Netflix’s Subtitles into Spanish of the ABC Song: Problems, Approaches, and Analysis

Roald Dahl’s Matilda is full of translation challenges worthy of analysis. A precious one is the ABC Song starting at minute 18 of the recent release.

This song is sung by a group of students who are waiting at the school entrance to warn Matilda and her new mate about what they will encounter in the institution. While singing, they draw attention to the tough rules imposed on students, the loss of freedom, and the impossibility of escaping such a “jail”. In the second part of the song, the prefects are showing the new students around the premises as they spell out the alphabet with matching letter signs scattered throughout the school. So, the prefects start the tour by singing “So you think you're A-ble [able] / To survive this mess by B-ing [being] / A prince or a princess, you will soon C [see] / There's no escaping trage-D [tragedy]” while the camera focuses on each of the stressed letters. So how did they solve such a translation problem?

Having an idea of the context, let’s now go into detail about the difficulties of subtitling the ABC Song. First of all, the lyrics are a key part of the plot, given that they contribute to creating a hostile school atmosphere as opposed to Matilda’s high expectations. There are also rhymes that should be ideally mirrored in the translation, e.g., “tragedy”, “energy” and “history”. As to the audiovisual dimension, subtitling restrictions such as character limits, time limits and image synchronization should be considered; after all, the letters around the building should match the content of the subtitles.

What path can translators take to subtitle the ABC Song?

Well, there are at least three possible approaches:

  • Focusing on letter names. This means choosing words comprising letter names. This was actually what they did. For example, the letter H is read “ache” in Spanish; then, the translator chose the word “despache” to introduce H into the song.
  • Using alliteration, or repeating sounds. This strategy can help direct attention to certain letters, and was used in some cases, as in “aún rememoro mis momentos”, highlighting the letter M. However, doing this throughout the song can be quite challenging, given that some letters only appear in one line.
  • Putting emphasis on spelling. The translator may opt for words beginning with the letter in question, capitalizing the first letter. For example, if C is the focus of a line, the word “Campana” [bell] is capitalized, clearly signaling what letter is being referred to.

Then, what about the approach adopted by Netflix?

By focusing on letter names, the translator was able to transcreate the song lyrics including each letter of the alphabet and was smart enough to keep concepts relevant to the plot and the scenes, such as the school bell, the comparison with a jail and the wish to escape, children’s innocence and curiosity, and severe punishments.

However, this choice does not seem to hit the mark, as subtitles are not to be read out loud by the audience. Letter names are somewhat “concealed” in the translation, and it is difficult to pinpoint them while reading the subtitles as the music plays and the actors and actresses dance. There is too much information for the audience to process in a very short time. Then, a more “visual” alternative emphasizing the referred letter with a different font or capital letter could have been more appropriate, working in tandem with the letters shown in the scenes and making it easier for spectators to understand which letter is being referred to.

To sum up, it should be noted that the translation approach chosen is quite interesting if only the written aspect were involved, but since this is audiovisual, other factors should have been taken into account. Anyways, the translator’s creativity in coming up with a new song is worthy of attention, considering that the ABC Song is certainly a challenge.

So you think you're A-ble [able]
To survive this mess by B-ing [being]
A prince or a princess, you will soon C [see],
There's no escaping trage-D [tragedy].
And E-ven [even]
If you put in heaps of F-ort [effort],
You're just wasting ener-G [energy],
'Cause your life as you know it is H-ent [ancient] history.  

I Have suffered in this J-ail [jail].
I've been trapped inside this K-ge [cage] for ages, This living h-L [hell],
But if I try I can rem-M-ber [remember],
Back before my life had N-ded [ended],
Before my happy days were O-ver [over], Before I first heard the P-ling [pealing] of the bell...  

Like you I was Q-rious [curious],
So innocent I R-sked [asked] a thousand questions,
But, unl-S [unless] you want to suffer,
Listen up and I will T-ch [teach] you a thing or two.  

U [you], listen here, my dear,
You'll be punished so se-V-rely [severely] if you step out of line,
And if you cry it will be W [double, you] should stay out of trouble,
And remember to be X-tremely [extremely] careful.   Y?
Why? Why?! Did you hear what we said?  

A-B-C-D-E-F-G H-I-J-K-L-M-N-O-P Q-R-S-T-U-V-W-X   Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?  
Just you wait for phy-Z!
Quizá creen que son Almas
Que el pavor dominant.
Bellas princesas tan buenas
Entérense, yo el esCape y olviDé
No puedo Esperar que haya deFensa
Todo intento releGué
Les diré que sus sueños despacHen de una vez  

Y aquÍ tras la reJotas
Atrapado en esta (K)cárcel
Ruegos eLevaré
Porque aún yo reMemoro
Mis momentos me sostieneN
Fui muy feliz sin la Odiosa Campana que una Pesadilla fue.  

(Q)Curioso igual que tú.
Ingenuo y sin Respuestas que me informed.
Porque eSe es motivo de peligro.
Se aTento, te alertaré.  
Un gran horror verás.
Un castigo muy seVero.
Si no acatas las reglas
Y si lloras será doble (W)
Uno y dos, ten respeto, sé sumiso, es eXtremo obedecer.  

¿OYe? ¿OYe? ¿No alcanzaste a oír?  

A-B-C-D-F-G H-I-J-K-L-M-N-O-P Q-R-S-T-V-W-X   Y-Y-Y-Y-Y-Y  
La re(Z)ceta es Ed-fís.

By: Maira Adaro, Translator, QA Manager