The use of profanity is another interesting area worth taking a look at. It’s often jokingly said that the first expressions and words one picks up from locals in a foreign country will always be connected in one way or another with swearing, and whether or not this is true is not what we’re concerned with in this article. However, it does very clearly show that swearing and profanity exist worldwide and that they’re unique to different cultures and different languages.
Let’s use the Dutch and English languages again in our example: The word ‘Dombo’ in the Dutch language is ‘Dumbo’ in the English language: both words are derogatory, and both words mean the same. So, no real challenge here! But the challenge in translation becomes obvious when obscure profanity is used in film-making. We see this more often in historical films, where a dialect’s used that’s not commonly spoken. So, now the translator has a challenge! Their job is to ensure that the same level of offensiveness is maintained as the original phrase or word, while remaining as faithful to the original as they can. Let’s face it: there’s not nearly as much satisfaction in called someone a ‘dry testicle’ as there is in calling them a ‘droogkloot’!
Even the best translators in the industry say that gestures in the film translation are extremely challenging. Perhaps the reason for this is that gestures mean entirely different things in different countries, which means that the translator must be aware of this. Obviously, this problem doesn’t arise when you’re not dealing with subtitling, but when you are, it can be challenging trying to find the right words to describe a certain gesture. In India, for example, a gesture that people in the West refer to as ‘the Indian chinwag’ can become very confusing. It looks like something between a shake and a nod of the head, but in fact, it’s neither. It actually means ‘okay’ in most parts of India, as in ‘I accept what you’re saying’ or ‘I agree’; but Westerners become confused by this gesture. So the question (and the challenge) arises: How would you subtitle that in a film?
Film Translation: Not an Easy Task!
No-one would ever say that film translation is an easy task – not even an experienced, professional film translator! Because there are so many nuances of both gestural and spoken communication, film translation is considered to be a lot harder than other areas of translation, such as medical and legal.
When a movie has been well translated, the result should be that the same feelings are evoked in a foreign viewer as are evoked in a local viewer. This can be a real challenge for the most experienced film translator, but when a translator does get it right, the sky is the limit when commanding their translation fee.