Friday, 25 May 2012

Arabic subtitles: An analysis of Arabic>English subtitles in 'The Chair Carrier'




The field of audio-visual translation has gained prominence in recent years having accorded itself a growing research base and a closer integration into established translation studies discourse. This essay will draw on subtitling practice and relevant theory from audio-visual translation and the broader field of translation studies to present a tentative analysis of interlingual subtitles in the short film ‘The Chair Carrier’. The strategies used will be discussed along with a theoretical consideration of how functionalist translation strategies can effectively aid in the subtitling process.

The Chair Carrier is a short film that was released in 2010 and went on to win Best Satire at the American International Film Festival. It gained widespread prominence after the January revolution erupted in Egypt in 2011.

The film’s central theme revolves around the protagonist’s frustration at the political inertia in Egypt. He encounters a man (the ‘chair carrier’) who has been burdened with carrying the Pharaoh’s throne since time immemorial, and who wanders the desert in search of the god Amoun so that he might finally put the chair down.

The dialogue turns to the chair itself and why the carrier cannot put it down or enjoy it for himself. The protagonist is bewildered, then frustrated at the absurdity of it all, especially after discovering that the chair carrier’s name is inscribed on the back (i.e. it in fact belongs to him). The metaphor speaks of the injustice Egyptians suffer, that they are burdened with rulers they cannot bear, and yet they do not fully grasp that political determination was theirs all along. In the end the chair carrier is not convinced, and is seen setting off for the desert as a radio broadcast proclaims another landslide victory for the president in fake elections.

 A prominent issue in the film’s subtitles is the rendering of cultural-specific cliché expressions;

Utterance
Subtitle
Gloss translation
Speech Category
Strategy
(1) ‘ool ya ibni, Allah yarhamu walidayk    (05:30)
Tell me son, may god bless your parents
Tell me my son, God have mercy on your two parents.
Cliché expression
Literal translation with cultural retention /transposition

The utterance in (1) is used by the chair carrier as a conversation starter with the protagonist. In Egyptian Arabic, saying ‘May God bless your parents’ is an example of a cliché expression. Cliché expressions are formulaic phrases whose routine use has disinvested them of their denotative meaning. They appear frequently in film dialogues and pose a translation pitfall for subtitlers (Araújo, 2004: 162). Their difficulty resides in that they are culture-specific and perform ‘a function in social interactions and communication’ (Araújo, 2004: 162) beyond their literal meaning.

The translator has opted for a word-for-word rendering, or what Tomaszkiewicz’s taxonomy of subtitling strategies calls a ‘Literal Translation’ (Pettit in Cintas (ed.), 2009: 45), while the preserving of the cultural essence of the source language cliché in the target text translation is called ‘Retention’ in Pederson’s schema (2005: 13). Retention is the most SL-orientated strategy, and overtly conveys the source culture in the target text. However, the result is a semantic mismatch between the function or intended purpose of the utterance and its literal rendering in English. The translation of (1) thus seems odd to an English audience if not merely because it is not common for English speakers to address their interlocutors with the title ‘son’, and it is not culturally normative to offer a token of blessing for one’s parents upon making an acquaintance.

Drawing on functional approaches, the subtitler may identify that while the communicative force, or illocutionary function, of the chair carrier’s speech in (1) is to gain his interlocutor’s attention and offer a blessing for his parents, the intended effect is in fact to initiate conversation and obtain his desired information. It is the latter that the subtitler must capture. As Gottlieb notes, ‘In dubbing and subtitling, what counts more than anything else is the transfer of speech acts, not necessarily the exact elements that make up the original speech acts’ (Gottlieb, 2009: 23).  It follows that a translation strategy here must operate above the level of denotative meaning. Moreover, it must consider the speaker’s main intention or ‘primary illocutionary point’ (Gottlieb, 2000: 19).

A more felicitous translation might be offered as;

Utterance
Subtitle
Speech Category
My translation
Strategy
(1) ‘ool ya ibni, Allah yarhamu walidayk    (05:30)
Tell me son, may god bless your parents
Cliché expression
Excuse me young man
Functional equivalent

This option preserves the utterance’s function whilst conforming to target audience norms and expectations.
Another issue pertinent to subtitle translation where dialogue is prominent is the way in which phatic forms are used to convey information about the speakers. Phatic forms are lexical items the illocutionary force of which is the attempt to establish a social relationship (Nord, 1997: 44). We have seen an example in (1) where the chair carrier addresses to his interlocutor with the Arabic for ‘son’. The subtitler has used the literal translation although the conventional English pragmatic equivalent would be ‘young man’. The latter would maintain the polite phatic function, and is customarily used as a conversation starter in the kind of situation the characters find themselves in.

More phatic forms appear later in the clip;


Utterance
Subtitle
Gloss translation
Speech Category
Strategy
(2) Amoun? Amoun eh bass ya hag?   (05:37)
Amoun? What Amoun are talking about old man?
Amoun? Amoun-which o old man?
phatic address
generalization


(3) w’inta b’dawwar ‘ala Amoun bita’ak da min imta ya hag (06:07)
For how long have you been searching for this Amoun of yours old man?
And you, are searching for this Amoun of yours since when O Haj?
Phatic address
Generalization


(4) lay Ya ‘am   (06:36)
ø
Why O uncle
Phatic address
Omission



The use of ‘old man’ in the English subtitle is not phatically equivalent to the Arabic ‘ya hag’, which in colloquial Egyptian Arabic is a title of endearment used towards older gentlemen, although in more formal registers it refers to someone who has completed the Islamic ‘Haj’ pilgrimage. The subtitler recognizes that a literal equivalent does not exist in English[2], and thus adopts a strategy resembling that of Generalization in both Pederson’s and Tomaszkiewicz’s taxonomies. However, the translation ‘old man’ is troublesome as it almost carries derogatory tones when used in the context presented in the film, especially in (2). The protagonist is somewhat startled by the chair carrier’s questions of the whereabouts of an ancient Egyptian god, and this should be considered the communicative thrust of his rejoinder. Yet when coupled with the English ‘old man’, the viewer gets the impression that the protagonist is belittling his interlocutor. Indeed, it is not considered polite to address someone in English as ‘old man’, and such a rendition departs from the major illocutionary force of presenting the speaker’s bewilderment to the viewer. The subtitler has been consistent in his rendering of ‘hag’ in (3), though this caption too seems odd to an English-speaking audience.

 Interestingly, the subtitler has opted for omission in (4), indicating that he considered (2) and (3) but not (4) to be important to the meaning of the text. Here the speaker is showing sympathy, though this is adequately captured in the corresponding subtitle ‘and what for?’ and is reinforced on screen and audibly in the speakers’ voice modulation, and so omission can be justified. However, (2) and (3) should also have used an omission strategy and remove ‘old man’ as the communicative force is confused by it. The strategy of omission appears on both Pederson’s and Tomaszkiewicz’s lists.

The subtitler has similarly taken a functional-orientated approach in his treatment of interjections;

Utterance
Subtitle
Gloss translation
Speech Category
Strategy
(5) Allāh                       (05:45)
Oh my
God/ ‘Allah’
Interjection
Equivalence
(6) ya nahar iswed      (06:31)
Damn.
O black day
Interjection
Equivalence

In (5) and (6) the subtitler is confronted with an interjection. These are abrupt remarks that are ‘analyzed in terms of the socio-communicative roles they play, rather than any linguistic content they may have’ (Wharton in Thawabteh, 2003: 40).’ The subtitler has inserted pragmatically equivalent interjections in English, the first conveying astonishment and the second exclamation. Referring to Tomaszkiewicz’s taxonomy, one would label these as examples of Equivalence in that the TT has a similar meaning and function in the target culture (Pettit, 2009: 45).  Example (6) also captures the colloquial or informal register as used in the original and this is important given the diglossic nature of Arabic.

 The importance of interjections to the flow of successful communication in subtitles is often overlooked, and they are commonly omitted. However, Muhammad Thawabteh makes the case that they ‘are crucial in [AV] translation as a means of communication’ (Thawabteh, 2010: 511), and encourages a strategy of retention and functional pragmatic equivalence in the dialogue (Thawabteh, 2010:511-512). Interjections in the case of English and Arabic are short compared to the large pragmatic import they imbue, and pose little or no technical constraints in terms of the temporal and spatial limits of subtitles because of their brevity.

On the linguistic level, a problematic area for the film is the strategy used to convey emphatic vocalisations in the written medium of subtitles;

Utterance
Subtitle
Gloss translation
Form of speech
Strategy
(7) Ya Shayaal, irfa’ il-himl  (06:21)
“OH porter, carry the burden up”
O porter, lift the load
Tone and voice modulation
Capitalization
(8) La                           (06:51)
NO!!!
No
Tone and voice modulation
Capitalization and punctuation
(9) Tabb, ana ba’marak-u           (07:19)
FINE, I am ordering you
Fine, I am ordering you [do] it
Tone and voice modulation
Capitalization

The use of three exclamation marks occurs several times through the clip although this is not standard punctuation for subtitles[3]. The non-standard use of punctuation is a major issue in the film; full stops are often left out, letters are capitalized gratuitously and punctuation marks often follow a space. These issues relate somewhat to language competence as well the need for subtitling norms. Gamal notes that subtitling has only very recently received academic attention and professional recognition in the Arab world, and that subtitles have been described as ‘less than satisfactory’ (Gamal, 2008b: 4, 6).  What is more, film subtitling in the Middle East is almost entirely conducted by freelancers who have not received formal training (Gamal, 2008b: 5).

At the points of the film where (7), (8), and (9) appear, the emphasis is already plain in the prosaic features of audible speech, or what Zoe de Linde calls ‘phonetic cues’ (1999: 1). Though it seems relatively obvious that tone and modulation of voice are audibly present in these examples, it is nonetheless significant that the subtitler should consider the written mode of the subtitle just one of several semiotic channels operating simultaneously in the process of meaning making (De Linde and Kay, 1999: 1). Unless vocal features significantly alter the verbal meaning, the subtitles need not indicate this with additional punctuation (Pettit, 2004: 37).
This essay has presented an analysis of a brief range of audio-visual translation issues in The Chair Carrier. As demonstrated with the case of cliché expressions, interjections and phatic address, the subtitles are most felicitous to the source text message when functional strategies are adopted. We have seen that source language utterances are most profitably dealt with at the level of speech act rather than at the word or sentence level. By considering first and foremost the illocutionary effect, or main intended function of the original utterance, the subtitler produces a translation that is faithful to the original message.

This essay has referred to subtitling strategies suggested by Pederson and Tomaszkiewicz. However, it is often the case that two or more strategies are being applied simultaneously, or that the translation is more complex that what the the Pederson and Tomaszkiewicz schemas might suggest. In (2) and (3) for example, the translation of ‘hag’ involves not simply a generalized hyponym as Tomaszkiewicz might suggests, but a consideration of the social import behind the word and how it might correspond to an English word in a comparable situation. It is the importance of this in-situation relevancy factor that necessitates functionalist approaches.  

As for Pederson’s taxonomy, he observes that the constraints of subtitling make the word or sentence unsuitable candidates for units of translation, and that the pragmatic import of speech acts should be taken as the basic element, yet his taxonomy of strategies focuses overwhelmingly on individual cultural-laden words. However, as the example from (1) illustrates, entire utterances must be considered as a whole if it is to be rendered in an equivocal pragmatic translation in condensed form.
Regarding punctuation issues in the film, it is easier to talk of ‘errors’ since things like punctuation are bound to professional standards, and a number of guidelines are available. It is unfortunate that a film presented at international festivals suffers in this regard, and it is hoped that the embryonic status of audio-visual translation in the Arab world will develop, and along with it increased professionalization.  


References 

Araújo, V., (2004): ‘To Be or Not to Be Natural: Clichés of Emotion in Screen Translation’, Meta: Translators’ Journal, 49 (1), pp. 161-171.
Cintas, J. D., (2009): New Trends in Audiovisual Translation, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
De Linde, Z and Kay, N., (1991): The Semiotics of Subtitling, Manchester: St Jerome.
Gamal, M. Y., (2008b): ‘Adding Text to Image: Challenges of Subtitling Non-Verbal Communication’, In: The proceedings of the XVII FIT Congress in Beijing, China.
Gottlieb, H., (2000): Screen Translation: Six Studies in Subtitling, Dubbing and Voice-over. Copenhagen: Centre for Translation Studies, University of Copenhagen.
Gottlieb, H., (2009): ‘Multidimensional Translation: Semantics turned Semiotics’ In: Proceedings of the Marie Curie Euroconferences, MuTra: MuTra. Saarbrucken, Germany 2-6 May 2005. Available at http://www.euroconferences.info/proceedings/2005_Proceedings/2005_proceedings.html
Karamitroglou, F. 1998. "A proposed set of subtitling standards in Europe". Translation Journal 2(2). http://accurapid.com/journal/tj.htm
Munday, J., (2001): Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. New York: Routledge.
Nord, C., (1997): Translating as a Purposeful Activity: Functionalist Approaches Explained. Manchester: St Jerome.
Pedersen, J. P., (2005): ‘How is Culture Rendered in Subtitles?’ In: Proceedings of the Marie Curie Euroconferences, MuTra: MuTra. Saarbrucken, Germany 2-6 May 2005. Available at http://www.euroconferences.info/proceedings/2005_Proceedings/2005_proceedings.html
Pettit, Z., (2004): ‘The Audio-Visual Text: Subtitling and Dubbing Different Genres’, Meta: Translators’ Jounrnal, 49 (1), pp. 25-38.
Thawabteh, M. A., (2010): ‘The Translatability of Interjections: A Case Study of Arabic-English Subtitling’, Meta: Translators’ Journal, 55 (3), pp. 499-515.
The Chair Carrier, (2010). [Film] Directed by Tarek Khalil. Egypt: Cinegate. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqGNQbGXbcc




[1] Directed by Tarek Khalil and available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqGNQbGXbcc. The section under analysis in this essay is 05:16 - 08:40.
[2] The English word ‘Sir’ is too formal here, and has an Egyptian Arabic cognate in ‘Hadaritak’.
[3] For a guide, see Karamitroglou, 1998.

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