Certain qualities of sound are universal, such as loudness and force to communicate heightened emotions or emphatic stress. Similarly, quiet speech reflects intimacy, tenderness or confidence (sometimes chilling) on the part of the speaker. Translator Rainer Schulte acknowledges the stylistic role of repetitive text and “the inherent tonal quality underlying words as sound spaces.” He adds:

Equally important are the repetitions of sounds. However, the repetitions of the sounds and sound combinations are not as easily perceptible to the reader. . . . Are the emotional reactions of certain vowels in the source language the same as in the receptor language?

Although a film’s audience may note the difference in tone as spoken by the actors, they are unaware of which words have received emphatic stress. A character’s intent can be represented by adding stress points to the subtitles. Consider how each stress point alters tone:

Worried: MUST you go?

Confrontational: Must YOU go?

Frantic: Must you GO?

Body language, inflection and facial expressions all contribute to overall meaning in life as in film. Subtle differences in tone can have a dramatic impact on how viewers perceive a scene. A subtitler must know the original film’s characters and context before making translation choices.

Subtitles should match the style of delivery. Choose vigorous phrasing by default—it’s usually shorter and fits the scene adequately. However, a character’s personality may demands weaker words. Study the script to know which translation serves the viewers:

He’s someone I could be happy with; or

He’s someone with whom I could be happy.

In both cases, the “he” in question is the focus of the dialogue. Changing it to “I could be happy with him” is completely wrong. Listen to the actor’s reading of the part; study the character and the script to decide which style suits a scene. Each says something different about the speaker:

I have been happy in the past; or

I used to be happy; or

I was happy once.

The first is informative; the second whining; the third wistful. Note subtle differences and match them to the script and delivery of the original. In another example, languages are riddled with negatives, liberally sprinkled in a way that makes perfect sense in spoken dialogue but can be cumbersome in written form. Use negatives sparingly, according to the source language, but remember that often an equivalent is equally clear. If the tone seems unsure or accusatory, use the negative:

Aren’t you happy?

If the inflection is merely interrogative, prefer the positive:

Are you happy?

Many languages have varying levels of formality attached to the word “you,” employing different terms for essentially the same meaning, as explained by translator Robin Buss explained: “Every European language except English (in which ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ have long been archaic except in some dialects) has kept the second person singular for use with intimates, close friends and relatives.” This is illustrated in the Buss translation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo:

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