English Subtitling of Dialects in Taiwanese Film

A Case Study of Animation Films

By Ming-Hong Tsai (University of Warwick)


Taiwan, an island with multilingual residents, has produced several films partly in dialects in recent years. Some of them have been sent abroad to compete in film festivals or distributed in different countries, and the lack of authorised writing in those dialects usually necessitates a process of internal translation into the official language, Mandarin Chinese, before a further translation into other target languages, such as English. This paper mainly looks at this process and the subtitling strategies into English in Taiwanese film. Using an animation film from Wang Shao Di, a famous film director in global film circles, as the main case study considered, we shall focus on the investigation of the strategies adopted and work out the possible relationships between dialects and target languages. In addition, the film Mo Fa A Ma [Grandma and Her Ghosts], has been an entry in more than five international film festivals and exhibitions, such as the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival in 1999. It is a film partly spoken in Taiwanese dialect and two of its English subtitle versions are obtained from Taiwan and Hong Kong respectively.

Keywords: dialect films, unauthorised writing, subtitling, audiovisual translation

©inTRAlinea & Ming-Hong Tsai (2009).
"English Subtitling of Dialects in Taiwanese Film A Case Study of Animation Films"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: The Translation of Dialects in Multimedia
Edited by: M. Giorgio Marrano, G. Nadiani & C. Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/1722

1. Introduction

In 1999, a Taiwanese film, Mo Fa A Ma [Grandma and Her Ghosts], successfully competed at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival and won the Children’s Jury Award Certificate of Merit. This success, on the one hand, can be seen as a sample of cultural exchanges between the East and West, providing the information about Taoism in Asia. On the other hand, it offers a chance to explore the English subtitling of dialects in Taiwanese film. This film is partly spoken in Taiwanese dialect, 34 per cent of 1,153 dialogues in total. Following Li Zhong Wei, there are at least fourteen ethnic groups in Taiwan nowadays and each of them has its own language and culture (2002). Amongst those languages, Mandarin Chinese is the official language on the island and its written version has become the authorised writing. Most things, including film dialogue, are accordingly presented in Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan. For those conversations in non-Chinese, there is usually a process of internal translation before their screenings, namely a translation from spoken dialects into Mandarin Chinese. Moreover, in the last couple of decades, an increasing number of Taiwanese films have been sent abroad to compete in film festivals or circulated in different countries and some dialogues are spoken in dialects. Due to the lack of authorised writing in those dialects, the dialogues will usually undergo a process of double translation into their target language, such as English. In other words, there is an internal translation into Mandarin Chinese prior to another one into the target language, and that seems more complicated than the usual method, a direct procedure from the source language into target language.

In order to comprehend how this translation process operates, to work out the possible English subtitling strategies adopted, and to further tackle the problems arising from this process, the film, Mo Fa A Ma [Grandma and Her Ghosts], has been chosen as the case study here and two of its English subtitle versions, the Taiwanese and the Hong Kong one, will be compared and discussed.

1.1. Recent researches on subtitling

Since the 1990s, more and more scholars or researchers, such as Jan Ivarsson (1992; 1998), have published their findings about subtitling and its strategies. According to their publications, they mostly examine subtitling activities in European countries and barely touch on issues about the East, let alone the strategies adopted there. On the other hand, there are some papers which involve this subject in Taiwan and those scholars mainly focus on the translation from other languages into Mandarin Chinese, such as Japanese (Huang 2001). The information about translating film dialogue from dialects is unavailable there. Therefore, we chiefly used the subtitling strategies introduced by European scholars in recent years to underpin the earlier examination of the film Mo Fa A Ma [Grandma and Her Ghosts] in an attempt to find counterpart strategies and to provide more information about subtitling Taiwanese film, especially from dialects into English.

2. Background information – Mo Fa A Ma [Grandma and Her Ghosts]

Before moving on to the main study, some information needs to be mentioned. To begin with, subtitle translation is a process from verbal language into written texts and is heavily dependent on subtitling equipment to present storylines to an audience. Accordingly there are some restrictions. An example of this is the spatial limitation on translated lines or texts on screens. According to Zhang Yi Fang [Alex Chang], translated subtitles generally occupy a maximum of two lines on one screen and the greatest number of characters, letters and spaces per line varies with media formats and film gauges; there are no more than 45 English letters and spaces or 15 Chinese characters per line, on one screen in the agency where he works (Hong 2005). The maximum numbers of characters, letters and spaces here are for 35mm films. Because of this high dependence, subtitle translators usually need to do translation with different regulations or technical limitations in mind and adopt corresponding strategies. Otherwise, their translated texts may fail to be completely displayed on screens and need repeated translations before meeting the clients’ requirements.

Secondly, this animation film, Grandma and Her Ghosts, was directed by Wang Shao Di, an eminent director in global film circles, in 1998 and has been an entry in more than five film festivals and exhibitions since its first screening. On those occasions, it won the Best Picture prize at the Taipei Film Festival in 1998 and the Children’s Jury Award Certificate of Merit in 1999, as we mentioned above. In addition, it is a film mainly depicting stories about folklore and popular beliefs in Taiwan, the deceased and the fate of their ghosts. Therefore, some terms or legends appear in its plot, such as the ghost month, the seventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar, and the Taoist ceremonies for the deceased and communication with ghosts. Furthermore, there are three languages spoken in this film and Taiwanese dialect is one of them. It occupies more than one third of the whole film dialogue.

Thirdly, we found over 710 differences in these two editions when we put them together for an initial comparison and more than 70 per cent of these appear in punctuation marks, especially at the end of dialogues. This may correspond to what Su Rui Qin [Caroline Su] mentioned in a personal interview in 2004, that film subtitle translators in Taiwan seldom used commas or full stops at the end of lines to save space and we may ascribe the aforementioned dissimilarities to the requirements of different subtitling companies or distributors. What is more, the rest of the differences are in the sentence segmentation of the two different editions, words missing in the same Chinese texts and typos in some English translations, such as the word stich [stitch] in the Hong Kong version. Most of them are avoidable with a careful scrutiny and less relevant to our main concern here, subtitling strategies in Taiwanese film.

3. Case study – Mo Fa A Ma [Grandma and Her Ghosts]

Now, let us turn to the strategies used in this film, especially the ones from Mandarin Chinese into English. The first strategy is the omission of Taiwanese particles or expletives in the internal translation into Mandarin Chinese before a further one into English. This mainly results from the lack of writing in Taiwanese and some Taiwanese particles or exclamations do not exist in Chinese words, even the onomatopoeic ones. Thus, the Chinese speaking audience may grasp the key concept of the original conversation. Furthermore, the technicians or checkers who are unfamiliar with Taiwanese can complete their tasks on the basis of those Chinese texts, such as the subtitling of translated texts on screens.

The second strategy is the condensation in translated texts with omission or paraphrasing. As Jan Ivarsson has pointed out, subtitle translators can omit or paraphrase original texts when necessary in order to have terse ones in the end (1992: 91-92). For those translators, their method not only keeps vital information within films but also overcomes the numerical limitations imposed by subtitling machines. An example can be found in excerpt one. In that sentence, the Taiwanese dialogue has been translated into Mandarin Chinese with paraphrasing and that is also found in its subsequent translation into English.

Excerpt 1
Original dialogue: Ai wo nian sui zhe me duo sui le, hai yao qu mang ni men zhe xie qui guai
Chinese text: Nian ji zhe me da le Hai yao zhu yi ni men zhe xie gui guai
Literal translation: I am very old and still need to watch you spectres
English translation: You naughty ghosts, // you think I’m past it?

The third one is the application of ellipsis. Ellipsis, according to Jan Ivarsson, can “safely leave out the words whose main purpose is to keep the conversation ticking over, tautologies and repetitions” (1992:93). Take excerpt two for example. The translator abridged one “hao la” in the Chinese text and retained the main meaning of the dialogue in the English translation. The translation of the original text here is “Alright, alright, I won’t touch it!”

Excerpt 2
Chinese text: Hao la, hao la, bu peng jiu bu peng ma
Literal translation: Alright, alright, I won’t touch it
English translation: Alright, I won’t touch it!

The fourth one is the syntactical simplification of translated texts. Translators, following Jan Ivarsson, can use simplified syntactic structures rather than complex ones when necessary, and the discrepancy in terms of meaning is sometimes trifling (1992: 94). Take excerpt three as an instance. The translator dismissed the complicated and lengthy sentence structures in the film by choosing a simplified syntax instead. In addition, these dialogues appear in a mother’s response to her child’s repeated assertion that he has seen talking mushrooms at the corner, and its literal translation is “Come here. Let me tell you. Doesn’t Daddy like to hear you talk in your sleep most? After Daddy comes back, we will tell him again then, okay?”

Excerpt 3
Chinese text: Lai wo gen ni jiang
      Ba ba bu shi zui xi huan ting ni jiang gu shi, shuo meng hua ma
      Deng ba ba hui lai, wo men zai jiang gei ta ting hao bu hao a
Literal translation: Come here. Let me tell you
      Doesn’t Daddy like to hear you talk in your sleep most?
      After Daddy comes back, we will tell him again then, okay?
English translation: Tell Daddy when he gets back
      He loves your stories
      Will you remember?

The fifth one is the use of general terms. When conducting subtitle translation, it is easier and takes less time to read simple, familiar terms than unusual ones. (Ivarsson 1992: 95) Therefore, the translator here uses “be born again” to represent the “tou tai” in excerpt four. “Tou tai” here means to enter the cycle of reincarnation and the soul can live again in another body later on. A literal translation of the Chinese text here can be “You want to be reincarnated? You are just dreaming.” What is more, this phrase also appears in other dialogue within this film and has been translated as “new life, second life or pass through the ghost gate” respectively. Amongst them, the last one may leave the viewers mystified if they have no clear idea about the so-called ghost gate in traditional Chinese folklore or fail to catch its meaning in the film plot.

Excerpt 4
Chinese text: Ni xiang tou tai? Ni zui hao man man xiang
Literal translation: You want to be reincarnated? You are just dreaming
English translation: … you want to be born again

The sixth one is to tone down translated subtitles. Because of the features of animation films, there may be more child or juvenile viewers than for other film genres. Toning down translated subtitles in order to reduce the effect of some strong terms becomes indispensable. “Tao yan” in excerpt five, for example, is a phrase to express antipathy or dislike for something or somebody in Mandarin Chinese and can be translated into different words in English, such as “Damn!” or “Aw, heck!.” This translator chose “Shut up!” in his English translation to express the annoyance or dislike for the sarcasms from other children and that toned down the whole conversation to avoid offending his young audience.

Excerpt 5
Chinese text: Tao yan
Literal translation: Damn!
English translation: Shut up!

3.1 Language-bound problems

Having mentioned some strategies above, this section will focus on the problems arising from this subtitling process and the language-bound ones will be discussed first.

As has been mentioned earlier, this film is partly spoken in Taiwanese dialect and the translation of those parts necessitates translation into Mandarin Chinese before another procedure into English. Therefore, an internal translation has occurred and original meanings may get lost after double translations. Take excerpt six for example.  “Bao zhi tang mai wu [Any old newspapers?]” is a slogan usually chanted with another one in excerpt seven by rubbish men in ancient Taiwanese society and rubbish men usually rode special bicycles or motorcycles on streets when peddling or selling rubbish. It has been translated as “Any old rags and bones?” in this film and this concept may derive from a British phrase for junk dealers, rag-and-bone men, which historically referred to persons who travelled the streets of cities with horse-drawn carts and collected old rags, bones, scrap iron and other items in exchange for other equivalent or less valued items. Speaking strictly, its translation in this film may function well only for an audience familiar with that British phrase, and fail to convey its original meaning. This problem can be exemplified in excerpt seven as well.

Excerpt 6
Chinese text: Bao zhi tang mai wu
Literal translation: Any old newspapers?
English translation: Any old rags and bones!

In excerpt seven, “Jiu gan tang mai wu” is translated as “Used washing machines! Used fridges!” in this film and that lost the original meaning of this dialect.

Excerpt 7
Chinese text: Jiu gan tang mai wu
Literal translation: Any empty wine bottles?
English translation: Used washing machines! Used fridges!

3.2. Culture-bound problems

In addition to the above-mentioned language-bound problems, there are some culture-bound problems in the following excerpts. This film, as introduced in the beginning, is based on Chinese folklore in Taiwan and the translation of those specific terms or customs might challenge its translator. A good example is the term “Fu [spell]”, also called “Fu zhou [Taoist magic figures]”, in excerpt eight. It exists in the Taoist religion and is a piece of yellow paper with some words or figures on it to suppress or drive out evil spirits in Chinese society. It has been translated as “seal” in this film and that is different from what it really means in the original. Besides, the term “seal” usually means a large sea animal that eats fish and lives around coasts, or an official mark like the wax ones used in the past to close, or seal, a document. A literal translation of this sentence is “I’ll go inside and take a spell. Do you understand?”, and we may condense it as “I’ll fetch a spell. Do you understand?” to avoid being crowded out of screens.

Excerpt 8
Chinese text: Wo jin qu na yi zhang fu, zhi dao ma?
Literal translation: I’ll go inside and take a spell. Do you understand?
English translation: I’ll make a new seal

Another example occurs in excerpt nine. The term “Niu tou ma mian” has been directly transliterated to “Bull Head and Horse Face” in this film. When reading this translation, viewers may figure it out when seeing its images in this film. However, this translation may fail to convey the meaning to the audience when it comes to the culture in Taiwan. “Niu tou ma mian” are ghost messengers or escorts in Chinese folklore and they also patrol or track down and arrest escaped sinners in the Underworld. Therefore, another translation of this sentence could be “No, she’s afraid of the ghost messengers” here.

Excerpt 9
Chinese text: Bu xing, ta pa niu tou ma mian
English translation: No, she’s afraid of Bull Head and Horse Face

4. Discussion and conclusion

Finally, due to the features of subtitling film dialogue, subtitle translators usually need to bear different limitations in mind and adopt corresponding strategies to avoid breaching them and repeatedly translating those dialogues. After our previous examination, we found some subtitling strategies in this film and some of them are similar to what European scholars have introduced in their findings, such as paraphrasing. In addition, according to the problems which arose from the comparison of those dialects or Chinese texts with their English subtitles, we may conclude that the existing double translation process and the subtitling strategies adopted do serve their function for different viewers, especially the young ones, although there are still some translation issues, such as the transliteration of specific cultural terms. For those problems, translators themselves may discover and overcome them in the subsequent double-check and revision in their attempts to convey the same film plots to different audiences with various languages. What is more, nowadays, some scholars in Taiwan are trying to formulate writing systems for the dialects on the island, and an internal translation process may become redundant then. At the same time, what we have found at this stage may change and an audience may get rid of the aforesaid problems when comprehending this film.


Hong (2005). Personal interview, 06 January.

Huang, Pei Shan [Hwang Pei-Shan] (2001). “Ri Yi Zhong Zi Mu Fan Yi Yu Pei Yin Fan Yi Zhi Bi Jiao [A Comparison of the Translation between Subtitle and Dubbling [Dubbing] From Japanese into Chinese].” MA thesis Fu Jen Catholic U.

Ivarsson, Jan (1992). Subtitling for the Media: A Handbook of an Art. Stockholm: Transedit.

Ivarsson, Jan, and Mary Carroll (1998). Subtitling. Simrishamn, Sweden: Transedit.

Li, Zhong Wei (2002). “Kai Da Ge Lan Wen Hua Guan Yuan Wei Nong [The Ketagalan Cultue Centre with High Aboriginal Culture].” Zhong Yang Ri Bao [Central Daily News] [Taiwan] 4 Nov.: 9.

Mo Fa A Ma [Grandma and Her Ghosts] (1998). Dir. Wang, Shao Di. DVD, Taiwanese version. Rice Film. 

Mo Fa A Ma [Grandma and Her Ghosts] (1998). Dir. Wang, Shao Di. VCD, Hong Kong version. Rice Film. 

Su, Rui Qin [Caroline Su] (2004). Personal interview, 10 December.

About the author(s)

Mel Tsai has completed his PhD study at the University of Warwick, UK. Before this, he got an MA in Translation Studies from Warwick's CTCCS in 2002 and focused on the translation of children's literature, from English into Mandarin Chinese. His dissertation topic was Translating Children's Literature in Taiwan: The Case of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" then. Now, he has shifted to film subtitle translation and the strategies adopted in the film and translation industries in Taiwan, mainly from Mandarin Chinese into English. His main research interests include skopos theory, translation strategies, subtitle translation, technology translation, intercultural communication and the translation between Mandarin Chinese and English.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Ming-Hong Tsai (2009).
"English Subtitling of Dialects in Taiwanese Film A Case Study of Animation Films"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: The Translation of Dialects in Multimedia
Edited by: M. Giorgio Marrano, G. Nadiani & C. Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/1722

Go to top of page