Hong Kong Chinese Subtitling Of English Slangs Cultural Studies Essay

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With the rapid advancement in technology in recent years, more and more information has been presented in or transferred into audiovisual formats, and subtitling has become an essential technique for facilitating communication and has been widely discussed. As a matter of fact, subtitling translation, indeed, should not be overlooked since, according to a survey, ninety-five percents of moviegoers are not able to entirely understand the dialogues in English movies (Yiu, 2001). Such being the case, in Hong Kong, a large number of moviegoers rely on reading the Chinese subtitles to follow the storyline of English movies; and for that matter, almost all movies in theatres in Hong Kong are equipped with Chinese subtitles. Since I realised that subtitling is now turning to be the preferred mode of screen translation in Hong Kong, I found that it is of utmost importance to construct an in-depth study on the Hong Kong Chinese subtitling.

More specifically, this thesis concerns Hong Kong Chinese subtitling of English slangs because it is interesting to find that slangs appear in English speaking movies are often inadequately translated. For instance, in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, after John and Jane encountered each other on a job and discovered they are both skilled assassins working for different firms, they sought to eliminate the other and Jane called John "pussy" when he balked and laid his gun down. "Pussy" is subtitled as bou-zhong (孬種; lit: coward), a term which is of formal register, and to some degrees, not commonly used in both spoken and written Hong Kong Chinese nowadays. Much of the evoked meanings are lost in the Chinese subtitling as a result. Up to this point, the aim of my study is to show the ways in which English slangs are inadequately translated in Hong Kong Chinese subtitles and to illustrate different reasons for this phenomenon. Furthermore, since English movies, especially teen movies, are always full of colloquialisms and provide a numerous collection of practical examples, this specific film genre is selected as the medium for investigating the norms of English slang as well as the Hong Kong Chinese subtitling.

Based on Chen's (2004) research on Chinese subtitling of English swearwords, I would like to review previous literatures and further study the characteristics of Hong Kong Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese subtitles and how it affect the style of subtitling of English slangs. In addition, I would like to focus on analysing local norms, especially people's attitudes towards slangs, and demonstrate that it may be counted as one of the causes of the inadequate translation.

The new knowledge or understanding I hope to contribute is that this paper will reveal characteristics as well as limitations of Hong Kong Chinese subtitling. Ways for improving the Chinese subtitles are then suggested accordingly. Besides, investigation of the attitudes towards slangs will reveal aspects of cultures vary from those of English speaking countries. Greater understanding of different cultures may help lessen problematic communication to some extents.


To show the ways in which English slangs are inadequately translated in Hong Kong Chinese subtitles and to illustrate different causes of this phenomenon.

Project discussion issues:

to illustrate how English slangs are translated in Hong Kong Chinese subtitles;

to study the Hong Kong system of film censorship and its relation to the inadequate translation;

to analyse the characteristics of Hong Kong Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese subtitles and their relations to the inadequate translation;

to investigate how people's attitudes towards slangs may link to the inadequate translation; and

to suggest ways for improving the subtitles.


1. Parallel texts

Melamed (2001, p. 235) suggested that a source text and its translation can be seen as "a coarse map between the two languages". In this study, parallel subtitles (English and Chinese) of the selected movies will be extracted then word correspondences will be identified and used as an intriguing source of data for illustrating how English slangs are translated in Hong Kong Chinese subtitles.

2. Literature review

To investigate the Hong Kong system of film censorship and the characteristics of Hong Kong Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese subtitles, prior literatures in related areas will be reviewed. Cooper (1988) commented that a literature review reports original scholarship and aims to clarify or integrate the content of one's own study. Bolderston (2008) further indicated that a literature review can be an informative and critical synthesis of a particular topic since it identifies what is already known and what is still controversial in the subject area.

Summarising previous studies, Webster & Watson (2002) suggested that an ideal literature review article is characterized by critical and systematic evaluation and analysis of prior literature in related areas. Besides, motivating the research topic, clearing the review's contributions, describing the key concepts, specifying the boundaries, and guiding future research are also important components of a good literature review.

3. Survey

A survey seeking to examine people's attitudes towards slangs will be conducted between June and July 2010. 60 anonymous questionnaires will be distributed. 30 native English speakers and 30 native Cantonese speakers will be selected as the participants and both genders will be equally distributed in each group, i.e. 15 female native English speakers, 15 male native English speakers plus 15 female native Cantonese speakers and 15 male native Cantonese speakers. Furthermore, these participants should be of different ages, occupations, as well as education levels.

There will be two sets of questions which the first set (questionnaire 1) targets the English speaking group and asks their opinions on the offensiveness of some English slangs by circling the appropriate numbers on scales from 1 (least offensive) to 5 (most offensive). Questionnaire 2 divided into three parts targets the Cantonese speaking group. Part A asks the Cantonese speaking group their opinions on the offensiveness of the same set of English slangs. Similarly, they are required to circle the appropriate numbers on scales from 1 to 5. Part B gives the corresponding Chinese subtitles of the English slangs and again, asks the Cantonese speaking group their comments on the offensiveness of these Chinese subtitles by circling the appropriate numbers on scales from 1 to 5. Part C aims at investigating the acceptability of different translations of the slangs. Both the Chinese subtitles and the suggested Cantonese equivalences of the English slangs are provided and that Cantonese participants are required to circle the more acceptable ones.

Literature Review:

Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, digital technology has been the driving force in the inclination to deliver information with audiovisual media. Accordingly, subtitling has become a key technique for facilitating communication and has recently been concerned and widely discussed. Indeed, subtitling translation should not be overlooked as indicated by Yiu (2001) that ninety-five percents of moviegoers cannot fully understand the dialogues in English movies. Such being the case, in Hong Kong, the majority of moviegoers count on reading the Chinese subtitles to understand the storyline; and for that matter, almost all English movies in theatres in Hong Kong are equipped with Chinese subtitles. From the above point of views, I found that it is of utmost importance to construct an in-depth study on the Hong Kong Chinese subtitling. Additionally, this study concerns Hong Kong Chinese subtitling of English slangs because it is interesting to find that slangs appear in English speaking movies are often inadequately translated. In the following parts, I will first review prior literature on subtitling as well as slang in general context and then will go further and review literature on subtitling and slang which based on the context of Hong Kong.

A. Research on subtitling in general context

Subtitling as a means to screen translation

Creation of subtitling dates back to 1927, when the first sound film produced reached the audience. Subtitling, a method of adding textual strips of translated dialogues to moving pictures, usually displayed at the bottom of the screen, was soon afterwards invented as an inexpensive alternative to dubbing (Gottlieb, 2001).

Many scholars, e.g. Dries (1995) and Gottlieb (2001), claimed that, linguistically, two major types of subtitling can be distinguished: (1) intralingual subtitling, which is subtitling of domestic programs for deaf people; and (2) interlingual subtitling, which "the subtitler 'crosses over' from interpreting the spoken foreign language dialogue to presenting a written domestic language translation on the screen" (Gottlieb, 2001, p.1006). I will concentrate on the latter type in the following. Besides, Dries (1995, p. 26) added the point that interlingual subtitling, in many cases, transfers spoken dialogue into "a written, condensed translation". This corresponds to the argument presented by De Linde & Kay (1999, pp. 1-2), that "the amount of dialogue has to be reduced to meet the technical conditions of the medium and the reading capacities of non-native language users".

Some scholars indicated that nowadays, the preference to screen translation is gradually shifting towards subtitling rather than dubbing in the sense that the increasing amount of film production requires a time saving and inexpensive way of translation (Gottlieb, 2001; Sanchez, 2004). However, to most of the scholars, the economic advantages are secondary; while maintaining the authenticity and style of the original production is supposed to be the most invaluable advantage of subtitling.

B. Research on slang in general context

Defining "slang"

Early last century, Greenough & Kittredge (1901, p.55) had already considered slang as legitimate speech and defined slang as "a peculiar kind of vagabond language, always hanging on the outskirts of legitimate speech, but continually straying or forcing its way into the most respectable company." Eble (1996, p. 11) studied the social role of slang and defined slang as "an ever changing set of colloquial words and phrases that speakers use to establish or reinforce social identity or cohesiveness within a group or with a trend or fashion in society at large." Others, such as Dumas & Lighter (1978, p. 14-16), avoid definitions and instead proposing four identifying criteria for slang. They argued that an expression can be counted as slang only if it meets at least two of the following criteria:

Its presence will lower the degree of formality of speech.

Its use implies user's familiarity with a specific group of people.

It is a taboo term in ordinary discourse.

It is used to replace a well known synonym to protect the user from the discomfort caused by the conventional item or to reduce the chance which further elaboration is needed.

One special perspective on slang presented by Mencken (2009, p.364) is that "what slang actually consists of doesn't depend upon intrinsic qualities, but upon the surrounding circumstance. It is the user that determines the matter, and particularly the user's habitual ways of thing. If he chooses words carefully, with a full understanding of their meaning and savours, then no word that he uses seriously will belong to slang, but if his speech is made up chiefly of terms poll-parroted, and he has no sense of their shades and limitations, then slang will bulk largely in his vocabulary."

The origin of the word 'slang' is regarded as unknown by most scholars (Eble, 1996; Stenstrom, 2000). One notable exception is Skeat (1963, p. 490), who claimed that the word 'slang' is of Scandinavian origin. Partridge (1970, p. 2) also indicated that there are certain similarities between the English word 'slang' and the Scandinavian 'sling' suggesting that these words seem to be developed from a common Germanic root. Another conjecture is suggested by McKnight (1923, pp. 37-38), who referred slang to the specialized vocabulary of some underworld groups.

Generally, most scholars, e.g. Andersson & Trudgill (1990), Eble (1996), and Allen (1998), agreed that slang is usually metaphorical and group-related, sometimes used merely for fun. More specifically, some scholars, e.g. Eble (1996), further suggested that slang majorly occurs in teenage talk. Up to this point, I will mainly focus on the subtitles of teen movies for investigating the norms of English slang in my own study.

Linguistic properties of English slang

Jespersen (1922, p. 299) argued that "slang is more productive in the lexical than in the grammatical portion of language". Andersson & Trudgill (1990), likewise, stressed that slang influences mostly upon vocabulary. In the literature, it is generally believed that slang affects vocabulary but not grammatical constructions. However, while most scholars tend to assign slang to lexicon, Mattiello (2008) contrasted this opinion and in contrary, assigned English slang's relevance to phonology (play with sounds or assimilation), morphology (e.g. compounding, affixation, conversion, shortening, and blending), semantics (e.g. metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, euphemism, and irony) as well as grammar and pragmatics.

Reasons for using slang

It appears that language is often used on purpose. Partridge (1954, p. 4) commented that being the quintessence of colloquial speech, "slang must always be related to convenience rather than to scientific laws, grammatical rules and philosophical ideals. As it originates, so it flourishes best, in colloquial speech."

It is also commonly agreed that slang is frequently used to show belonging to a group or adherence to a trend. As mentioned earlier, Eble (1996) argued that slang is used for the purpose of creating or reinforcing relationship with a group or a trend. Similarly, Allen (1998) emphasized that slang is a sociological rather than a linguistic phenomenon which it is generally employed to mark social differences; in other words, to "keep outsiders outside" (Andersson & Trudgill, 1990).

So why is slang used at all? Partridges (1954) synthesized previous literature and believed that slang is used fundamentally because of one (or more) of the following 15 reasons:

In sheer high spirits or merely for fun by mostly teenagers.

As an exercise either in wit or in humour.

To be different, to be novel.

To be picturesque.

To be arresting, to get attention.

To escape from cliches, in other words, to be brief and concise.

To enrich the language.

To turn abstract into concreteness; idealistic into earthiness.

To soften the language.

To lower the level of formality; or merely to be on a colloquial level.

For ease of social intercourse.

To induce either friendliness or intimacy.

To show or prove that one belongs to a certain group or trend.

Hence, to show or prove that one is not in a certain group or trend.

To be secret, not understood by those around one.

C. Research on subtitling based on the context of Hong Kong

Subtitling in Hong Kong

In Yiu's (2001) article, he mentioned thirty years ago, most translators in Hong Kong were not very familiar with English colloquial expressions and therefore numerous mistakes occurred when they subtitled the English movies. However, since their understanding of both British and American expressions largely improved in 1990s, translators have made great progress in subtitling translation.

To study the characteristics of Hong Kong Chinese subtitling, in particular that of erotic dialogue, Chen (2005) looked into the Chinese subtitles of Kaufman's film, Quills, and identified six major problems:

Language not being audience-oriented enough (Although Cantonese is the mother tongue of most Hong Kong Chinese, Hong Kong subtitling is primarily done in standard Chinese or Mandarin which is far less intimate and personal to Hong Kong people.)

Unidiomaticality in terms of elegance (Unnecessary neutralization of Western metaphors)

Unidiomaticality in terms of vulgarity (Undertranslation of English swearwords)


Inappropriate Westernization especially the misuse of articles and word order

Occasional inaccuracy

The use of Cantonese for subtitling English movies

A study done by Lung (1998) found out that sexually suggestive elements which can readily be seen in English movies are always mistranslated or even neglected in the Hong Kong Chinese subtitles since the fact that they tend to appear as few as possible in texts of Chinese culture (including subtitles) which stresses the importance of the cleanliness of written language and that often results in the failure to transfer the impact of the original production. Later, in accordance, Nornes (1999) commented that only by fully utilizing the power of the target language are we able to "intensify the interaction between the reader (audience) and the foreign". On the basis of Nornes' study, Chen (2004, p. 142) therefore advocated the use of Cantonese equivalence for subtitling English movies since "they convey the original spirit most effectively and arouse the greatest empathy on the part of the Hong Kong audience, who are mostly native speakers of Cantonese."

Besides, according to a survey done by Lo (2001) on the attitude of the Hong Kong audience towards using Cantonese in subtitles, more than 50% of the respondents considered that Cantonese, compared to standard Chinese or Mandarin, is a better choice in rendering the spirit of the original English production. Additionally, it is also agreed that Cantonese subtitles, since they can reach the original spirit, can let the audience more engaged in the English movies.

D. Research on slang based on the context of Hong Kong

Translatability in CE/EC translation

It is generally believed that, in effect, a perfect translation from one language to another is not always possible, and that there are limitations on translatability. Guo (2001) argued that in CE/EC translation, there are always differences at cultural level, grammatical level as well as stylistic level.

At the same time, Liu (2001) studied the translation procedures in CE/EC transfer and found that the whole process can be broken down into three stages:

The First Stage: Analytical studies, chiefly on the source language:

Morphological / lexical analysis

Semantical analysis

Syntactic analysis

Textual analysis

The Second Stage: Synthetical studies, chiefly on the target language:

Word order readjustment

Sentence organization

Textual arrangement

Stylistic polish

Cultural regulation

The Third Stage: Check and test routines

She further pointed out that the systematic methodology developed in CE/EC translation practice has been so far described in various surveys comprises techniques including: cutting, combining, splitting, converting, substituting, reversing, shifting, extending, decoloring or restoring, annotating, adding, subtracting or omitting, recasting, and blending.

English slang vs Cantonese slang

While slang has long been a popular legitimate research topic in English speaking countries and that there are plenty of research literature on English slang (e.g. Partridge, 1970), the literature on Hong Kong Chinese or Cantonese slang is extremely limited. One exception is Lin's (2009) recent study on Cantonese verbal art in Hong Kong. She (2009, p.163) stressed that Cantonese slang term, e.g. chou-hau (lit: pussy), is commonly seen as "an unfailing linguistic marker of working classness in Hong Kong" and "constitutes a highly marked, transgressive act". She then further pointed out that Cantonese slang is likely to be much more socially taboo in Hong Kong than what the English idea 'slang' suggests; and that while the word 'slang' in English usually refers to colloquial expressions or languages used within specific social groups, Cantonese slang is often seen as "highly vulgar as well as highly taboo in mainstream society in Hong Kong." So here comes to a dilemma: while on the one hand, Chen (2004) supported the use of Cantonese equivalence for subtitling English movies, and believed that it is more audience-oriented and is better in rendering the spirit of the original production; on the other hand, Lin (2009) expressed concern for the acceptability of using Cantonese equivalence for subtitling English slang. Up to this point, I will examine people's attitudes towards slangs in Hong Kong by a survey and find out whether Chen's (2004) suggested strategy is appropriate in subtitling English slangs.