Swearwords in Subtitles
A Balancing Act
By Minna Hjort (University of Helsinki)
Swearwords - or the lack thereof - in subtitles is a topic that leaves no-one cold. Viewers are sometimes shocked by the use or the harshness of taboo words in subtitles and sometimes critical of translators who tone them down. Some, on the other hand, complement translators on their accurate rendering of the force and style of the original swearing expressions in their feedback. The task of translating swearwords is a real balancing act: translators make an interpretation of the original and choose the translation strategies and principles they find appropriate, but they also need to pay attention to viewer feedback, make assumptions
on the reception of their translations by the target audience, and observe the guidelines of their employers. Also cultural, linguistic and ideological norms impact the translation process. In my paper, I will sum up the interesting findings of a questionnaire study I carried out in 2006 with Finnish audiovisual translators on the topic of swearwords. The study sheds some light for example on the general principles Finnish translators report applying to swearwords, as well as on the swearword vocabulary of translators and their attitudes toward swearing. Moreover, the findings will be contrasted with the results of a similar questionnaire with
literary translators, who are, among other things, less bound by limitations of time and space than their colleagues in television and film. I will also report the results of a small viewer survey. The survey is an enquiry into how the audience feels about swearwords in subtitles
and also how they intuitively estimate translators treat them.
swearwords, subtitling, audiovisual translation, questionnaire study
©inTRAlinea & Minna Hjort (2009).
"Swearwords in Subtitles"
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.
Permanent URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/1718
Swearwords – or the lack thereof – in subtitles is a hot topic that attracts much debate. Some viewers are shocked by the use or nature of taboo words in subtitles, while some are critical of translators who tone them down and complement translators who faithfully render the force and style of the original expressions.
The task of translating swearwords is a balancing act: translators interpret the original style and message, make assumptions of reception by the target audience, and choose the translations accordingly. They do not operate in a void – cultural, linguistic and ideological norms impact the translation process, and translators must observe the guidelines provided by their employers. Idiolects and personal preferences and values also play a part in the translation of swearwords, as do feedback and comments from colleagues and the audience. In the particular task of subtitling, there is of course the additional challenge posed by limited space.
In this paper I present findings from two questionnaire studies concerning the translation of swearwords in Finnish television and films. The first of the two questionnaires was targeted at audiovisual translators and the second at viewers. The first study addressed several issues relating to swearwords and their use in subtitles but only three will be discussed here. Namely, general principles translators report having for translating swearwords and two types of external influences: feedback and instructions. I will first discuss the results and then move on to contrasting the results with the second study, which concerned viewer expectations and preferences.
First, however, a brief note on Finnish audiovisual translation.
2. Audiovisual translation in Finland
In Finland, foreign movies and TV shows are subtitled. Dubbing is only used for programmes for children. In addition, voice-over is sometimes used for documentaries. There are several television companies, with three major Finnish ones, dozens of channels with subtitled content, and several subtitling companies. The television companies either employ in-house and freelance translators or have outsourced translation to subtitling companies. Swearwords can be seen on Finnish television screens, as there are no laws or regulations in Finland forbidding the use of swearwords in translations. Different company policies exist, however.
3. Make-up of the questionnaire with audiovisual translators
The first questionnaire was for audiovisual translators. The study took place at the turn of 2005 and 2006. Around the same time, I did a questionnaire study with literary translators, the results of which will be referred to in connection with a few points below. The questionnaire was a web form, the link to which was sent to two translators’ mailing lists.
The questions concerning principles were both open-ended and multiple-choice questions. I first asked the translators whether they had any general principles for translating swearwords. Then, I presented a few potential strategies for translating swearwords and asked the translators to comment on their importance on a scale of not important / quite important / important / very important. For example, I asked whether it was important to retain the word choice or syntactic form of the original if it was possible in the target language, and how important the translators felt it was to render swearwords in idiomatic target language swearing phrases.
The questions on feedback enquired whether the translators had received any and if so, by whom and what kind. Likewise, there was a question whether the informant had gotten instructions for translating swearwords and if so, by whom (employer, colleague or other and in which company). There was a field in which the respondents could freely describe the instructions they had been given, and a further yes-no question on whether they had been forbidden to use any particular words. The question was followed by a field in which the translators could specify the words in question.
4. Respondents to Questionnaire 1
There were 43 respondents to the questionnaire. 67 per cent of them were women, 33 per cent men. I do not have the statistics but the figures seem fairly representative of the general gender distribution of translators in Finland. The majority of the translators were 31 to 50-year olds. 93 per cent of the respondents encountered swearwords in their jobs either ”every now and then” or ”often”. The majority (40) of the respondents worked for the two biggest television companies in Finland, but a large number and variety of employers were represented. Many worked as a freelancer or subcontractor for several different broadcasting or subtitling companies.
5. Instructions to translators
The most obvious external influence on a translator’s decisions is employer instructions. The questionnaire showed that audiovisual translators regularly receive instructions for translating swearwords. As many as 70 per cent of the audiovisual translators reported having received instructions or some sort of guidance for translating swearwords. In comparison, only 16 per cent of literary translators had received instructions for the particular task. The instructions were mainly given by the employer or a more experienced colleague. Also professional literature (one article in particular) and university teachers were mentioned as sources for guidance.
However, the instructions were given or remembered inconsistently, as translators working for the same company did not always report the same instructions. This might also indicate that the instructions are not always strict rules and that they are often not written. The translators reported that the instructions concerned either only a particular time of the day or a particular target group, or all translations. They included bans on individual words, mainly vittu, a word which literally means ‘cunt’ but is used similarly to fuck. The large majority of the reported instructions stated that the translator should use milder and/or less swearwords in the subtitles compared to the originals. The quoted explanation was that “written swearwords are harsher than spoken swearwords”. Only one translator had been advised not to use milder equivalents but to translate swearwords “as they are”.
I explored available written instructions slightly further, and found some examples. I looked at a guidebook for translators of the Finnish National Broadcasting Company, an article written by an audiovisual translator and teacher in a popular collection of articles on translation and the website for the Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters. The most common instruction found above, to use milder translations, could be found in these texts, but I also found warnings against being too prudish.
The first example is from a guidebook for audiovisual translators written by an experienced translator. It says: “When applying the different stylistic devices available, we must bear in mind that, for example, swearwords have a stronger impact when they are seen in writing.” (Translated from Finnish). The second is from a guide for translators by YLE, the National Broadcasting Company. Despite the fact that the company was the most often quoted source of restricting instructions, these instructions state quite liberally that:
Sometimes, it is insisted that so-called ”dirty words” should be made ”nicer” when written in subtitles. But if dirty words are used, they should be used in the translation as well.[—] You only need to know their level of strength and affect in the original country and here at home. Being prudish on purpose only makes the text – and the translator – seem ridiculous.
An experienced translator and translation teacher working for the same company writes in an article:
When translating harsh language and swearing, you should bear in mind that the force of the swearword is much greater when it is written than when it is merely said aloud. [—]. TV translators are often accused of watering down the message when they do not translate all of the swearwords yelled on the screen. However, it is often the case that by leaving out excess swearwords from the translation, the translator is actually able to render the message in full meaning and force. Translators may well trust that even viewers who do not know the original language are able to deduct from the expression and tone of the speaker the level of harshness. On the other hand, one should not shy away from harshness when it is called for. It is highly unlikely that in the trenches of WW2 a soldier would say ”darn”(Vertanen 2001: 136).
Here, the principle commonly found in the instructions received by the respondents that “swearwords are stronger when written than when spoken” is accepted, but also a warning against being too prudish is given. The writer seems to speak for a middle ground. He also refers to viewers, suggesting that viewers often criticize translators for rendering swearwords milder. This is also the perception of the Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters, as on the Frequently Asked Questions section of their website they reply to the question “Why is swearing always wrongly translated?”. The response – neatly using euphemisms like f-word – is a list of explanations for why swearwords tend to be fewer and milder in translations:
Condensation is needed in subtitling. Swearwords must be cut in order to fit in the most relevant information[…]. Also, it would make reading more difficult if in the rudest shows every f-word would be translated as a v-word. In addition, the mood of the character using the swearwords is usually obvious from the mere image and sound. Of course, every translator has his or her own style, so one translator swears differently than the other in translations (and when translating)(http://www.sktl.net/kotisivu/IIIkys/Tvev8.htm)
The view that the audience is sometimes critical of swearword translations is not just a perception: the results of Questionnaire 2 summarized below show that many viewers really are annoyed by milder renderings and the omission of swearwords. The undertone in many instructions and explanations seems to be that the viewers do not know what they are talking about: they are not aware of the limitations of space and various other reasons leading to the translations. True or not, these extracts indicate an ideal according to which translations should not cause unnecessary attention when it is not intended in the original. The fact that critical viewer comments concerning mild word choices are common might suggest that this ideal is not well met when applying the strategy of mollification: mild translations often unnecessarily catch the attention of viewers with sufficient language skills. (For more discussion, see below).
6. Principles and strategies for translating swearwords
When asked which general principles they apply to translating swearwords, translators listed among the most common choosing the right expressions for the right contexts and characters and being sensitive to the nature of the intended audience. Often, translators said that they sought to express the message of the swearwords by some other means than by using swearwords in the translations, and some suspected that swearwords do not usually contain the kind of meaning that would need rendering.
Another important principle mentioned was idiomaticity. That is, translators want to use swearing that sounds like actual Finnish swearing. To a fixed question of how important idiomaticity is, 65% said very important and 21% important. For some translators, however, there was a limit to idiomaticity and domestication: they reported that they avoided certain words, one, perkele, in particular, because it was “too traditional a Finnish swearword” to be used in the translation of a programme from a different culture. Although it is a traditional swearword, this is probably not based on etymology, as there are many words that are as old and as traditional as perkele that are commonly used in translations. The reasons include that perkele is a word with unusual connotations and contexts. It can, for example, be used to describe the stereotypical Finnish way of managing companies, namely an army-like approach. It may even refer to the Finnish character and Finnishness in general.
In Finnish, swearing is usually used to refer to the non-literal use of taboo words, most typically in emotive interjections. Thus, the meaning of swearing cannot be derived from the denotations or forms of the words used. This is also illustrated by responses to the fixed questions on principles in Questionnaire 1, where the majority of translators said that they did not feel that it was important to retain the grammatical form or the actual word even if similar forms or literal equivalents existed in the target language. The function is what counts. However, when I asked whether it was important to choose a word from the same semantic field, for example translate a religious swearword with a religious swearword and so on, surprisingly many said that it was very important or important (23.3% and 30%, respectively).
However, the most commonly mentioned principles in the open-ended question were that there should be milder and fewer swearwords in the translations than in the originals. These principles were commonly explained by the above-mentioned claim that swearwords are stronger when written than when spoken. Thus, the majority of the audiovisual translators had accepted the instructions they had been given and/or agreed with them. One respondent noted, however, that she was no longer certain whether she believed this to be totally true or whether it was just something that employers keep telling the translators year after year. In contrast, the most important strategy reported by literary translators was to retain the strength of the original word.
7. Stronger in writing than when said aloud?
I also asked explicitly, whether the translators thought that swearwords were stronger when written in a subtitle than when spoken. As many as 93 per cent agreed. When I asked the informants whether translators should use swearwords that are milder than the originals because the translation is written and the original spoken, 67 per cent said yes.
The discrepancy between these two figures, 93 per cent and 67 per cent, is probably most importantly explained by the fact that many translators consider the omission of swearwords a better strategy than mollification, as viewers may react negatively to the mild words when used as equivalents of stronger original expressions.
Thus, the view that “swearwords are stronger when written” is shared by translators and their employees. But I say “view”, because this is a shared assumption, which is in my knowledge not based on any extensive research. The most accurate way to study the effect of subtitled swearwords on viewers would probably be by means of neurolinguistic tests, but viewer questionnaires and reception studies, for example, may provide some information as well.
8. Omission as a strategy
I did not ask about the omission strategy directly, it came out in the answers. However, when I asked whether swearwords are secondary content in that they can be left out when there is too little space, 84 per cent agreed with the statement. Thus, translators reduce the number of swearwords for many reasons: to curb swearing and perhaps also audience reactions, because they feel that swearwords do not contain the kind of essential information that must be rendered in translation, or because they feel that the message of the swearwords comes across by other means, for example the facial expressions or the tone of voice of the characters. Also, particularly in the case of swearwords in the English and Swedish languages, a great number of Finns are likely to understand the words without the translation. Thus, translators save space for content that is not as easily understood. They may also feel that if they use swearwords in the subtitles and the viewers also recognize the originals, they are in a way adding emphasis to the swearing.
9. Make-up of the questionnaire with viewers
The second questionnaire was carried out among viewers. For practical reasons relating to data processing, it consisted solely of multiple-choice questions. The questions concerned for example the respondents’ views on the number and quality of swearwords in subtitles, and feedback they had given or would give to audiovisual translators. The questionnaire was a web form, the link to which was sent to a web discussion group on television as well as a lengthy mailing list of acquaintances from various age groups and backgrounds.
10. Respondents to Questionnaire 2
There were 133 respondents, 50 per cent of whom were women and 50 men. They were aged between 12 and 60. The largest group was 20 to 30 year-olds, who accounted for 37.9% of all respondents. Moreover, there were 21.2% of 16 to 19-year-olds, 14.4% of 12 to 15-year-olds, 12.1% of 31 to 40-year olds, 7.5% of 51 to 60-year olds and 6.8% of 41 to 50-year olds. The majority, 73.5%, was 30 or under, so there is a bias towards a younger audience. The education of the respondents ranged from primary school to PhD level. Typically, they watched 2 to 3 foreign TV shows per day, but only went to the movies or rented films a few times a year. The range of variation was great, however.
11. So what do the viewers think?
It can be argued that viewers are unlikely to have considered this problem of equivalency or this whole matter as much as translators, but it is nevertheless interesting to find out their gut feelings about it.
The results of the questionnaire study with viewers were that only 23.3 per cent agreed with the statement that swearwords should be milder in subtitles because written swearwords are stronger than spoken. In contrast, 66.2 per cent said that swearwords should be equal in strength (despite the different media). 2.3 per cent even wanted the words to be stronger in subtitles than in the originals, although it remains uncertain how serious these respondents were in their answers. The question proved to be difficult to answer, though, as 11 of the respondents did not respond at all.
The viewers seemed very tolerant to swearwords in their other answers as well. 84.8% of the respondents said no when I asked whether there were too many swearwords in Finnish subtitles. When I asked whether swearwords can be left out when there is not enough space, 41.4 per cent said no, while 45.9 per cent said yes. This was also a difficult question, indicated by the fact that 17 respondents did not answer. The reality of the limitations of space might, of course, not be as familiar to viewers as to professionals, which might affect the results.
12. On feedback
Finally, a brief note on feedback. 33 per cent of the translators had received feedback, mostly (71%) from the audience. The large number is probably indicative of the interactive nature of television and the related media, including websites, and the interest of the general public in the language used in television. In comparison, only 5 per cent of literary translators had received feedback from their readers. The feedback to audiovisual translators was versatile: For example, some had been criticized for leaving out swearwords or using mild translations, some praised for it.
Of the respondents to Questionnaire 2, none had actually given feedback, but when I asked what they would have said if they did give feedback, the results were the following:
- The swearwords used are too strong: only 2 people would have said this.
- The swearwords used are too mild: 11 agreed.
- The swearwords used are mild enough: 14 people agreed.
- It was good that swearwords were left out: 9 agreed.
- It was good that the swearwords used were as strong as the original: as many as 26 agreed.
- I did not like it that swearwords had been left out: again quite many, 19, agreed.
- Fewer swearwords should be used: 7 agreed.
Thus all different kinds of feedback would be given. However, most seemed either happy with the current translations or wanted to see stronger and more swearwords.
13. Concluding remarks
As a result of the strategies of Finnish translators, translations often have milder and less swearwords than the original shows and films. Although attempts at some kind of censorship may occasionally explain this, there are many more reasons for this unrelated to censoring. Translators aim at equivalence but strongly believe – and agree with their employers – that swearwords are stronger when written than when spoken. Thus if SL word A is considered to be equal to TL word B in general, B is considered to have a stronger effect than A when A is spoken and B is written. Therefore option C is often chosen, C being a TL word that would be milder than A if both were written or spoken but is considered to have an equal effect to A when the medium differs as described. This view is also a reason why translations commonly have fewer swearwords than the originals: translators argue that the swearing would be overemphasized compared to the original if every swearword was rendered in the limited lines of the subtitle. Further reasons for omission include that translators feel that the information to be gathered from swearwords is either not very valuable or can be understood from the picture and the tone of voice of characters, so they can be left out to leave space for other information. Also, the audience is very likely to understand certain foreign-language swearwords, so some feel that their translation is therefore unnecessary or brings added emphasis.
However, the majority of the audience members, at least the younger crowd, does not seem to be bothered by swearwords in subtitles. On the contrary, this study suggests that they are tolerant of swearwords and expect to see them, and many wish to see them rendered as faithfully to the original as possible in terms of harshness. Viewers are sometimes even annoyed by strategies of mollification and omission. Thus these strategies may attract unnecessary attention to the translation, unintended by the translator. On the other hand, abandoning these strategies altogether could have the same effect. Also, the fact that the audience seems to have noticed the differences in the number and strength of the swearwords suggests that it understands them even without the subtitles.
All in all, these studies suggest that there might be some kind of a discrepancy between translators’ and broadcasters’ views of viewer expectations and actual viewer expectations. It warrants further research with more respondents and different age groups, and different methods such as reception studies, and gives food for thought to practicing translators, who regularly face and consider these questions.
Hjort, M. (2006). Kirosanojen valikoituminen kaunokirjalliseen ja audiovisuaaliseen käännökseen.
In :Erikoiskielet ja käännösteoria. VAKKI-symposiumi XXVI. Vaasa 11.-12.2.2007.
N:o 33. Vaasa: Vaasan yliopisto.
Hjort, M. (upcoming) Swearwords in original and translated Finnish fiction and as objects of translation (working title). Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Helsinki.
Järvinen, A. (1992). TV-kääntämisen opas. Helsinki: Rti tietopankki.
Laine, M. & Säämänen, R. Suom. huom. Extract from the Language Guidelines of Yle, the Finnish Broadcasting Company.
Vertanen, E. (2001). ”Ruututeksti tiedon ja tunteiden tulkkina”. In: Alussa oli käännös, Oittinen, R. & Mäkinen, P. (eds.). Tampere: Tampereen yliopistopaino Oy.
Miksi kiroilu käännetään aina päin honkia?. Article on the website of The Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters.http://www.sktl.net/kotisivu/IIIkys/Tvev8.htm. 29 November 2005.
 I have discussed the different factors affecting the choice of swearwords in translation further in the article Hjort, M. (2006) “Kirosanojen valikoituminen kaunokirjalliseen ja audiovisuaaliseen käännökseen”. In: Erikoiskielet ja käännösteoria. VAKKI-symposiumi XXVI. Vaasa 11.-12.2.2007. N:o 33. Vaasa: Vaasan yliopisto. [English translation available from the author upon request].
Quotes are translated from Finnish by the author of this paper.
 Referring to the Finnish swearword vittu (see description above).
 I have discussed the particular nature of perkele and its scarcity in translations elsewhere, for example in Hjort (2006) and Hjort (upcoming).