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The Contact between Cultures and the Role of Translation and the Mass Media

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Juan José Martínez-Sierra photoThis paper aims to discuss several questions related to the relationship between culture and the role of audiovisual translation and the mass media. In our time most cultures do not constitute closed entities. They are rather entities that, to a greater or lesser extent, are interrelated partly thanks to the mass media. The fact that different cultures get in touch with each other by means of, for example, the audiovisual media allows a cultural contagion to take place between them, since audiovisual translation facilitates borrowings between cultures. However, the paradox of every culture lies in their double nature: all cultures are at the same time dynamic and reluctant to undergo any change. One final idea that will be considered is that the relationship that exists between the different existing audiovisual products and the market demand should not be ignored.

Key Words: audiovisual translation, mass media, cultural contagion, market demand

The Mass Media and the Contact between Cultures

As Sales points out, who in her turn starts from Said (1996[1993]), in this day and age most cultures do not constitute unitary, closed, and monolithic entities (I say "most" because this is a question that, ultimately, will depend on the real possibilities of contact among them that different cultures possess). On the contrary, their hybrid character appears to us as one of their constitutive features since all cultures are interrelated (2003:23). I am not sure of the universality that lies beneath this statement, and it seems to me that for it to be checked it would be necessary to carry out a study of encyclopaedic dimensions (I am thinking of certain remote cultures of whose existence we, in the West, hardly even know). Maybe, and this is something with which I would agree, what Sales means is that all cultures interact with others more or less geographically close to (or reachable by) them.

All cultures are at the same time dynamic and reluctant to undergo any change.
I share Sales's idea that these days the mass media (among which I would probably emphasize television and computing) have transformed the concept of culture. She makes evident that we cannot ignore that the medium often acts as a mediation or filter and that many times we are shown only the reality that they want us to see (2003:23-4). To this, I would probably add that it is through films or television programs that many stereotypes slip into our everyday life. Thus, as I see it, within the audiovisual sphere, we are at the mercy of whatever it is offered to us through the screen, a situation in which audiovisual translation can play a key role by making use of its manipulation power.

On the other hand, Sales adds that we currently have both unlimited and immediate access to plenty of attitudes, activities, or aesthetic ideals. She also claims that the other cultures coexist with us on a daily basis and that the sense of what is remote and foreign has become more relative (2003:23-4). In this sense, Díaz Cintas (2001:121) claims that familiarizing ourselves with the source culture makes it possible to identify the referents and to activate the connotative message in a faster and more efficient way. He adds that it is here where we may start talking of cultural colonization.

In my opinion, in addition to the influence of the mass media (unquestionable and highly effective if we consider the huge number of individuals who are exposed to it), there are some other reasons why the different cultures are currently in greater contact. For example, the development of the means of transportation also contributes to this phenomenon. Thanks to these means of transportation, distance is no longer a barrier, which favors a closer contact among different peoples.

Furthermore, we cannot ignore the migration movements, which are not new, but which definitely promote the current proliferation of multicultural regions and put in touch cultures that used to be apart and live unaware of each other. In spite of that, I believe that there are still some remote cultures (from a western perspective, since surely the members of those cultures do not consider themselves remote at all) with which our (or rather their) possibilities of contact are limited since, on the one hand, they do not have access to any of the modern means of transportation and, on the other hand, they might not feel the need to migrate anywhere. Their contact with other ways of living is thus reduced to the exchange with the visitors who may choose their community as, for example, their holiday destination.

Globalizing Individualism

Passing now to other matters, but without loosing track of the main topic, I cannot help having the impression that still today, and despite the factors I just mentioned, many people know little about others outside their communities. In this case, this is not because we do not have access to each other, but because in the so-called modern world those who make up societies consider themselves more and more individuals and less and less members of a group or, at most, members of a group in which individualism dominates and which, from an ethnocentric position, focuses its attention on what is close.

The current and so much talked-about globalization, and I hope to be wrong about this, is making us walk toward a single way of thinking (English for pensamiento único or pensée unique) and toward cultural homogeneity (in this sense, I believe the term westernization describes better the true essence of the process [there are some other curious terms; Chiaro (2003), for instance, speaks of Macdonaldization]). This is a process that affects everyone in different ways. In this sense, Sales (2003:26) describes culture as a sponge that absorbs everything that surrounds it. Just to provide an example, let us consider the case of Spain, where it is now common to celebrate Halloween, an Anglo Saxon tradition completely foreign to the Spanish folklore.

Audiovisual Translation and Cultural Contagion

Within the scope of audiovisual translation we may find numerous examples of what the current situation of the world that surrounds us means concerning the cultural contagion that the contact between cultures facilitates. Zabalbeascoa (2000:24) offers an illustrative sample. In his study on the dubbing of Disney's films he expresses that Disney's productions usually have the effect of Americanizing the texts that they adapt from authors from other countries. To this, he adds that this Americanization of texts for domestic consumption is more far reaching given its vocation for exportation. Moreover, by means of extension and thanks to its influence power, a dissemination of the American values takes place around the importer countries (including the boomerang effect that, according to him, would take place in those countries from which the texts originate).

Hence, dubbed audiovisual products may create an illusion of reality in the viewer, which favors the contagion. As Chaves (2000:12) explains (referring to the Spanish audience), watching foreign translated films or programs, especially if they have been dubbed, is so much part of our daily life that the viewer has lost his or her awareness that what he or she is watching is a translation, accepting it in the most unconscious and natural way possible.

The Paradox of Culture

This contagion, however, should be understood in relation to a paradoxical aspect of every culture. Cateora and Graham remind us that cultures are not static, but rather that they have a dynamic nature instead. Nevertheless, the paradox lies in the fact that, in spite of that changing character, cultures are also conservative and reluctant to change.

Let us focus first on some of the ways in which a culture may change. Following Cateora and Graham, sometimes a war brings about the change (the case of Japan after World War II is a clear example). Other times it is a natural disaster that plays that role. It may be more common for a society to change because of an attempt to find ways of solving the problems that its own existence creates. Certain inventions have been successful in solving many of those problems. Normally, however, societies find the solution to their problems by watching other societies and borrowing ideas from them. Cultural borrowing is a phenomenon that happens in all cultures. It basically involves the adoption of ideas and their adaptation to the local needs. Once this adaptation becomes ordinary, it develops into a further element of the cultural heritage (1999:101-3). I believe that this last idea may be applicable to translation, since sometimes the translator leaves a source-text cultural or intertextual referent thinking that it is known, thus foreignizing the translated text. Besides, the audiovisual media, particularly television, constitute an inexhaustible and immediate source of borrowings, a fact that audiovisual translation facilitates. Youngsters, for example, adopt the fashions and customs that they can see on the screen.

Yet, as it has already been said, cultures do not yield to cultural contagion without struggling in a more or less virulent manner, depending on the case. In this sense, as Cateora and Graham (1999:106) put it, all aspects of a culture are interrelated, so the inclusion of a new element affects the rest. The greater that effect, the greater the rejection and resistance will be. From the point of view of audiovisual translation, this is one of the reasons why it is not easy at all to change a country's preferred translation technique. For example, in the case of Spain dubbing is clearly the preferred option. Even though the presence of subtitling has increased in the last few years, I have the impression that the current dominant status of dubbing is not in jeopardy.

Resistance to change happens basically due to the fact that the majority of cultures show a tendency to be ethnocentric; in other words, a tendency to "have intense identification with the known and the familiar [and] to devaluate the foreign and unknown of other cultures" (it is even possible to talk of cultural racism, a concept based on the belief that cultures are incompatible in a practically irreconcilable manner; see Grupo CRIT 2003). Other reasons for this resistance include, for example, not being aware that a certain change may be necessary or the fact that a change could cause important values, customs, or beliefs to be modified (Cateora and Graham 1999:106).

In any case, all this, together with our daily experiences, induces me to think that the current greater and faster contact among cultures makes the more economically dominant ones spread their essence to the others (translated audiovisual material plays a key role in this respect), which then vanish or become transformed. Let us consider, for example, the case of the United States of America, a country which clearly dominates a significant deal of the world scene (economically, politically, and culturally) and which happens to possess one of the most important audiovisual industries in the planet. This way, instead of diversifying, we become homogenized.

Audiovisual Products as Consumer Goods

Finally, the interaction between cultures by means of the mass media can be explained from the materialistic point of view. According to Cateora and Graham, "Humans are born creatures of need [and] want". In order to satisfy those needs and economic wants, we consume. However, the way we do it, as well as the priority we assign to our needs and the wants we try to satisfy, depend on our culture (1999:86).

From my point of view, it is also possible to talk of consumption within the scope of audiovisual translation. In this case, the products are the films, series, documentaries, and the like that reach our screens, and the way in which we consume them or the need for them that we have depends on our culture. For example, generally speaking, the cultural dominance and economic superiority of the United States make Americans feel little need for foreign films or television programs, a quite different situation from that of a country such as Spain, where (mainly dubbed) American films and television shows dominate the audiovisual scene. On many occasions, then, audiovisual products and consumption (and even marketing) go together.


Cateora, Philip R. and John L. Graham (1999) International Marketing. Madrid: Irwin McGraw-Hill.

Chaves, María J. (2000) La traducción cinematográfica. El doblaje. Huelva: University of Huelva Publications.

Chiaro, Delia (2003) 'The Implications of the Quality of Translated Verbally Expressed Humour and the Success of Big Screen Comedy', Antares, VI: 14-20.

Díaz-Cintas, Jorge (2001) 'Aspectos semióticos en la subtitulación de situaciones cómicas', in Eterio Pajares et al. (eds) Trasvases Culturales: Literatura, Cine, Traducción 3. Vitoria: Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, 119-130.

Grupo CRIT (eds) (2003) Claves para la comunicación intercultural. Análisis de interacciones comunicativas con inmigrantes. Castellón de la Plana: Jaume I University.

Said, Edward. W. (1996) Cultura e imperialismo, trans. N. Catelli. Barcelona: Anagrama.

Sales, Adoración (2003) Puentes sobre el mundo: Cultura, traducción y forma literaria en las narrativas de transculturación de José María Arguedas y Vikram Chandra, PhD dissertation. Facultad de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales, Jaume I University.

Zabalbeascoa, Patrick (2000) 'Contenidos para adultos en el género infantil: el caso del doblaje de Walt Disney', in Veljka Ruzicka et al. (eds) Literatura infantil y juvenil: tendencias actuales en investigación. Vigo: University of Vigo, 19-30.

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