Unlike standard language, i.e. its regulated and normative variant, non-standard language encompasses a vast spectrum of language variants that include dialects. In the literary-artistic discourse, deviations from language norms are considered literary dialects which enable writers to place their characters and narrators in the desired socio-cultural context. In combination with the sociological, ideological, and cultural connotations, translating dialects is one of the biggest challenges that the translators of literary works can face.

Non-standard lexis, grammar, and pronunciation not only make a text seemingly impossible to translate, but also hard to understand, making the work of translators even more difficult. The general rule is that a source text written in standard language is translated with the standard variant of the target language. When it comes to non-standard language, i.e. dialects, translators have the following strategies: replacing the source dialect with a target dialect, replacing the source dialect with standard language, or combining these two strategies.

The first strategy proposes replacing the source dialect, for example urban Edinburgh speech used frequently by the famous Scottish author Irvine Welsh, with a corresponding dialect of the target language. However, this option usually comes with a lot of problems. Imagine yourself reading Welsh’s cult-status novel Trainspotting which takes place in Edinburgh where the narrators speak with a Scottish dialect represented by the author’s use of non-standard orthography, but in the translated version of the novel, Mark Renton and Francis Begbie are using Belgrade jargon and instead of the Edinburgh district Leith, they are hanging out in Belgrade’s Block 22. This would be inevitable if this translation technique were to be used, since the change of dialect would have to be accompanied by transposing the narrative to the target background. Unlike theatrical adaptations, which can withstand this type of localization fairly well, the novel would become almost unrecognizable. Can you even imagine a translation where the characters were still in Edinburgh, but were using Belgrade slang?

The second strategy implies standardization, i.e. replacing the source dialect with the standard target language. However, it is clear that the use of dialect in a work of literature serves a purpose and accomplishes a certain goal, whether it is placing the characters in a specific spatial and temporal context, indicating differences in status between those who use the standard and those who use the non-standard language variant, or for other reasons. A certain level of standardization within the translation is usually inevitable, but translators should always try to recognize the importance of non-standard language elements, and then try to transfer them to the translation in a way that is most appropriate.

The third strategy combines the elements of the previous two and entails using both the standard language and the elements of dialect in the target text. The best solution here would be to use neutral standard language which is altered in a way that creates a made up, surreal dialect. For example, using non-standard forms (lessgo, heya, ‘sup instead of let’s go, hey you, what’s up) combined with, for instance, changes in the established word order (Didn’t there you go? instead of You didn’t go there?). This type of change in standard language should help the reader recognize the dialectal nature of the language, whereas the translator would avoid all the problems caused by using the existing dialect of the target language. Still, translators should be careful not to go too far when choosing this option, meaning they shouldn’t go overboard and translate the text using an imaginary, barely understandable language.

Every language has its own distinctions and variants, and with the addition of the cultural dimension, it becomes evident that there is no universal, generally accepted solution for translating dialects. None of these strategies are perfect nor can they be used in every situation, but dialect should never be omitted in a translation. When coming face to face with dialect, a translator should choose the most practical strategy for the given situation, consider the context, the specific situation, and the text itself.


Braće Popović 5
21000 Novi Sad, Serbia

Contact Phones

Phone: +381 21 47 25 227

Fax: +381 21 47 25 226