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Little words that mean a lot

19.10.2009 - (idw) University of Gothenburg

Little words can be very important for how we understand American films but are rarely translated into Swedish even though this is often possible, id reveiled in a new thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Jenny Mattsson's thesis is about the translation of small but significant elements of the dialogue in American films. The English words well, you know, I mean and like (known as discourse particles) were studied in ten American films (including Legally Blonde, Pulp Fiction and Fargo). The thesis looks at how and whether they were translated in the subtitles shown at the cinema, on DVD, on public service television (SVT) and on commercial television (TV3 and TV4).

Discourse particles are words and expressions that can have different functions in a language depending on the context in which they are used. They can be used both to give structure to the spoken language (for example the English like and the Swedish bara/ba, which are often used colloquially to introduce quotations) and to indicate the relationship between two or more speakers in various ways (for example the English you know and the Swedish du vet and ju, which are often used to create a connection between speakers).

Subtitling is a special form of translation as there is a very limited amount of space for the words on each line on a cinema or television screen. Given the lack of space and the short amount of time for which the translation is shown, much of the original dialogue tends to be abbreviated. One of the fundamental questions posed by the thesis is whether discourse particles are actually translated in Swedish subtitles despite the difficulty in defining their function and the restrictions inherent in subtitling.

The thesis shows that most instances of well, you know, I mean and like in the films were not translated in the subtitles. When discourse particles are not translated, or when one function is given priority over another, Swedish viewers can miss nuances in the dialogue that may be extremely important to their understanding and opinion of the characters and the action in the films. The thesis also explores how different films have been translated depending on whether they were to be shown at the cinema, on DVD, on public service television (SVT) or on commercial television (TV3 and TV4).

A slightly surprising result is that when these discourse particles are, in spite of everything, translated, very creative solutions are often used. The translations show that English and Swedish can express the same functions, albeit maybe in very different ways. This means that even the most difficult-to-define words and expressions in English actually have many equivalents in Swedish. It is also possible to transfer the discourse particles' various functions from spoken English to written Swedish - even in a highly restricted form of translation like subtitling.

Title of thesis: The Subtitling of Discourse Particles. A corpus-based study of well, you know, I mean and like, and their Swedish translations in ten American films
The thesis was successfully defended on October 17

Download the thesis at:
Weitere Informationen: - thesis press info
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