EXCLUSIVE: BBC clamps down on swearing in The Killing

Never mind the sweaters - the "devil" is in the detail when you're translating Danish

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EXCLUSIVE: BBC clamps down on swearing in The Killing
Written By
David Crawford

Amid all the differences between the first and the second series of The Killing, there is one change that may slip by unnoticed: the language. The BBC has requested that the swearing used in the subtitles is toned down, RadioTimes.com can reveal.

A memo sent to Voice and Script International (VSI), the company doing the translation, stated: “Going forward, the consensus here is that we should keep an eye on the number of expletives being added. Where there are a number of options of which word to use, err on the side of caution, and use the less strong word.”

The memo followed a complaint from a viewer that in the first series, relatively inoffensive Scandinavian expletives had been rendered almost exclusively as the f-word.

Simon Chilcott, editor of programme acquisitions at the BBC, who was instrumental in bring The Killing to the UK, confirms there were concerns over the consistency of the subtitling. “We did feel the need to rein them in if they are being a bit edgy; it was a reminder to keep it consistent with the character and to bear in mind the context of the original script, and of the series. If there are suddenly lots more uses of the f-word in one episode, we have to check it’s consistent with the script and the rest of the series.” 

A source at VSI explains the background to the complaint: “When we looked back at the instances of the f-word in the 20 episodes of the first series, we found that 75% were in the original script and 25% had been added. The translator who worked on the series then said that where there was an expletive that could range in meaning from ‘goddammit’ to ‘f***’, he had used the f-word as he felt that in the scenes it was meant to offend or insult another person, which he felt fitted the overall tone of the series.” 

The source stresses that “translation is subjective to some extent; you have to use language that best fits the tone of the programme” and gives examples of Danish words that can be rendered in several different ways in English. “Svin in Danish translates directly as ‘swine’ but also has a stronger meaning. In English you could use either ‘bastard’ or ‘f***er’. The Danish ‘piss’ actually translates as ‘s***’ or something stronger. The Old Norse word ‘faen’ literally refers to the Devil but can now also mean ‘b*****d’, ‘s***’ or ‘f***’.”

Chilcott also points out some of the pitfalls of translated subtitles: “Inevitably the translator puts some of their own voice into the subtitles. It’s not just a straight translation; it’s a rewrite. Often a direct translation would be awkward and stilted, and would not read well on screen. Subtitling can also be about précis. You can’t have too much text.”

He adds that the BBC’s review process means they will always go back and correct any inaccuracies. So prick up your ears and keep your eyes peeled in the new series for how “svin”, “piss” and “faen” have been translated.

Alison Graham, RT’s television editor and the critic who first brought The Killing to British viewers’ attention, said: “It’s a shame, I’ve spent months priding myself on my ability to swear in Danish having carefully read the subtitles, then equally carefully listened to the dialogue to pick out the supposedly mucky words. And now it turns out I’m not saying ‘f***’, I’m saying ‘devil’ or ‘b*****d.’ What a b******.”

A BBC spokesperson said "Whilst translation is not an exact science the important thing is that the subtitles represent the tone and sentiment of the dialogue as accurately as possible. At no point did the BBC ask for any strong language to be removed or toned down in The Killing II."

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