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The Emergent Scandinavian Subtitling Norm
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of English.
2006 (English)Conference paper (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

The Emergent Scandinavian Subtitling Norm

In the last two decades, the Scandinavian mediascape has changed radically, just as it has elsewhere in Europe and indeed, in the world. The number of broadcasters has ballooned, and many new operators have entered the screen translation scene and challenged the old national norms that were set by the translating units of the public service broadcasters. One might therefore think that the Scandinavian subtitling norms have diversified and that a number of competing norms could be found in Scandinavia. Instead, however, the norms are converging, so that the old national norms are giving way to an emergent Scandinavian subtitling norm.

This paper is based on a project called Scandinavian Subtitles, which is a comparative study of the subtitling norms found in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. The project has a descriptive approach and is based on a corpus of one hundred 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 has been chosen to represent multiple genres and programme types from documentaries to reality shows, with a main emphasis on fiction.

In the late 80’s and the early 90’s, there used to be quite noticeable differences between the national norms in the three countries, when it came to condensation and cuing speed, even if there is/was some disagreement about how great these differences were. An analysis of the data in the corpus shows that these differences are nearly all gone, and that this is a process that has been going on since the middle of the 1990’s. The differences are in fact even smaller than was reported on the last conference in this series. The reasons for this change lie in upgraded technology, globalization, changes in the European mediascape and the usage of central cueing (i.e. the use of a master template (or Genesis) file as a pivot for second-generation translations). The second-generation subtitlers have the opportunity of modifying the time code of the master template file, but the findings show that they do this very rarely; in less than one per cent of the subtitles. An investigation of centrally cued films shows that in one aspect they adhere mainly to the old Danish norms, but that in other aspects they lean more towards old Swedish norms. The levelling of national norms that originated in commercial firms has also influenced the work of the public service companies, but to a lesser degree, so that these are still the ones that display the most differentiation, in some respects. Furthermore, it can be shown that when subtitlers work for commercial companies are unrestricted by central cueing, they tend to “swing back” towards the old national norms.

When examining the subtitling strategies involved in the rendering of Extralinguistic Cultural References (ECRs), the same trend can be found here. The overall choice of strategy is on the whole fairly similar in both Sweden and Denmark, which used not to be the case. This is partly due to the Anglicization of the Scandinavian countries, which means that many Anglophone cultural items can be retained unchanged. However, when comparing centrally cued films to films that have been subtitled independently, one finds that the same strategies are used almost nine times out of ten when central cuing is involved, so central cuing acts as an influencing factor in choice of translation strategy as well. The reason for this seems to be mainly economic. Central cuing is used because it saves time and money to have the same time code for multiple language versions. As second-generation subtitlers are paid substantially less than first-generation subtitlers, they tend not only to use the time code from the master template file, but also the first-generation translation that comes with it, as this saves much time and effort in editing and condensing. This is particularly true in Scandinavia, where the (written) languages are mutually intelligible. Instead of making their own translations of the source text from scratch, second-generation subtitlers tend just to modify the first generation translations, in principle making a pivot translation based on the master template file. The evidence of this comes not only from the overwhelming sameness of the different language versions, but also from the fact that an occasional subtitle in the first-generation language slips through the proofreading and ends up on the screens.

So, due to the powerful influence of English on the Scandinavian scene and the practice of central cuing, as well as the use of similar technology and techniques in the Scandinavian countries, the national norms of subtitling are now heavily under siege by the emergent Scandinavian subtitling norm. What does the future look like? Will there be national reactions to this trend? Already, there have been protests against centrally cued subtitles, particularly in Denmark. 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?


After getting a BA and an MA in English linguistics at Stockholm University, Jan Pedersen became a professional translator and has now worked for some years as a free-lance subtitler. In 2002, he returned to academia and is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation entitled Scandinavian Subtitles. Apart from working as a researcher and subtitler, he also teaches English linguistics and translation studies at Stockholm University in Sweden and is a board member of ESIST.

Conference presentations

“On the Interchangeability of Culture in Subtitles”, EU High Level Scientific

Conference: ”Multidimensional Translation: Audiovisual Scenarios” in Copenhagen, Denmark. 1 – 5 May, 2006.

“High Felicity”, “Between Text and Image: Updating Research in Screen

Translation” in Forlì, Italy. 27 – 29 October, 2005.

“How is culture rendered in subtitles”, EU High Level Scientific Conference

”Challenges of Multidimensional Translation” in Saarbrücken, Germany. 2 – 6

May, 2005.

“Homogenization of subtitling norms – on all fronts?”, Languages and the Media

conference in Berlin, Germany. November 3 – 5, 2004

“Teaching with television and subtitles” LMS Språkdagar: Spr@k i tiden. Örebro,

Sweden. March 20 – 21, 2004

Contact info

Jan Pedersen

Department of English

Stockholm University



Phone: +46-8-674 74 22 Fax: +46-8-15 96 67


Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-12767OAI: diva2:179287
Available from: 2008-02-01 Created: 2008-02-01 Last updated: 2010-11-10Bibliographically approved

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