Subtitling for Intercultural Communication in Foreign Language Learning/Teaching: The case of Dhat, an Egyptian Series Subtitled in Spanish

Subtitulación para la comunicación intercultural en el aprendizaje/enseñanza de lenguas extranjeras: El caso de Dhat, una serie egipcia subtitulada en español

Rasha Ismall (Cairo University)

Doaa Samy (Cairo University)

Maha Abdel-Razek (Cairo University)

Mervat Ibrahim Selim (Cairo University)

María Martín-Noguerol (Cairo University)

Artículo recibido: 13-10-2017 | Artículo aceptado: 11-11-2017

RESUMEN: El objetivo de este trabajo es presentar un nuevo recurso para la enseñanza del árabe como lengua extranjera. El trabajo se desarrolla dentro del marco de las actividades del proyecto E-LENGUA financiado por el programa europeo de Erasmus+. El objetivo del proyecto es desarrollar nuevos recursos y compartir buenas prácticas para la enseñanza de lenguas extranjeras aplicando las tecnologías de información y comunicación. El recurso presentado aquí consiste en la subtitulación de un conjunto de 10 capítulos de una serie egipcia contemporánea titulada, Dhat. La serie refleja la historia egipcia contemporánea desde los cincuenta hasta la revolución del 2011 a través de la vida de la protagonista, Dhat, una chica egipcia de la clase media, nacida en El Cairo. El artículo consiste en cuatro partes. La introducción presenta el marco teórico. La segunda parte explica la metodología y el alcance de la tarea planteada. La tercera parte presenta las actividades desarrolladas utilizando este recurso y su evaluación en el aula. Finalmente en la última parte se resumen las conclusiones y los futuros trabajos.
ABSTRACT: The objective of this paper is to present a teaching resource for Arabic as a foreign language, developed within the context of the European project E-LENGUA. E-LENGUA is funded by Erasmus+ programme and it aims at developing new resources and sharing good practices in foreign language teaching using modern information and communication technologies. The resource consists of subtitling a set of ten episodes of the Egyptian TV series, Dhat. The subtitles are in Spanish and the series depicts the evolution of the Egyptian society, from the fifties until the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 through the biography of Dhat, an Egyptian middle class girl born in the fifties in Cairo. The paper is divided into four sections. The first is an introduction covering the theoretical framework. The second presents the methodology and the scope of work. The learning activities and its evaluation are addressed in the third section. Finally, the conclusions and future work are presented.

PALABRAS CLAVE: Enseñanza/aprendizaje de lenguas extranjeras, árabe como lengua extranjera, subtitulación
KEY WORDS: Foreign language teaching/learning, Arabic as a foreign language, subtitling


The E-LENGUA project is financed by the KA2013 Strategic Partnerships Actions for Higher Education.


1. Introduction

E-LENGUA is a promising project, funded by the European Erasmus+ Programme, which aims at developing and sharing good practices in Foreign Language Teaching (FLT) and Learning using Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The main role of Cairo University, as the only non-European partner in E-LENGUA, is to share resources and good practices in teaching Arabic as a foreign language. These resources should meet two criteria: using available technologies and fostering intercultural communication. Thus, the scope of the present work lies in the intersecting area of foreign language teaching, ICT in FLT, translation of audio-visual material and intercultural communication.

Within this context, the objective of this paper is to present a teaching resource developed by Cairo University’s team. It consists of a set of ten subtitled episodes of the Egyptian TV series, Dhat. The subtitles are in Spanish and the series depicts the evolution of the Egyptian society, from the fifties until the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, through the biography of Dhat, an Egyptian middle class girl born in the fifties in Cairo, the Egyptian capital.

1.1. Subtitling in FLT

Opting for subtitling in foreign language teaching is a modern approach, which proved to be effective, due to a number of advantages from both the teacher’s and the learner’s perspectives. Among the advantages (Talaván-Zanón, 2013):

  • It is an active and motivating means for learners.
  • It brings scenes and situations of real life to the class instead of the imaginary situations in books and listening exercises.
  • It includes different language registers: formal, informal, vulgar, etc.
  • It provides content rich with cultural references.

Including subtitling in FLT contributes to the development of different competences:

  • Linguistic competence: In this respect, it is useful to distinguish between the linguistic competence gained through the comprehension of the audio-visual material in the original language and the linguistic competence gained through the process of subtitling/translation into the target language.
  • Cultural Competence: This competence is gained through the exposure to the rich cultural content in movies or series with a variety of cultural references: historic, artistic, social, folkloric, gastronomic, musical, etc.
  • Technical and professional competence: It is gained through using subtitling software tools.

To set up the theoretical framework and to identify what linguistic competences could be targeted, it is important to distinguish between the different types of subtitling. According to Talaván-Zanón (2013) and Díaz-Cintas & Andreman (2009), there are five main types:

  1. Standard Inter-linguistic Subtitles: It is the standard type in which the audio-visual content is in the FL (L2) and the subtitles are in the native language or OL (L1).
  2. Inverse Inter-linguistic Subtitles: The audio-visual content is in the native language (L1), while the subtitles are in the FL (L2).
  3. Intra-linguistic subtitles in L1 or “captioning”: Both the audio-visual content and subtitles are in L1. This is used by learners or immigrants residing in a country which they are learning its language. In addition, users with limited accessibility, such as hearing impairment could use it.
  4. Intra-linguistic subtitles in L2: Both the audio-visual content and the subtitles are in the foreign language (FL) or L2.
  5. Bilingual subtitles: Subtitles are in both the original and the foreign language (FL) and (OL).

For the present study, we opted for the first two types: standard inter-linguistic subtitles and inverse inter-linguistic subtitles, as we are targeting two groups of learners:

  • Spanish leaners of Arabic language. This is the main target group. The competences for this group are mainly focused on the listening and the cultural competences.
  • Egyptian learners of Spanish language. This is the secondary target group. The competences for this second group are mainly focused on the translation and the writing competences. In some cases, cultural competence could also be addressed, since this group could try to find equivalences for some cultural references.

On the other hand, subtitling and its role in cross-border communication has been studied from different perspectives; from the perspective of audio-visual translation (Díaz-Cintas, 2001; 2003), localization and from the cultural and language teaching perspective (Werner-Diaz Navarrete, 2010). Different European initiatives have given special attention to promote subtitling as an effective means to increase the circulation of European work and to facilitate a flawless cross-border communication among European citizens. Some of the initiatives target the use of subtiling in Foreign Language Teaching and others are focusing on the localization and monetization of the European audio-visual market. The following are some of these initiatives:

  • LeViS Project “LEarning Via Subtitling” <http://levis.cti.gr/>”: The project was funded by the European Socrates programme between 2006 and 2008.
  • ClipFlair Project <http://clipflair.net/overview/> “Foreign Language Learning through Interactive Captioning and Revoicing of Clips”. The project is funded by the support of the European Commission through the Lifelong Learning Programme. It builds on the success of the LeViS Project and it aims at developing, and sharing learning activities related to dubbing, revoicing and subtitling for 15 languages on an online web platform. A total of 358 learning activities were developed targeting the main skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking. Ten universities are forming the consortium including three Spanish universities: University of Pompeu Fabra, University of Deusto, University Autónoma de Barclona. The 15 targeted languages are: Arabic, Basque, Catalan, Chinese, English, Estonian, Greek, Irish, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian (Baños & Sokoli, 2015; Sokoli, 2015; Díaz-Cintas & Remael, 2014).
  • In 2015, the European Commission destined one million euros to fund preparatory actions to crowdsource subtitling to increase the circulation of European works within the Digital Single Market strategy <https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/call-proposals-fostering-european-integration-through-culture-providing-new-subtitled-versions>. Few projects were funded under this call. Among these projects: Work_Sub_Title aiming “to find concrete, operational and industrial solutions to reduce the costs of producing subtitles (ST), and allow EU films to be distributed on platforms across multiple countries (especially those listed as low capacity production countries) <http://ipeda.eu/working_sub_titles/>”. Other funded initiatives are: SubtitleX and SubUrbia.eu <http://ipeda.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/PreparatoryActionOnSubtitling_29052017_web_ok-1.pdf>.
  • The European Commission launched new call for proposals aiming at subtitling European cultural TV content across Europe within Creative Europe Programme. The latest was launched in June 2017 <https://www.up2europe.eu/calls/preparatory-action-subtitling-european-cultural-tv-content-across-europe-cnect-2017-3110435_1913.html>.

From the above facts, we consider that Arabic language is still under-resourced in terms of modern language learning models. More efforts should be spent to offer learners of Arabic language with more interactive engaging resources rather than the traditional ones. Thus, the resource presented in this paper is a small step towards introducing the Arabic language and culture to the Spanish student in a modern motivating way. To our knowledge, no previous studies have directly addressed the case of subtitling for Spanish learners of Arabic.

On the other hand, training Egyptian learners of Spanish on the subtitling process is an added value to the learner, as it might enhance his/her employability opportunities in the media industry market. On a wider scope, capitalizing on subtitling in other languages rather than English would promote the Arabic audio-visual content and open new markets; specially that most of the Arabic subtitled audio-visual content is in English.

Nevertheless, it is important to point out that opting for subtitling an Egyptian series has its limitations and its advantages. The limitations lie in that it introduces the Spanish student to the Egyptian dialect and the Egyptian culture, which represent just one modality of Spoken Arabic and culture, while the Arab World is rich with varieties and local cultures. However, the advantage is that Egyptian dialect and culture is widely spread and well-known variety in the Arab World, given the historic, social and geopolitical situation of Egypt in the region.

1.2. Subtitling and Cultural References

The intercultural dimension is a crucial component in modern FLT methodologies. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) stresses on the importance of interculturality in the design of the programmes and in the teaching methodology. Developing intercultural skills is one important aspect in the sociolinguistic competence (Council of Europe, 2001). Before we discuss the particular case of Arabic language, it is interesting to distinguish between multiculturality and interculturality.

Multiculturality refers to the fact of the existence of different cultures and ethnic groups in the same society or in the same place. However, interculturality builds on multiculturality to establish a dynamic dialogue based on equality and reciprocity between the different co-existing cultures (Malgesini & Giménez, 1997). In some cases, some studies distinguish between multiculturality and multiculturalism, considering multiculturalism as a step forward as it considers not only the co-existence in the same place, but also refusing any hierarchal considerations, preference of one culture over another or prejudgements concerning a certain ethnic group. For the current study, we apply the term “interculturality”.

In the case of introducing Arabic culture to European learners, the intercultural aspect gains more relevance, as there are many stereotypes associated with the Arabic culture. In many cases, these stereotypes are rather negative and based on misconceptions. Using audio-visual content might help bridging this cultural gap and could help introduce the European learners to the common cultural aspects as well as to the different aspects, creating in this way a dynamic dialogue within the learning experience.

Numerous studies have tackled the translation of cultural references in general and in audio-visual content in particular. The term of cultural reference is widely used in the field of Translation and in Curriculum Design for Foreign Language Teaching. Cultural references are considered as essential parts, necessary for developing the communication skills by the foreign language learners.

According to Nedergaard-Larsen (1993), cultural references are “explicit or implicit references to the social, cultural or political context in which a certain text is developed”. These cultural references are classified into two major categories: intra-linguistic and extra-linguistic references. Intra-linguistic references could be acts of speech, idiomatic expressions or grammatical categories. Extra-linguistic references include “real world” references such as toponyms, institutions, music, food, etc. Nedergaard-Larsen (1993) suggests a classification of extra-linguistic references into four main subcategories: geographical, historical, social and cultural.

The Egyptian series, Dhat, object of the current study is rich in both intra-linguistic and extra linguistic cultural references. In fact, this is one of the reasons behind selecting it. It represents different historic moments in the contemporary Egyptian history and its social repercussions through the life of the main character and her family. From the perspective of the Spanish learner, being exposed to these cultural references is an excellent opportunity, but from the subtitling perspective, it is a challenge to find equivalents to the intra-linguistic references and to convey the contextual information transmitted through the extra-linguistic references.

2. Proposed Task and Methodology

2.1. Social context and Scope

Dhat is an Egyptian TV series produced and aired in summer 2013. The series is an adaptation of a novel with the same title, written by a famous Egyptian contemporary novelist Sonallah Ibrahim born in Cairo in 1937. It consists of 30 episodes. The duration of each episode is approximately 30 minutes. Dhat is the first name of the protagonist and it is not a common name for females in Egypt. Literally, Dhat, means self or identity, indicating the self-transformation of the main character along the different historic phases in Egypt.

According to some critics in Arabic media, the strength point of the series lies in the fact that it reflects the biography of a common Egyptian girl/woman. It is not the story of an extraordinary woman or historic figure; it is the story of all Egyptian families along the socio political changes of their country. This is why many Egyptian families felt identified with Dhat.

The protagonist playing the role of Dhat in the series is the famous Egyptian actress, Nelly Karim. In the last years, Nelly Karim has built a solid artistic career bringing to TV series current controversial topics related to the Egyptian society, especially youth problems. The series was very well-received by the Egyptian audience and the critics who applauded the series. The series was aired in summer 2013 amid the turmoil of democratic transition.

Figure 1: Caption of the Announcement of Dhat (Episode 1)
Figure 1: Caption of the Announcement of Dhat (Episode 1)

The selection of the series was based on its high historic and cultural content, as it could give the learner an overview of the Egyptian contemporary history.

The learning resource presented in this paper consists of subtitling the first 10 episodes of the series into Spanish with duration of approximately 300 minutes. Selecting a subset of the series was due to time constraints. The team preferred to carry out a pilot sample in order to be able to master the technique and to evaluate the impact of using this approach through workshops in real classrooms.

The team contacted the producer in the early stage of the project for two main reasons: 1) to discuss the possibility of obtaining the Arabic script as it would facilitate significantly the subtitling process; 2) to have the permission to subtitle the episodes. The first objective was not possible and for the second, there were no any obstacles to work with the episodes as it was for educational reasons with non-profit purposes. The version used for subtitling is the available free online version on YouTube.

2.2. Methodology

The methodology adopted for subtitling consists of three phases:

  • Translation
  • Validation
  • Subtitling using software tools

2.2.1. Translation

For the first phase of translation, the ten episodes were distributed among the five members of the team. Each was responsible of two episodes, so it was an individual task. The translation process resulted to be very time consuming, each episode of 30 minutes duration takes approximately from six to eight working hours. This means that each minute of audio-visual content needs from 12 to 16 minutes of work. This time is mostly spent in listening to what is said in the original language, segmenting and handling the software to segment the scenes and finally to formulate a translation. Given that the series is in Egyptian dialect and it is rich in idiomatic expressions, proverbs, irony, finding the equivalent translation was not an easy task, especially if the translation is into Spanish and it is done by an Egyptian team whose native language is not Spanish except for one member.

Moreover, the series included many background songs and fragments of historic speeches. All this content was translated.

2.2.2. Validation

The validation process is usually carried out in groups of at least two members of the team and preferably different from the one who did the translation. This is to ensure a better quality and to apply an objective criterion in translation. The process of validation is carried out in group sessions. Despite the challenges encountered during the validation phase, it always triggered interesting academic debates. During the long hands-on sessions, the team worked with different resources (lexical resources, online search of proverbs, idioms, etc.). In some cases, it was necessary to check the etymology of some Egyptian expressions, in order to transfer the meaning correctly. Each episode took approximately another six to eight hours in the validation process.

Given the dense cultural content, the team decided to develop an additional resource for the learner consisting of supplementary list of some cultural references, such as typical food or folkloric songs, celebrations together with a brief explanation to assist the learner in developing better cultural skills and, thus, help in a better contextualization of the different uses of the language.

2.2.3.Subtitling

For the subtitling, the team decided to use Aegisub software <http://www.aegisub.org/>. It is an open source, cross-platform software featuring useful tools to make the subtitling process flexible. The subtitling process was also challenging, as it needs time to slice the video and time the subtitle to the scenes. In addition, in subtitling certain limitations have to be taken into consideration in terms of space, time, punctuation system and orthography. In the professional industry, there are standards and well-known conventions normalizing the subtitling processes. Despite these standards, we adopted a flexible approach since the objective of the subtitling in our case is merely education. However, the following basic limitations were taken into consideration (Díaz-Cintas, 2003; Talaván-Zanón, 2013):

  • Number of lines in each subtitle should not exceed two lines.
  • The position of subtitles is normally centered in the lower part of the screen.
  • Number of spaces and characters should not exceed 48. However, the average is 35 in each line.
  • Some colors were applied to the font to distinguish tone or sounds from spoken language. This is especially intended to the learners with limited accessibility.
  • The maximum time for having the subtitle on the screen is six seconds.
  • Synchronization between the subtitle and the dialogue. In some cases, a lack of synchronization is accepted if the dialogue is intense and long.
Figure 2: Subtitling background songs
Figure 2: Subtitling background songs
Figure 3: Aegisub working environment
Figure 3: Aegisub working environment

Given these limitations, condensation and reduction techniques were essential as in some cases the text in the translation phase had to be reduced to up to 40% in the subtitling phase to meet the above rules.

3. Learning Activities: Preliminary Findings and Challenges

Two sets of learning activities are developed. Set 1: This set is targeting the Spanish learners of Arabic language. Set 2: It is targeting Egyptian learners of Spanish. For both sets, we consider learners of levels B1, B2 and C1.

For Set 1, the different activities consisted of four parts:

  • An introduction to the students regarding the series and its social and historic context.
  • Playing a subtitled episode or a part of the subtitled episode.
  • Running different exercises using parts of the subtitled series addressing different linguistic competences. Some of the activities focused on vocabulary or expressions. Others focused on cultural aspects. Some activities are individuals, while others are group activities in the form of debates or open discussions.
  • Finally, the students are given a questionnaire to evaluate their experience and to add any recommendations or suggestions.

For Set 1, two workshops were run introducing different learning activities. The duration of the first workshop was 2 hours and the second one hour. Workshops were run at Salamanca University and the target group attending both workshops was Spanish learners of Arabic language. The total number of learners participated is twelve learners and they are students of Arabic Department with a level between B1 and B2. The activities covered a variety of aspects in the foreign language learning process as shown in the following list:

  • Listening (spoken language comprehension).
  • Phonological aspects regarding common phenomena in the Egyptian dialect and phonetic changes occurring with respect to the Classic Arabic.
  • Lexical aspects and vocabulary.
  • Idioms and expressions.
  • Language registers: Formal vs. Informal.
  • Cultural aspects. For example, addressing a typical celebration such as the newborn celebration in Egypt or a cultural debate on more controversial topics, such as the enrolment of girls in University education during the fifties and sixties.
Figure 3: Sample activity on phonological aspects of the Egyptian dialect
Figure 3: Sample activity on phonological aspects of the Egyptian dialect

Given the importance of the intercultural aspect in our task, more attention has been given to explaining the different cultural references. Learners were introduced to intra-linguistic (expressions and forms of treatment) and extra-linguistic cultural references (music, celebrations, food).

For Set 2, targeting the Egyptian learners of Spanish, activities mainly focus on translation, equivalent colloquial expressions in Spanish and the technical aspect of using the software tools. Workshops have not been run yet to this target group, as it is planned for this year. Activities needs to be carried out in classrooms or laboratories equipped with computers on which the subtitling software tools are installed.

The results of the questionnaire conducted on target group 1 revealed a high level of satisfaction shown by the students regarding the methodology and the activities. Learners insisted on the need to introduce more activities of this type in the classroom. In their evaluation, learners highly scored the activities related to the cultural aspect and the colloquial expressions. Students were very motivated and they were highly engaged in the discussions concerning the cultural aspects.

Challenges reported included difficulties in understanding the Egyptian colloquial variant. Nevertheless, this difficulty did not hinder the overall comprehension of the episode. On the other hand, time planning of the activity is crucial, as learners might engage in some discussions regarding topics addressed during watching the episode. The teacher/professor should be in full control of the time during the activity.

4. Conclusions and Future Work

In the present study, we opted for subtitling as a modern approach to introduce intercultural communication in the classroom of Arabic as a foreign language. Recent advances in information and communication technologies have facilitated the accessibility to audio-visual contents and have provided many software tools to handle this content. Foreign language teaching and learning is making use of these advances to improve the learners’ experience and to develop the different skills through interactive and engaging activities.

Arabic language as a foreign language is still under resourced. Traditional and classical methodologies have prevailed in teaching Arabic as a foreign language in many institutions. Most of the modern resources are developed in European and American institutions with a significant absence of the role of Arab institutions. Facing this fact needs a complete paradigm shift, especially in the present days where current circumstances help widening the gap in cultural communication. Arab institutions should adopt clear strategies to introduce their language and their culture to the World through modern up-to date resources.

The team of Cairo University in this project is trying to contribute in changing the learning experience of students of Arabic as a foreign language by introducing a modern up to date image of the Arabic language and cultural instead of holding on to the classical approaches. Bringing real scenes of daily life to the classroom through audio-visual content has proven to be an effective approach in FL classrooms creating more dynamic interaction.

Arabic audio visual content, in general, and Egyptian content, in particular, is a valuable resource that if given the wider outreach would help significantly in bridging the cultural gap and in a better understanding of many negative stereotypes associated to the Arab culture. The choice of the series whose main character is an Egyptian girl/woman is clear message to face some stereotypes associated with the role of the female. Focusing on cultural references in the series reveals that despite the differences, there are many common aspects on which we can capitalize for a fruitful intercultural dialogue.

After running two workshops and evaluating their results, initial assumptions were confirmed concerning the effectiveness of the approach. Students evaluated positively the overall experience. They expressed that they had very little knowledge and understanding of the culture before the workshops and that the audio-visual material was a great aid for them. They positively evaluated the activities conducted on the different linguistic aspects.

Having this feedback makes the team more enthusiastic about completing the process. The future studies will focus on target group 2 (Egyptian learners of Spanish). The material for the activities is ready.  Two workshops are planned with hands-on exercises to introduce the students to the subtitling software tools. Learners’ experience will be evaluated on the same basis and results will be compared with the current study. On the other hand, more activities addressing different linguistic aspects could be developed making use of the volume of the subtitled content (300 minutes).

5. Works Cited

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Council of Europe (2001). Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment. Strasbourg: Language Policy Unit.

Díaz Cintas, Jorge & Anderman, Gunilla (eds.) (2009). Audiovisual translation: Language transfer on screen. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Díaz Cintas, Jorge & Remael, Aline (2014). Audiovisual translation: Language transfer on screen. New York: Routledge.

Díaz Cintas, Jorge (2001). La traducción audiovisual: El subtitulado. Salamanca: Almar.

Díaz Cintas, Jorge (2003). Teoría y práctica de la subtitulación. Barcelona: Ariel Cine.

Malgesini, Graciela & Carlos Giménez (1997).  Guía de conceptos sobre migraciones, racismo e interculturalidad. Madrid: La cueva del oso.

Nedergaard-Larsen, Brigitte (1993). Cultural-bound problems in Subtitling: Perspectives. In Studies in Translation Theory and Practice 1 (2): pp. 207-240.

Sokoli, Stavourla (2015). “Clipflair: Foreign language learning through interactive revoicing and captioning of clips”. In Gambier, Caimi and Mariotti (eds.). Subtitles and Language Learning. Bern: Peter Lang. pp. 127-148.

Talaván Zanón, Noa (2013). La subtitulación en el aprendizaje de lenguas extranjeras. Barcelona: Octadero Recursos.

Werner Díaz Navarrete, Marleen (2010). Un estudio traductológico de los referentes culturales extralingüísticos en la subtitulación. Tesina no publicada. Universidad de Copenhague, Dinamarca.

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