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Translating Culture-Bound Elements in Subtitling—
Posted on Tuesday, April 08 @ 04:23:48 EDT
Topic: Subtitling

TranslationLocalizationInterpretationDTP & Printing


An Example of Interlinguistic Analysis: a scene from Scent of a Woman


One of the most challenging tasks for all translators is how to render culture-bound elements in subtitles into a foreign language. Indeed, not much attention has been paid to this problem by translation theories. According to Newmark: "Translation is a craft consisting in the attempt to replace a written message and/or statement in one language by the same message and/or statement in another language" (Newmark, 1981:7). However, with culturally-bound words this is often impossible. Indeed, the meaning which lies behind this kind of expressions is always strongly linked to the specific cultural context where the text originates or with the cultural context it aims to re-create.

Sometimes this kind of term can be easily rendered into the target language (TL), as in the case of topographical expressions ("the River Thames" cannot but be translated into Italian as "il Tamigi"; the Atlantic Ocean cannot but become "l'oceano Atlantico", unless for some reasons one thinks it is absolutely necessary to change the source text). However, more often than not, the translator has to cope with true dilemmas. The word in the source text (ST) may be strongly rooted in the source culture (SC) and, yet, it may be too difficult to understand for the audience the dubbed film is addressed to. In addition, translators may have to deal not only with lexical expressions, but also with problems of register, syntactic order, non-standard English, regional varieties (dialects), etc. Though these elements are not always defined as culture-specific, I believe they are, since, as Goodenough argues:

"As I see it, a society's culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members, and do so in any role that they accept for any one of themselves [...]. By definition, we should note that culture is not a material phenomenon; it does not consist of things, people, behavior, or emotions. It is rather an organization of these things. It is the form of things that people have in mind, their model of perceiving and dealing with their circumstances" (Goodenough, 1964:36).

The way in which people speak, construct their sentences, choose their vocabulary (according to the formal/informal situation they are in, to their geographical origin and so on) reveals much about their culture.

My aim in this essay is to define some of the main categories of culture-bound elements in subtitling by providing some significant examples taken from a popular film made in the USA in the 1990s, Scent of a Woman (director, Martin Brest). Subsequently, I will make an interlinguistic analysis of both the ST and the TT (target text) in English and Italian to show what techniques have been adopted by translators to cope with the main cultural differences highlighted by the translation process.

The scene from Scent of a Woman I want to focus on is the one in which the two main characters, the student Charles Simms and Colonel Frank Slate, meet for the first time. Because he is blind, the Colonel is seeking an attendant, whereas the young man—who can afford his studies only thanks to a scholarship—needs money to go back to his family in Oregon during the Christmas holidays. Thus, he goes to the interview with Mr. Slade, whose manner towards him is rude and aggressive.

Linguistic and Stylistic Features

Before commenting on the translation process of this part of the film, a premise on its linguistic features is necessary. The language used in the dialog between the characters clearly displays the Colonel's sense of superiority and the boy's uneasiness and hesitation. While the main verbal mood Frank resorts to when speaking is the imperative (Get in here, Don't call me, Come closer, Get outta here, Go on...), Charles uses the indicative (in the present tense) most of the time (I'm sorry, My stepfather and my mum run a convenience store, I attend Baird). In the first case, verbs express orders and commands; in the second, they are often statements which offer information (in general, they are answers to the Colonel's questions). The syntax of Mr. Slade's sentences is also less regular than Simms's." Sometimes, the Colonel omits the subject, as in these examples: "Can't believe they are my blood"; "Attend Baird"; "Threw me in G2". In some cases, the device of ellipsis is used by omitting the verb, as when he asks: "Too much football without a helmet?". In contrast, Charlie uses very regular syntactic structures (S-V-O): "I attend Baird"; "I won a Young American Merit Scholarship"; "I want a job."

Furthermore, most Americanisms and colloquialisms are used by the Colonel ("We've gotta moron here"; "You patronizing me, pee-wee?"; "You sharp-shootin' me, punk?"; "Whadda you want here?"; "Is that watcha doin'?"), together with puns ("G2? Intelligence, of which you have none"; "Charlie: "My stepfather and my mum run a convenience store. Frank: "Oh, how convenient?"), metaphorical and idiomatic expressions ("You got me all misty-eyed"; "this sparrow-fart town"; "appleseeds"—for 'people from the countryside'). In addition, Mr. Slade's discourse is imbued with words linked to the semantic field of the military, as when he sends Charlie away by shouting: "Dismissed! Dismissed!".

All these differences in style, register, vocabulary and syntax can be explained by the fact that the characters pursue different communicative goals and by their different personalities. The Colonel is more self-assured and—unlike Charles—he does not need to make a good impression. He is totally at ease thanks to his privileged social position (as the images of the film suggest by showing the character comfortably sitting in an armchair and smoking a cigar). In contrast, the young student makes an effort to please the other man by formulating formal and polite expressions. However, this is not appreciated by his aggressive interlocutor, who often shows the clear purpose of humiliating and deriding him.

Culture-Bound Terms in SL and TL. Definitions and Examples

Thus, in translating the script which refers to this scene, the translator will have to respect all the above-mentioned linguistic characteristics, which strongly contribute to the portrayal of the characters. This task is made even more difficult by the presence of many culturally-oriented elements in the dialogs. Some of them are evident, whereas others are more concealed. I will divide them into different categories, since, in my point of view, what is culture-specific in the selected scene belongs to a wide variety of different linguistic and cultural contexts.

The first aspect I would like to focus on is the most difficult to deal with when translating the script, since it is, in a sense, totally untranslatable. The spelling of many words uttered by Colonel Slade suggests a colloquial tone—this is the case of the verbs "gonna" and "wanna", the gerunds "shootin'" and "doin'" (by apocope, the words loses the final "g"), and the pronoun "you"—"ya". Though it is almost impossible to render these peculiar characteristics of American English in another language, it is undeniable that they are important elements in the ST, where they clearly suggest the culture to which the speaker belongs.

In addition, they also reveal the Colonel's attitude towards his interlocutor: he does not care about using more standardized linguistic forms, as the student does; he feels completely 'at home," he is the 'boss' and the legitimate owner of the premises where the scene takes place. In the Italian subtitles, these non-standard forms of language have not been preserved and no inventive solution has been given in order to offer an equivalent form in the TL.



Frank: Get in here ya idiot. Come a little closer. I wanna get a better look at you.


Frank: Entra dentro, idiota! Vieni più vicino, voglio guardarti bene.

In the TL, there is no trace of the non-standard forms of the ST. The solutions available to translators when confronted with this problem are of many kinds. One of them consists in finding a non-standard language (e.g.: a regional variety) in the TL. However, since it is not always advisable to make an American character speak, for example, like people from Rome or Venice, an alternative could be the one adopted by the Italian translator of Irvine Welsh's novel Trainspotting, Giuliana Zeuli, who rendered the characters' language in Italian using a juvenile jargon which—though it still does not account for the characters' place of origin (Edinburgh)—at least preserves the non-standard language of the original.

This brings us to another important aspect of the chosen text, that is, register. Indeed, the way in which people interact is strongly linked to social rules and social behaviors accepted by each culture. In the scene, one term in particular, at the beginning of the dialog, has not been translated into Italian—that is, the word "mister". This is a loss in terms of understanding. As the following passages demonstrates, what young Charles Simms does is search timidly for the right title or form of address for his interlocutor:


FRANK: Don't call me "sir".

CHARLIE: I'm sorry, I mean mister, "sir".

FRANK: Oh oh, we gotta moron here, is that it?

CHARLIE: No mister, that is, Lieutenant, yes sir.

FRANK: Lieutenant-Colonel. Twenty-six years on the line nobody ever busted me four grades before.

The term "sir" in English is more respectful than "mister", which is formal if followed by a person's surname (Mr. Slade) but is less formal when found in isolation. This is the entry given by the Cambridge International Dictionary of English: "Mister - the complete form of the title Mr, or an informal and often rude form of address for a man". From this perspective, in correcting himself by saying "mister" instead of "sir", Simms is trying to sound a bit less formal than before. However, there is also a second possibility. According to the on-line English dictionary dictionary.reference.com, "mister" is also a term of respect used by cadets in addressing upperclassmen (esp. in military schools and colleges)". Thus, from this point of view, the boy's attempt is exactly the opposite one, that is, he tries to find a more respectable title for the interlocutor, knowing that he comes from the military. However, we must add that the above-mentioned definition also specifies: "used with surname".

Neverthless, whether one assumes the first or the second interpretation to be the right one, it is a fact that the Italian script does not translate the word "mister":

CHARLIE: Signore?

FRANK: Non chiamarmi signore

CHARLIE: Mi... mi scusi, lo dicevo per rispetto, signore

FRANK: Va bene, abbiamo reclutato lo scemo del villaggio

CHARLIE: Io signore, volevo dire... tenente, signor tenente

FRANK: Tenente colonnello. Ventisei anni di servizio e nessuno si è mai azzardato a levarmi quattro gradi.

The Italian translators succeed in skipping the word by offering an interpretation of the sentences' general meaning. By explaining that the boy was trying to be respectful ("lo dicevo per rispetto, signore"), they avoid thinking about how to translate "mister". The text is easy to understand and, yet, a culture-bound term—which reveals much about the social relationship between the characters as well—has been lost. Surprisingly enough, the translators also have chosen to use an Italian idiomatic expression ("lo scemo del villaggio") for "moron", which could have been easily translated as "scemo" if not with "ritardato" (the idea of mental retardation being inherent in the meaning of the word and not too harsh considering the character's language and mentality). In addition, a verb ("abbiamo reclutato"—we have recruited) explicitly linked with the military semantic field has been inserted in the text, though it was not present in the original.

More explicit culture-bound elements can be found in the ST. They are all linked to American culture but they can be divided into three different categories:

• History (facts and people of American history, but also objects, situations which can be clearly linked to a certain historical period);

• Society—here, a further distinction is needed:

a) customs and usages

b) institutions and social structure

c) lifestyle and habits

d) beliefs and morality

• Myths and traditions

The first example: I will take from the ST can be put under the heading of "history":

Frank: [...] Too much football without a helmet? Ha. Lyndon's line on Gerry Ford, deputy debriefer, Paris, peacetalks, '68, snagged a silver star and a silver bar. Threw me in the G2.

The Colonel mentions in this passage two former American Presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald Ford. The first one is recognized by the American audience simply by his first name. It is not the same with Italians, who are generally more familiar with his surname, "Johnson":

Frank: Hai giocato a football senza casco? Ah! Lo diceva Johnson a Gerry Ford, esperto militare, Parigi, conferenza della pace '68, decorazione al valore e promozione sul campo, trasferito a G2.

The ST is slightly changed (there is less sense of familiarity suggested by Frank in referring to the President by his first name) but the meaning is preserved and the culture-specificity of this passage is respected.

A different case is the one offered by the expression "card-telephones" in one statement by Frank: "Your father peddles card-telephones at a three-hundred percent mark-up". Card-telephones were very popular in the 1990s in the USA (the film was made in 1992). They were a common device for calling someone in those days. And yet, the Italian translation replaces the term in the ST with a new one: "Tuo padre vende telefonini guadagnando il 300 per cento". "Telefonini" (mobiles) is a term which indicates a totally different kind of object, since card-telephones were quite big and not very handy instruments which could work thanks to the insertion of a card in a slot.

The translators' aim, here, could be to communicate the sense of Frank's sentence easily and without the risk of misunderstandings, by using a word ("telefonini") which sounds very familiar to the Italian audience. However, by changing the word in the original, they have updated the script without—I believe—any particular reasons for doing this. If an exact equivalent for card-telephones could not be found, why not simply maintain that they were "telefoni" (telephones)?

A culture-bound element which belongs to the category "Society" is the expression "convenience store", used by Simms to explain what his parents do. As he says: "My stepfather and my mom run a convenience store". This term can be included in subsystem "b"—life-style and habits, since it is linked with people's daily lives, with the way they shop and work, and even with the opening and closing hours of their shops (and, consequently, with their way of life in general). Convenience stores (generally abbreviated as c-stores) are very popular in the USA, where many of them stay open 24 hours a day. They can be often found alongside roads, at gas stations and sometimes even at railway stations. Yet, the term "supermercato" is the one chosen by the Italian translators: "Il mio patrigno e mia madre hanno un supermercato". A "supermercato", which is the equivalent of "supermarket" in English, is totally different from a convenience store, which could have been translated more correctly as "mini-market" (this term being used in Italy as well). Therefore, the culture-bound element in the ST has been ignored and even the underlying meaning of the passage has been altered. When the Colonel asks Charles whether the "convenience store" is "convenient", he is not just making a pun by exploiting the linguistic similarities between the words. He is also implying that they are poor people or that they at least pretend to be so (Charles will then be addressed as a "crook" for holding a scholarship and, at the end of the scene, as a "poormouth"). In fact, in Italian people's minds to run a "supermarket" ("un supermercato") does not imply to suffer from a lack of money; on the contrary, it is thought of as a normally profitable business.

I would include in group "c" (life-style and habits) the expressions "Clinique" and "Chestnut Hill", which are linked to the the high standard of living of the American élite. After being asked about "how is [his] skin" by the Colonel, who wants his "attendants to be presentable", Charles explains:

CHARLIE: Ah, well, I have a few zits, ah, but my roommate, he lent me his Clinique because, well, he's from Chestnut Hill...

The Italian translator feels the need to clarify the meaning of the statement:

CHARLIE: Be," ho avuto dei brufoletti ma il mio compagno di stanza mi ha prestato una lozione, lui è di una famiglia bene e loro per queste cose...

The term "Clinique" has been rendered with the more general one "lozione", which, despite not giving the brand name in the ST, still manages to communicate that Charles has been lent a good quality product. Chestnut Hill is an elegant suburban village in Massachusetts (Boston) where many people from the higher ranks of society live. Since it is unknown to the majority in Italy, the Italian subtitles have tried to suggest the underlying meaning of the character's sentence by explaining: "Lui è di una famiglia bene" ("he comes from a well-to-do family").

Nevertheless, some of the more remarkable differences between the culture-bound elements in the ST and their translation are linked to wider and more general assumptions about social roles and social perceptions of others. This may explain why a "beauty queen" has become a mere "spogliarellista" ("stripper"). The reason for this change could be understood from an examination of the whole passage in which the word occurs:

FRANK: [...] Can't believe they are my blood. IQ of sloths and the manners of banshees. He's a mechanic, she's a homemaker. He knows as much about cars as a beauty queen and she bakes cookies that taste like wing-nuts...

Here, Slade is describing his family (his sister and her husband, who also have children). He uses the expression "beauty queen" in a kind of pardoxical simile to imply that his brother-in-law is an awfully bad mechanic. A beauty queen is, of course, the winner of a beauty contest and she is chosen (at least, this is the supposed criterion) both for her physical appearance and for her other talents (that is, for what she can do on stage and for the way she answers questions). Apparently, there is no reason why the translators could not write "una Miss" (if "reginetta di bellezza" was too long), since this is normally how women taking part in a beauty contest are referred to in Italy. The term "spogliarellista" is pejorative (a beauty queen generally embodies the State or region from which she comes and she is not sensed as a merely 'transgressive' type) and it is also unnecessary for purposes of clarity.

Another pejorative expression has been used for the following passage, in which Frank insults Charles' parents:

FRANK: For student aid, we read crook. Your father peddles card-telephones at a three-hundred percent mark-up. Your mother works on heavy commission in a camera store, graduated to it from espresso machines. Ha, ha.

To have "graduated from espresso machines" is obviously an ironical way to say that the boy's mother used to have a very unimportant job.

And, yet, the translation given by the Italian subtitles seem to be too reductive: "Prima faceva la sguattera in un pub". A "sguattera" is a "short-order cook" and has rather a negative and degrading sense (it is not like saying "cameriera", "waitress", which could have been used instead). Some might argue, anyway, that to an Italian audience a literal translation of the sentence would sound too strange. However, making coffee for more senior colleagues is one of the most common duties among people at their first job, together with doing photocopies. Thus, I believe that some solutions could have been: "Prima faceva caffè" or "prima faceva fotocopie". In this case, a culture-bound element which did not raise too many problems in translation thanks to the fact that it defines a social meaning which is common to both the source and the target culture has been deliberately changed. Maybe, the Italian translators wanted to stress the character's bad manners and unpleasantness (at least, this is the achieved effect).

Terms which are linked to the specific social order and structure of American society and of its Institutions are "senior" (FRANK: Simms Charles, a senior. You on a student aid, Simms?) and "prep school" (FRANK: [...] You givin' me that ol' prep school palaver? Baird school...). The first one—"senior"—has been rendered as "al terzo anno" ("in the third year"), though the entry given by the dictionary says: "A senior is someone in their final year of high school or university" (Cambridge International Dictionary, 1995).

The term "prep school" (which is a school paid for by parents), too, has not been translated literally (as "scuola privata") but as "bella scuola bene" (a school for well-to-do people). The communicative effect is achieved, since Mr. Slade is very polemical here (and the expression found in Italian sounds quite ironical) and, yet, the word in the ST was different, the sense of sarcasm being given more by the noun "palaver" than by the definition of the school. Another element which belongs to North American society (and, more specifically, to the educational field) is the "Young American Merit scholarship" Charles won. The Italian subtitles give quite a faithful translation: "borsa di studio per giovani promettenti". However, the adjective "American" has not been translated at all, though the award mentioned is supposedly specifically for students from America.

The most surprising change from ST to TT has been to translate "wood-chips" in Frank's question: "What does your daddy do in Gresham, Oregon, count wood-chips?". Here, again, the Colonel is trying to humiliate Charles. "Wood-chips" are things of no importance, residues of wood of little use. But when watching the film, the Italian audience learns that the character's father is actually searching for "porcini" ("cepe mushrooms"), which—unlike wood-chips—are precious, expensive and for cultivated tastes. The word is very familiar to Italian ears and, yet, in the ST, a totally different idea is communicated (to count wood-chips is a pointless occupation, to search for cepes may be very profitable). In my opinion, the most suitable translation could be either "bastoncini" or "trucioli" (very small pieces of wood of no practical use).

Furthermore, some things that was not in the original have been inserted in the translation and some other things have been omitted: "E che cosa fa nelle foreste dell'Oregon il tuo papà, raccoglie porcini?". The noun "foreste" ("forests"), here, has replaced the place-name "Gresham". This reveals the translators' perception of the text as belonging to a foreign culture and their attitude towards this sense of 'foreignness." The feeling that the script needs to be understood by the audience by offering explanations/clarifications (there are forests in Oregon and this is why you can find "wood-chips"- or, as they say, "porcini") and by avoiding using terms which may be confusing (some might not understand/remember instantly that Gresham was Charles' native town) is quite evident.

In the category "Myths and Traditions", we can include one term from the ST, that is, "banshees". As always, Mr. Slades is being ironic and he uses this word to describe his family:

FRANK: [...] Can't believe they are my blood. IQ of sloths and the manners of banshees...

This is what the Italian subtitles say:

FRANK: Be', è incredibile... il mio sangue. Hanno cervelli da zanzare e maniere da bifolchi.

The original meaning of "bifolchi"—used, here, for "banshees"—is "peasants". It now means a very rude and uncultured person (for a "bumpkin" or, in American English, for a "redneck"). But "banshees" were female spirits who, according to Celtic myths, used to appear in a house when someone in the family was going to die. This meaning is not preserved in the TT, though it could have been rendered with "uccellacci del malaugurio", which—like banshees—carry fearful forebodings. In addition, they also are mythical figures (the flight of birds, according to Classical culture, could reveal whether the future had in store positive or negative events—the Roman "auspices").

Translation Techniques

At this point, an analysis of the main translation techniques used for the Italian subtitles can be made. I will catalogue some of the most frequently adopted procedures—deletion, paraphrase, substitution—by listing them, together with some of the passages (both in L1 and L2) to which they have been applied:

1. I'm sorry, I mean mister, "sir"/Lo dicevo per rispetto, signore =


2. Card- telephones/telefonini = Substitution

3. Senior/al terzo anno = Paraphrase

4. Espresso machines/Sguattera in un pub = Substitution

5. Banshees/bifolchi = Substitution

6. Lyndon's line/Johnson's line = (Linguistical) substitution

7. Convenience store/ supermercato = Substitution

8. Chestnut Hill/ Lui viene da una famiglia bene = Paraphrase

9. Prep-school/ Bella scuola bene = Substitution/Paraphrase

10. Wood-chips/ porcini = Substitution

Thus, there are at least three main procedures through which translators have rendered the ST into the TL: substitution, paraphrase, deletion.

Subsitution consists in replacing the term in the ST with a different one in the TT (and with a different meaning, too).

Paraphrase is a way of clarifying the original meaning by using other words to express it. In some cases, I have noted "substitution/paraphrase" because the ST is not merely 'explained'; it is also 'interpreted'—that is, the translation seems to highlight one specific perspective from which to look at the passage (e.g.: by his saying "bella scuola bene" for "prep school", Frank's sarcasm is made even more evident than in the ST).

Deletion implies that the expression in SL is simply eliminated in the text in TL or that (as in the case of "wanna", "gotta"), the culture-bound element in it is not preserved.

Despite being different from each other, all these techniques presuppose the same attitude towards what belongs to the culture where the ST originated. There is a general tendency to make the 'foreign' become familiar. The terms which may not be understood by the target audience are transformed into something else. Changes lead to a new, different meaning, which was not in the original (banshees/bifolchi). In most cases, the culture-bound element in the ST is lost (and this occurs, in the examples listed above, six out of twelve times). Indeed, in the translation of subtitles one of the main goals to achieve is clarity, since they must be easily and quickly understood by the audience (which also has to follow the image sequence on the screen). Thus, what slows down the pace of reading because of the need to be 'deciphered' is felt as annoying.


Mine, of course, is not a judgmental comment on the translators' rendering of the scene (which is undeniably enjoyable and beautifully dubbed). Yet, I believe that a closer approach to the ST—one which could be respectful of the 'difference' inherent in the original product, which is made in another cultural, social and political context—could be enriching and challenging at the same time. Much more information could be acquired by the audience on the story they are watching and listening to, and a deeper understanding of it could be achieved if the translations did not hide the cultural diversity.

In the aftermath of World War II, one of the most powerful tools, in Italy, with which to teach the Italian language and spread it throughout the country was television. In that case, there was a need for standardization (against the fragmentation of the many different dialects spoken in each Italian region). However, the potential of mass media for improving people's knowledge of the world could be exploited to teach about other cultures as well (and to make people understand how and why they are different from each other).

Interestingly, Scent of a Woman (directed by Martin Brest) is a re-make of the 1974 Italian film Profumo di donna by Dino Risi, which was based on Giovanni Arpino's novel Il buio e il miele. Thus, it is a cultural transposition of a story which originated in a 'foreign' context. Yet, the translation must obviously take the latest product as the original and respect all cultural differences in it.

Audiovisual Material:
Scent of a Woman—
Profumo di Donna, Martin Brest, Universal Pictures. De Agostini VHS: Milano, 1992.

Cambridge International Dictionary of English. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1995.
Dizionario inglese/italiano, italiano/inglese. Rizzoli: Milano, 1995.
Arpino, Giovanni.
Il buio e il miele. Baldini e Castoldi: Milano, 1993.
Goodenough, Ward H. "Cultural Anthropology in Linguistics" in D. Hymes ed.
Language in Culture and Society. A Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology. Harper & Row: New York, 1964.
Newmark, Peter.
About Translation. Multilingual Matters: Clevedon, 1991. Approaches to Translation. Pergamon Press: Oxford, 1988.
A Textbook of Translation. Pergamon Press: Oxford, 1981.
Paragraph on Translation. Multilingual Matters: Clevedon, 1993.
Nida, Eugene, and Taber, Charles.
The Theory and Practice of Translation. E.J. Brill: Leiden, 1982.

Web resources:
On-line Dictionary of English, http://www. dictionary.reference.com


by Elisa Armellino

(As published at www.accurapid.com)

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