Subtitling and Cultural Significance: A Discussion

Are you a business targeting an international audience? Then it would help if you struck an emotional chord with them. However, you do not wish to take any chances and make all the right cultural references. Cultural significance plays a critical role in the subtitling industry as it can make or break deals.

Cultural referencing is not just a challenge for businesses but subtitling services too. It can be a very sensitive issue to transcript culturally bound content appropriately and include topics such as the country’s culture, race, religion, history, social norms, and geography.

Technical Issues with Cultural Referencing

The most common technical problem with cultural referencing is the untranslatability of the content due to the absence of similar items or content in the target culture. So, how to convey a message in its true gist using content unknown to the target clients or consumers?

Subtitling professionals use various well-documented conventional translational and transcriptional devices in these instances, such as substitution, omission, compensation, explication, addition, etc.

This is a more appropriate way than to avoid the entire matter. Subtitling professionals always try to steer clear of the controversial and sensitive referencing, especially when they know a little about it.

The reason to do so is, there are no options to include footnotes in subtitles for further explanation. A wrongly mentioned cultural reference can have a negative impact on your entire campaign.

The Real Challenge of Cultural Significance and Subtitling

The obstacle associated with cultural referencing is to understand the cultural significance of the content rather than the actual translation itself. Once you understand the cultural significance of what the speaker is trying to say, the transcription or subtitling becomes easy.

The translational process of subtitling the video content with appropriate cultural references or something similar will always challenge the subtitling services. There will be instances when you will have to decide to either amend the reference to fit the foreign culture or maintain its originality to satisfy the “dilemma of accuracy.”

This dilemma becomes particularly significant when you subtitle speeches by public figures such as celebrities, humanitarians, politicians etc. Moreover, it can sometimes get really tricky to subtitle the unscripted speeches. The language spoken in such speeches can get repetitive, ambiguous, incoherent, controversial, and contradictory.

So what do you do as a subtitling service?

Well, in such instances, you start to struggle on two fronts. You must choose between your professional obligations (to provide an accurate and faithful rendition of the spoken content) or your urge to clarify it, making it more understandable and, most importantly, culturally acceptable by the masses.

Avoiding the Crisis

The political, religious, and other controversial speeches can be highly emotional and emotive; hence they can cause a national or international frenzy.

Therefore, a subtitling service needs to tread carefully and be extra vigilant when subtitling highly emotive and emotional words and phrases. You must tone it down with appropriate cultural references while maintaining the core idea of what the speaker wishes to convey.

In other instances, subtitling decisions regarding cultural significance do not take semantics into consideration, especially with light-hearted content and global references.

Moreover, when the content is already addressing the cultural norms, institutions and traditions of the target audience, the subtitling professional does not have to worry about the accuracy and detailed translation of every word uttered.

The focus stays on the intention of conveying what the speaker wants to say. This way, subtitling becomes more of an editorial choice and content-related judgment of the subtitling professional or service.

In short, the subtitles will be plot-oriented instead of being strictly semantic.


No software can beat a subtitling service’s professional expertise when it comes to incorporating cultural significance in your visual/audio content. An AI will not be able to judge the sensitivity of the emotions within the spoken word and will translate word for word, causing irreversible damage. Circle Translations have professional subtitling professionals who are aware of the intricacies and sensitivity of such matters. So contact them today for your subtitling needs.

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Christophe Rude

Christophe Rude

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