Lorelai: I kept information from you.
Rory: Information that I should have had.
Lorelai: It would’ve come out eventually,
Like the Iran-Contra Scandal.
Rory: So you’re Oliver North.
Lorelai: No, I’m Fawn Hall.
Rory: Mom.
Lorelai: She was much prettier
In this dialogue, Rory is angry with her mum for not telling her the truth. Her mum cites the Iran-Contra affair, in which Oliver North and Fawn Hall lied about the sale of arms to Iran and money given to the contras by the American government. Now I know this because I researched it on the Internet when I came across it. To my great shame, I had no idea what she was referring to, and I’m certain most French people (especially the teenagers who are target viewers of this series and were born after the Iran-Contra scandal) are as ignorant as me on this topic.
So when you subtitle something like this, what do you do? You can’t have a footnote explaining what this is all about, like you might do in a translation. So do you let a French audience miss out completely on this dialogue and its implications for the characters or do you try and convey its meaning?
There are two ways to deal with cultural references: transfer and adaptation. With the first option, you literally transfer the notion to the target text and hope that the reader will have some notion of what it means. This is not just a “lazy” approach: it can be horrendously artificial and uncomfortable to replace, say, an obscure British pastime by a French one. Most French people won’t have a clue what ‘netball’ is, just like most British people have never heard of ‘handball’, but some will. If you transfer ‘netball’ into the translation, you run the risk to alienate readers who aren’t that familiar with British culture. But if you adapt it, and replace it with a French ‘equivalent’, the initiated reader loses out. It’s tricky!
Here is an example of cultural adaptation. With adaptation, you take the bare meaning from the cultural reference in the source language (here, people who lie about something and get found out) and try and fit it into the cultural reality of the target language. This is what I came up with:
Lorelai: Je ne t’ai pas tout dit.
Rory: Tu aurais dû me le dire.
Lorelai: Ça allait se savoir,
comme pour François Mitterrand et Mazarine.
Rory: Tu as menti, comme François Mitterrand.
Lorelai: Non, comme Mazarine.
Rory: Maman.
Lorelai: Elle est beaucoup plus jolie.
The story of François Mitterrand and his natural daughter is well known in France and I thought the situation conveyed what was going on between Rory and her mum. However, it just sounded too odd to have these all-American characters discuss a French political figure’s personal life. So I looked for another, more recent American scandal that everyone would have heard about. What scandal was more famous than the Clinton/Lewinsky one? I thought I had found my solution: replacing a relatively obscure American scandal (for a French audience and particulary teenagers, who were born after the Iran/Contra case) by one which was so famous that it became part of the French “cultural” (taking this term in the widest possible sense) landscape.
I was very happy with my American/American adaptation until my client finally advised me to transfer the cultural reference to the translation.

[very Gallic shrug] At least it got me thinking.