The perception of dubbed cultural references in Italy

By Rachele Antonini (University of Bologna, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords


Italian TV viewers are constantly exposed to dubbed programmes containing a wide range of foreign cultural references. But what do they make of such references? Are Italian end-users of foreign fictional programmes aware of the fact that the language they hear spoken in fictional programmes is artificial, i.e. not the standard nor a spontaneous variety of spoken Italian? This paper will outline the results of a research project conducted by means of an e-questionnaire and based on a corpus of dubbed fictional products, which was designed with the aim of assessing the perception of dubbed television programmes in Italy. The results will show what Italian audiences make and perceive of the plethora of references to the US school system and education.

Keywords: audiovisual translation, screen translation, dubbing, perception, cultural references, questionnaire, traduzione audiovisiva, alice in wonderland, percezione, riferimenti culturali, questionario

©inTRAlinea & Rachele Antonini (2009).
"The perception of dubbed cultural references in Italy", inTRAlinea Vol. 11.
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

The audiovisual market in Europe and Italy

The enlargement of the European Union with the addition of ten member states will have as a consequence the expansion of the audiovisual media market and the subsequent increase in the production of television programmes and films which will be distributed to a huge market fragmented into various linguistic regions. Thus “linguistic transfer [certainly] occupies a central place in the development of the audiovisual sector in Europe where cultural and linguistic diversity go together” (Andersen, 1995: 4).

The Eurobarometer survey (2001) on the language skills of European citizens and their attitudes towards language learning revealed that 60% of Europeans prefer to watch dubbed (as opposed to subtitled) foreign films and programmes. Italy, together with Austria, Spain, France and Germany, belongs to the block of European “dubbing” countries, where more than 70% of the respondents expressed support for dubbing as their preferred form of audiovisual translation, while the other block, formed by Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Greece confirmed their strong support for subtitled products.

The bulk of programmes dubbed and subtitled into each European country’s national language(s) is imported from the United States. As Figure 1 shows, the five largest European audiovisual markets import at least 65% of the total volume of fiction and film they broadcast.

Figure 1: Volume of US-originated fiction and films imported and broadcast in Europe (2001)

Figure 1: Volume of US-originated fiction and films imported and broadcast in Europe (2001)

Source: ETS / European Audiovisual Observatory

Therefore, the issue of overcoming language barriers is, as Dries states (1995: 3),

moving higher up the agenda of the audiovisual industry in Europe. Slowly, it is being recognised as an important weapon in the battle to build a stronger European audiovisual industry and to keep the overflow of programmes from the US and Australia in check.

Yet, despite the enormous number of end users of translated audiovisual products and the volume of business generated, the assessment and analysis of audiences’ perception of dubbing and subtitling is a widely neglected area in academic and, even more surprisingly, market research.

Screen translation in Italy

On Italian television, the percentage of dubbed programmes that are aired on the terrestrial State TV network represent the vast majority of foreign programmes broadcasted every week. There are no official figures on the amount of dubbed programmes broadcast on Italian television. However, a rough calculation based on information from the weekly Film TV and on the seven terrestrial broadcasters used for our research project, gathered in the last quarter of 2003, suggests that the weekly broadcasting of imported programmes on Italy’s main TV channels exceeds 350 hours.

As shown in Figure 2, the privately owned Mediaset group alone broadcasts more than half of the total (ca. 218 hours weekly – 60%), thus qualifying as the most significant sponsor of the TV dubbing industry in Italy.

Figure 2: Percentages of dubbed fictional programmes broadcast in Italy (2004)
Figure 2: Percentages of dubbed fictional programmes broadcast in Italy (2004)

The great majority of fictional programmes (mainly soap operas, series, serials, situation comedies, and cartoons) are imported from the USA, and this fact was reflected by the corpus: twenty-four out of the thirty programmes recorded for the research project had been produced in the USA and were/are targeted mainly at a young audience (teenagers and young adults) but also at a more general audience[1].

In Italy, dubbing is the most commonly used form of language transfer and a public service provided by all private and public terrestrial and satellite broadcasters. Likewise, dubbese is the hybrid language variety that most Italian screen translators resort to when they translate and adapt a film or any other fictional and non-fictional programme for the big and the small screen (Cipolloni, 1996; Rossi, 1999). The term “dubbese” (in Italian doppiaggese) was coined by Italian screen translators to negatively connote the linguistic hybrid that over the years has emerged as the “standard” variety of Italian spoken by characters in dubbed products (films, series, etc). Over the past 15 years, academics and researchers in screen translation have turned their attention to the study of various aspects of dubbese, such as, for instance, the constraints imposed to the translators by lip synchronisation, contrastive analyses between a film in the original language and its dubbed version(s), and, on a much smaller scale, how a dubbed programme is perceived by audiences. It is a well-known fact that the translation and adaptation of regional and social varieties and cultural references represent one of the main challenges in dubbing. As a matter of fact, it is quite common on Italian television to hear a member of a US street gang and his/her lawyer speak using the same register, vocabulary, and accent, or to hear US school kids discuss in Italian about a totally different marking system, the Scholastic Aptitude Test or football games. The main strategy employed for the translation of any fictional product, be it a serial or a cartoon, is to level out any difference in accent, dialect and pronunciation[2] (Castagnoli, 1996; D’Amico, 1996; Di Fortunato, 1996; Paolinelli, 1996) or else to explicitate the cultural references contained in the original dialogues.

The perception of dubbing

As D’Aversa (1996: 5) explains:

L’Italia, paese con forti tradizioni cinematografiche e con oltre 600 emittenti Tv, rappresenta il laboratorio ideale per analizzare il modo in cui il processo di trasposizione linguistica effettua quell’operazione di mediazione culturale necessaria alla comprensione e quindi alla circolazione delle opere audiovisive provenienti dai più diversi paesi.[3]

The literature on screen translation is generally based on studies of a descriptive or prescriptive nature. Various forms of language transfer for the small and big screen, in many different language combinations, have been analysed by a large array of case studies (e.g. Bollettieri and Gavioli 1994; Bollettieri and Heiss 1996; Bollettieri et al 2000; Gambier 1998; Lorenzo García and Pereira 2001; Gambier and Gottlieb 2001). While these product and process studies have contributed to uncover and analyse a wide array of translating techniques and choices applied to screen translation and the point of view and the experience of the screen translator(s), they tell us nothing at all about what the end-users perceive and understand, or what they think of the quality of this service. In view of this situation, we started asking ourselves a few simple questions: why has the impact and perception of multimedia translation been so overtly ignored? Why are distributors and TV channels not interested in what Italian TV viewers make of subtitled or dubbed programmes available to them on different media? What do Italian viewers perceive and make of the range of subtitled programmes available to them on different media? We decided to approach the issue from the consumer’s point of view.

Italian TV viewers are constantly exposed to references to the culture (e.g. education, institutions, legal systems, units of measurement, place names, food and drink, sports and national pastimes; forms of address/politeness, regional and social linguistic varieties, etc.) of the source countries of the programmes available to them on both state and private networks. When anything is translated from one language into another the nature of language is such that inevitably the reading of the target text is going to cause some kind of turbulence. Culture-specific references are likely to cause ‘drops in translational voltage’, i.e. any instance when the intended message does not get across.

In extreme cases, audiences are even witness to a radically different text from the original. Are they aware of this? Is the average Italian satisfied with the media translations to which s/he is exposed? If non-American native speakers of English are often puzzled by cultural references present in the great mass of programmes from US English, what are other Europeans to make of them? What are the reasons behind the successful or unsuccessful import of audiovisual products? Is it simply a matter of marketing, or could it be something to do with the quality of the translation?

Questione di non poco conto, specie se messa in relazione con l’attuale situazione fortemente condizionata da un mercato che vede avvicinarsi sempre più l’era della diffusione multimediale dei programmi, sia verso che dall’Italia. Una rivoluzione annunciata e già in corso, che ha necessariamente nel doppiaggio, nella sua internazionalizzazione, uno dei punti di forza, ma che in un mercato senza regole come il nostro rischia di scardinare ulteriormente la resa professionale degli addetti e i livelli qualitativi delle opere doppiate (D’Aversa 1996: 5)[4].

The following section will briefly outline the methodology employed.

Study design and methodology

In order to answer the questions above we resorted to the means provided by web technology, the social sciences, and a corpus made up of 300 hours of Italian dubbed fictional programmes.

The corpus

The corpus consists of thirty programmes constituting a sample of the choice of dubbed produce that Italian viewers had at their disposal on the 3 state-owned channels (Raiuno, Raidue, Raitre) and on 4 privately owned channels (Canale5, Rete4, Italia1, plus a brand new private channel - LA7) during a period of 8 weeks (from February to April 2002). The recording of our study material was carried out according to specific criteria. Care was taken to include: (i) all dubbed TV genres which are broadcast on Italian terrestrial TV: series, serials, sit-coms, soap operas, telenovelas and cartoons (see Figure 3); and (ii) all possible viewing times, target audiences and age groups were taken into consideration (e.g. mornings for soaps and telenovelas targeted at housewives; afternoons for soap operas, cartoons and series aimed at a mixed audience comprising mainly teenagers, young adults and housewives; and prime time evening TV for telenovelas, series, and serials for a general audience).

Figure 3: Minutes of dubbed programmes per genre broadcast each week on Italian TV
Figure 3: Minutes of dubbed programmes per genre broadcast each week on Italian TV

The programmes recorded had been dubbed from a number of source languages including US, UK, Canadian and Australian English; German; Brazilian Portuguese; and various Latin American varieties of Spanish, although American English was certainly the main source language for all genres included in the corpus.

By means of focus groups, the initial pool of instances of what were considered examples of drops in translational voltage (amounting to ca. 1,000 clips) was narrowed down to 170 short clips (*mpg video files averaging between 8 to 15 seconds in length) each containing an instance of dubbese and aiming at testing audience perception of: (i) culture-specific references; (ii) lingua-cultural references[5]; (iii) language-specific features; and (iv) non strictly verbal references.

As exemplified in Figure 4, the clips included in the first three categories were then divided, according to the reference they contained, into a number of subgroups.

Figure 4: The subcategories
Figure 4: The subcategories

The questionnaires

A pop-under publicizing our research project was designed and programmed to appear on the Homepage and other thematic pages (e.g. Culture and Books, Music, News, Cinema and TV, etc.) of one the most important and popular Italian web domains:, part of the European Fast Web, which has a population of monthly visitors amounting to 12,000,000 people. When Virgilio’s visitors chose to click on the pop-under, they were directed onto the website created on our University server, where they were asked to complete a questionnaire. The Web site remained accessible for the completion of the questionnaire from February to May 2004 and, at the end of this period, yielded a total of 253 valid questionnaires.

The questionnaire included six blocks: the first four blocks contained a randomly selected clip representing an instance from the four categories described above, while the last two blocks comprised, respectively, general questions on dubbing and subtitling, and classification questions.

All the video files were introduced by a short synopsis of the episode and a brief description that contextualized the clip. After viewing each clip the respondents were asked to rate their self-reported appreciation and understanding of the clip on a 0-to-10 graphic rating scale, and subsequently asked to explain briefly what they thought they had understood of its content (see Appendix 1 for an example of one of the pages of the questionnaire containing the video files).

After completing the questionnaire, a simple click of the mouse directed the respondents’ answers to a database on our Department server.

The sample

The sample used for this research project comprised all those people who chose to click on the pop under that publicized our research project on, one the most important and popular Italian web domains.  It is important to highlight the fact that while the sample is not representative of the population of Italian television viewers, nonetheless it is representative of the population of Internet users in Italy whose perception of dubbing we chose to test. This site recorded 12 million monthly visits in 2003. Our sample mirrors the population of’s users and visitors[6].

The sample profile illustrated in the graph in Figure 5 shows that 40% of the respondents are female, 60% male; their age ranges mainly between 18 and 40; 60% hold a secondary school diploma, and most belong to the category of white-collar and professional workers, followed by students and others.

Figure 5: Sample profile
Figure 5: Sample profile

Moreover, most of them have studied English at school (mainly at secondary level), and have travelled to an English-speaking country. They like to watch films, and their favourite genre is science fiction (e.g. X-Files, Roswell, etc.), cartoons (Futurama, The Simpsons, etc.), and ‘medicals’ (e.g. ER).

Some preliminary descriptive data

On the basis of the answers of the viewers to the general questions contained in the last block of the questionnaire, we were able to assess that they generally watch between 1 to 5 hours of TV every day. Respondents stated that they are generally able to identify the country and thus the original language of the programmes they watch, and that they believe that the quality of dubbing in Italy is fairly good. Moreover, they also reported that, if given the choice, they would like to be able to choose between the dubbed and subtitled version of a foreign programme.

The general perception of culture references

The culture-specific references subcategory contained 60 clips divided into 6 subgroups that included examples of references to:

a) the US education/school system (e.g. Highschool, yearbook, college, marking system, etc.);

b) food, measurements, and place names (e.g. the Mississippi mud pie, currencies, clothes sizes, etc.);

c) sport (points in football, cheerleaders, players, basketball teams, etc.);

d) institutions and institutional settings (911 – the emergency number, articles and amendments of the US constitution, voting system, etc.);

e) famous people, TV programmes, and historical events (Rita Moreno, Ruby Ridge, Stephen King, references to famous TV programmes, such as Bewitched, etc.);

f) the legal system (death row/sentence, jury, US/Australian court-rooms, etc.).

This block of the questionnaire contained two questions aimed at assessing the perception of culture references: the first one (1) asked the respondents to watch and then rate on a graphic rating scale from 0 to 10, their understanding of the clip; the second one (2) asked them to explain it in their own words by writing a short commentary. According to the explanation provided the answers to this question were subsequently divided into two categories: actually understood and actually did not understand. Figure 6 shows what emerged from their answers:

Figure 6: General Declared vs. Actual understanding of dubbed culture references
Figure 6: General Declared vs. Actual understanding of dubbed culture references

The scores presented in this figure were obtained by aggregating the ratings (from 0 to 10) assigned to the self-reported level of understanding of all the clips contained in the culture-specific category. 70% of the respondents felt they had understood the examples contained in the video files they were exposed to. However, when we analysed the respondents’ explanations of the clips and compared them to the answers given to the previous question, it was clear, as illustrated by the second pie chart in Figure 6, that 80% of all the culture-specific references were definitely obscure for the respondents.

A more detailed analysis of the data illustrated above (see Table 1) confirmed that when confronted with elements and specific references pertaining to another culture, Italian TV viewers appeared to be totally at a loss. This was particularly true for all the subcategories and more specifically to references to a) US high school and college life, student loans, class rings, etc.; b) New York subway, cakes, currencies, places, etc.; c) basketball, football, cheerleading, rules for playing; d) the judicial and health systems in general, plus instances regarding the US constitution; e) famous people and events (Ken Follett, Willy Wonka, Bob Hope’s shows during WWII).

Table 1: Declared vs. Actual understanding of dubbed cultural references

The perception of references to the US school system and education

For the purposes of this paper, we shall examine more closely the commentaries on some of the clips, in which the respondents explained in their own words what they had understood of the references to Education.

The ten video files comprising this section were selected from US series and cartoons, namely Roswell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons, Dawson’s Creek, and Felicity, and a drama series, The Third Watch. All of them, except for the latter, deal with the life of teenagers and young adults attending high school and college. Thus, they contained references to several typical aspects of American life with which Italian viewers may be more or less knowledgeable with, according to their level of exposure to imported American TV products and cinema film productions (or personal experience with living or travelling in the USA). The clips can be divided into references that do not normally compare with the Italian educational system, i.e. references to high school (the class ring, the yearbook, SAT and pre-registration to college) and to college/university (marks and student loans).

In general terms, this sub-category was the one which recorded the highest level of self-reported understanding, although most of the fifty respondents, who were exposed to these video files, did not actually understand the references they contained.

Only a very small number of references were actually understood, namely references to college life (the resident advisor and the student loan), and to certain aspects of high school life. The following is a description of the clips and of the commentaries written by the respondents to describe them:

The class ring

In this clip from Roswell, which was shown to nine respondents, the male protagonist is talking to his female counterpart and telling her that he wanted to give her his class ring but as he is not going to graduate he will give her something else (a pendant). Seven of the respondents did not understand the clip. From their comments, it was clear that they knew it had something to do with getting one’s high school diploma, but were not able to identify what the ring stood for and, above all, the importance it has for American students.

The yearbook

In this clip (from Buffy) we see a few young people on a staircase exchanging their yearbooks and asking one another to sign it. Four out of the six respondents who viewed this particular clip were perfectly familiar with this American school tradition and where able to describe it in detail.

SAT, PSAT and pre-medicine

Seven respondents viewed and were asked to explain the SAT clip (from Buffy) in which a group of high school students are discussing their failures and successes in securing a request to enrol in the best colleges following their SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores. In this case only two respondents understood and were able to give details about this procedure. However, the two respondents who viewed the clip on the PSAT test (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) knew the answer and were able to provide a detailed description of the whole procedure. The same applied to the commentaries written to explain the clip (from Third Watch) which contained references to the program of study which prepares a student to apply to medical school (pre-medicine).

The student loan

In this clip (from The Simpsons), we see a man who is robbing a bar in order to be able to afford the repayment of his student loan. Although student loans have also recently been introduced in Italy, only one out of the nine respondents who viewed this clip were able to provide some kind of explanation. All the others thought the man was robbing the money of some kind of fund destined for students.

Wilderness school, resident advisor and marks

This sub-group within the culture-specific category, also contained clips containing references to a ‘wilderness’ school, a special high school for problem teenagers (from the series Higher Ground), different grading marks for college examinations (from The Third Watch and Felicity), and a college resident advisor (Felicity). These clips were shown to, respectively, five, four, one, and four respondents. Surprisingly, given the results for the other categories, most of these thirteen respondents recognised and explained all the references above, showing a strong familiarity with these aspects of American school and college life.


In conclusion, it seems plausible to argue that the respondents did not have sufficient knowledge resources to understand and explain the content and thus the culture-specific references to which they were exposed. In many instances, they were fully aware of the fact that the dialogue was providing a piece of information they could not ‘decipher’ because they did not have the necessary knowledge to do so, and they commented on the fact that the screen translation alone could not provide all the necessary information required to become au fait with a certain piece of knowledge. The analysis of the data gathered via the web questionnaire highlights the great discrepancy between what the viewers think they understand of the huge amount of culture-specific references they are exposed to on a daily basis, and what they actually do understand.

The analysis of the information gathered through the verification question that asked the respondents to explain the content of the clip shows that viewers understand very few references to the US education system, despite the fact that they assume the opposite. This means that, although Italian TV viewers have been exposed for many years to a great number of programmes imported from the United States, they have not assimilated the knowledge resources that would allow them to immediately identify and comprehend the customs related to this specific aspect of American life and culture.

Luyken (1991: 154) states that when translating for the screen “the scope for manoeuvre is far more limited than for literary translation. There can be no explanatory footnotes, asterisks or asides”, it is neither possible to provide the viewers with the added information that may aid them in understanding what is going on the screen nor can the quality of translation be blamed for these shortcomings. But is this really the case? As a matter of fact, today’s technological developments and new applications in the (multi)media sector (e.g. digital support in the form of interactive television, teletext, etc.) could be used to provide viewers with such information. It is also true that as recipients of a public service (and certainly in the interest of all the networks that broadcast imported programmes), television viewers have the right to avail themselves of all those pieces information that are generally ‘neutralized’ by the translation process, and of the knowledge required to fully appreciate and enjoy what they are watching.


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[1] The former include for instance The Fresh Prince of Belair (a highly successful sitcom in Italy), or ‘high school’ series such as Higher Ground and Dawson’s Creek; while the latter refer to programmes such as The Third Watch (a police series) or The Bold and the Beautiful (an American soap opera).

[2] There are of course a few exceptions such as a few characters in the TV cartoon The Simpsons or the feature film Shaolin Soccer (2001). In both cases a variety of Italian dialects have been used to connotate either different accents of US English (as in the former) or the personality of secondary characters (as is the case with the latter).

[3] “Italy is a country with strong cinema traditions and with more than 600 television channels, as such it represents the ideal place to analyse how the language transfer process performs the cultural mediation necessary to comprehend and distribute those audiovisual works that come from the most varied countries”, my translation.

[4] “This issue should not be underestimated, especially when compared to the current situation which is strongly influenced by the fact that the market will soon be witness to the era of the diffusion of multimedia programmes, both into and out of Italy. Inevitably, dubbing and its internationalisation are the strong points of this ongoing revolution. However, in a market without any rules, it also threatens to undermine further the professionalism of screen translators and the quality of dubbed products”, my translation.

[5] The taxonomy used to classify and divide the clips into groups was created according to purely operational reasons, i.e. in order to give some order to the large amount of clips selected according to the reference they contained.

[6] For a more detailed outline of’s population refer to][/url].


About the author(s)

I graduated as Interpreter from SSLMIT (Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators), University of Bologna. I am writing up my PhD dissertation on attitudes towards the Irish language in Gaeltacht areas with Newcastle upon Tyne University, UK. Since 2001 I have been working as a research assistant at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies on Translation, Languages and Cultures, University of Bologna. My research focuses on the application of web technologies to questionnaire surveys on multimedia and humour perception and translation (dubbed and subtitled products), as well as the teaching of language mediation to first year university students. I have been working as interpreter, translator and subtitler for the past 10 years.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Rachele Antonini (2009).
"The perception of dubbed cultural references in Italy", inTRAlinea Vol. 11.
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

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