Curses! (in translation)

Published 19th December 2011
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Curses! (in translation)

The translation of a hit Danish series on the BBC, The Killing, has come under fire for exaggerating the level of expletives used by the characters. in this instance, the F-word has been put in place of a softer Dutch equivalent.

When translating for screen or stage, you must keep in mind the spirit of the character, the context of the show and, of course, the audience. This late night crime thriller would perhaps suit such heavy curses in English. However, in Danish this may not be so common, or, arguably, accepted. So….how true can/should a translator stay to the original script when it comes to contentious issues like offensive language?

changing the tone of language

In this context, the language, rather than having been toned down has been toned ‘up’. This was perhaps with the aim of eliciting a reaction from the UK audience. Which perhaps wouldn’t be managed with the use of a subtler expression.

When subtitling, a translator needs to make an educated decision of how much of the original script s/he will include. There is just not enough room, or time, to include everything you might expect from accurate translations in the script on-screen; strong language, whilst certainly not an essential part of everyday vocabulary, clearly contributes to the atmosphere of such a gritty drama, and perhaps, in this case, the translator felt that to have the same effect on a British audience, s/he needed to up the ante and include a stronger word.

No need to swear in Danish

Although, if you are watching the show and listening to the Danish whilst reading the subtitles and making the most of the opportunity to teach yourself a bit of the language, then it is moments like this, when a word or a phrase has been adjusted to meet the requirements of a target audience, that you may feel yourself misled.

This happened to Alison Graham, editor of the Radio Times, who had picked up a few Danish swear words from the programme and prided herself on her ‘ability to swear in Danish’. After discovering the difference in register between the Danish and English swear words however, she expressed disappointment.

What do you think? In order to keep the atmosphere of a television programme, or play, should any instances of offensive language be included? Was it appropriate to insert the F-word into The Killing? Let’s note that the complaints received were not made by offended individuals, but by Danish speakers who noticed the discrepancy…

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