Accents in Subtitles: Can subtitles portray the difference? Analysing Pedro Almodóvar’s All About my Mother.
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Lost in Subtitles: How much should translators do to fill in for the Director’s assumptions of the audience understanding?
It is true, albeit pessimistic for a translator, that neither film nor language can be transferred in total from one culture to another. As H. Gottlieb argues, there are certain ideas, lifestyles, manners that may be too culture-specific or unique to the “original speech community” and thus, are impossible to translate, let alone explain, in film subtitles. “…A film deriving from another culture will be in part based on assumptions and concepts which may not exist in that form outside that culture [or may not be known] and which cannot be adequately summed up in a 4-second subtitle….”.
Accents are one of the ultimate examples of the specificity of a culture or of a nation. Accordingly, different accents in speech may denote a wide range of factors about somebody, which otherwise may not come to light. An accent adds meaning or connotations to whatever idea is being expressed through the uttering of words. The way in which someone speaks (be it a national, regional, class accent, etc.) represents a background, a history, a universe of dispositions. When in isolation, i.e. when a predominant one surrounds one ‘alien’ accent, the latter could become even more significant in its implicit meaning of the world it represents.
In Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, a Spanish film set in Spain with mainly Spanish actors, it is obvious to the original audience (i.e. Spanish-speaking), that the protagonist, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), is not from Spain, but from Argentina. This is evident entirely due to her accent, which is notoriously different to the Spanish one. Bearing in mind that her background constitutes an important part in the development of her personal story, on which the film focuses, it is crucial to point out that in the film there is no dialogue line indicating her nationality. Rather, there is an underlying assumption (by the director) that the audience will know where she comes from given the way she speaks; to state this, would seem superfluous. Thus, a priori, Manuela’s accent provides a realm of information about her character and her position in relation to the rest of the characters, which the subtitle or target audience is not able to discern at all.
It follows that for the non-Spanish speaking audience, everything that the director may assume to be evident, insofar as it is inherent in language and/or accent, may be lost in subtitles. Does this necessarily mean that some of the plot content is also lost? It could be argued that the discourse of Manuela’s story forks into two paths or interpretations: the subtitled and the original. This bifurcation may pose a more fundamental and general question altogether, i.e. how different can the same film become when shown to an audience which does not speak the original language?
If a substantial portion of the plot relies on the perception of a different accent, which film does the target audience watch when reading subtitles? Analysing scenes.
There is one first subtle reference to Manuela’s origins, which does not take place until minute 17, when after the death of her son, she returns to Barcelona after a three-week absence. A friend comes to see her, saying she had tried to contact her but could not get through to her aunt in Argentina. Manuela confesses that she had not been there, but in La Coruña, following her son’s (transplanted) heart.
The target audience might read this reference without much notice, perhaps being wrongly led to the supposition that Argentina was her random run-away destination, when in fact the correct assumption is that she went back home. As a translator, aware of the problematic presented by accents in subtitling, from the very start of the film -if relevant and when allowed by the dialogue- I would aim to mark this difference of origin or nationality consistently. In the case of the above scene, for example, when Manuela’s friend speaks, I would have translated her lines using a verb like to go back or to return to Argentina, rather than the verb ‘to go’. In other words, as claimed by H. Gottlieb, the main aim for a translator should be to attempt to provide the target audience with the same “…experience they would have had if they already knew the foreign language in question”. That is, beyond the untranslatability of someone’s accent, for the sake of the plot, the target audience should know by this point in the film that the protagonist is a foreigner. Only then can they begin to juggle with all the implications and assumptions that her nationality suggests, as the original audience would have done at this point in the film.
In minute 20:10 we are introduced to what will become the main object of Manuela’s search: Lola. There is a cut of a photo for a split of a second, in which we see Manuela hugging a transvestite, while she is healing Agrado’s face. In this scene there is a lot of information delivered and at a very high speed. Subtitles flash along and inevitably, a lot of details are left out. However, given the speed and the amount of information, built-up assumptions help a great deal in the deduction process necessary in following the plot. If by now, the target audience has not understood Manuela’s background, then again, they might read subtitles without being able to connect as many links as the source audience would have done.
Right in the middle of the film (minute 46), in the typical form of “…I had a friend who….”, Manuela unfolds her own story. To the target audience this moment is crucial, for she explains that she does not come from Barcelona (“…[My friend] was in a foreign country.”), but arrived there to join her husband who had left her to go to Paris two years before. However, she does not mention Argentina. In the subtitles, this could result in a loss of pathos, for the fact that she came from so far away emphasises the sense of escape, of distance, of radical changes and, above all, of solitude (“…She had no-one.”). Manuela’s accent, in sum, is central to her own characterisation. To be able to embrace and understand all the implications brought by her accent from the beginning allows the original audience to grow closer to the character. When this speech is delivered, the original audience completes the picture of her persona, conceived throughout the first 45 minutes, whereas the target audience can only start to realise whom she actually is.
Manuela’s mentioning of Videla’s imprisonment (minute 79) as the second reason for celebration in the day when Rosa is giving birth, is a minor detail surely to go unnoticed by the target audience who does not know a great deal about Argentinian history. However brief and random this comment may seem, it is a very important detail, for in that reason to celebrate Manuela could be confirming a reason for exile, revealing even more of her character’s depth to the audience aware of her origins. Nevertheless, if the target audience has not understood that she is Argentinian (her accent being irreproducible in subtitles and details about her nationality being too subtle or left out in the translation), surely the film must have a very different impact to the one on the original audience.
As aforementioned, Manuela’s character, and to an extent the film itself, unfolds onto two different paths of interpretation drawn by her accent. While the original audience, be it Spanish or Argentinian, reaffirms at this instance the character’s possible past, the target audience might feel puzzled at the mentioning of someone unknown to them, and is therefore prone to ignore the subtitle altogether.
In the next scene, the funeral scene (minute 80), under a veil of a powerful tango tune, the audience finally meets Lola. The original audience understands that she is Argentinian too from the second she speaks, and thus, they know that she is Manuela’s husband (who left her to go to Paris), that she is Esteban’s father, and so forth. At this point the target audience is given the chance to deduce and tie links independently of the information lost in subtitles, since Lola herself explains it. She confesses that the money she had stolen from Agrado was to pay for her ticket back to Argentina, to “take a last look at the town, the river, …our street” (min. 82), before her death.
The main disadvantage for the target audience here is time-related. For this confession should not come as a surprise, given the background information that the original audience was able to deduce all along from the characters’ accents. Yet, this revelation could be a shock if only at this point the target audience realises not only that both Lola and Manuela are foreigners, but that they actually both come from Argentina. This unintended surprise could bring a completely new perspective to the film as a whole.
Conclusion: Should the target audience resign to an unredeemable loss or can the translator rescue the untranslatable?
Given the international transcendence of All About My Mother, it is needless to say that the plot of the film has been successfully understood by all target audiences, in spite of the impossibility of conveying the difference in accents through subtitles. Yet, is it fair to say that the film has been fully understood, in all its implications and dimensions? Although the film makes perfect sense to an audience dependant on subtitles, it is clear that if the director chose an Argentinian actress to play the role of the protagonist, and an Argentinian actor/actress to be the protagonist’s husband, it was for a specific purpose. Unlike in All About My Mother in his early films, if Cecilia Roth was part of the cast, Almodóvar would always choose to have her voice dubbed. This was done to prevent her Argentinian accent from creating assumptions or adding hypothesis incongruent or alien to the film plot. If this was not done in All About… it is because the accents had a role to play in the story itself.
For it is the accent which gives away the connection between Lola and Manuela and draws the profile of their history as a couple and as two foreigners looking for a new destiny away from their past. It is the accent that inspires the original audience to cultivate a world of implications about the protagonist, allowing them to understand her (and the film itself) from a standpoint too different for the target audience even to imagine. Therefore, although the film might be completely comprehensible as far as the story line is concerned, unarguably there is a myriad of nuances and parallel lines of characterisation and understanding, which are (empirically) lost in the subtitled version.
It is impossible to translate an accent or, indeed, to show it through subtitles; however, it is feasible, and not technologically challenging, to include, from the beginning of a film, certain clues or carefully selected phrases, in order to indicate that which an accent may denote. In other words, for the target audience not to have to resign to an unfair loss in meaning or depth, the translator should always attempt to choose words, which allow the target audience to experience the same film, as the original audience would have done.
Gottlieb, H. (1994) Subtitling: People Translating People. In Dollerup C. & Lindegaard, A. (eds.) Teaching Translation and Interpreting 2: Insights, Aims, Visions. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: J.Benjamins Pub.Co., 261-74.
Kovačič, I. (1994) Relevance as a Factor in Subtitling Reductions. In Dollerup C. & Lindegaard, A. (eds.) Teaching Translation and Interpreting 2: Insights, Aims, Visions. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: J.Benjamins Pub.Co., 245-51.
Roffe, I & Thorne, D. (1994) Transcultural Language Transfer: Subtitling from a Minority Language. In Dollerup C. & Lindegaard, A. (eds.) Teaching Translation and Interpreting 2: Insights, Aims, Visions. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: J.Benjamins Pub.Co., 253-59.
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