Subtitles for television: the current Scandinavian situation This paper presents the major findings of a project called Scandinavian Subtitles, which is a comparative study of the subtitling norms of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. The project has a descriptive approach (DTS, cf. Toury 1995) and is based on a corpus of 100 Anglophone films and TV programmes and their Swedish, Danish and (to a certain extent) Norwegian subtitles. The material was recorded on Scandinavian TV channels over one year and represents multiple genres and programme types, from documentaries to reality shows, with an emphasis on fiction.
The objective of the project has been to uncover the Scandinavian subtitling norms (following Hermans, cf. e.g. 1991). The study has a two-fold focus: the first explores quantitatively what could be called technical norms of subtitling (condensation rate, exposure times, etc.), and also how subtitling relates to other forms of Audiovisual Translation (AVT) in Scandinavia.
The other focus of the project has been to uncover qualitative norms of subtitling, by exploring translation strategies. Specifically, it explores the strategies involved in the rendering of Extralinguistic Cultural References (ECRs, linguistic expressions pertaining to realia, fiction etc. cf. Pedersen: forthcoming) The project assumes that there are three ways in which a viewer/reader can access ECRs: Encyclopaedically and/or intertextually, i.e. through knowledge about the world and other texts; deictically, i.e. through the polysemiotic context (cf. Gottlieb 1997) or the co-text; or “translatorically”, i.e. through the use of interventional strategies employed by the subtitler. The project uses a taxonomy with seven base-line categories for rendering ECRs: Official Equivalent, Retention, Literal Translation, Specification, Generalization, Substitution and Omission. The first three are minimum change strategies (cf. Leppihalme 1994), so they do not help the viewer to access the ECR, whereas the last four are interventional, and thus offer guidance to the viewers.
The following major findings has been made in the project: the technical norms have converged to the point where it now makes sense to talk about a pan-Scandinavian norm, rather than national norms; and the overall choice of strategy for rendering ECRs is on the whole fairly similar in both Sweden and Denmark, which used not to be the case. One of the most important results of the investigation is that Retention (leaving the ECR as it is) is nowadays by far the most common strategy, even for inaccessible ECRs. This is partly due to the Anglicization of the Scandinavian countries, which means that many Anglophone cultural items can be retained unchanged. However, much of the explanation can be found in the new AVT companies which work on a pan-Scandinavian or even global level, and which tend to use generic subtitling norms, rather than submitting to national norms. These companies also use techniques such as central cueing (using the same time-code for multiple language versions), which has a further converging effect on the old national norms. This convergence also affects the norms of the public service companies, through the use of subcontracting and free-lancing subtitlers.
So, due to the powerful influence of English on the Scandinavian scene and the practices of the multinational AVT companies, the national norms of subtitling are now heavily under siege by the emergent Scandinavian subtitling norm. We already find almost complete homogeneity for technical norms, and the trend is similar for qualitative norms, such as the rendering of ECRs. In a few years time, will it still make sense to speak about a Swedish, Danish or Norwegian norm, or will the old national norms have been completely superseded by the new pan-Scandinavian norm?
Gottlieb, Henrik. 1997. Subtitles, Translation & Idioms. Copenhagen: Center for Translation Studies, University of Copenhagen.
Hermans, Theo 1991. “Translational Norms and Correct Translations” in Van Leuven-Zwart, Kitty M. & Ton Naaijkens (eds.) 1991. Translation Studies: The State of the Art. Proceedings of the First James S Holmes Symposium on Translation Studies. Amsterdam & Atlanta, GA: Rodopi. Pp. 155 – 169.
Leppihalme, Ritva. 1994. Culture Bumps: On the Translation of Allusions. Helsinki: University of Helsinki: English Department Studies 2.
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