Homogenization of subtitling norms – on all fronts?
In the Scandinavian countries, as elsewhere, subtitling standards have developed in parallel, yet in some isolation from the standards of the surrounding countries. This has lead to each country developing its own norms and rules, which have become familiar to both viewers and professionals within these countries. Once in a while, scholars and professionals get together to compare their national norms, to discuss how different they are, and to ask each other whether it is not time to agree upon a common standard for the whole region. In Scandinavia, this happened in Copenhagen in 1988, where many distinguished speakers discussed the various national norms and the value of a common standard for the Scandinavian countries, which are linguistically speaking fairly similar. Nothing was decided at the conference, and as the proceedings show, the norms of the Scandinavian countries deviated significantly.
A lot has happened since then. DVD technology has been introduced, the number of television channels in the EU has ballooned from 47 in 1984 to more than 1500 in 2002, and the phenomenon that I refer to as central cuing (using the same cueing, or spotting, for multiple language versions) has become widespread. Attitudes have changed as well. More and more the virtue of having a single standard for a whole region has been questioned, and professionals and scholars alike are now more keen on keeping their old standards.
But what does reality look like? I have initiated a large-scale investigation into the subtitling norms of two of the Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Sweden, to ascertain whether the subtitling norms have changed at all since the Copenhagen conference. The material in the investigation is partly English language films and television programmes with Swedish and Danish subtitles, and partly the Scandinavian portion of the ESIST Comparative Subtitling Project, the point of which was to gather data on subtitling standards from around the world in the year 2000. Also, the whole investigation includes in-house guidelines and interviews with subtitlers. The initial data indicates that there has been a surprising amount of quantitative homogenization in the last decade or so. It is true that there is still a huge difference in the strategies employed by individual subtitlers, but at least when it comes to segmentation and condensation, the national patterns have all but vanished. What remains to be seen is whether this quantitative homogenization of subtitling norms is matched by a similar development in the qualitative area of translation strategies in subtitling.
I think that there are several important questions to be discussed here. Is this development only a Scandinavian trend? If not, is this increased homogenization something we want? And finally, if not, can anything be done to reverse the trend?