Call the Doctor: YLE under fire over ‘racist’ subtitles

State broadcaster used a controversial word widely considered a racist slur to translate from English to Finnish.

File picture of main title sequence of BBC's Doctor Who programme, shown on YLE / Credit: BBC

A family-friendly television show meant to educate, inspire and promote a sense of adventurous optimism has sparked a conversation about race, racism and language in Finland.

A recent episode of the long-running BBC television show Doctor Who was set in 1950’s Alabama, and told the story of civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Her refusal to give up a seat on a bus which was reserved for white people, inspired segregated communities all across America to take direct action against discriminatory laws and racist practices.

The show is aired on Finnish state broadcaster YLE and its Areena digital service with Finnish subtitles.

The original English-language dialogue has three instances of the word ‘Negro’ which has been translated as ‘neekeri’. Neekeri is widely, but not universally, considered a synonym for the offensive racial slur ‘nigger’ in Finnish.

“They have deliberately placed a racist term into a programme they have themselves said is safe for children, in an episode that is meant to teach the audience something about an important event in history. This may be the first time some viewer learns of Rosa Parks!” says Maija Baijukya, a Black Finn who watched the episode, and took to Twitter objecting about the choice of words used in the translation.

“As if Yleisradio itself has not played a pivotal role in creating the racist society in which I live. Surely, n***eri is not the only word they can think of for black people – for me!”

“They could have once again chosen to draw light to how racism and scientific racism in this country has shaped the language. Why is it that there is no better equivalent for negro in Finnish? Because there was never a need to try to sugar-coat the racism here” she tells News Now Finland.

Screen grab from a Doctor Who episode, showing the word ‘Negro’ translated into Finnish / Credit: BBC

YLE explains the translation issues

Nearly all of the content that YLE buys from overseas is translated in-house, which is also the case for episodes of Doctor Who.

“The translator for the specific episode of Doctor Who weighed different Finnish options for the word ‘negro’, but came to the conclusion that anything other than using the same word in Finnish would be insufficient in describing the dreadfulness of the historic, racist events portrayed in the episode” a YLE spokesperson says in a statement.

YLE also asked the BBC about the episode’s language, and the British public broadcaster said “it was judged dramatically important to sparingly include racist language. The episode clearly dramatises and demonstrates the use of such language as offensive and shocking”.

The Director of YLE’s translation service Christoffer Forssell says if he had done the translation, he would probably have used the same word because it’s difficult to get across the substance of the dialogue otherwise.

“The discussions that are in the episode are really racist, and you have to somehow convey this into Finnish by using similar words. That’s how the translator reasoned. He thought a lot about what to do or whether to change the word” Forssell explains.

Screen grab from a Doctor Who episode, showing the word ‘Negro’ translated into Finnish / Credit: BBC

Translating for subtitles on TV and film

Professional translators say that when working on films and television shows, they need to be aware of not only the words that are spoken, but the meanings behind them as well.

That also applies to controversial words.

“In Finland, and in Finnish in the 1950s when the Doctor Who story is set, the word ‘neekeri’ was pretty much a neutral word to describe black people” says Anna-Maija Ihander, Chairperson of the Audio Visual Translators’ section in the Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters.

In 1950’s Alabama ‘negro’, the word used in the Doctor Who story, was also not considered an offensive word.

“The word choice in the original English was, to my interpretation, chosen because it was the word a person in America in the 1950s would use, and that’s why the translator chose the Finnish word from the same era, with corresponding tone. I would have probably made the same choice” says Ihander.

Translators for television show subtitles – especially one with a parental advisory saying it’s suitable for seven year olds like Doctor Who – have to carefully weigh the pros and cons of using sensitive words like racial slurs or strong curses.

“Usually when we do use them, it’s the result of careful consideration […] a translator’s job is to convey the original meaning and tone as faithfully as possible, and in that work no word can be taboo by default” says Anna-Maija Ihander.

Finding a better solution for race-related translations

Doctor Who viewer Maija Baijukya says YLE shouldn’t have been using ‘neekeri’ at all in the translation and offers a simple solution.

“They could have just used the word ‘musta'” – meaning black – “and that would have brought enough racist context. But then they have an insistence in using words that are more racist than the subject material” Baijukya explains in a video conversation with News Now Finland.

“That is the issue with YLE, because they have been doing that consistently for decades […] they continue to do so and nobody calls them out. And when you call them out they say ‘oh what should we have done’ as if they haven’t had 50 years to figure it out”.