Lost in translation – reading values between the lines

I went to see a Swedish film recently. I enjoy watching films in my mother tongue, not just because I learn (or remember) things about Swedish culture, but also because I have fun reading the subtitles.

Subtitling is a difficult job. The translator has to fit everything that’s said, ideally with nuances and not just the literal words, into one or two lines of text. It’s like tweeting film dialogue: A lot is lost. When the translator is good, you don’t mind,this is how it works. When the translator’s not so good, well, it can be annoying. I have tales. But I’m not telling one of them today. This film was well translated. It did, however, tell me something about British culture*.

Two women are talking together. One of them doesn’t understand the other one’s relationship choices. She says something along the lines of: ‘You meet someone, build a relationship, have kids and get married‘, neatly spelling out a Swedish relationship narrative. The translation laid out the British version: ‘You meet someone, build a relationship, get married and have kids.’

As my fellow lady scientist Jessica Johannesson Gaitán said when I attended a poetry translation workshop she ran, ‘translation is about choices‘. I imagine that when you translate a film, the aim is to help the viewer understand the dialogue, to ensure that there’s as little as possible between them and their enjoyment of the film.

I can’t stop wondering why the translator decided that the idea of having children before marriage would shock the viewer out of their engagement with the film. Were they they concerned that the original order would mean the film wouldn’t work in English-speaking countries with strong religious leanings? Where they themselves taken aback and wanted to save the viewer the same shock? Or was it a not a decision at all: Did they miss-hear, or assume, the order?

It’s not the choice I would have made, but the reasons for it will continue to intrigue me.

* Assuming that the translator was British.

(If you get a chance to watch Force Majeure – do. It is frustrating and sad and full of family drama, but it is also very funny and sweet.)


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