Translating Australian Cinema for an Italian Audience

The bloody case of Ned Kelly and Picnic at Hanging Rock

By Mariacristina Petillo (University of Bari, Italy)



Assuming that films are a powerful new medium through which Australian directors can establish and export their country’s national identity around the world, the aim of this paper is to explore the construction and representation of Australian identity in Italy, through the analysis of dubbing and subtitling choices in the Italian version of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Ned Kelly (2003). Even though the two films belong to two distinct stages in the Australian film industry, they still represent a pivotal moment in Australian cinema and are worth being analysed in terms of cross-cultural differences emerging between the Australian source text and the Italian version. Due to their themes – the collision between English and Australian culture and the conflict between nature and culture in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the history of the Australian hero par excellence in Ned Kelly – the two works show some linguistic and cultural elements which are worth investigating in detail. More specifically, the paper will illustrate how some geographical and cultural data strongly embedded in the Australian identity are more or less distorted or simply omitted on the basis of the “domesticating” or “foreignizing” strategies used by Italian film translators. Ultimately, a particular emphasis will be placed upon the translation of “the great Australian adjective” and other expletives mainly used by those characters belonging to Australian lower classes, whose linguistic register is often misrepresented in the Italian versions of the two films.


Questo studio intende riflettere sul ruolo che le tecniche di traduzione audiovisiva possono esercitare sulla rappresentazione linguistica e culturale della realtà australiana, attraverso l’analisi di alcune scelte di doppiaggio e sottotitolazione in due prodotti filmici di rilievo nella cinematografia australiana, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) e Ned Kelly (2003). Riprendendo la terminologia di L. Venuti nell’ormai celebre The Translator’s Invisibility, si esamineranno alcuni esempi significativi di strategie traduttive “addomesticanti” o “estranianti”, mostrando come talvolta l’identità australiana sia stata adattata alle esigenze del pubblico d’arrivo italiano, risultando infine modificata e distorta. Più in dettaglio, si analizzerà la traduzione di alcuni dati culturo-specifici che meglio esprimono l’alterità del mondo australiano agli occhi di un pubblico d’arrivo assai distante per ragioni geografiche e culturali, la cui resa linguistica costituisce talvolta una sfida per il traduttore audiovisivo. Ampio spazio sarà infine dedicato alla traduzione del turpiloquio, con particolare riferimento a quello che è stato definito “il grande aggettivo australiano”, bloody, la cui frequenza d’uso è assai elevata nei testi filmici originali, ma la cui resa traduttiva nelle versioni doppiate e sottotitolate altera profondamente la connotazione socio-culturale dei personaggi australiani, e dunque la loro percezione/rappresentazione sugli schermi italiani.

Keywords: audiovisual translation, traduzione audiovisiva, expletives, cultural references, australian movies, turpiloquio, dati culturo-specifici, film australiani

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“In no part of what was once the British Empire has bloody established itself more fully and become a more indispensable part of the national vocabulary than in the Commonwealth of Australia (Montagu 2001: 167).”

1. Constructing and representing Australian identity through audiovisual translation: some methodological remarks

A highly controversial issue in Australian history has been the quest for national identity. Indeed, it is hard to ignore today that “Australia is a country of diversity – in its landscape, in its climate and in its people” (Clyne and Kipp 1999: 1), where the debate on ethnicity, immigration, assimilationism versus multiculturalism is far from being settled. Unknown to European explorers until 1606, when a Dutch navigator first sighted the remote peninsula of Cape York, Australia was slowly turned into a space of ethnic, cultural, social and linguistic plurality at the end of the eighteenth century, when a system of convict settlements was established by the British Crown. As a result of the contact among Aboriginal people, convicts, free settlers, migrants coming mainly from the British Isles and later from other European and Asian countries, Australia has always been sensitive to such issues as self-perception, interaction, diversity, sense of belonging and rootedness. As a matter of fact, the polarity between the survival of British cultural values and the promotion of Australian independence is still encouraging an ongoing reflection on Australian distinctiveness, whose main features can be easily traced in language, literature and all forms of artistic communication.

Assuming that films are a powerful medium through which Australian directors can establish and export their country’s national identity around the world, the aim of this paper is to explore the construction and representation of Australian identity in Italy, through the analysis of dubbing and subtitling choices in the Italian version of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Ned Kelly (2003). Even though the two films belong to two distinct stages in the Australian film industry, they still represent a pivotal moment in Australian cinema and are worth being analysed in terms of cross-cultural differences emerging between the Australian source text and the Italian version. More specifically, the translation of expletives, of geographical references and of culture-bound words will be taken into account, showing how the considerable time span between the two films ends up by affecting many translation choices. Although it is not the author’s intention to focus on the historical evolution of translation norms over the decades, nonetheless it is worth mentioning that in the 70s a different sensitivity and aesthetic sense, more severe publishing policies or even censorship could often intervene to soften or delete most of the foreign culturally-bound markers, so that the translation itself could be presented as a text originally written in the target language, as far as possible. In more recent years, a source-oriented approach to translation has emerged and, combined with an increased familiarity with foreign realities and a new taste for exoticism, can be held partially responsible for a new trend in translation habits, which now seem to privilege a more faithful rendering of the “otherness” implied in foreign languages and cultures.

If it is true that translation is “a battlefield of many opposing strategies and views” (Paloposki and Oittinen, 2000: 375), the role of translators becomes further complicated when dealing with the highly hybrid field of audiovisual translation, where a successful multi-semiotic transfer is the one that ensures a fluent and effortless comprehension of the film, thus possibly paving the way for a commercial success too. It cannot be denied, indeed, that a good audiovisual translation can contribute to a wide circulation of the film abroad, whereas “[t]he low quality of the language transfer that takes place in the audiovisual sector is often blamed for the international failure of some productions” (Díaz Cintas, 2008: 103). It is no surprise, then, that translators should adapt audiovisual products to the new audience, in order to meet the linguistic and cultural requirements of the receiving market and to avoid cultural clashes between the source and the target language.

Moved by the need of adapting language and content to foreign target cultures and conventions, translators can opt for different strategies which imply a certain degree of either domestication or foreignization. Although it is undeniable that “[d]omestication is an elusive term: it can entail a wide variety of different things, and marking the boundaries of what is domestication and what is foreignization is nearly impossible” (Paloposki and Oittinen, 2000: 375), Lawrence Venuti’s categories still offer an interesting perspective on the analysis of translation procedures and will be adopted throughout this work. Hence, the methodological approach for the investigation of the Italian version of the two Australian films will be based on Venuti’s second edition of his seminal work, The Translator’s Invisibility, where the scholar describes domestication in terms of “an ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to target-language cultural values, bringing the author back home” (Venuti, 2008: 15) and foreignization as “an ethnodeviant pressure on those values to register the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text, sending the reader abroad” (Venuti, 2008: 15). In other words, domesticating strategies aim at producing a kind of translation in which a transparent and fluent style is adopted in order to minimize the strangeness of the source text for target language readers, while foreignizing strategies allow translators to deliberately break “target conventions by retaining something of the foreignness of the original” (Yang, 2010: 77). As will be evident from the examples discussed below, Venuti’s theories can be applied to all forms of audiovisual translation, since films may contain culture-specific items which do not belong to the target language system and which can be either domesticated or foreignized by translators.

2. The translation of geographical references

Welcomed as a landmark film by both film critics and cinema goers, Picnic at Hanging Rock was directed by Peter Weir in the 70s, when a new sense of national identity fuelled the so-called Renaissance of Australian cinema. Since the time of its release, it has been considered one of the most meaningful Australian films in terms of cultural self-representation, aesthetic and historical significance. Therefore, as the film retains an outstanding place in Australian national culture, it is worth investigating how Australian identity has been adapted and modified in order to be successfully conveyed to a different geographical and cultural context, as the Italian one, where many issues related to Australian self-representation are not so commonly known or explored.

Consequently, the insufficient knowledge about Australian reality that is likely to be expected by an Italian audience may be a partial explanation for one of the most recurring features in the Italian version of the film, namely the almost complete deletion of geographical references. The translation strategy adopted by Italian film translators appears to be underlain by the need to move the filmic text towards a foreign audience by avoiding to relay what is presumed to be an unnecessary geographical specificity. Not surprisingly for such an evocative and suggestive film, much emphasis is given to places. While the Australian audience is informed about the exact time of the events and the exact location of the action from the very beginning, the Italian version provides its audience with a simplified Australian geography. In fact, already in the opening caption of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the Italian subtitles betray the translators’ intention to reduce the potentially estranging effect of some geographical items and to retain only the essential information about the Australian region:

Table 1

Other examples show how Italian translators have often replaced Australian toponyms, with generic expressions. For instance, references to Mt. Macedon – the name of the mountain peak and of the small township lying on one side of it – are either absent in the Italian script, or are translated as “questa zona”; the resort town of Woodend, seven kilometres from the volcanic formation of Hanging Rock, is rendered as “abitato” or “villaggio”; the state of Queensland is broadly referred to as “nel Nord”:

Table 2[1]

While the Italian version of Picnic at Hanging Rock shows a general tendency towards domestication, the Italian script of Ned Kelly represents Australian identity in a more faithful way and keeps some culture-bound features which may be perceived as unintelligible or redundant in a foreign context. Of course, it must not be forgotten that the film directed by Gregor Jordan in 2003 belongs to the historical genre, with the ambition of re-narrating a new Australian epic inspired by Ned Kelly’s myth. So far, it is the last of an interesting list of films spanning almost a century which portray the adventurous life of Australia’s most famous outlaw bushranger and his gang[2]. There is no doubt that “the Kelly legend is influential in terms of Australian self-image” (Beeton 2004: 125), hence the importance of an accurate audiovisual translation of the film in other languages.
Differently from what happens in Peter Weir’s film, where references to places tend to be simplified, in Ned Kelly all geographical items are translated or preserved in the Italian version:

Table 3

As reported in Table 3, all geographical references to the Australian places visited by Ned Kelly and his gang are kept in the dubbed version of the film. In this way, a feeling of historical accuracy is conveyed to a target audience who is very likely to be uninformed about the iconic Australian story of Ned Kelly. As far as the subtitled version of the film is concerned, it can be reasonably inferred that the few omissions are due to the time and space constraints which are typically involved in the subtitling modality of audiovisual translation and which are obviously responsible for a considerable loss of information.

3. The translation of expletives

Another linguistic aspect which plays a major role in the portrayal of Australian society in 1900 is the large number of expletives mainly used by those characters belonging to Australian lower classes. The most striking contrast in the film is offered by the polished language spoken by Michael Fitzhubert, a young English aristocrat, and the coarse slangy talk used by his working-class Australian servant Albert, who loves providing emphasis to his statements through the constant repetition of “bloody”[3]. As is well known, the forced arrival of convicts from the overcrowded English prisons ended up affecting the linguistic usage of free settlers too, who soon began to introduce an unusually high frequency of swearing in their language, as many early commentators visiting Australia indignantly remarked. “Bloody”, which was defined as “the Australian adjective” by the Sydney Bulletin on the 18th of August 1894, was perceived as a swear word during the whole nineteenth century and in the first four decades of the twentieth century, at least until World War II; by the 40s, in fact, “bloody” ceased to be regarded as swearing and was no longer considered indecent in such respectable contexts as the language of law and politics. As is frequently the case with expletives, whose shocking force can be eroded by overuse and changing social attitudes, “bloody” has a reduced offensive power in actual Australian English and is more a colloquial expression stressing the informality of a situation than a swear word causing serious offence[4].

The mysterious and unexplained schoolgirls’ disappearance in Picnic at Hanging Rock is set in the year 1900, at a time where “bloody” was still considered a coarse expression in Australia. However, while “the great Australian adjective”[5] had partially lost its shocking force in Australia, in England the word was considered a term of abuse which could cause public outrage in decent society. This is exactly what happened in 1914, when a single occurrence of “bloody” caused a theatrical sensation in London at the first performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. The controversial adjective pronounced by Mrs Patrick Campbell in the phrase “not bloody likely” was immediately labelled as a “forbidden”, “offending”, “shocking”, “dreadful” word by The Daily Sketch[6], thus contributing to turn that expletive into a major social issue, with people being fined for using it in public and the Lord Chamberlain and his board of censors intervening to excise it from other plays.

Although a scandal similar to the one provoked by Pygmalion is hardly conceivable today, the intensity of this adjective has not faded in Great Britain, as revealed by a recent decision by the UK Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre to ban a television advertising campaign launched by the Australian National Tourism Commission in 2006. The unexpected controversy was due to an allegedly offensive headline, featuring the infamous adjective: “So where the bloody hell are you?”. However, apart from the political decision taken by the Advertising Standards Authority – which ultimately claimed that the word “bloody” was not an inappropriate marketing tool – the episode still confirms that the word continues to have offensive overtones in Great Britain and is well established as a taboo word in most circles of British society. By contrast, by the early nineteenth century the great Australian adjective “had become almost a shibboleth in Australia, at least among the labouring class” (Purcell 2006) and by the beginning of the twentieth century it had lost its most pejorative associations, turning into a mild expletive.

3.1 Picnic at Hanging Rock

When translating Peter Weir’s film, the frequent use of this favourite Australian oath should not, in my view, be underestimated, since it has a significant role in shaping the Australian identity as a whole and in representing the sociolect spoken by the lower classes in 1900. However, in the Italian dubbed version almost two thirds of the occurrences of “bloody” have been removed, as shown in Table 4:

Table 4

In the Australian usage, the great Australian adjective can be placed before every noun, but it is also used adverbially before all adjectives. “Bloody” may also be inserted in-between words to provide further emphasis, or even between the letters in a single word, especially for humorous effects in witty puns, such as those expressly created for advertising campaigns[7]. In Picnic at Hanging Rock “bloody” is always used as an intensifier and occurs fourteen times. More specifically, it comes before a noun twelve times; once before an adverb (“bloody well”) and once before the verb (“no one bloody can”). In the Italian dubbed text:

- three lines containing the expletive have been completely removed from the script (“and the bloody abo tracker”; “What we should do is go to the bloody rock ourselves”; “You still thinking about that bloody rock?”);

- five occurrences have been omitted (“Be’, sa, diciamo che ormai è acqua passata”; “Gliel’ho perfino detto”; “Tanto vale mettersi l’animo in pace”; “Vogliamo sapere che cosa è successo”; “Via, sfollate, tutti quanti”);

- one occurrence has been freely translated: the original line, “It was only a bloody dream”, has been reformulated as “Un sogno davvero buffo!”, but this exclamative mood showing surprise and affection totally lacks the emotional force expressed by the Australian coarse expression. Instead, the Italian translator could have opted for a literal rendering, drawing on the broad heritage of Italian swear words. In my view, “Era solo un fottuto sogno” would have been more effective for an Italian audience.

It is interesting to point out how only five out of the fourteen occurrences of “bloody” survive in the target text and they have all been translated with the expression “di merda”, thus offering a stylistic uniformity to Albert’s irritated remarks. As shown in Table 4, the dramatic confrontation between the Australian servant and the young English gentleman in example 2 is linguistically characterized by the highest concentration of expletives in both the original and dubbed versions of the film. Albert’s reply is a violent reaction to his companion’s anguish at the thought of the missing girls on that “infernal rock”. It also expresses the feeling of stagnation and frustration haunting the characters of the film and the audience itself. Moreover, the scene significantly contributes to the film plot, because the two men will decide to go back to the rock and look for the girls, hence one can say that the emotional peak is reached during the dialogue.

The feeling of anxiety, impending tragedy and growing exasperation due to the inconsistencies of the police search emerges in the obsessive repetition of “bloody” in both Albert’s and his companion’s speech[8]. This can plausibly account for the concentration of half of the total occurrences of “bloody” in the original script and for the presence of one example of compensation in the Italian dubbed version. Although the Italian translation expunges most of the original expletives, example 2 reveals a new occurrence of “di merda” in the line “É un posto di merda, lo sanno tutti”, as a way of compensating for a previous omission of “bloody” (“the bloody abo tracker”). As a result, the total occurrences of the great Australian adjective in the Italian script are six; all occurrences (except “una scuola di merda” in example 1) are found in example 2, thus reproducing the emotional intensity of the original scene for an Italian audience.

Apart from the translation of “bloody”, other linguistic issues come to the fore in the passages analysed. One of the most negative features in the Italian dubbed dialogues is the loss of liveliness and authenticity in the language spoken by Australian people. As a consequence, the linguistic register used by those characters belonging to Australian lower classes is often misrepresented in the Italian version of the film, where there is a switch from an informal and colloquial language to a more formal one. The reasons for this linguistic and cultural flattening must be sought in some translation strategies which produce a deletion of the most significant social and geographical markers of Australian identity. Here follows a brief investigation of those elements which have been altered in the Italian version:

- the use of some slang expressions aiming at consolidating a specific social identity has been lost. In example 1, the words “sheilas” and “fellas” – both familiar terms belonging to Australian slang for a young woman and a young man – have been omitted. Albert’s claim that “the sheilas are all alike when it comes to fellas” has been turned into a more generic expression, “di fronte a certe faccende siamo tutti uguali”. Also for the idiom “donkeys’ years” (standing for “a very long time”) and for the informal word “dump” (describing a very dirty place), the Italian translator has not chosen a similar register. Instead of using a disapproving expression such as “topaia” or the like, the translator has opted for a semantic equivalent which reproduces the referential meaning of the original word, but not its expressive sense. So, the idiomatic phrase “donkey’s years” has been replaced by a fixed expression in Italian (“ormai è acqua passata”), thus losing its Australian informal overtones;

- other expletives have no translation in the target text. In example 1, the Australian servant pronounces the minced oath[9] “geez”, which is rendered by the Italian interjection “be’”, which has no vulgar connotations. This minced oath, however, has not the same strength as the idiomatic expression “I’m buggered if ...”, which is particularly widespread in Australian English and whose likelihood to cause offence is greater. In the Italian translation, the emphasis conveyed by this slang word is substantially diminished: besides the omission of Italian coarse expressions for “buggered”, the use of a fairly formal register and unmarked word order detach the audience from the highly colloquial and vernacular flavour of the servant’s reply in the source language. The translator could have relied on some Italian marked constructions which are commonplace in oral communication, such as left- and right-dislocations, split sentences, pseudo-split sentences and other linguistic resources drawn from the spoken discourse. So, in order to preserve the authenticity and informality of the Australian sociolect spoken by Albert, the translator could have resorted to right-dislocations combined with a low register (“Se lo scorda, quello, che gli faccio da lacché”), or to more offensive expressions, such as “Col cazzo che gli faccio da lacché a quello”;

- in example 2, the culture-bound expression “abo tracker” has been omitted in the Italian script. In Australia, “abo” is a taboo word used in an informal context, and is still perceived as an extremely offensive word for an Aborigine. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, the Italian audience can see an Aborigine tracker – that is a person able to find people by following the marks that they leave on the ground – who helps the police on the site of the girls’ disappearance. So, the omission of “the bloody abo tracker” in the Italian dialogue gives an inaccurate portrayal of Australian reality in 1900, and avoids the thorny issue of the imbalance of power between colonizers and colonized. Quite interestingly, the omitted line is uttered by Albert, the white Australian servant who uses a derogatory and abusive term to refer to a Native Australian. In this way, the Italian audience is unable to detect the ideological bias hidden behind this expression, namely the colonizers’ presumption of their cultural superiority, the racial inequality among different ethnic groups, the white man’s arrogant supremacy over the indigenous population of Australia.

3.2 Ned Kelly

Due to their high number, an issue which is worth investigating in Ned Kelly is the translation of expletives. While in Picnic at Hanging Rock they are used only by a restricted number of characters, in Gregor Jordan’s film almost all of the characters share the same sociolect, characterized by a colourful colloquial language, dialectal forms, slang expressions, numerous and varied expletives and taboo words such as “me arse”, “fuckin’ rat”, “the rascally blackguard”, “for Christ’s sake”, “you bastards”, “the stinkin’ Proddy”, “get off your asses”, “you mad bugger”, “damn”, “shit”, “the hell”. The great Australian adjective is pronounced sixteen times as an intensifier: it occurs eleven times before a noun, two times before an adverb (“bloody well”), one time before an adjective (“bloody chirpy”), one time before a bare infinitive (“bloody swing”) and one time before a past participle (“bloody bothered”). As illustrated in Table 5, “bloody” has been variously translated into Italian in both the dubbed and subtitled versions of the film:

Table 5

While in Picnic at Hanging Rock “bloody” is usually translated as “di merda”, in Ned Kelly there is not a fixed relationship between the Australian expletive and a semantically equivalent expression in the Italian language. Table 5 shows that nine out of sixteen occurrences have been translated in the dubbed version and only six in the subtitled one. What is interesting to note is that the same word is translated in various ways breaking the stylistic pattern of the original text. However, the most recurring derogatory word in the dubbed script is “dannato”, which occurs seven times, followed by a single occurrence of “maledetto” and “bastardo”. The linguistic choices made in the subtitled version reveal greater creativity in the translation of “bloody”: when the expletive is not omitted, it is variedly translated with “furfante”, “schifosi”, “maledetti”, “brutto schifoso”, “accidenti”, “bastardo”. To sum up, the quantitative and qualitative analysis of “bloody” in both dubbing and subtitling of Ned Kelly reveals that no patterns of translation emerge in the Italian version of the film. However, the high frequency of omissions appears to be amply compensated in other lines of the film, where the Italian translators have opted for compensation strategies to support the emotional force of certain dialogues and to depict a character’s aggressive personality more accurately and realistically. In this way, the frequent introduction of other expletives, abusive remarks, colloquial forms, derogatory epithets can restore the general mood of the film, based on violent human relationships, social inequalities and political struggles between colonial authorities represented by the Victorian Police Force and people of Irish-Catholic descent among whom there was the Kelly family.

4. The translation of cultural references

Positing that translators are always “conscious mediator[s] between cultures” (Duszak, 2002: 23) and, more specifically, that audiovisual translation is “a cultural-mediation instrument” (Oltra Ripoll, 2005: 75), the translation of cultural references becomes of vital importance for a correct reception of the original film text in a target culture. An exhaustive classification of all the possible culture-specific items which may be found in audiovisual products is an unrewarding task, since a complete taxonomy should include all aspects of human life. Nevertheless, many scholars have tried to provide some classifications, in order to include as many cultural references as possible. Drawing on the works of such distinguished translation scholars as David Katan, Peter Newmark and Joaquim Mallafrè, Maria D. Oltra Ripoll has recently contributed to this debate with a well-detailed classification, based on the following categories: nature / leisure, feasts and traditions / artificial products / religion and mythology / geography / politics and economics / history / art and literature / science (Oltra Ripoll, 2005: 77-78).

When not simply omitting a particularly complex culture-specific element[10], audiovisual translators can choose either to domesticate the foreign reference by finding a cultural equivalence in the receiving culture, or to foreignize it by leaving culture-bound expressions untranslated in the target text[11]. A few examples from the two films will be selected in order to show how different translation strategies can variously apply to cultural references according to the intended effect on the target audience. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, for instance, a cultural reference belonging to Oltra Ripoll’s category of art and literature is repeated twice throughout the film: “I know that Miranda is a Botticelli angel”. In this case, due to the cultural proximity and familiarity of the culture-specific item for Italian people, the artistic reference to the Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli and to his female characters which Miranda is compared to can be assumed to possess no degree of opacity for the target audience. This is the reason why the original line is literally and effectively translated as “Adesso so che Miranda è un dipinto del Botticelli” in both dubbed and subtitled version.

A different set of choices can be observed in Ned Kelly, where the geographical and cultural distance from the target audience can turn out to be a challenge for the translator. As Ned Kelly explores the life of one of the most representative icons that helped forge Australian identity, it is not surprising to find that plenty of geographical, environmental and cultural data strongly embedded in the Australian continent are scattered throughout Gregor Jordan’s film. Therefore, the audience is offered precise details about the bushrangers’ way of life in Central Victoria in the second half of the nineteenth century. For example, as the bushrangers have an intimate knowledge of the Australian flora and fauna, the Italian translator has to deal with some local species which are mostly unknown to foreign audiences. The two most distinctive examples in the script are the frequent references to wombats and kookaburras, both belonging to Oltra Ripoll’s category of nature, which can have an estranging effect for an Italian audience:

Table 6

In the first example, no attempt has been made to abate the unfamiliarity of the exotic name “vombato” and of the unusual gastronomic habit of cooking a stew made with marsupial meat. The second example is even more challenging for the translator because of the wordplay between “beef” and “Beefy”, which is rendered with a non-pun. Apart from this, what I think may attract the Italian audience’s attention is the name of the bird itself. “Kookaburra”, which is a loanword from an Aboriginal language spoken in New South Wales, reproduces the unmistakable onomatopoeic sound of the bird’s call, but is an estranging noun for the Italian audience. While in the dubbed version the translator chooses a foreignizing strategy and uses the Aboriginal word to refer to the Australian bird, in the subtitled dialogue the translator must cope with technical constraints and is forced to privilege conciseness, clarity and exactness in the information given. For these reasons, the translator can be assumed to have preferred a domestication strategy, thus using the hypernym “uccellino” which includes kookaburras too.

Another linguistic and cultural choice concerns the wordplay with the nickname given by the child to the bird. As is well known in the source culture, kookaburras are carnivorous birds, hence the witty diminutive “Beefy” which underlines their peculiar dietary habits and which creates a polyptoton too, a figure of speech characterized by the repetition of words derived from the same root, but with different endings. While the dubbed version may well be obscure to the Italian film viewers, who are not acquainted with the Australian bird, a domesticating translation strategy has instead been chosen for the subtitled version. Here the translator has produced a fairly close rendering of the original horizontal paronymic wordplay between “Beefy” and “beef” by creating the endearing name “Manzetto” derived from “manzo” (“beef”), thus reproducing the polyptoton in the target language too. Of course the vertical homonymic wordplay between the name “Beefy” and the adjective “beefy”, which paradoxically means “a person with a large heavy body and strong muscles”, cannot be reproduced in Italian. Moreover, the choice of two diminutive forms (“uccellino” and “manzetto”) in the Italian subtitles produces a particular stylistic effect arising from the imitation of children’s peculiar way of talking, characterised by the use of diminutives.

5. Final remarks

Finally, as translation is an act of cross-cultural communication, the strategies adopted for this process of rewriting – or even overt manipulation – are governed by a complex interaction of factors, among which the weight of dominant ideology, censorship, translators’ skills, aesthetic values, economical reasons, publishing policies can play a more or less dramatic role. When dealing with the field of audiovisual studies, the relationship among language, culture and translation gets further complicated by the highly hybrid nature of this multi-faceted discipline, which must cope with many other theoretical branches and more practical issues such as film semiotics, script writing, communication and media studies, technological advances, economic and professional aspects, technical constraints.

Therefore, the domesticating or foreignizing choices made by Italian film translators in the examples discussed above reflect the linguistic and cultural policies which are dominant in the target system. Assuming that translating always involves some degree of manipulation, it is reasonable to suggest that the culture-specificity of the two films taken into account has been variously rendered in order to be successfully received by a foreign audience. Although a certain local colour has been retained, there has been a significant shift in the representation of Australian identity, especially as regards the linguistic portrayal of the lower social classes in Picnic at Hanging Rock and the bushrangers in Ned Kelly, whose register has often been elevated through the use of syntactically corrected sentences and a lower number of coarse expressions and taboo words.

Other interesting results emerge from the analysis of cultural references. The three main categories described by Oltra Ripoll – namely geography, art and literature and nature – illustrate how audiovisual translators need to adapt and even transform the original message on the basis of the effect they intend to produce on the target audience. This may be a partial explanation for the many examples showing a domestication of the culture-bound items in order to bring the Australian script closer to a foreign target audience, thus affecting the reception of the audiovisual product itself. The compared analysis of both dubbed and subtitled versions, especially in Ned Kelly, has also pointed out that the language transfer itself follows a different set of rules according to the audiovisual translation procedures involved. As a matter of fact, restraints and technical requirements act upon translators, forcing them to find the proper solution to each modality of language transfer. Needless to say, the higher linguistic compression imposed by subtitles is also responsible for the greater loss of information about the Australian reality than in the dubbed version, even though in some cases a similar translation strategy has been applied to dubbing choices, in an attempt to represent the “otherness” and exoticism of the Australian continent in a way that is more familiar and culturally acceptable to an Italian audience.


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Ned Kelly. (2003). Produced by Lynda House and Nelson Woss. Directed by Gregor Jordan. 120 min. Australia-France-Great Britain: Focus Features / Universal Pictures / UIP. DVD.

Picnic at Hanging Rock. [Picnic a Hanging Rock]. (1975). Produced by Hal McElroy and Jim McElroy. Directed by Peter Weir. 115 min. Australia: Greater Union / G.T.O. Films / Atlantic Releasing. Videocassette and DVD.


The author would like to thank her friend and colleague Sara Laviosa, for her precious remarks and careful reading.

[1]The dubbed and subtitled Italian versions of Picnic at Hanging Rock appear to be very similar. Therefore, since the subtitled version does not provide any useful elements to the analysis, only the dubbed version has been taken into account for the purposes of this study.

[2]For more details about the representation of Ned Kelly’s popular legend on screen, see S. Beeton (May-June 2004) “Rural Tourism in Australia – Has the Gaze Altered? Tracking Rural Images through Film and Tourism Promotion”. International Journal of Tourism Research 6, 3: 125-135.

[3]The etymology of this expletive is not entirely clear. It can be argued that it was considered so offensive because it broke the religious taboo of not taking the Lord’s name in vain, “bloody” being a contraction of “by our Lady” or “by God’s blood”; another hypothesis, however, suggests that “bloody” derived from the uncouth behaviour of young aristocrats (the “young bloods”) of the Restoration period, whose drunkenness and lechery were judged as a scandal by the lower classes. For further details, see G. Hughes (1998) Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English. London/New York: Penguin Books.

[4]For a detailed account of this favourite oath in Australia, see Ashley Montagu’s chapter “Bloody: The Natural History of a Word”, in The Anatomy of Swearing.

[5]In the 1890s Australian people became aware of their adjective, first labelled as “the Australian adjective” in the words of the Sydney Bulletin and later dubbed as “the Great Australian Adjective” by Charles Hayward in his poem Along the Road to Cue (1897).

[6]For a full report of the article, see D. Crystal (2003) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 383.

[7] “Recently coke has based an advertising campaign picturing an attractive sole skulling a big buddy bottle of coke under the description sen-buddy-sational. This is, of course, a play on sen-bloody-sational which is fairly common”, in [url=][/url] (last access: February 2010).

[8] For the first time in the whole film, the English gentleman abandons his impeccable manners and gives vent to his repressed emotions through the expletive “bloody” in “drinking cold bloody beer”.

[9] A minced oath, also called “pseudo-profanity” or “expletive-deletive”, is a disguised form for a profanity. It is used to avoid swearing on holy names, especially in past centuries when a strong social pressure prevented people from breaking religious taboos. The result was a slang corruption of words bearing little or even no resemblance to their religious source. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, “geez” stands for Jesus. For further details, see T. McEnery (2006) Swearing in English. Bad Language and Power from 1586 to the Present. London/New York: Routledge.

[10]The omission technique is not always possible in audiovisual translation, due to time and space restraints which are unavoidable in the language transfer of multi-modal texts. Whenever an omission occurs in a dubbed version, the information gap is likely to be filled with another sentence, but in a subtitled one the audience is simultaneously exposed both to the original dialogues in the source language and to their written translation. It goes without saying that omitting a cultural reference becomes harder in this latter modality of audiovisual translation, in which technical constraints play a major role than in dubbing.

[11]For further details and examples about the domestication and foreignization of cultural references, see M. Petillo (2008) Doppiaggio e Sottotitolazione: problemi linguistici e traduttivi nel mondo della screen translation. Bari: Digilabs, 49-88.

About the author(s)

Mariacristina Petillo is lecturer in English at Università di Bari. Her research interests range from intersemiotic translation and Translation Studies to audiovisual translation. Among her latest publications are: Sulle strade degli Shelley, with a new translation of History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817), by Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Aracne, Roma 2006); Poesia e Musica alla corte di Elisabetta: ‘The Triumphs of Oriana’ (Aracne, Roma 2007); Sulle orme degli elisabettiani: ‘Chamber Music’ del giovane Joyce (Digilabs, Bari 2007) which has been awarded the Opera Prima Prize in The International Non-Fiction Contest “Salvatore Valitutti” (XIV Edition); Doppiaggio e sottotitolazione: problemi linguistici e traduttivi nel mondo della ‘screen translation’ (Digilabs, Bari 2008).

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©inTRAlinea & Mariacristina Petillo (2010).
"Translating Australian Cinema for an Italian Audience The bloody case of Ned Kelly and Picnic at Hanging Rock"
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