Manslaughter or murder

Examples of Subtitling Variation

By Karita Kerkkä (University of Helsinki)

Abstract & Keywords

In this paper I discuss the subtitling of crime-related utterances in the Swedish crime film Before the Frost (Innan frosten 2005). The material consists of Swedish original dialogue in the film and translations, ie. subtitles, of crime-related utterances in Finnish, Norwegian and Danish. In crime films, crime-related utterances are central features in the creation of a real-world image of investigations and therefore a special atmosphere typical of crime films. It seems that crime-related utterances are often subtitled without any changes in these utterances. Compression occurs only when absolutely necessary due to restrictions of space or time. In the pilot study (Kerkkä, 2007), there was no evidence of loss of variation, which is one form of one of the suggested translation universals, namely simplification. This article takes, on the basis of the pilot study, a look at some types of changes made during translation, illustrated with examples. In addition, the paper examines more closely the context where the crime-related utterances take place and how subtitles together with the picture and sound contribute to the whole. There will also be a discussion with examples about the subtitling of crime-related utterances with no change during the translation when compared to utterances in the original Swedish dialogue, due, for instance, to compensation of picture or sound.


Keywords: audiovisual translation, subtitling, crime film, spoken language, variation

©inTRAlinea & Karita Kerkkä (2009).
"Manslaughter or murder"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: The Translation of Dialects in Multimedia
Edited by: M. Giorgio Marrano, G. Nadiani & C. Rundle
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1. Introduction

This paper explores the subtitling in the Swedish crime film Before the Frost (Innan frosten 2005), partly based on my pilot study (Kerkkä, 2007), which was the first step on my way towards a PhD. More specifically, the paper concentrates on crime-related utterances in the original Swedish dialogue in the film and their translations, ie. subtitles in Finnish, Norwegian and Danish. The paper presents some of the changes which have occurred during the translation process, illustrated with examples, concerning the variation in the subtitles of crime-related utterances and discusses how this variation has been transferred to the subtitles. In addition, there will be a discussion about crime-related utterances with no change compared to the original dialogue in the film and also about possible reasons why the crime-related utterances seem to remain the same in the subtitle as in the original dialogue in the film.

Compression is a central feature in subtitling due to restrictions of space and time. In a two-line subtitle in Finland, there is space for about 32 characters per line. A two-line subtitle needs to be on the TV screen for between 4 and 6 seconds. Under these circumstances, subtitling often requires compression, i.e. summarizing or reducing the original dialogue content in the film. Compression may be done syntactically, for instance by using pronouns instead of proper names, ellipsis, or reducing the amount of sentences. Compression may also be done semantically, e.g. by using synonymous utterances or a superordinate instead of subordinates. The most extreme type of compression is the omission of some information, such as titles of persons, adverbs, or short comments during a fast dialogue (e.g. Koljonen 1998).

It has been estimated that a translator needs to reduce about 30–50 per cent of the spoken dialogue (Koljonen 1998; Gottlieb 2004, Tveit 2003). How is it acceptable to reduce so much while allowing the subtitles to function and the viewer to be satisfied with them? The reason for this is compensation of picture and sound. Together, subtitles, picture, and sound create an integrated whole in which different parts support one another and create meanings (Immonen 2005). Remael (2001) also raises the relevance of pictures in subtitling and poses, for example, the following questions that every TV translator and researcher confronts: “Does the picture need language to pinpoint its semantic dimension?” and “How does this affect traditional translation strategies?” She points out the difference between the dialogue in ordinary conversations and dialogue in feature films, since the dialogue in feature films that “masquerades as everyday speech is determined by underlying structures that may more closely resemble those of writing”. Hence, the dialogue in the crime films as well is an illusion of the authentic dialogue of the real world with hesitation, repetition etc. Remael (2001) also states that in feature films the spoken language is partly “dictated by other, hierarchic, concerns, which are determined by the story as told dramatically through a structure underlying the pictures”. On the other hand, occasionally the relationship between picture and dialogue is not close, but “merely illustrative”, as she puts it.

The TV-translator’s aim is to create an illusion of that language that actually has been used in the original spoken dialogue including variation, regardless of the fact that subtitles normally follow the norms of written language (Immonen 2005). In practice, subtitles may include some features of spoken language, such as shortened or slang words in order to create this illusion of reality, or at least the illusion of the spoken language in the film.

Simplification is one of the suggested translation universals. The discussion on translation universals is based on the hypothesis that there are features that are common to all translations (see e.g. Baker 1995; Chesterman 2004; Mauranen & Kujamäki 2004; Puurtinen 2005). Other suggested universals include explicitation, interference, conventionalisation, and reduction of repetition. These may, however, overlap or be considered controversial. Simplification can be seen as a loss of variation. Nevalainen (2005) states that the term ‘simplification’ is in fact quite problematic in that it is inevitably related to some other suggested features common to all translations. Nevalainen’s (2003) results indicate that Finnish translations would include less variation in using traits of spoken language than texts that originally are written in Finnish. Another study of lexical features in a translation corpus accomplished by Nevalainen (2005) supported the hypothesis of simplification. However, there is also some evidence that does not support the hypothesis of simplification (e.g. Eskola 2002). According to Nevalainen (2005), these results are not in fact incompatible with evidence of simplification, since a tendency to simplify seems to be overwhelmed by structures of the source language.

In my pilot study (Kerkkä, 2007), which explored compression in the light of simplification, the term compression referred to an obligatory reduction of the contents, including variation, most often due to a lack of time and/or space, or occasionally for other reasons, such as differences in use of language in practice. Compression is therefore obligatory and often means that a part of the varied language in the original spoken dialogue needs to be omitted in order to improve the readability of the subtitles and offer the viewer an opportunity to concentrate on the picture as well as read the subtitles. Simplification, on the other hand, is defined as an optional reduction of content and loss of variation without a clear reason for the reduction. In practice, simplification may occur in avoidance of unique, infrequent, and ambiguous utterances, such as metaphors or other creative language (Nevalainen 2005; Chesterman 2004). Studies have shown a tendency to choose standard language instead of non-standard language. Englund Dimitrova (2001) has studied the translation of dialect and placed utterances on a scale from dialectal to standard language. According to her results, dialect tends to be rendered as more neutral language in translated texts, which can be seen as a loss of variation and also, therefore, as a form of simplification. Lindquist’s (2001) study of the features of spoken language in fiction showed that translators of high prestige literature utilize a majority of all the possibilities available on the phonological/morphological level.

2. Crime related utterances in Before the Frost

This article presents the subtitling of the crime-related utterances in the Swedish crime film Before the Frost (Innan frosten 2005) in DVD format. The film is based on the book of the same title by Henning Mankell (Innan frosten 2002). The main character is the Swedish, middle-aged criminal investigator Kurt Wallander. His daughter Linda Wallander has recently joined the police, working at the same police station as her father. At almost the beginning of the film, Kurt misses Linda’s graduation party, believing that it takes place another day. Therefore, a somewhat distant relationship between father and daughter is not getting any better because of this lapse of memory. The main plot of the film is based on murder investigations, accomplished mainly by Kurt and Linda Wallander. In the beginning of the film the viewer sees swans with their wings in flames flying on a lake. Shortly thereafter, an elderly woman disappears in the forest without trace. Later on, these events seem to intertwine. Soon an old friend of Linda’s also vanishes and this turns out to also have something in common with the murder of the lady found in the forest and the burned swans. In the film, both scenes of investigating crimes and scenes of private life situations are depicted. The events of the crime investigation and private life are connected when the father of an old friend of Linda’s seems to have a connection to the murders.

Mäntymäki (2004) draws attention to social issues in crime fiction. She states that an awareness of social issues has become an essential theme in contemporary crime fiction, in Nordic crime fiction in particular:

Crime, the central theme of contemporary crime fiction, is definitely a social issue, but instead of relating to crime as singular phenomena produced by evil individuals as was done in the earlier representatives of the genre, crime and criminality are now discussed from more comprehensive and varied perspectives that take into account and question a variety of social factors produced by different social environments and structures (Mäntymäki 2004)

Mäntymäki has studied names for the male detective’s body, namely the same Kurt Wallander as in the film Before the Frost (2005) but in the novel Faceless Killers (Mördare utan ansikte 1991). Her analysis of Wallander’s masculinity revealed by the body parts mentioned in the novel showed for instance that Wallander has several kinds of heads according to usage of the word head: A concrete head receives the injuries. Another head feels the pain, while a third head includes thoughts and emotions. A fourth head is “an object to be related to”, as Mäntymäki (ibid.) puts it, and she continues the description: “It can be shot at or it can be a marker of distance between Wallander and – often death, like when he gets stuck hanging with his head less than one meter from the ground.”

Similarly to these heads illustrating the variety of social environments, the film Before the Frost (2005) builds up a constant contrastive dialogue between working life and private life.

This paper concentrates on crime-related utterances in the Before the Frost (2005). By the term crime-related utterance I mean a wide range of different kinds of utterances that somehow are related to a crime or criminal investigations in the film, for example, a detective aiming to solve a crime. It has, however, been difficult to define the term ‘crime-related utterance’ and draw the line in practice as to what is a crime-related utterance and what is not. In fact, it is primarily the context in which they are expressed that defines whether the utterance is regarded as a crime-related utterance, such as the imperative mood blås, ‘blow’ into the breathalyser (Cf. the same verb in the sentence ‘The wind is blowing’).

It is obvious that crime-related utterances are central features in crime films, since they create a picture of reality and an illusion of what may happen in the real or the fictitious world. Crime-related utterances also describe different characters and personalities that act in the film. We can, for example, compare professional policemen talking about Interpol or fingerprints, and youngsters using slang words such as cop and knock off. Of course, these utterances can also transmit emotions that the characters experience and feel, and the atmosphere as a whole. All of this influences the audience’s viewing experience, how they experience the whole film.

3. Types of changes

In the Before the Frost (2005) there are 70 subtitles in total in Finnish with a crime-related utterance or a crime-related utterance in the original Swedish dialogue that had been omitted in the subtitling (Kerkkä, 2007). There is a change in the subtitling of the crime-related utterance compared to the original dialogue in only 18 of them. This chapter illustrates some examples of crime-related utterances in the particular film, presenting some types of change in the subtitling compared to the original Swedish dialogue. Later, in the next chapter, there will be a discussion with examples of the crime-related utterances with no change. Presented first in the examples are the original Swedish lines and subsequently the subtitles in Finnish, Norwegian, and Danish. An English translation for the subtitle is given in parentheses. The translations into English are my own and they aim only to provide a better means for the reader of this article to understand the context in which the utterance, marked with italics, takes place. The subtitles occur in the DVD precisely in the form in which they are presented here, except that all the subtitles are centralized in the DVD.

In Before the Frost (2005) there was some evidence that slang utterances had become more neutral language (cf. Englund Dimitrovas (2003) results). Soon after the beginning of the film, Wallander and his ex-wife discuss their daughter Linda on the telephone. The mother disapproves of her daughter’s choice of occupation as a member of the police, following in her father’s footsteps. The mother says:

(1) Vår dotter har blivit snut som sin far. Du är väl stolt, eller hur?
(Our daughter has become a cop like her father. You must be proud, mustn’t you?)
Fi. Tyttärestämme tulee poliisi kuten
isästäänkin. Mahdat olla ylpeä.
(Our daughter becomes a policeman like her father. You must be proud.)
No. Vår datter er blitt politi som far.
(Our daughter has become a policeman like the father.)
Da. Vores datter
er blevet strisser ligesom sin far.
(Our daughter has become a cop like her father.)

Mother uses the marked slang word snut, which means ‘cop’. In the Finnish subtitle the word is translated as neutral, with a common Finnish word for policeman. In Norwegian it is also translated with a neutral word for police, politi, whereas in the Danish subtitle the occupation is called strisser, a slang word, similar to ‘cop’ in English. The Finnish translation is, however, not necessarily simplification because the use of the Finnish slang word kyttä for cop would be a little more marked as a slang utterance than the Swedish word used here. Furthermore, the Finnish kyttä has quite a strong negative connotation and is often used in a negative tone. Therefore, it may be discussed whether the Finnish translator has simplified, that is if the omission of the variation has been made without a reason or not, although in this case the negative association would have been appropriate. The tone of the mother reveals her dissatisfaction, irritation, but the effect would have been stronger with another choice of word. In addition, she laughs mockingly and otherwise acts somewhat incorrectly, e.g. by hanging up the phone. In fact, Kurt Wallander suspects that his ex-wife has been drinking.

The second example illustrates loss of information, which in this case is due to lack of time and space.

(2) Från näsa och ner till örönnivå. Faktum är att det liknar mer ett trafikoffer än mordoffer.
(From nose down to ear level. The fact is that it reminds me more of a casualty of a traffic accident than a murder victim.)
Fi. Nenästä korviin.
Kuin liikenneonnettomuuden uhri.
(From nose to ears. Like a casualty of a traffic accident)
No. Faktum er at det likner mer
et trafikkoffer en et drapsoffer.
(The fact is that it reminds me more of a casualty of a traffic accident than a murder victim.)
Da. Fra næsa til ører. Det ligner mere
et trafikoffer end et mordoffer.
(From nose to ears. It reminds me more of a casualty of a traffic accident than a murder victim.)

In the Swedish dialogue, the characters are discussing the corpse. Criminal investigator Kurt Wallander discusses the injuries found in the corpse with the person who has performed the autopsy. According to her, the victim reminds her more of a casualty of a traffic accident than a murder victim. In the Finnish subtitle there is only a casualty of a traffic accident mentioned. The comparison to the murder victim has been left out. The structure in the subtitle is therefore simpler than in the original, but it is not a case of a universal of simplification, since there is not enough space for both a casualty of a traffic accident and a murder victim. The chosen alternative is more important to the wholeness than a murder victim which offers TV-viewers solely some extra information, a point of comparison. At this point of the film, the viewer already knows that the victim has most probably been murdered. This kind of obvious information does not need to be said explicitly. Mäntymäki (2004) correctly points out that body parts that she analysed can become visible even without being mentioned explicitly. She further explains that “Due to our prior knowledge, we construct textual bodies as normal if nothing else is mentioned”.

In example (2), there is no loss of information in the Norwegian or Danish subtitles, but in the Norwegian subtitle there is, however, a change: the murder victim has become drapsoffer, meaning that the victim has been killed, not murdered. This change can be explained by the fact that legal terminology is slightly different in these countries. According to the Norwegian dictionary Bokmåls- og nyordordboka, the substantive mord, ‘murder’, refers to ‘tidligere betegnelse for overlagt drap’, that is the utterance for a planned manslaughter that is no longer in use.

The third example shows that a descriptive utterance becomes neutral or more powerful, which are quite opposite changes.

(3) Jag hittade en ihjälslagen kvinna ute i skogen, åt Krageholm till.
(I found a woman beaten to death out in the forest, near Krageholm.)
Fi. Löysin tapetun naisen metsästä.
(I found a killed woman in the forest.)
No. Jeg fant en drept kvinne i skogen.
Ved Krageholm.
(I found a killed woman in the forest. Near Krageholm.)
Da. Jeg fandt en myrdet kvinde i skoven.
Det var ude ved Krageholm.
(I found a murdered woman in the forest. It was outside near Krageholm.)

In the original Swedish dialogue the actor says that victim has been beaten to death. The Finnish translator has neutralized that utterance and says only that victim has been killed. Loss of information is about the technique of the doing. The Norwegian subtitle has the same change as the Finnish, but in the Danish subtitle there is the opposite change: the translator has chosen a more powerful alternative, namely murdered. The effect of this utterance is undoubtedly stronger than the original.

Example (4) illustrates the style used by the policemen when reporting the crimes and the state of the investigations to their colleagues.

(4) Okej… Vad vi har här är alltså en kvinna, Birgitta Medberg, anmäld försvunnen. Borta sen i går.
(Okay… So, what we have here is a woman, Birgitta Medberg, reported as a missing person. Missing since yesterday.)
Fi. Birgitta Medberg on ilmoitettu
kadonneeksi. Eilisestä lähtien.
(Birgitta Medberg is reported as a missing person. Since yesterday.)
No. En kvinne, Birgitta Medberg,
er meldt savnet. Borte siden i går.
(A woman, Birgitta Medberg, is reported as a missing person. Missing since yesterday.)
Da. Det er en kvinde, en Birgitta Medberg,
som har været væk siden i går.
(It is a woman, a Birgitta Medberg, who is absent since yesterday.)

This example shows how in the original dialogue Kurt Wallander used incomplete sentences while reporting and making sure that every policeman was actually aware of the state of investigations at the time. Wallander’s report is more reminiscent of a list of notes read from a paper than grammatically correct sentences. In the Finnish translation, the second incomplete phrase, eilisestä lähtien, has the same function. That phrase creates here an illusion of the whole style of Wallander’s professional manner of speaking to his colleagues and which does not need any further explanations about how the report is usually accomplished, but the whole communication situation is common knowledge to the person involved in the investigation and creates an image of the routine of working with similar cases (cf. Mäntymäki’s discussion of Wallander’s several heads for different purposes, presented above). Again, the sound and rhythm of the speech with short pauses reveals the speaking style, but the Finnish subtitle partly supports this impression and is at the same time easy to read since the first sentence is grammatically complete. The Norwegian subtitle aspires to a similar effect by using an insertion in the middle of the first sentence. The illusion is strengthened by another incomplete sentence. The Danish subtitle has the same contents but is presented as one complete sentence with an insertion. The illusion of professionalism in Finnish and Danish is therefore weaker than the original in Swedish and the Norwegian subtitle.

The final example of change is that the translators have used different terms in order to describe the process of searching for a missing person. It is a normal member of the public, the daughter of a missing elderly lady, who is concerned about her mother and wants the help of the police. The daughter does not know the exact meanings of the word or the right word to describe the process when the police begin to search for a missing person. In fact, the daughter uses a false term in the Swedish dialogue when she tries to find out what she should do in order to get the police to begin to search for her missing mother. She uses the term efterlysning, ‘warrant of apprehension’, when she actually means ‘report of loss’, anmälan om försvinnande. The Finnish translator has subtitled the correct term instead of the false. Therefore, the particular information about character’s insecurity and non-expertise expressed by the false term is lost in the Finnish subtitling. The picture does not reveal this information. The daughter seems to be calm, even though she has been a little nervous about a minute earlier when she opened the door to the policemen and let them step in for the discussion. This change may be one form of simplification; there is no clear reason for this change. On the other hand, not even all of the Swedish-speaking viewers may be aware of the difference between these two terms, since it is not explained in the film. Hence it is up to the viewers’ attention and knowledge if they are able to notice the difference or not. In the Norwegian and Danish subtitles, the translators have not made any changes compared to the original dialogue.

In the next chapter, I discuss, on the basis of some examples, the combination of translators’ choices when translating the crime-related utterance as a whole and whether the picture supports these cases or not.

3. Utterances with no change

In only 18 of the 70 subtitles in Finnish with a crime-related utterance there had been a change compared to the original dialogue. The result implies that translators subtitle crime-related utterances very carefully and change something in them only when it is necessary, for example if there is not enough space or time or because there is a difference in using the specific utterances in practice in these languages. In this chapter, I discuss some reasons why translators do not seem to make changes concerning crime-related utterances in the crime film Before the Frost (2005) and give some examples of utterances which have remained as expressed in the original Swedish dialogue.

Firstly, crime-related utterances are central utterances in crime films, since they are important in creating an illusion of the criminal investigators’ work. Crime-related utterances of language for special purposes in particular give an impression of the specific genre of crime films and create an atmosphere typical of this genre, such as fingerprints, identity, break the law, stay alive or declare dead. The mention of Interpol, for example, adds to the illusion of reality. Compressing this kind of feature could impact the wholeness and probably decrease the seriousness of the discussion. In addition, crime-related utterances that take the viewer to the professional working environments and atmosphere create opposition to private life situations. Therefore they contribute to the constant dialogue in the film between working life scenes and private life scenes, creating also variation for the viewers’ watching experience. The social dimension is of relevance in modern crime fiction (Mäntymäki 2004).

Secondly, most crime-related utterances already follow the norms of standard written language which is demanded in subtitling. In general, it is the transition of medium, i.e. from spoken to written language, that causes changes during subtitling. According to Remael (2001), the “spoken language” in feature films is not the same dialogue that is used in everyday conversation with its typical features, such as pauses, interruptions, incomplete sentences, and polysemic utterances, listed by Gottlieb (1994).

The third reason why crime-related utterances are not omitted is that the picture cannot usually substitute for crime-related utterances, for example the names of institutions. In the film, there is a working conversation between Kurt Wallander and his daughter Linda. Kurt Wallander uses the expression Lunds rättsmedicinska, that is ‘forensic medicine in Lund’. Kurt Wallander’s utterance reveals that the referent is common knowledge to the policemen, since the utterance is an abbreviation of the whole name of the institute. In other words, it has not been said explicitly, if the institute is an institute, department or something else. The same information can be found in translations into Finnish and Norwegian, but in the subtitles in Danish, the information is divided into two subtitles: In the first, there is information only about the location to which Wallander aims to travel. In the second one it is said that he is going to talk to retsmedicineren, ‘a person who works with forensic medicine’. The Danish subtitles do not mention autopsy. However, it is implied by the word retsmedicineren. The name of the institute in Lund has been translated into Danish as it is expressed in the Swedish original. None of the translators has clarified the name by adding information, such as the official name. This way, the illusion of spoken language is transmitted into subtitles.

In crime films, the police or other crime investigators often have conversations about potential solutions or ideas on how the crime has been carried out and by whom, etc. This kind of dialogue is an important part of the film, for example in order to get an idea of the logical thinking process in the co-operation of investigators when solving criminal mysteries. The scenes with logical thinking also make a contrast to the scenes with action. It produces a rhythm in which scenes with lower tempo alternate with those with higher tempo and provides variation for the viewer. In addition, these conversations often take place in an investigation room or offices at the police station. In the film, the viewer sees only this room with a few persons. Therefore, the picture does not support the spoken dialogue or subtitles, which means that these utterances have to be transmitted by the subtitles.

4. Conclusion

In this paper, I have discussed the subtitling of crime-related utterances in the Swedish crime film Before the Frost (Innan frosten 2005) based on a contrastive analysis of examples retrieved from the film. The crime-related utterances in the original Swedish dialogue have been compared to the subtitles in Finnish, Norwegian, and Danish in order to present some types of changes made when subtitling crime-related utterances. In crime films, crime-related utterances are central features in the creation of an authentic picture of investigations and a special atmosphere and seriousness typical of crime films. Together with the picture and sound they add to the impression of the professionalism of the crime investigators. The changes occurred in subtitling compared to the original dialogue are motivated by the need to compress due to restrictions in time or space. Support from the picture, however, is not always available for the subtitling of the crime-related utterances. The sound on the other hand is merely able to reveal emotional tones or emphasize something in subtitles with a crime-related utterance. The change of medium, from spoken to written language, is not a reason for changes in the crime-related utterances. Therefore, crime-related utterances are subtitled most often as they were expressed in the original spoken dialogue.

Consequently, the variation expressed in crime-related utterances in the original Swedish dialogue has been transferred to the subtitles. It does not seem to appear to be simplification of the crime-related utterances (cf. Kerkkä, 2007). The variation occurs in the crime films not solely in the subtitles, picture and sound, but also in the dialogue of different scenes, of e.g. work and family environments. There is, however, a need for more extensive material for future studies of crime-related utterances and subtitling them, as well as a review of the definition of the term ‘crime-related utterance’. At this point in my research, subtitling crime-related utterances seems to support the aim of the whole: to create for the viewer a pleasant watching experience to which subtitles, picture, and sound all contribute.



Ennen routaa (2005). Yellow Bird Films AB. Finnish subtitling by Anitra Paukkula, Broadcast Text. DVD.

Før frosten (2005). Yellow Bird Films AB. Norwegian subtitling by Mari Eggen, DVD.

Inden frosten(2005). Yellow Bird Films AB. Danish subtitling by Lasse Schmidt, DVD.

Innan frosten (2005). Yellow Bird Films AB. DVD.


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About the author(s)

Karita Kerkkä is a PhD student in Swedish translation at University of Helsinki, Finland. She is researching the subtitling of Swedish crime films mainly into Finnish, but also into Norwegian and Danish. Currently, her special research interests are multimodal meaning making and expressions of emotions in subtitles. She also teaches translation and interpretation at Department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies, University of Helsinki; her courses dealing for instance with translation from Swedish into Finnish and vice versa, audiovisual translation and translating language for special purposes, such as law and administration. She can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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©inTRAlinea & Karita Kerkkä (2009).
"Manslaughter or murder"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: The Translation of Dialects in Multimedia
Edited by: M. Giorgio Marrano, G. Nadiani & C. Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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