone could tell the difference, but the subtitles use the terms to show accent without being too terribly confusing. Bong-sun’s dialect is represented again when she mispronounces “cabbages” as “cablages” in Episode 4. Her pronunciation is a central part of the humor in the scene:

BONG-SUN: So stop being a whiny kawt and find my money.

POLICEMAN: This is just… hang on, what’s a kawt? And cablages?

BONG-SUN: What do you mean what? A kawt is a kawt. Cablages are cablages. You’ve never heard of a kawt? Meow, meow.

POLICEMAN: Ah, a cat. Like that old saying, ‘a quiet cat catches the rat?’ But what about cablages?

BONG-SUN: How can a policeman not know cablages? Don’t you eat kimchi at home?

POLICEMAN: Yeah, I eat kimchi . . . Ah, cablages are cabbages. So you said, ‘Never count me out, I only count cabbages.’ Why are country accents always such a headache?

Accents don’t have to be confusing. Zane Grey’s West of the Pecos shows how liberal use of dialect needn’t stop the flow of dialogue. In this scene, reprinted in screenplay format, Pecos Smith is teaching Rill how to shoot a pistol. Note the difference in speech patterns between the characters:

PECOS: Yu have to thumb the hammer.

RILL: Shoot from the horse?

PECOS: Why, shore! If yu run into a bandit would yu git off polite an’ plug him from the ground?

RILL: I did meet two bandits—and I ran for all I was worth.

PECOS: Wal, yore education is beginnin’. Hold the gun high with yore thumb on the hammer. Then throw it hard with a downward jerk. The motion will flip the hammer just as the gun reaches a level, an’ it’ll go off, yu bet. Yu gotta sort of guess instead of aimin’.

Zane Grey’s use of dialect may seem unintelligible but for one important point: Grey establishes the ground rules early in each novel and never varies from them. Spelling and usage are uniform throughout. Grey’s millions of fans have had no trouble understanding the characters. Indeed, his use of dialect gives the stories a unique flavor. The same is true in subtitles. Use dialect sparingly. Establish the rules of usage early and stick to them. Viewers will soon adapt to variations in spelling and infer that the character’s dialogue has a unique sound that is replicated in the subtitles. When done right, the rules of usage for that specific character’s dialect will barely be noticed by the viewers, so immersed will they be in the program itself. Mark Twain expands on this in his Explanatory Note preceding The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri Negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary ‘Pike County’ dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

It is essential to know the background of a large number of expressions and match them appropriately to the character’s dialogue. In Episode 37 of East of Eden, there is a face-off between anti-hero Dae-hwa and some Chinese assassins. Dae-hwa is complex. Studied and reserved, yet prone to explosive violence. Every line is delivered with nuance and color. He’s one cool cat.

DAE-HWA: Who are you? What do you want?

ASSASSIN: I think you know. Who sent the hitman to Macau, you or Lee Dong-chul?

DAE-HWA: How about you pop open the coffin and ask him, you ‘tard.

The unpleasant ‘tard is short for retard, an epithet for a mentally ill person. The term is unacceptable in polite society. But these characters are not concerned with social etiquette, as is clear in the vulgar literal translation:

What the..? You really ARE a stupid son of a b**ch.

However, the source phrasing barely skates around a family TV rating, so the subtitle must use a term that’s equally unsettling without being overtly crude. Unpleasant names are frequently translated as “jerk” or “idiot.” Both terms have their place, but lack character. For an older gangster like Dae-hwa, “punk” is the best way to express his disdain:

ASSASSIN: You have to send some bum to kill our boss? Crush him!

DAE-HWA: You really ARE a ‘tard. Crush me? Am I a cookie? Crush me? C’mon punk! C’mon and throw down!

An idiomatic expression may seem modern when it has actually been in use for centuries. “Throw down” has come to mean issuing a challenge or entering into a fight. The term originated with medieval knights: one would throw down his gauntlet to demand a joust; the second would pick it up to accept. The latter usage hails to the Old West. A Colt Single Action Army revolver, or Peacemaker, had to be cocked after each firing. Pulling the trigger caused the hammer to drop. To speed up the process, a gunfighter would “throw it hard with a downward jerk,” as illustrated in Zane Grey’s quintessentially western phrasing. “Throw down” is slang, but slang with pedigree. It may be used with little worry that it will grow dated, as noted by Maxwell Nurnberg: “The best slang, however, lasts a long time because it has roots in the imagination and because it often takes a vivid short cut to our thoughts. Such slang is soon promoted to what we call colloquial, or conversational, status and sometimes is even accepted in the best society. . . . Such expressions will last as long as the picture remains true and the color remains vivid.”

In this scene, the assassin is threatening Dae-hwa with a sword. The literal translation of a common challenge in the source language (“C’mon and stab me”) sounds forced in English. Dae-hwa’s body language clearly invites the assassin to attack, so an English equivalent was ideal, capturing the tone of the dialogue and Dae-hwa’s unique speech patterns. The middle-aged but still dangerous Dae-hwa has doubtless used such terms many times in his criminal career. Dae-hwa has a slight dialect, represented in subtitles with such easily-understood expressions as ‘tard and c’mon. More important, he frequently uses repetition to make a point (“Crush me? Am I a cookie? Crush me?”), a dialogue indicator that is immediately recognizable throughout all 56 episodes of the series. The explosive anger of the scene, its sudden violence, is ideally suited to using a phrase that fits both older and younger characters.

Such expressions may seem to be vulgarities that need cleaning up by the translator. To do so would be a grave disservice to the viewer and would display a shocking lack of understanding of how language evolves. From H. L. Mencken: “Vulgarity, after all, means no more than yielding to natural impulsesin the face of conventional inhibitions—the heart of all healthy language-making. The history of English . . . is a history of vulgarisms that, by their accurate meeting of real needs, have forced their way into sound usage, and even into the lifeless catalogues of grammarians.”


Whether a translator is faced with Zane Grey, Mark Twain or a merely serviceable script, this question of usage cannot be ignored. A subtitler must beware the hubris of dictating what is grammatically correct, what should or should not be included. Usage changes. What is proper is the change itself. Consider Joan Bybee’s closing comments in the Presidential Address at the 2005 Linguistic Society of America annual meeting. She asserted that “A conceptualization of grammar as pure structure fails to provide us with explanations for the nature of grammar,” adding that a usage-based theory of cognitive organization of language explains grammar “as the ritualization of oft-repeated routines.” Bybee concluded:

Language can be viewed as a complex system in which the processes that occur in individual usage events . . . with high levels of repetition, not only lead to the establishment of a system within the individual, but also lead to the creation of grammar, its change, and its maintenance within a speech community.

Most viewers do not know the language of the dialogue and rely on the translation as more than a vehicle of communication—they expect and deserve to enjoy the film as close as possible to the way it was enjoyed by its original audience.

In fairness, the argument of grammar versus usage has been around a long time. In “Dissertations on the English Language,” Noah Webster wrote: “The advocates of pure English . . . seem not to consider that grammar is formed on language, and not language on grammar. Instead of examining to find out what the English language is they endeavor to show what it ought to be according to their rules.” The rules Webster was wrestling with were primarily Greek and Latin, but the argument could easily be rephrased for those translators that sacrifice “what the film dialogue is to show what it ought to be according to their grammatical rules.”

Good Grammar or Not

Usage-based learning and the changing rules of grammar and syntax present the subtitler with a double burden. Beyond mere fluency, the translator must grasp the subtle nuances of both languages and attempt, with faltering steps, to break the same linguistic ground that the original did. In their usage-based model, linguists Suzanne Kemmer and Michael Israel asserted that as grammar becomes entrenched, the language itself changes: “Entrenchment is a cognitive consequence of experience: the more frequently a given form or pattern is experienced (whether in production or comprehension), the more entrenched it becomes. The more entrenched a form is, the more likely it is to be activated in actual usage events.” When such entrenchment occurs in a screenplay—and dialogue is often a reflection of modern colloquialisms, changing speech patterns and “actual usage events”—the translator must recognize it and ensure it is replicated in the subtitles.

Again from John Huston: “Whatever action takes place on that screen must not violate our sense of the appropriate.” A subtitler must always search for phrasing appropriate to the script and genre. Good grammar or not.

Works Cited

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Buss, Robin. Notes to The Count of Monte Cristo. Penguin (1996): 1261.

Bybee, Joan. “From Usage to Grammar: The Mind’s Response to Repetition.” Language: Journal of the Linguistic Society of America vol. 82 no. 4: 711, 730.

Cameron, Deborah. Feminism and Linguistic Theory. MacMillan (London; 1985): 81-2.

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—The Count of Monte Cristo. Oxford University Press (1990): xxii-xxiii, 501. Reprinting the anonymous translation first published in 1846.

—The Count of Monte Cristo. Penguin (1996): 560. Translated by Robin Buss. New “subtitle” translation by D. Bannon.

—Œuvres Complètes: Le Comte de Monte-Cristo V. III, nouvelle èdition . Calmann-Lévy (1889): 185.

East of Eden (Eden ui dongjjok) . MBC (2008-2009). Directed by So Weon-yeong. Screenplay by Na Yeon-suk & Lee Hong-ku. Translation © MBC America. Episodes 33-56 translated by D. Bannon. Reprinted with permission.

The Great Queen Seondeok (Seondeok yowang) . MBC (2009). Directed by Pak Hong-kyun & Kim Geun-hong. Screenplay by Kim Yeong-hyun & Pak Sang-yeon. Translation © MBC America. Series translated by D. Bannon. Reprinted with permission.

Grey, Zane. West of the Pecos. Walter J. Black (1931): 133-134.

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Hollander, John. Quoted in The Poet’s Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translation. ed. by Edwin Honig. University of Massachusetts (1985): 39.

Howard, Richard. Translator’s Note to The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Harcourt (2000): x. Translated from the French by Richard Howard.

Huston, John. An Open Book. Da Capo Press (1994): 409-10.

I Really, Really Like You (Jinjja jinjja joahae) . MBC (2006). Directed by Kim Jin-man. Screenplay by Bae Yu-mi. Translation © YA Entertainment, LLC. Series translated by D. Bannon. Excerpts from The I Really, Really Like You Reference Guide by D. Bannon. © 2008 YA Entertainment, LLC. Reprinted with permission.

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The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai; 1954). Criterion Collection (2006). AK 100: 25 Films of Akira Kurosawa (2009). Written by Kurosawa Akira, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni.

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Twain, Mark (pseudonym of Samuel Clemens). “How to Tell a Story” and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Reprinted in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter 4th Ed. W.W. Norton (1995): 1202, 1281, 1387-88.