Written to the song: Calma (remix) — Pedro Capó ft. Farruko

“Every language is a world. Without translation, we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence” — George Steiner

Bacalar, Mexico.

Translation is a beautiful thing, as it gives non-native speakers the opportunity to witness the powerful messages, customs and ideas that are seen in foreign films and written in international books. Although, translators have a big role on their shoulders — they have to accurately translate for meaning, to stay true to the specific language used by the characters and make untranslatable words (words that do not exist in English) understandable to non-native speakers. While watching the show “Shtisel” on Netflix I was simultaneously listening, reading the subtitles and pondering whether the dialogue matched the translation. This got me thinking about the job of translators and some of the difficulties they face while translating.

Accounting for cultural norms: elements that are known concepts in one culture, may be completely unknown to another. Translators need to decide which words they are going to use stay true to the script, but also which words will inform viewers who are potentially unfamiliar with a culture. For example, do most people understand the word “hijab”, or are you going to use the word “head-covering” instead?

Valency of words: Different words have different meanings, and some words (think of swear words) are harsher than others. Which specific word are you going to use to stay true to the characters and situation within a film? In the show Shtisel, the translator chose to not translate a Yiddish swear word for impact. Not knowing Yiddish, I had to look up the meaning where I received English translations of various curse words. The impact of the main character’s statement would have been obvious if I knew the power of the word choice. The translator most likely intentionally chose to not translate the swear word to stay true to the valency of the word.

Untranslatable language: These are words that do not exist in the English language. For example, the French word “flâneur” describes someone who aimlessly wanders a city out of content and exploration. Would you not translate this specific word and allow viewers to do it on their own, or would you insert a short description?

Timing constraints and word reduction: Narrowing-down a script through using specific language to capture the timing of word choices within a script, is vital to stay true to the timing of a film. Research reveals that up to half of a film’s original dialogue is cut by translators due to constraints of timing (de Linde & Kay 1999). The translator has to make the executive decision of which specific words are needed to emphasize the film’s plot, and which words are simply unnecessary.

Maintaining correct tone: Yes. Yes! Yes? The same word with three different tones. Translators must ensure that the word choice and associated grammar match the emotions of the characters.

Staying up-to-date with slang: Translators must be knowledgeable of vernacular, dialects and the meaning behind specific sayings. This ensures that viewers comprehend what’s going on in the storyline.

Translating is not an easy task, but it is an important one to bridges gaps between various cultures. Watching foreign films and reading translated books can help us better understand foreign situations and learn about under-represented communities through a non-North American perspective. While being critical of translations is natural if you speak the language, it is important to recognize the challenges faced by translators. My goal for this year is to read more internationally translated books and watch more international films and television, and I urge you to do the same. We can all learn something from other cultures.


de Linde, Zoé and Neil Kay (1999) The Semiotics of Subtitling, Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.

Author of “Q & A a Day for Travelers”. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-frenkel/