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.
By | 2016-10-18T15:52:20+00:00 January 8th, 2004|Technical corner|4 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Carlos January 12, 2004 at 2:51 pm

    Bonjour Celine!
    A very interesting entry… just wanted to add my 0.02 (do they say that in Europe or is it just an American thing?)
    I must confess I agree with your client. I don’t feel too comfortable with the example of cultural adaptation you offer; in fact, I’m all for keeping the original elements & references intact whenever possible.
    Let’s see: the series is targeted at a teen audience which will probably miss the reference. The problem is, as you correctly assessed, that you can’t satisfy both areas of the spectrum: if you translate it so that it sounds “closer to home”, so to speak, even while keeping it foreign, you risk losing the initiated. However I think something should be added to the equation, and that’s the filmmaker’s intention. For example: the age of the characters who are involved in the conversation. If they’re old enough to have witnessed first-hand the events surrounding the Contra/Iran affair, it is only natural that they bring it up, and lends verosimilitude to their exchange, even if we don’t get it. It’s richer, intriguing.
    Moreover, we, as movie public in general, often hear about things that we know little about. If the work is engaging and thought-provoking, we usually feel compelled to do our own research to fill in the blanks in our knowledge — just as you did when you surfed the net searching for info about this particular affair! So the film shows its educational value which -importantly- might have been one of the objectives of the filmmaker. And this uncertainty – we can’t be really sure of this – is where I draw my personal line… I choose to leave it as it is.
    Of course, the Iran/Contra affair is a rather popular one… we could find some ultra-obscure reference that’s not widely known. But in that case, I’d still argue in favor of keeping the original context. If anything, it serves the all-important purpose of making foreign cultures and affairs known, and we don’t risk sounding awkward or inappropriate. Often the worst scenario is that we’ll miss on a joke or a passing comment.
    Just my opinion, sorry about the length and congratulations on your weblog,
    Buenos Aires, Argentina

  2. Céline January 12, 2004 at 4:07 pm

    Thanks Carlos, a lot of food for thought here! My bottom line with cultural references is to always check with the client how they’d like me to deal with them, but I do love trying to adapt them.

  3. Carlos January 12, 2004 at 4:28 pm

    A fascinating challenge, indeed 🙂
    Best of luck!

  4. Rym Rytr January 27, 2004 at 8:49 pm

    American culture is so vast and in constant growth as to its make-up (ingredients) that even current references are lost on many of our youth. I recently referred to Heaven’s Gate and how (tongue in cheek) I’d missed my ride home (reporting myself to be an Alien Life Form), and not one person of the 6 listening, knew of the reference! My later reference to Clinton and “it depends on what your definition of *is* is…” was also lost on all but one.
    Life here is in constant flux. Immigration is every changing our statistics. Here in the Pacific Northwest (Washington State), we have a growing population of Hispanics from Mexico, a small but growing community of “Russians” and an increasing number of Asians. Things change and so do the Times!

Comments are closed.