Finland Introduces Subtitling Standards for Consistency Across Platforms

Finland is the latest European country to roll out a new set of quality requirements for subtitles in television programs. The quality recommendations comprise two sets of guidelines; one for Finnish subtitles and another for Swedish subtitles. (Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish.)

The AV Translation Center published the recommendations on January 27, 2020, and the Institute for the Languages of Finland (also known as Kotus) endorsed them in a January 29, 2020 website post.

The guidelines are the culmination of efforts by a working group that included language professionals from organizations such as the Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters (SKTL), the Association of Language Experts, and Kotus.

Eivor Konttinen, a translator and editor for Finland’s national public broadcasting company, Yle, explained in an April 2019 interview with Sprakbruk magazine that the Finnish initiative was inspired by quality criteria developed in Norway in 2018. Denmark’s own guidelines soon followed.

According to SKTL, the recommendations are meant to create consistent subtitling practices, set quality standards for subtitles, and consolidate vocabulary used in the field. The working group also hopes that the recommendations will help subtitlers avoid negative influence from practices in other countries, especially the US.

Anna-Maija Ihander, a participant in the working group and a subtitler for Yle, said in a January 2020 interview that the recommendations are meant to be used by different channels and streaming companies. Apart from sounding natural in Finnish, the recommendations focus on readability and legibility: line segmentation, rendering, time coding and scheduling, and tips for using punctuation and italics.

The recommendations touch on linguistic quality to emphasize that translations should follow Finnish grammar and spelling conventions for sentence structures, and should only deviate if absolutely necessary.

Recommendations state that translations should avoid anglicisms and false cognates and should not replace original cultural references to Finnish equivalents unless appropriate and necessary.

Among the back-to-basics guidelines for translators, the recommendations state that translations should avoid anglicisms and false cognates (a more common problem for novice linguists) and should not replace original cultural references to Finnish equivalents unless appropriate and necessary. Maintaining original cultural references prevents “over-integration,” which takes the viewer out of the immersive world of the program.

A number of organizations have already signed on to the quality standards, including Yle, MTV, and Alfa-TV, as well as language service providers BTI (IYUNO), Pre-Text, Saga Vera, and Rosmer. Others are expected to follow.

Although Netflix has not yet signed on, Ihander said that a Netflix representative participated in the working group. She added that Netflix has recently updated its Finnish Timed Text Style Guide.

SKTL said the working group plans to make recommendations for same-language captioning, again for Finnish and Swedish, later in 2020.

The captioning project has its roots in a 2011 accessibility law that requires Finnish and national commercial channels to subtitle all their Finnish – and Swedish – language programming in the appropriate language for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. The law does not currently spell out quality standards for the subtitles, but a proposed new law may change that.

Finland’s Ministry of Transport and Communications circulated a Draft Act on Electronic Communication Services in November 2019. Among other amendments, the act calls for wider subtitling obligations for television programs. The obligation would extend to “on-demand program services” and would introduce quality standards for subtitling to Yle and public interest channels. The government’s response to the draft act is slated for spring 2020, and legislation is expected to follow in fall 2020.