By Luz Gómez
Interest in this in presentation arose when a variety of media sources focused on the linguistic and cultural angles of the Iberian subtitles in Alfonso Cuaron’s film Roma, and their subsequent infamy. Although a non-Spanish speaker might consider this matter superficial, it’s an excellent example of how two variants of a language differ (and clash) when it comes to audiovisual translation.
Latin American audiovisual translations are created only for foreign language films. In Spain, however, translations are created for Latin American films (e.g., from Mexico, Peru, Argentina and more). Despite what one might think, it is common for Spanish clients to subtitle a Latin American film with Castilian Spanish, and Roma was the latest and most scandalous example.
The controversy was such that its director demanded Netflix remove the subtitles (something that is not even done in poorly subtitled films).
Furthermore, much of the outrage was directed at the translator, who was simply fulfilling a job, and the media heavily reported on this incident.¹
To fully understand the decision to change the Mexican-based Spanish, one must understand the secondary goal of making Roma more identifiable with Spanish viewers. The client achieved this objective by adding Castilian Spanish subtitles, clearly contrasting with the oral statements of the film’s characters.
While one may think that Spanish is spoken the same way in all Hispanic countries, each Spanish-speaking culture has a variety of migratory and indigenous influences.
Here were the more important dialogue changes that caused commotion in the translation community, and therefore the media:
- One major shift was the use of vosotros (only used in Spain), instead of the common second person plural ustedes from Latin America. Although the Spanish understand and sometimes use the latter, the translator changed it to sympathize with the Spanish audience, complying with the client’s request. It’s important to note that once the subject is changed, the verb morphology changes too, so much of phrase is affected.²
- Another change involved the beloved calques (adopted English words) in the Mexican Spanish. Common practice in France and the U.S., Mexico and Latin America have adopted foreign words from their immigrants or power relationships. In the Iberian subtitles, these anglicisms were removed and replaced by Spanish words, because they make sentences sound unnatural, whereas for Mexicans, foreignisms are an echo to their conflictive past and their blended present.³
- Likewise, Mexican colloquialisms, informal but true samples of oral expressions, were either changed for Spanish versions or simplified. The problem with this lay in the change of registry. Cleodegaria “Cleo” is a Mixtec woman that is forced to adapt to her surroundings. She’s an indigenous woman with a poor background, a Mixtec speaker, with little or no education, and a powerless servant. Once the registry of her dialogue is modified, the subtitles give her a formal and fluid speech, instead of the choppiness and informality of her poor Spanish.
- Adding to all of this, cultural icons were also modified. For instance: The youngest child in the family is requesting “Gansitos” ⁴ (a chocolate covered Twinkie); this was changed to “Ganchitos” (cheez doodles), a
salty treat. Either the translator confused the name or chose to avoid using a cultural equivalent (Pantera Rosa or Tigretón) to prevent copyright issues, but only the translator knows the reason for this change.
In short, the Iberian Spanish subtitles should considered localization, and not a mere translation, as it’s commonly perceived. At first glance, these subtitles might seem harmless, but on a whole, they change everything, and there is a potential risk of altering the film’s message.
In conclusion, in order to translate an audiovisual product, one must break down all the layers of the movie. A film is a guide to understanding people’s culture and past. This comes from the director’s vision, the movie’s identity, cultural icons, time period, and its language, both visual and auditory.
Roma is a good example of how translation works and how it can vary. Therefore, one can compare translation to a clock’s gear, fitting together so everything works well. This intralinguistic conflict can teach translators that altering one or more aspects in the text for any reason can jeopardize the text’s purpose.
A better option would have been transcribing the film’s dialogue in the subtitles as they were or using close captions (CC).
Both countries definitely have different views on translating. On the one hand, both Spanish speaking variants prefer to use their own unique linguistic identities in an audiovisual product, Spain applies it to all imported films, regardless if it comes from another Hispanic country.
Clearly, Spanish clients want to adapt the dialogue to make as acceptable as possible for Spanish viewers. In this case, Roma’s Iberian re-translation searched for syntax and concepts suitable for its public.
Despite the translator’s hard work, the Iberian subtitles were looked down by fellow colleagues, so much so that the translator was harassed on social media.
Roma’s subtitles represent two perspectives on oral and written communication (mainly Spain’s), despite the fact they speak the same language. They reflect these distinctions when subtitling or dubbing audiovisual material.
Therefore, it’s best to accept and appreciate the differences in each one because they are reflections of both nations’ remarkable societies, and of course, a reflection of their translators.
¹ Europa Press y Efe, “Tras queja de Alfonso Cuarón, Netflix cambia los subtítulos de “Roma” en español”, El Espectador (January 10th, 2019), https://www.elespectador.com/entretenimiento/cine/tras-queja-de-alfonso-cuaron-netflixcambia-los-subtitulos-de-roma-en-espanolarticulo-833285
² “ ‘Roma’ una película en español subtitulada en español”, El País (January 9th 2019), https://elpais.com/cultura/2019/01/08/actualidad/1546979782_501950.html
³ “ ‘Roma’: Las 5 traducciones más “ridículas” de los subtítulos al español del film,” El comercio (January 9th, 2019),