Tenor of discourse in translated diglossic Indonesian film subtitles


  • Barry John Turner RMIT University
  • Isabella Wong RMIT University


tenor of discourse, subtitling, diglossia, social dialect, geographic dialect, informal variety, code switching


This paper examines the challenges posed by the diglossic nature of the Indonesian language in translating film dialogue into English-language subtitles. Indonesian is based on dialects of Malay, which by the 19th Century had become the lingua franca of the Netherlands East Indies. It was adopted by the Indonesian nationalist movement in the 1920s and renamed bahasa Indonesia (the Indonesian language) and became the official language of the Republic of Indonesia when that state was proclaimed in 1945. Malay is not a diglossic language but a number of important regional languages of Indonesia (e.g. Javanese and Sundanese) are diglossic. Bahasa Indonesia has only assumed diglossic characteristics in the past thirty years and this has gradually been reflected in the mass media, including film. This paper will argue that diglossia presents particular problems in translating tenor of discourse in film dialogue into English-language subtitles. Diglossia in Indonesian and the problems it poses for this form of audiovisual translation are discussed. Then two recent Indonesian films are analysed to ascertain how successful audiovisual translators have been in creating English-language subtitles that convey shifts in tenor of discourse and changes in interpersonal relations in diglossic Indonesian. Some dialogue segments from the films have been selected to emphasise how shifts in tenor of discourse / interpersonal relationships are conveyed by features of diglossic Indonesian and the failure of the subtitles to reflect these shifts. The paper concludes that the relatively recent evolution of Indonesian into a diglossic state has serious ramifications for the international appreciation of Indonesian film and advocates more interest and research in this field.