Hazel Morgan: What do you do with dirty words in the subtitles?

From the Translation Plenary Lecture given at City University, London, by the subtitling assistant at Channel 4

I've been looking after Channel 4's subtitling since the week after the channel went on air in November 1982; during that time, my job has brought me into contact with a wide variety of cultures, the work of leading film-makers, and those supreme professionals who are the subtitlers, and the technicians who bring their work to the screen.

So what makes a good subtitle? One which, within the time available, conveys the author's intent. Basic is best. The best subtitles are the ones you hardly notice because they make you feel that you're understanding the original as you hear it. They do not draw attention to themselves – they do not, in the once-common term, "make a statement".

How long does all this work take? The people who ask me this are usually producers of commissioned programmes who want to deliver as close as possible to transmission. I never give a time, because it depends on the programme; some are surprisingly easy to subtitle, others surprisingly difficult.

How do viewers know the subtitles are accurate? It's taken on trust, as with most translations. To refer back to that "making a statement", the only statement subtitles should make is what's being stated on screen; attempts to "express the drama" by elaborate punctuation and exaggerated words should be treated with suspicion. And of course it is perfectly possible to put anything on screen, regardless of whether it is being said; even to change the story entirely, as happened to Rambo in China, where it was so subtitled, in Mandarin, as to make Sylvester Stallone a hero fighting for the People's Republic – the authorities assumed that audiences would have no knowledge of American English. One sure way of losing your audience is to underestimate it.

And that includes children. The little blighters usually have sharper eyes than their elders, so it is not necessary – as one well-meaning but misguided commissioning editor thought – to use a LARGE FONT when subtitling a children's programme. What they need is their own vocabulary, words they are familiar with, and rather more time for reading. In October 1990 our Deaf Awareness Day included an episode of the American cartoon series Dennis; the subtitler, an expert in deaf work, reduced the text more than usual, spotted much longer durations, and used short words which were easy for children to read.

What about dirty words? Are those "dirty" words actually spoken? Is that expletive really the f-word? If it is, translate it as such; subtitlers should not bowdlerise – it's our duty to be true to the authors. Trouble is, the f-word is in such common use that some translations use it (and its Oedipal variant) where the sentiment is milder: "screw" might do instead.

Dubbing has even more constraints – that is, if it's going to be anything near convincing. All the constraints of time apply, and because most viewers lip-read (whether they realise it or not) the translation has to look convincing; if you have a face in BCU – Big Close-Up – with lips forming oo while you hear ah, credibility goes. Soaps especially are full of these big close-ups, maybe because the actors supposedly talking to each other are in different studios, on different days. Dubbing is an expensive job – actors have to be hired, and one person's idea of how the glamorous lady or the seedy cop might sound isn't necessarily another's.

Two years ago, it was directed that foreign languages in Channel 4 documentaries should be revoiced instead of subtitled. This was depressing, not only because the results looked unconvincing, but because the culture was being seen but not heard. However, this directive never quite held, and subtitles are now regaining ground in the factual department. Maybe the commissioning editors realised that viewers want to hear the languages of other cultures.

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