Change search
ReferencesLink to record
Permanent link

Direct link
On the Interchangeability of Culture in Subtitles
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of English.
2006 (English)Conference paper (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

On the interchangeability of culture

This paper deals with the interchangeability of culture in subtitles. This concept does not necessarily mean that a visit to the kabuki could be exchanged for tickets to a Meatloaf concert, but it does mean that a translator substitutes one cultural reference for another in the subtitles of a film or a TV programme. This presupposes that at some level – say at the connotational level – some elements of culture are interchangeable. This is a fairly limited phenomenon , but it is of great importance as it may be the most domesticating (in Venuti’s sense (1995: 19-20)) strategy of language transfer. When using the strategy of Cultural Substitution a Source Culture (SC) reference is removed and more often than not, it is replaced by one from the Target Culture (TC). When this strategy is used frequently, it means that your average couch potato is not exposed to unknown references from the SC, which makes the Target Text (i.e. the subtitles) easy to digest, but they are also more or less void of any new cultural experiences. Or, to put it in the old words of Schleiermacher, it is a technique designed “to leave the reader alone as much as possible and bring the writer to him” (1813/1998: 118, my translation).

The object of investigation in this study is what I call Extralinguistic Cultural References (ECRs). These are references pertaining to realia. ECRs are expressions that refer to entities outside language, such as names of people, places, institutions, food, customs etc, which a person may not know, even if s/he knows the language in question . When a subtitler encounters an ECR in a Source Text, s/he has several strategies at his or her disposal for rendering it in the Target Text subtitles. By far the most common strategy is to retain it as it is, with just minor alterations to accommodate the rules of the Target Language (TL). However, these strategies are not very felicitous when an ECR is well known to the Source Text’s (ST’s) original audience, but virtually unknown to the Target Text (TT) audience. I call these ECRs Monocultural ECRs, as opposed to Transcultural ECRs, which are more or less equally accessible to both the ST and the TT audiences (cf. Pedersen forthcoming and Welsch 1999). When dealing with Monocultural ECRs, it may be necessary for the subtitler to intervene in order to help the audience to access the ECR. This could be done by Specification, Generalisation or Direct Translation when possible (cf. Pedersen: in press). Another way of dealing with these troublesome ECRs is to replace an unknown reference with a known one, either from the SC or from the TC, and this is where the subtitler has to presume a degree of cultural interchangeability. To use a real example, it is presumed that when an American spy is talking about having “a Ph.D. from NYU” , they might as well be talking about having “an M.A. from KUA” (Spy Hard: 39.17).

In the comparative project Scandinavian Subtitles, some 2,500 Anglophone ECRs and their Swedish and Danish subtitled counterparts have been investigated. The strategy of Cultural Substitution has been used in only roughly five per cent of the cases, so the phenomenon is not very common. This may have something to do with the fact that it is rather heavy on the MAX side of Levý’s ” MINIMAX strategy” (1967/2000: 156) In other words, it means that the subtitler has to work fairly hard in order to find a cultural substitute that would work, and it is often easier to use other strategies, such as Retention or Generalization.

In most cases, Cultural Substitution has been used on ECRs which refer to official institutions, food and titles, and they can in many cases be considered to be Official (or semi-official) Equivalents. An Official Equivalent proper is constructed either through heavy entrenchment (cf. Leppihalme 1994: 94) or an administrative decision (cf. Hermans 2003: 40), and even though many Official Equivalents are based on Cultural Substitution, not all Cultural Substitutes are Official Equivalents. There is clearly a demarcation problem here, but through rigid operationalization based on parameters like dictionary entries, official documents (such as official web sites) and the number of TL options available allows the analyst to decide whether in fact an Official Equivalent or a Cultural Substitute has been used. One way of illustrating this is that the title of ‘Captain’ in American police forces has been rendered into Danish by five different Cultural Substitutes in the corpus.

In the domains of food, titles, and public institutes etc. mentioned above, the use of Cultural Substitution strategy is fairly equally widespread in Sweden and Denmark, and most viewers are used to it. This is probably because many Cultural Substitutes in these areas are taken to be Official Equivalents by the TT audience (and perhaps also by the subtitlers?), and thus considered “appropriate translations”, whatever one puts into that concept. However, there seems to be a difference between the practices in the two countries when it comes to usage outside these domains. In Sweden, it is very uncommon to use this strategy on anything other than official institutions, titles, food and the like, and it is also actively discouraged in many guidelines for Swedish subtitlers (e.g. SVT 2003, SDI 2000, Languageland/SpråkCentrum 2001). In Denmark, on the other hand, the strategy is used in a wider variety of domains, and this is also where one finds substitution by another, better known (i.e. Transcultural) SC ECR, something that is all but non-existent in Swedish practice. The question of genre also comes into play here. Outside the domains already mentioned, the strategy is only used in genres where information is less important than other e.g. humour or stylistics, with nonsensical comedy being the prototypical genre for its usage. It should be pointed out that even though Substitution by SC ECR is very rare in Sweden (no clear cases were found in the corpus), Substitution by TC ECR does occur, but not as frequently as in Denmark, and only in comedies. Compared to subtitling into English, however, Scandinavia uses Cultural Substitution fairly sparingly, as can be seen in an investigation by Gottlieb (forthcoming). In fact, the domestication of foreign texts as they are translated into English is one of the causes of the moral outrage in Venuti’s “call to action (1995: 307-313).

When using Cultural Substitution, the subtitler creates a breach of reference: the ST ECR has one reference, the TT ECR has another, so in a way, you could say that the subtitler lies to the TT audience. On the other hand, what the subtitler is trying to create when using this strategy is not formal equivalence, but dynamic equivalence (cf. Nida1964), i.e. an equivalence of effect. The subtitler hopes that the replacing ECR will have more or less the same connotations for the TT audience as the replaced ECR had for the ST audience. Used in this way, Cultural Substitution is a very effective shortcut for conveying connotations.

The overall effect on the TT (the subtitles) of replacing a Monocultural ECR with a Transcultural ECR from the SC is that the TT gets less localized and more generalized than the ST. This is also the case if certain other strategies are used, and a fairly general trend in translation; it is what Gottlieb calls “the centripetal effect in translation” (2000:22) and the basis of Toury’s first law of translation (1995: 267 ff.). The main drawback of this solution is that the subtitler runs the risk of the resulting breach of reference being picked up by the TT audience through what Gottlieb calls “the feedback-effect from the original (1994: 268). If members of the TT audience can hear a speaker referring to “the Three Stooges”, they may find it weird to read about the Danish Official Equivalents of “Laurel & Hardy” in the subtitles (M*A*S*H 5_6: 12.38). If the substituting ECR is from the Target Culture, the problems are of a different kind. The use of a TC ECR as substitute may result in a credibility gap, as it may seem improbable that characters in the SC would be familiar with and converse about TC items. To use the example already cited: it would seem improbable that an American spy would get his university education at the Humanities Faculty at the University of Copenhagen. In some contexts and genres, however, the viewers may be willing to suspend their disbelief, for the sake of understanding the text better. In this case, the genre is a nonsense parody of spy films in the comedy genre, and the characters are quite unbelievable anyway. So, generally speaking, it could be claimed that the strategy is mainly used when connotations, rather than reference is to be conveyed.

The findings raise a number of interesting questions. Are Danes less sensitive to credibility gaps than Swedes? Are Swedes less aware of genre differences? One thing seems to be clear, however, and that is that in certain contexts and genres, there is a cultural difference when it comes to cultural interchangeability.

Jan Pedersen

Department of English

Stockholm University



Phone: +46-8-674 74 22 Fax: +46-8-15 96 67



Gottlieb, Henrik. Forthcoming. “Subtitling against the Current: Danish Concepts,

English Minds.”

Gottlieb, Henrik. 2000. Screen Translation: Six studies in subtitling, dubbing and

voice-over. Copenhagen: Center for Translation Studies, University of Copenhagen

Gottlieb, Henrik. 1994. Tekstning – Synkron billedmedieoversættelse. DAO 5 Danske

Afhandlinger om Oversættelse. Copenhagen: Center for Oversættelse,

Københavns universitet.

Hermans, Theo. 2003. “Translation, Equivalence and Intertextuality” in Wasafari:

The Transnational Journal of International Writing 40 (2003 Winter), pp. 39-41.

Languageland/SpråkCentrum. 2001. “Subtitling for subtitlers, Languageland: Swdish

Instruction” Unpublished in-house guidelines for the subtitler’s of


Leppihalme, Ritva. 1994. Culture Bumps: On the Translation of Allusions. Helsinki:

University of Helsinki: English Department Studies 2.

Levý, Jirí. 1967/2000. “Translation as a decision process”. In: Venuti, Lawrence. The

translation studies Reader, London & New York: Routledge pp. 148 – 159

Nida,E. A. 1964. Toward a Science of Translating. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Pedersen, Jan. (in press)"Is culture translatable? A subtitler’s guide to translating

culture". In Translating Today 5.

Pedersen, Jan. (forthcoming) "How is culture rendered in subtitles?" in

Multidimensional Translation: Challenges. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. 1813/1998. ”Om de olika metoderna att översätta”.

Translated by Lars Bjurman. In: Kleberg, Lars (ed.) 1998. Med andra ord. Texter om litterär översättning. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur. pp 115 - 130

SDI. 2000. “SDI Media Scandinavia Översättarmanual [Translating Manual]”

Unpublished in-house guidelines for the subtitlers of SDI media.

SVT. 2003. “Internt arbetsmaterial för SVT Översättning och Programtextning.”

Unpublished in-house guidelines for the subtitlers of Sweden’s public-service broadcaster.

Toury, Gideon. 1995. Descriptive Translation Studies – And Beyond. Amsterdam &

Philadelphia: John Benjamins

Venuti, Lawrence. 1995. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation.

London & New York: Routledge.

Welsch, Wolfgang. 1999. “Transculturality – the Puzzling Forms of Cultures Today”

in Featherstone, Mike and Lash, Scott (eds.) Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World. London: Sage. 194 – 213.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-12768OAI: diva2:179288
Available from: 2008-02-01 Created: 2008-02-01 Last updated: 2010-11-10Bibliographically approved

Open Access in DiVA

No full text

Other links

Search in DiVA

By author/editor
Pedersen, Jan
By organisation
Department of English

Search outside of DiVA

GoogleGoogle Scholar
The number of downloads is the sum of all downloads of full texts. It may include eg previous versions that are now no longer available

Total: 928 hits
ReferencesLink to record
Permanent link

Direct link