The Norwegian Broadcasting Company (NRK) was losing viewers to Disney Channel—rapidly. So in 2014, when NRK’s producers were tasked with bringing young viewers back to Norwegian television, they needed to get creative. Håkon Moslet, the head of NRK’s Youth Department, explained in a 2017 TED Talk that their first responses were web series—Sara, MIA, and Jenter—aimed at girls 10-13 years old. These series, Moslet said, told fictional stories so “close to the kids’ lives that it doesn’t feel like fiction.” The development of this innovative format for television shows established the basis for what would later become the international hit SKAM, a character-driven, online drama with segments released in real-time across media platforms.
What’s more, SKAM achieved this global fame without ever being officially translated or made available in other languages.
When Moslet asked Julie Andem, the producer of these previous hit series, to create a new series for an older audience, she knew that the production for her new series would have to be low budget. Knowing they could not compete with the kind of shows that a slightly older youth audience would already be watching, like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, Andem focused on making the show as honest to their audience’s lives as possible. The SKAM team spent months doing in-depth research on youth culture across Norway to pinpoint the needs of this audience, conducting interviews with teenagers, spending time in schools, scanning social media, and reading about youth identity.
Andem emphasized to Drama Quarterly that the research gave their team “an advantage” in catering to their audience. Knowing “who they are, the culture they grew up in, what they watched on television when they were children, where they go on holiday and what they eat for dinner,” SKAM could emerge with honesty, relevancy, and a respect that their target audience could not find in other television productions.
Based on their research, the SKAM team established a mission statement: “to help 16-year-old girls strengthen their self-esteem through dismantling taboos, making them aware of interpersonal mechanisms, and showing them the benefits of confronting their fears.” SKAM’s production even reflected the target audience’s media habits, engaging them beyond the expectations of a normal series.
As a web series that released clips of their characters in real-time, Moslet describes SKAM as putting “producers at eye-level with fans” and connecting with Norwegian teenagers on a daily, intimate basis. For example, a clip about the characters at school on a Monday morning would be released to viewers at 8:03am on a Monday, and a clip of characters at a party on Friday evening at 11:17pm would be released to viewers at that same time. Viewers had the opportunity to watch the clips as they were released in real-time or to wait until the end of the week, when the week’s clips were combined into a full-length episode. Fans could interact with the SKAM universe across multiple platforms and over extended periods of time, interactions that blurred the show’s fictional universe with that of the day-to-day reality of its audience.
Throughout the week, the “characters” would even post on Instagram and YouTube, on accounts that had tens of thousands of fan followers, and screenshots of text message threads between the characters would be uploaded to the SKAM website. The show became a massive success in Norway, constituting half of NRK’s traffic in June 2016.
What surprised NRK and Norwegian audiences more than its national success, however, was how SKAM quickly grew to be an international sensation. With the release of its third season, SKAM broke Norwegian records for viewership. The show quickly attracted attention in neighboring Denmark and Sweden; Vilde Schanke Sundet, a media and communication professor at University of Oslo, notes that in its third season, “almost one-third of SKAM’s online viewers came from Denmark.” SKAM was then being fan-distributed and translated across the world and winning American media awards. In fact, starting in 2018 with the French SKAM France, other countries began to produce their own remakes of the hit show, and viewership for the original show continued to skyrocket as seven remakes were produced across the world.
But NRK never subtitled the Norwegian-language show or made it available to international audiences. After the release of the third season, NRK geoblocked their website, restricting access to those outside of Norway. Legally, this move was necessary; while SKAM’s soundtrack was widely praised for its integration of both nationally and internationally popular music of the time—notably, “Ingeting” by Kamelen and “5 fine frøkner” by Gabrielle as well as Highasakite’s “Lover, Where Do You Live?” and Coldplay’s “Paradise”—NRK did not have distribution rights for this music beyond the country’s borders.
In fact, SKAM was never formally distributed by international agents, instead being distributed by teenage viewers and fans around the world. Illegally, naturally.
In beginning to watch SKAM, the difficulty of finding clips may actually be part of the appeal: there is something exciting about digging up the links to the show on one’s own. To even find clips of SKAM, a viewer has to click through various Tumblr, Google Drive, and Dailymotion links—and that is just for the original show.
With the original and seven remakes, finding subtitled material in a target language is a challenge. The lack of official subtitles (with some exceptions—newer subtitled episodes of SKAM France are currently being posted on YouTube) became a central issue in expanding the show’s popularity. The fan translator emerged as the central creator of this content, driving distribution that created the international sensation.
Noticing that with the original, it was “already quite hard to find where to watch clips with subtitles,” and that with eight versions, “it was almost impossible to find everything without a lot of research,” Cath, a 21-year-old Québécois university student, started a SKAM website in January 2019 (as some of the translation activity is considered illegal, Cath’s full name has been redacted to protect her identity, and replaced, at her request, with the name she uses in her translation work). Modeled after a similar website, Skamsubita, that organizes episodes of the SKAM Italia remake, Cath’s All of Skam consolidates and organizes the English-subtitled clips for all of the show’s remakes in one place.
When I interviewed Cath in December 2021, she explained that while she originally created All of Skam for her own ease in rewatching the show, after the few weeks it took to build the site, she realized that it could help others in the fandom access material. Cath never expected All of Skam to turn into “one of the biggest SKAM references” in the world.
Cath herself translates SKAM subtitles, starting when she noticed that there “were no French subtitles” for SKAM episodes, and if they existed, “they were done pretty poorly.” Just as English-speaking fans experienced during SKAM’s rise, the accessibility of the show was restricted by available translations. Cath found that French audiences were usually “only watching the French remake because of the language barrier” (rather than watching the original or other versions), and her goal was to “make SKAM more accessible for the French-speaking community.”
Cath is a completely self-taught translator. Though she has never formally studied translation, she taught herself from blogs and tutorials online. In fact, she has “pretty much spent all [her] free time doing subtitles” for the last three years. Cath is a central part of a community that made the show and continues to make its remakes available around the world, constantly expanding SKAM’s audience.
Princeton translation scholar and professor David Bellos notes in his book Is that a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything that for film subtitling, “collaborative translation is the norm,” a trend that continues into SKAM fan translation. To recruit assistance for the translation of SKAM remake subtitles into French, Cath advertises translation tasks on her website and Instagram page (she finds her translators “by asking for volunteers, as simply as that”). Traditionally, at least two translators are needed, with both needing competency in a shared language (for SKAM translators, this language is usually English), one ideally a native speaker of the source-text language (for the original, Norwegian), and another of the target language (like Cath with French).
In their analysis of Anglo-centered cultural hegemony in SKAM, Jennifer Duggan and Anne Dahl introduce the concept of “translations as free ‘gifts,’” the service aspect of which is deeply ingrained in the attitude and actions of fan translators. Subtitle translation is a labor of love and collaboration, and Cath underlines that most translators are kind, a result of understanding “each other’s work” and “how hard it is,” as well sharing the goal of providing as many people access to SKAM as possible. Cath and her team manage the translations from SKAM’s remakes into French and from SKAM France into English (in consolidating translations, All of Skam credits the teams that work on other remakes).
Her team for the English translation of SKAM France is well-established, with different people running social media, clip translation, and publishing. While “translation and subtitling are long and hard tasks” that drive much potential assistance away, Cath has managed to build a strong team of “trust-worthy fellows” for her projects.
Even though the collaborative environment helps share SKAM and build community within the fandom, translation remains a largely solitary endeavor. The process of translating one twenty-minute episode takes Cath, on her own, between two and three hours. For example, to translate the subtitles of a DRUCK episode, the German SKAM remake currently being released, Cath must download the English subtitles file and the full episode without subtitles, create a raw French translation of between 200 and 400 lines of dialogue, fix the timing of the subtitles with each clip, and hardcode the subtitles into the video.
Subtitling is one of the most taxing and mind-bending kinds of translation. Bellos points out that in traditional film subtitling, “the subtitler has around sixty-four characters, including spaces, that can be displayed for a few seconds at most to express the key meanings of a shot or sequence in which characters may speak many more words than that.” Cath approaches this challenge with Aegisub, a subtitling software she taught herself to use that allows fan subtitlers to orchestrate fonts, timing, and placement of subtitles over a video. (In an interview with Forbes, Neil Nadelman, a translator of Japanese anime says that “almost everyone uses [Aegisub], even professionals. A lot of times, professional software isn’t even as good.”)
“It’s a full-time job,” Cath explains. “You have to be ready for anything, and the ‘live’ format of SKAM can be pretty stressful. We never know when a clip will drop and unfortunately, some people still don’t understand that translators are fans just like them and that they aren’t always available, or that translating takes time.”
Cath’s efforts and the efforts of her co-translators, however, have not gone unnoticed.
While All of Skam will always be free, in summer 2020 Cath started a page on Ko-fi, a website advertised as “The Friendly Way to Fund Your Passions,” that allows creators to solicit donations of about the price of a cup of coffee. Cath posted that any donations would help her with school costs and “would be the biggest recognition for [her] work.”
Even so, Cath feels that the money she earns from Ko-fi is not all hers, and that rather it belongs to the “Skamverse,” a term fans use to describe the world created by SKAM, its remakes, and its fans. With the money raised through Ko-fi, Cath has bought translation software and supported fundraisers run by actors from across SKAM and its remakes, such as the top surgery fund for SKAM France actor Alex Bécue. An anonymous Ko-fi donor posted with their donation in August 2021 that “SKAM is life-changing, and your beautiful website is making it more accessible to people all over the world.”
Cath’s work exemplifies the power of fan translators to transcend national borders and make content available beyond the official reach of a show. The act of donating time, energy, and skill to the distribution of quality fan-made SKAM subtitling allows viewers international access to content designed to help them understand themselves and their world. As one donor put it in 2020, “the work you do is the epitome of what it means to do something good with no expectation of a reward…just because you want to share art and bring people together. We need more of that, so thank you!!!”
SKAM’s international success, largely facilitated by its fans’ “gift translations,” spread the Norwegian phenomenon far beyond its borders, empowering audiences around the world to embrace their identities and know that they are not alone in their experiences. Through the fan translator, these worlds are accessible.
In emphasizing the importance of their role, Cath reminded me that “we could all be watching our own stuff in the languages we know, and that’s it. But thanks to amazing people who aren’t even paid to do that, we can enjoy so many other movies and shows, and discuss them with people from all around the world.”