Subtitling multilingual films: Options vs Constraints

At the third instalment of Migrating Texts on 11 November 2016, Dr Irene de Higes Andino (Universitat Jaume I) both presented her research and ran a hands-on activity on subtitling multilingual films. In this blog, she explores some of the key points she shared with us on the day.

Subtitling multilingual films: Options vs Constraints

Although the coexistence of languages in audiovisual texts is not a new phenomenon, as Jean François Cornu made clear during his presentation at the Migrating Texts 3 event, the reality is that multilingualism is more and more present nowadays in films and TV series. Its translation is a challenge for subtitlers as the presence of a third language (or languages) (L3, following terminology by Corrius 2008, Zabalbeascoa & Corrius 2012 and de Higes Andino 2014) increases the traditional process of translation. In the case of a multilingual discourse, it is not just a monolingual discourse (in L1) translated into another monolingual discourse (in L2). What happens with L3 during the translation process?

As I did during my presentation and the hands-on activity at the Migrating Texts event last November, here I will reflect on the process of subtitling multilingual films.

In my conception, a multilingual film is any audiovisual text (TV series, feature film, short film, documentary, etc.) including more than one (live, dead or invented) language (see a summary of variables for L3 in Zabalbeascoa 2012). Any film from the Star Wars saga is a multilingual film, as are the documentary Do You Really Love Me? (Alistair Cole 2011) and the animation TV series Dora the Explorer (Nickelodeon Studios 2000- ).

One characteristic of multilingualism in films is that language diversity makes translation visible. Sometimes intradiegetically (Cronin 2009), when translation becomes part of the story and serves as a communication tool among characters; i.e. when a character acts as an interpreter – for example, in It’s a Free World… (Ken Loach 2007). In other occasions filmmakers find it necessary to translate L3 extradiegetically, that is, translation is added when editing the film for the audience to understand L3 (Cronin 2009). The most common solution is to add subtitles during the post-production process – as in Provoked: A True Story (Jag Mundhra 2006). Otherwise an off-camera voice may translate L3 dialogues through voice-over – e.g., in Spanglish (James L Brooks 2005). Finally translation is conspicuous by its absence when no translation is provided for L3 dialogues. In doing so the audience is faced with a sense of incomprehension which might be similar to the one felt by characters. Later I will explain how the (in)visibility of translation in the text to be translated usually affects its translation.

Let’s now reflect on the subtitling process, an industrial process in which different human agents are involved. Not only does the subtitler participate in it with his/her translation, but final subtitles are the product of a process initiated and supervised by the distributor. The subtitler task is thus open to options but also limited by constraints.

When translating a multilingual film, subtitlers have different options; they need to decide which subtitling convention to apply, mainly based on the translation strategy chosen. To do so, first, they usually reflect on the function multilingualism has in the text. The presence of an L3 usually renders realism in the sense of representing language diversity in a society, but it may have a different function too. Sometimes it might just mark characters as an Other, or emphasise an identity or even voice social criticism. It may also be a vehicle for humour or be used to create confusion (cf. de Higes Andino 2014).

Once the importance of multilingualism is determined, it is time for the subtitler to decide the translation strategy (Bartoll 2006): Will multilingualism be marked or not marked? The following table, based on de Higes Andino 2014, shows how the translation strategy is reflected in the film by the language and/or the typographical convention used in subtitles. Two more conventions are included: the combination of modes (for example, in one same scene some L3 dialogues may be subtitled but some others may be not) or by the absence of subtitles (be it because L3 is not to be translated or because L3 coincides with L1 dialogues, which are the ones subtitled due to relevance principles).

Translation mode Conventions Translation strategies
Multilingualism is marked Multilingualism is not marked
Subtitling Language L1 x
L2 x
L3 (same or different) x
Interlanguage x
Typography Box x
Brackets x
Capital letters x
Change of positioning x
Colours x
Italics x
Label x
Quotation marks x
Square brackets x
No special typography x
Combination of modes x
Non-translation Absence of subtitles x (if no subtitles are on screen) x (if dialogues in L3 overlap with L1)

As the text to be translated is audiovisual, the decision to apply one option or another may be based on constraints. A multilingual film might be technically manipulated (Díaz Cintas 2012) when the way L3 dialogues are subtitled is restricted by textual constraints (Martí Ferriol 2010):

  • Formal constraints (related with the conventions of subtitling)
  • Linguistic constraints (related with the languages used in the text)
  • Semiotic and iconic constraints (related with semiotics and visual elements)
  • Socio-cultural constraints (related with the cultures represented in the text)

According to the results from de Higes Andino (2014), no clear trend is generally observed in the translation of L3 despite the absence or presence of constraints. It seems to depend much on extra-linguistic factors, except on one occasion. L3 is frequently not marked when subtitlers have to face formal constraints implying text reduction (voices in the distance, long shots, dialogue overlapping or L3 overlapping with the music code). In their absence, on the contrary, the percentage of samples marking multilingualism increases considerably. That particularly technical constraint does seem to limit the subtitler task.

However, this is not the only constraint determining the subtitler’s option. Extra-linguistic decisions may produce an ideological manipulation of the text (Díaz Cintas 2012). First, the original intention of filmmakers is much taken into account. From the interviews carried out during my research, the following conclusion was drawn: Linguistic representation of migrant characters affects L3 subtitling as L3 dialogues subtitled into L1 by the filmmaker are nearly the only ones to be translated into the target language.

Second, the subtitler task is often restricted by the other human agents participating in the process. The distributor, as the initiator of the commission, may limit his/her options. Distributors interviewed for my research were against the use of typography to mark multilingualism because of artistic reasons related to the readability of subtitles. On the one hand, they thought that the audience may not accept or understand typographical syntax used to visually mark multilingualism. On the other hand, they were convinced it is unnecessary as the audience may be able to detect code-switching through the soundtrack.

The final conclusion of my descriptive and comparative research on the subtitling of multilingual British films into Spanish is that generally no clear trend is observed in the subtitling of L3. Due to the increasing amount of multilingual audiovisual texts, it is my aim, however, to show professional subtitlers and future professionals which different options they have and which textual constraints and extra-linguistic decisions may determine the final solution. In doing so, they would be capable of distinguishing the function of multilingualism, justify their decision on the translation strategy and try to convince filmmakers and distributors on new language and typographical conventions marking L3.


Bartoll, E. (2006). Subtitling multilingual films. In M. Carroll, H. Gerzymisch-Arbogast, & S. Nauert (Eds.), Proceedings of the Marie Curie Euroconferences MuTra: Audiovisual Translation Scenarios, Copenhagen 1-5 May 2006.

Cronin, M. (2009). Translation goes to the Movies. London and New York: Routledge.

Corrius, M. (2008). Translating Multilingual Audiovisual Texts. Priorities, Restrictions, Theoretical Implications (PhD dissertation). Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Barcelona.

de Higes Andino, I. (2014). Estudio descriptivo y comparativo de la traducción de filmes plurilingües: el caso del cine británico de migración y diáspora (PhD dissertation). Universitat Jaume I, Castelló de la Plana.

Díaz Cintas, J. (2012). Clearing the Smoke to See the Screen: Ideological Manipulation in Audiovisual Translation. Meta, 57(2), 279-293.

Martí Ferriol, J. L. (2010). Cine independiente y traducción. Valencia: Tirant lo Blanch.

Zabalbeascoa, P. (2012). Translating Heterolingual Audiovisual Humor: Beyond the Blinkers of Traditional Thinking. In J. Muñoz-Basols, C. Fouto, L. Soler González, & T. Fisher (Eds.), The Limits of Literary Translation: Expanding Frontier in Iberian Languages (pp. 317–338). Kassel: Reichenberger.

Zabalbeascoa, P., & Corrius, M. (2012). How Spanish in an American film is rendered in translation: dubbing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Spain. Perspectives.



One thought on “Subtitling multilingual films: Options vs Constraints

  1. Pingback: Subtitling multilingual films: Options vs Constraints por Irene de Higes | CiTrans

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