Neutralising Tendency in Subtitling Chinese Culture-Specific References into English




subtitling, Chinese films, culture-specific references, subtitling strategies, neutralisation


Culture-specific references (CSRs) feature prominently in films by Chinese fifth- and sixth-generation directors. Based on the observation of 25 English-subtitled Chinese films made by four directors between 1984 and 2017, this paper found that the CSRs in the original Chinese dialogue are neutralised in their English subtitles through various translation strategies. The CSRs examined in this study encompass CSRs of customs in Zhang Yimou’s films, CSRs of local arts in Chen Kaige’s films, slang in Jia Zhangke’s films, and humour in Feng Xiaogang’s films, respectively embodying the quintessence of each director’s filmmaking style. A textual analysis is conducted to demonstrate how and why the neutralising tendency emerges in subtitling. It is revealed that the strategies of explicitation, substitution, transposition, compensation and omission are employed to neutralise the CSRs. From a linguistic perspective, such a neutralising tendency can be attributed to the lack of equivalence in English culture, the polysemy of the Chinese CSRs, the compactness of the Chinese language, and sometimes the mistaken intralingual Chinese subtitles. As a constrained activity, subtitling aggravates the neutralisation of the CSRs due to technical constraints and target audience considerations. Given the representativeness of chosen films, the neutralisation indicates a product norm and typical practice of subtitling high-profile Chinese films. Meanwhile, the study shows agreement with the linguistic explanation of cultural discount in translating Chinese audiovisual productions.


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Special Section | Language-pair-specific issues in translation and interpreting