The Transfer Of Taboo Language In Audiovisual Translation

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Audiovisual translation or AVT is a vast research field which has developed rapidly. Most of the work carried out in audiovisual translation studies focuses on interlingual subtitling, translation strategies, technical requirements and constraints. The present paper on the transfer of taboo language in audiovisual translation is part of the descriptive branch of Translation Studies (part of the pure branch) in the way that it examines existing translations in order to make generalisations and build up theories. More precisely, this topic is product-oriented in that it describes and analyses source text samples and their translations. Furthermore, it could also be function-oriented since it considers the function of taboo words in the audiovisual context. Scholars have argued that taboo language is increasingly used in films . However, there is a clear tendency to omit and tone-down taboo language in audiovisual translation. The main objective of this paper is hence to verify this tendency and explore the different translations strategies and procedures used to transfer taboo language in audiovisual translation. After an introduction to audiovisual translation and taboo language, this paper puts together a selection of recently published papers on the transfer of taboo language in audiovisual translation and discusses the limitations and gaps to be filled. It concludes with suggestions for future research in this particular field.

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In the field of Translation Studies, audiovisual translation can be defined as “the transfer of multimedia and multimodal texts from one language into another language and/or culture”. Munday (2016) divides AVT into different categories namely interlingual subtitling, bilingual subtitling, intralingual subtitling, dubbing, voice-over, surtitling and audio description. As only interlingual subtitling and dubbing are relevant to this paper, only these two types of AVT will be defined.

Interlingual subtitling “involves not only the rendition of one language to another language, but also the matching of the written texts with the soundtrack and the visual images on the screen” (Han and Wang 2014). For Linde and Kay, interlingual subtitling differs from written texts translation in that it has space and time constraints which limit the number of words on the screen. Moreover, the subtitler has to face additional constraints related to the images, the soundtrack, the camera changes and the rhythm of the dialogue. On the other hand, Chaume (2012) defines dubbing as a type of audiovisual translation which “consists of replacing the original track of a film’s (or any audiovisual text) source language dialogues with another track on which translated dialogues have been recorded in the target language”. The constraints of this type of AVT are quite similar to the ones of subtitling but include some other difficulties such as the lip-sync for example.

Taboo Language in Audiovisual Translation

Before deep diving into studies on the field of subtitling and dubbing taboo language, it is useful to clarify what is the essence of “taboo language” but also what functions taboo words fulfil.

Semantic Categories

Jay (2009) describes taboo words and swear words as “offensive emotional language”. He says that “taboo words are sanctioned or restricted on both institutional and individual levels under the assumption that some harm will occur if a taboo word is spoken”. According to him, these words have a limited semantic range. Therefore, they can be classified in different categories. In his research paper, Ávila-Cabrera (2015) has outlined a taxonomy of offensive and taboo language based on the works of Wajnryb (2005), Hughes (2006), and Jay (2009). First of all, Ávila-Cabrera makes a distinction between offensive and taboo language. The offensive category has been divided in three subcategories: abusive swearing, expletives and invectives. The taboo category is divided into ten subcategories. In the same way, Han and Wang suggest a list of ten semantic categories of English swearwords.


Baines (2015) believes that considering the functions of taboo words could be a more rewarding approach than categorising them. Ljung (2011) suggests five major functions for taboo words: expletive interjections, oaths, curses or insults, name calling or derogatory descriptions and intensifiers. These functions are also cited by Pratama (2016) who refers to Ljung’s work (2011). However, he proposes three categories of functions namely stand-alone, slot fillers and replacive swearing. While stand-alone functions comprise expletive interjections, oaths, curses and name-calling, slot fillers include intensifiers. According to Ljung (2011), a swear word has a replacive swearing function when it can be interpreted in multiple non-literal ways.

Audiovisual Translation Strategies and Procedures: Theory

First of all, it is useful to make a distinction between translation strategies and translation procedures. As defined by Munday, a translation strategy is an “overall orientation of the translator” whereas a translation procedure is “a specific technique or method used by the translator at a certain point in a text”. According to Fong (2009), the first step to translating an audiovisual content is for the translator to decide whether to preserve and transpose the source culture or to adapt the source culture so that it appears familiar to the target audience. Therefore, Fong (2009) identifies three strategies: foreignization, naturalisation and neutralisation. The first one involves keeping the source culture elements in the film so that the audience immerse themselves in the foreign culture. The second one implies changing the cultural elements from the source film in order to familiarise them to the target culture. Finally, the last one involves taking away any cultural element present in the film. In other words, “for the translator, the choice is among whether to take the audience to the film, bring the film to the audience, or let the audience go there by themselves”. Nevertheless, Fong (2009) argues that it is frequent that the three strategies are utilised within a film.

Furthermore, Ávila-Cabrera (2015:) established a taxonomy of the procedures used in audiovisual translation based on the works of Vinay and Darbelnet (1958/2000) and Díaz Cintas and Remael (2007). These procedures include: literal translation, calque, explicitation, substitution, transposition, compensation, omission and reformulation. It should be noted that this list of procedures applies to audiovisual translation and even translation in general. It is hence not restricted to the translation of taboo language. The following paragraphs provide an overview of six recently published studies on subtitling and dubbing taboo language in order to shed light on the tendencies, strategies and procedures used in this particular field.

Translation Procedures in the Subtitling of Taboo Language

The studies of Han and Wang (2014), Ávila-Cabrera (2015), Pratama (2016) and Fong (2009), all try to identify the tendencies and translation procedures of taboo language in film samples. Each scholar has analysed fragments of an English film and their corresponding subtitles in Chinese, Spanish and Indonesian. The following paragraphs explain their study and summarize their findings and conclusions.

Firstly, in their study, Han and Wang (2014) wanted to verify if a tone-down tendency of taboo language could be identified in the Chinese subtitles of English taboo words. For that purpose, they investigated samples from the Australian TV series The Family using the technique of “reverse engineering”. This technique consists of analysing the target text, identifying the factors that influenced the translator’s choice and to search for equivalences in the source and target texts. Their study confirmed the tone-down tendency in the Chinese subtitles. However, this tendency did not have a major impact on the communicative goals of English taboo language. In other words, the functions and the force of the original taboo language is retained in the Chinese rendering. The study proved that the most employed translation procedures when taboo language was rendered were “category shift” and “literal translation”. Han and Wang conclude their study as follows: “the implication that this study tends to suggest is that the subtitling of swearwords should not focus on if the swearwords should be omitted in the subtitles, but on the strategies of how to render these words around tempo-spatial limitations and cultural constraints.”

The results of Ávila-Cabrera (2015) study are remarkably similar to the ones of Han and Wang. In fact, Ávila-Cabrera’s study demonstrated that “omission”, “reformulation” and “literal translation” were the most commonly used procedures in the Spanish subtitling of the film Pulp Fiction. The aim of his research was, despite identifying the most common procedures for subtitling taboo language, to identify a tendency and to verify if omission was justified by technical constraints. The research proved that most of the taboo language in the original film was rendered in the Spanish subtitles. Nevertheless, it has still shown an omission tendency of 40 % in the taboo language instances not being subtitled. In addition, half of these omissions were not justified by subtitling constraints such as time and space. Therefore, Ávila-Cabrera (2015) concludes: “the subtitling of offensive and taboo language into Spanish in Pulp Fiction can be said not to be especially faithful to the ST.”

Thirdly, with much the same objectives, Pratama (2016) explored the subtitling of taboo language from the English film The Help into Indonesian. Relying on the Ljung’s theory (2011) onto the functions of taboo words, he found that the most employed procedures were “omission”, “transfer” and “euphemism”. However, while there are clear signs of omissions, most of the taboo language rendered in the Indonesian subtitles maintained the function of the taboo words from the original text.

Lastly, Fong (2009), in his book chapter on the case of vulgarisms and sexually-oriented language, asserts that “subtitling forces upon the audience an awareness of the coexistence of the original and translated worlds”. He observed cases of subtitling from English into Cantonese and Standard Chinese. According to him, in the case of Standard Chinese, the taboo language is toned down, neutralised or omitted. However, he says that even if the characterisation function and force of the language is reduced, the impact of the taboo language is not especially lost. In fact, he indicates that “with good subtitling, we can reveal the two worlds (the film and the subtitles) converging seamlessly into one”.

These four papers show a clear tendency to omit taboo language in subtitling, or at least a tone-down tendency. Despite the different language pairs, the studies show strikingly similar results. Han and Wang (2014) and Fong (2009) both try to explain this with the linguistic and cultural disparities between languages as well as with government and social constraints. Han and Wang identify additional factors explaining the translator’s choice to omit taboo language, namely the subtitling constraints, the shift in modality from spoken to written, the taboo language repetition which can be redundant, the familiarity of the audience with the English-speaking culture and the translator’s creative practices. Furthermore, Pratama explains that some cultures “put high concern on the politeness in speaking” (2016) and that it would be a reason for a softening or omission procedure. Finally, he believes that such procedures “can reduce the inconvenience experienced by the viewers due to the taboo utterance in the film”.

Translation Procedures in the Dubbing of Taboo Language

Giampieri’s paper (2017) is the only one selected in this paper which focuses on the dubbing of taboo language. This paper aims to analyse the translation procedures used in the Italian dubbing of the film Ted 2 with a particular focus on the rendering of taboo language. The taboo words which have been analysed in her study are the ones concerning scatology, sex and religion.

The study showed that many swearwords were censored in the Italian version of Ted 2 either by omission or by lessened expressions. Only about 63 % of the taboo language was rendered and the remaining swearwords were mostly focused on sexual swearwords. Giampieri (2017) also found that religious offences were not rendered at all in the Italian version (the only exception being the expression “Oh my God”). She interpreted that as a result of the legal constraints in Italy. This hence is a totally new explanation to omission of taboo language that none of the authors previously mentioned have put forward. She says that “blasphemies are fined by law, and they are perceived by the layperson as the worst swearwords anyone could hear or utter”. The original religious offences were therefore either omitted or mitigated by euphemisms. She also pointed out that a lot of effort was made by the translator in finding acceptable substitutes to taboo language instead of immediately toning them down.

“Cueing Approach” to Subtitling Taboo Language

Baines (2015) adopted another approach to omission than the other studies investigated in this paper. The aim of his study was to explore the hypothesis that subtitles use linguistic and visual elements from the film genre in order to trigger audience reaction to taboo language. This is called “cueing” and can be defined, in this case, as “employing the resource of triggers available in the linguistic and visual text to signal the use of taboo vocabulary or expressions to the audience without the use of subtitles”. Baines observed the omission or retention of taboo language to discuss the cueing strategy as well as to see whether this kind of strategy has a detrimental impact on characterisation. He also wanted to argue that “the macro factors of genre and register can be factors which explain the retaining of taboo language in subtitles”. For this purpose, he analysed samples of three social realist films in Metropolitan French and British English which provide examples of cueing.

Baines’ study (2015) showed that some cases of partial omission of taboo language indicate a cueing strategy and that the combination of genre and register appear to trigger a certain expectation of taboo language. He also pointed out that whether taboo language was rendered or omitted, the functions of taboo language was retained. Therefore, the hypothesis that a cueing strategy has a detrimental impact on characterisation cannot be sustained. Baines is the only author in this paper who mentioned that in some cases taboo language cannot be omitted at all. This is the case when, for example, taboo language constitutes a topic of conversation between two characters. Also, he noted that a complete transfer of taboo language could be redundant when visual triggers are present in the film.

Critical Assessment


In their papers, scholars use a different terminology to refer to taboo language, translation strategies and procedures. The great variety in terminology for taboo language in academic publications has already been pointed out by Ávila-Cabrera (2015). He cited words used by other authors such as “dirty language”, “emotionally charged language”, “bad language”, “strong language”, etc. The scholars mentioned in this paper use a great variety of words as well to refer to “taboo language”. In fact, Han and Wang (2014), Giampieri (2017), Ávila-Cabrera (2015) and Baines (2015) mostly use the expression “taboo language” in their studies. However, the two first authors mentioned also talk about “swearwords” and Ávila-Cabrera (2015) uses the term “offensive language” as a synonym to “taboo language”. Pratama (2016) employs a roughly similar terminology with “taboo words”. Nevertheless, Fong (2009) uses completely different words as he talks about “vulgarisms” and “sexually-oriented language”. Furthermore, scholars tend to use the word “strategy” for “procedure” despite the fact that these words have different meanings. They also use different words to express the multiple procedures employed by translators. For example, Pratama (2016) uses the word “euphemism” while Han and Wang (2014) talks about “toning-down”.

Film Genre

The films analysed in the different studies investigated in this paper all display a particularly high number of taboo words. This is related to the genre of the films such as social realism, comedy with crude humour, etc. which promote the use of informal language or slang (which hence include taboo language). Scholars have chosen these genres of film in order to have enough material to work with as they display a lot of taboo language. However, as Baines (2015) mentions and tries to prove in his study, in the case of film genres which display a lot of taboo language, the audience expects the characters to use such a language. Therefore, the translators can omit taboo words as there is enough elements in the context for the target audience to understand the presence of taboo in the film. We hence cannot be certain if the strategies and procedures used by translators in films of another genre, which does not specifically promote taboo language, are exactly the same as the ones found by scholars mentioned in this paper. This is an issue that could be interesting to analyse in future research.

Professional vs. Amateur Subtitling and Dubbing

All the studies on the transfer of taboo language in audiovisual translation explored in this paper adopted a “professional approach”. In other words, the subtitles analysed were the official ones and thus produced by professional translators. None of the articles tried to explore the strategies and procedures used by amateur translators. As Baines (2015) says when concluding his paper, “technical restraints, norms and audience expectations differ” in the case of fansubbing. Therefore, it could be interesting to compare professional subtitling and dubbing, with fansubbing and fandubbing to see if they follow the same strategies and procedures and if the same tendencies can be identified. In their paper “Translation of cultural taboos in Hollywood movies in professional dubbing and non-professional subtitling”, Modarresi and Forutan (2018) explore translation strategies and procedures in professional dubbing and amateur subtitling from English into Iranian. This is an interesting additional reading material since it sheds light on the differences between professional and amateur translators’ choices for the transfer of taboo language in AVT but also provides justifications for it.


To conclude, most of the works investigated in this paper show a clear tendency to omit and tone-down taboo language in audiovisual translation and more precisely in subtitling and dubbing. Multiple reasons have been brought up to explain this tendency, among others political and cultural constraints. Giampieri (2017) observed that a large number of taboo words were omitted by censorship imposed by legal constraints in Italy. The case of omission by censorship is a particularly interesting topic for research on the transfer of taboo language in audiovisual translation. This is the reason why Zanotti’s paper “Censorship or profit? The manipulation of dialogue in dubbed youth films”, could be an interesting additional reference to explore this topic in more depth. In her study, Zanotti (2012) addresses the case of censorship and more precisely, the case of manipulation in audiovisual translation. Relying on textual analyses and archival research, she tries to provide evidence to previous studies conducted on censorship in AVT which showed that disturbing elements such as taboo language tend to be toned-down or censored. This additional material could certainly give us a better understanding of the omission tendency in the transfer of taboo language in AVT.


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14 May 2021

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