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‘A Fine Kettle of Fish’: Exploring Textual Norms in Finnish Subtitles – Susanna Jaskanen

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume1, 2001

Translation Studies

© 2001 Susanna Jaskanen


Susanna Jaskanen

Abstract. This paper explores textual norms in Finnish subtitling both in theory and in practice. Toury’s ideas on translation and norms are first discussed briefly, and invisibility, readability and faithfulness to the original are then identified as the principal textual norms associated with subtitling in Finnish extratextual sources (guidelines to subtitlers and the like). The reality of subtitling is approached from the viewpoint of and difficulties in translating humour. Maintaining the invisibility of the subtitles can be difficult or even impossible because the image itself carries audial and visual cues that limit a subtitler’s choices. Breaking norms can also result from a conscious risk taken by the subtitler, the motivation being that a source-culture oriented translation solution cannot communicate the humour of the original to the target-culture audience.

1. Introduction

Subtitling is undoubtedly one of the most visible forms of translation encountered in everyday life in Finland. If given the choice, most Finns would probably rather watch, say, a sitcom episode with subtitles than without them, but subtitlers themselves often feel that their efforts are not appreciated. Good work passes largely unnoticed; occasional lapses and errors meet with easy and occasionally sharp criticism and they may even end up on an Internet site listing subtitling gaffes. Indeed, as Shochat and Stam say (1985:46), “subtitles offer the pretext for a linguistic game of ‘spot the error'” for those viewers who have a command of both the source and the target language.

Why is it that the viewers’ expectations and the reality of subtitling sometimes seem to be worlds apart? To find possible answers, I will first explore textual norms in Finnish subtitling in theory and then I will illustrate the problems of living up to these ideals from the viewpoint of translating humour.

2. Ideals and expectations

The idea of translation being a norm-governed activity was first explored by Gideon Toury in his innovative book In Search of a Theory of Translation in 1980 and further developed in Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond in 1995. Toury suggested that the position and function of what is considered to be a translation in a given culture are determined by the target culture and that translations are first and foremost “facts of target cultures” (1995:29). Translational activity is governed by norms that have relevance in the target culture framework in which the translator operates. Norms could be described as the society’s way of regulating behaviour by saying what is accepted or tolerated, on the one hand, and what is disapproved of or outright forbidden, on the other. Breaking norms does not pre-empt their existence in the first place; as Toury points out (1995:55), possible deviations from norms occur at the risk of sanctions on the part of the society.

Toury sees a translation as a text that occupies a position or fills a slot in the target culture as well as a target language representation of a pre-existing source-language text belonging to another culture. The translator operates between two sources of constraints: the translation’s adequacy, or its “adherence to source norms” (1995:56), and its acceptability, or its adherence to target norms. In practice, the choices made by the translator involve some sort of compromise or negotiation between the two extremes. Toury distinguishes between norms as such and normative formulations found in extratextual sources; while the latter may reflect actual norms in society, they may also be motivated by other reasons, such as the desire to create new norms (1995:55).

The following discussion of textual norms in Finnish subtitling is based on statements made by subtitlers and viewers alike, on in-house guidelines used by television channels and subtitling companies as well as on my own experience as a subtitler (for formal norms in Finnish subtitling, see Jaskanen 1999). Subtitling companies have their own sets of norms, which show a great deal of variation and which each subtitler adopts, at least to some extent. Companies may have in-house stylebooks that contain advice, recommendations, and sometimes even outright rules for subtitlers; and/or in-house practices may be gradually assumed and exchanged through feedback from employers, colleagues, and viewers. Textual norms are a group of conventions that are very difficult to summarise and that can vary from general principles to minute details. Here I will focus on three textual norms: invisibility, readability and faithfulness to the original.

The “invisibility of subtitles” seems to be the overriding ideal to which both viewers and subtitlers alike subscribe. Pia Valtanen wrote in her interview of the subtitler Esko Vertanen (Helsingin Sanomat 12 June 1998, this and other extracts below translated by SJ): “There is a paradox in Vertanen’s work: the more invisible a Finnish translation is, the better it is.” Eivor Gummerus from FST, the Swedish-language unit of YLE (the Finnish Broadcasting Company), expressed the same idea when she said that a subtitling is good if it does not disturb the eye. Subtitling for TV and video – a short manual used in the company Subtitling International also advocates the invisibility of subtitles, saying that “[t]hey should ideally blend in with the film in such a way that the viewer doesn’t notice them and they must never distract the viewer from the story” (1994:3).

Readability is another aspect of invisibility. Readability can, of course, mean different things in different contexts, but in subtitling it basically means avoiding linguistic elements that require extra processing on the part of the viewer. The subtitler Kaarina Suvanto said in an interview in Katso (Häkkinen and Itkonen 1999): “A subtitling should be easy to read and concise, so that the viewer has time to concentrate on the picture.” Also the subtitling guide used in YLE says that translations should be in a flawless and clear standard language (Rainò 1997:615).

Readability can be used as an argument against the use of slang and dialects. The subtitler Eija Pokkinen said in an interview in Helsingin Sanomat (Pere 1987): “I would like to use dialects in translations, but they are considered to be difficult to read.” The situation may have changed somewhat over the years, but dialects are still rarely seen in subtitles. However, readability is not the only factor behind the tendency of avoiding dialects. A good example of this is the controversy caused by the subtitling of the Irish series Family broadcast by YLE in 1996; the subtitler had relied heavily on dialectal expressions, which was criticised even in the press. Viewers may have felt that the invisibility often associated with subtitlings had been violated and the translation had an unauthentic feel to it because of the strongly regional, as opposed to social, quality of Finnish dialects. The illusion of the invisibility of subtitles was broken when they did not seem to fit the reality of a Dublin working class family. A similar discussion was raised by the subtitling of the German series Heimat broadcast by YLE in 1986 (Rainò 1997:615).

One textual expectation that most viewers seem to share is that the subtitling should not deviate too much from the original version. Their ideal of faithfulness to the original would seem particularly difficult to achieve in subtitling, where television as a medium imposes its own constraints on the outcome. Still, the fact that in subtitling the original soundtrack is present as a sort of touchstone, often leads into partisan discussions on the liberties the translator is allowed to take. These discussions tend to be rather atomistic, with viewers concentrating on individual words or expressions that have been translated inadequately. Behind these discussions there is probably the notion of equivalence in the strict sense of the term as well as long-standing arguments over whether subtitling is, indeed, translation proper. Interestingly, the opinions that some viewers have on translation may differ considerably from those of the subtitler, as the following extract from a reader’s letter to the editor of Katso demonstrates (Lehto 1997): “One should, in my opinion, translate clever wordplay so that the meaning of the sentence is retained and the joke is lost and not try to force a Finnish-language wordplay and lose the whole plot in the process.” This opinion hardly reflects the views of all the viewers, yet it is one plausible concern for subtitlers.

3. A reality check

Looking at actual subtitlings, a somewhat different picture emerges. Meeting the ideals of invisibility, readability and faithfulness to the original can be difficult precisely because television is an audiovisual medium. The problems are particularly acute in translating humour. Defining humour has proved extremely difficult, but Kerbrat-Orecchioni’s (1981) pragmatic definition of humour as a text whose perlocutionary, i.e. intended, effect is laughter seems like a fruitful approach (Attardo 1994:13), because it accounts for humour both as a cultural phenomenon and a social one. When viewers switch on the television to watch a sitcom, they expect to see a programme punctuated with one-liners and funny situations, where humour is signposted with canned laughter. What is more, they expect the subtitling to function as humour in the target culture.

The visual dimension of television can make translating humour a true challenge. The following example is from an episode of the U.S. comedy Sabrina, the Teenage Witch broadcast by YLE on 4 August 1998 (subtitled by Tuula Friman); Sabrina’s aunt Hilda suffers from punnitis (translated as sanaleikkisyndrooma ‘wordplay syndrome’), which means that the idioms she uses come true, literally:

[HILDA:] You need to play the field.


[HILDA:] Sorry, it’s that darn punnitis flaring up again.

[SABRINA’S TALKING CAT SALEM:] “A fine kettle of fish”. Say it. Oh please, say it.

[HILDA:] Laajenna kokemusmaailmaasi.


[HILDA:] Anteeksi, sanaleikkisyndrooma iski jälleen.

[SABRINAN PUHUVA KISSA SALEM:] “Kaunis soppa, oikea kalakeitto”. Sano se!

Collins Cobuild defines a fine kettle of fish as a situation “that is very difficult and will cause difficulties” (Sinclair et al. 1987). For obvious reasons, Sabrina’s cat hopes that the phrase is taken at face value; however, the subtitler must have felt at a loss. Her latitude is bound by the image: what might work in a text may be impossible to realise in television, and even the best solution available may feel a bit contrived.

Occasionally the visual context can be so restrictive that there are no satisfactory solutions; in another episode (broadcast on 30 June 1998) Sabrina feigns illness and her aunt Hilda transforms her into a fakir sitting on a bed of nails:

[SABRINA:] I’m sick.


[SABRINA:] A bed of nails? Why am I like this?

[HILDA:] Because you’re a fakir [fa:ki¶ r]. You know, an Indian mystic. A fakir [feik¶ r].

[SABRINA:] This is a very painful pun, Hilda.

[SABRINA:] Olen kipeä.


[SABRINA:] Naulamatto? Minkä takia?

[HILDA:] Koska olet fakiiri. Intialainen mystikko. Fakiiri.

[SABRINA:] Tämä on kivulias vitsi.

The example above includes a pun based on homophony, i.e. one of the two alternative ways of pronouncing fakir coincides with how faker is pronounced. The fakir/faker pun is untranslatable in Finnish because it has been visualised, and the visual aspect of the medium cannot be manipulated (Zabalbeascoa 1994:96). Inevitably, this also violates the invisibility of the subtitling; in Gottlieb’s words (1994:268; emphasis original), “the illusion of the translation as the alter ego of the original is broken”.

The fakir/faker pun is illustrative of negative visual feedback, where the image makes it impossible to rewrite the humour in the target language. Here the image carries “cues which support the dialogue” (Roffe 1985:219) and which cannot be altered or removed. In case of negative audial feedback, the audial cues on the soundtrack are so strong that translators feel that they must leave, say, a culturally specific name intact in the subtitle. However, what kind of feedback and how much of it is interpreted as negative is ultimately a cultural issue and, therefore, one bound by norms.

Contextual feedback can be regarded as negative for example in connection with “jokes presupposing a detailed knowledge of people and places in the source culture” (Gottlieb 1992:165). A target culture oriented approach, i.e. replacing a source-culture specific item with a target-culture specific one and thus naturalising it, may be considered inappropriate in television, where both visual and audial cues point to the source culture. However, breaking textual norms can also be a deliberate act. The following example, where the 20-something Lelaina comments on the career prospects of her slacker friend Troy, is from the Generation X film Reality Bites released in 1994 (the rental/retail video version subtitled by Timo Porri):

[TROY:] I’ll probably be working at Whole Foods you know, playing warehouses and hanging around places like the Radio Shack screaming that I used to know you and you’ll be in the lights and all beautiful and shit.

[LELAINA:] Oh, Troy, no no no no no, that would never happen. They’d never hire you at Whole Foods.

[TROY:] Olen varmaan töissä Elannossa, soitan varastoissa ja kiljun että tunsin sinut, ja sinä loistat valoissa[.]

[LELAINA:] Ei siinä niin käy. Ei sinua otettaisi Elantoon[.]

The pragmatic equivalent chosen by the translator, i.e. Whole Foods translated as Elanto, violates the principle of “referential accuracy” mentioned by Zabalbeascoa (1996:237) and thus the ideal of the invisibility of the subtitling; after all, Finnish viewers do know that Elanto is part of the Finnish cultural framework. Porri has naturalised the cultural item by replacing a source-culture specific item with a target- culture specific one for the purposes of humour, but he has probably been aware of the strategy being controversial, since Elanto had been replaced by the more neutral alehalli when the film was broadcast with his subtitles by MTV3 in January 1998. However, the following example had been retained in the MTV3 version:

[TROY:] What ‘Hey, That’s My Bike’ would like to do as a band is travel the countryside like Woody Guthrie.

[SAMMY:] Or Richard Simmons. You know, how in his commercials he surprises people jogging.

[TROY:] Hey That’s My Bike haluaisi bändinä kiertää maata, kuten Woody Guthrie[.]

[SAMMY:] Tai lottovoittaja jonka “pitäs kiertää mualimoo”[.]

Porri has replaced the reference to an American commercial with a reference to a well-known Finnish commercial, which also includes a dialectal expression. Again, naturalisation here seemingly infringes the invisibility of subtitles, as the target language audience undoubtedly knows that the commercial in question is Finnish. The subtitler has chosen a target-culture oriented rendering probably because he feels that it will pass for humour better than a source-culture oriented one – because he feels that the adequacy and acceptability of the subtitling as humour come first.

It is true in a way that target culture adaptations such as the two examples above give rise to “a credibility problem” (Nedergaard-Larsen 1993:231). Also Gottlieb says that negative contextual feedback can be “so strong that a more idiomatic, ‘functional’ rendering will be counter-productive” (1994:268). He further argues that viewers want “a direct translation of what is said” (1994:268), which, judging by extratextual sources, may be the case in Finland. Zabalbeascoa (1996:249) suggests that translators are often afraid of meeting with criticism either on the part of the viewers or their employers or clients. Indeed, subtitlers who decide to break norms take a conscious risk because they may be reprimanded for their choice.

4. Conclusion

When translating humour in television, subtitlers sometimes feel that they have very little latitude, or no latitude at all. They try to seek solutions that might function for the target-culture audience in a maximally similar way as the original did for the source- culture audience; still, they can only guess how the solutions they choose will actually be seen and accepted by the audience.

Television as a medium may carry audial and visual cues that guide or even dictate the subtitler’s choice. In cases where the joke has been visualised, such as the fakir/faker pun above, humour may be simply untranslatable. In sitcoms containing canned laughter, the joke is left without a coda and the invisibility of the subtitling is broken as an unavoidable side-effect.

Breaking textual norms can also result from a conscious choice made by the subtitler, as in the Whole Foods example above. The subtitlers then ignore negative contextual feedback and adjust the original to the target culture because they feel that a source- language oriented rendering cannot communicate the humour of the original. In such cases, the adequacy and acceptability of the text as humour override the invisibility, readability and faithfulness to the original often associated with subtitling.



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