American Entertainment That Gets Ruined In Translation
Most people learn about the world through school, research, and experience. I learned about it through movies and intense social paranoia. In the past, watching a foreign property used to be a case of either a) learning the language, or b) holding out for someone to upload a badly-dubbed version to Kazaa. Nowadays, however, gaining a new cultural perspective is only a few clicks away, provided that nothing went awry during the translation process.
Spoiler: It probably did.
Seinfeld Became Unfunny Crap In Germany
I know that I make this shit look easy, but writing jokes is more of an inexact science than shoehorning the word "poop" into as many sentences as possible. It relies on word count, poop, build-up, poop, and sentence structure (poop) just as much, if not more, than it does the actual joke. This is something that the writers of Seinfeld understood more than most. They didn't just survive the white-hot pressure that comes with writing the world's most famous television show -- they thrived in it and, in doing so, lay the groundwork for The Big Bang Theory to later drive the whole medium off of a fucking cliff.
Translating the show for foreign audiences proved to be a great challenge. When it came to Germany, however, "challenge" doesn't even begin to describe what happened. The translators expected a verbose sitcom. What they got instead was a perfect storm of nightmare linguistics, wordplay, and Nazis.
The show's trademark wordplay was both a blessing and a curse to the translators, a great example of which takes place in "The Junior Mint." The set-up is simple: Jerry's forgotten the name of his date and the only thing he can remember is that it rhymes with a part of the female anatomy, leading to the gang throwing out suggestions such as Celeste (breast), Aretha (urethra), Bovary (ovary), and Gipple (nipple).
I hate to ruin the surprise of an episode that aired over twenty years ago, but the answer was Dolores (clitoris).
When translating this joke, they couldn't just recycle the joke names because they still rhymed with English anatomical terms. The challenge, therefore, was to take a joke built specifically for the English language and shoehorn German names and German anatomy into it. Their solution was, by the way, was to rhyme Uschi, a shortened version of "Ursula," with muschi, a slang term for "vagina." It was joke-making by way of tearfully paging through a dictionary, trying to save your job.
It wasn't just the jokes either, it was how those jokes were delivered -- "Hello Newman," "master of your domain," "no soup for you," "yadda yadda yadda." On their own, they're all very boring phrases. Add in the loathful cadence of Jerry, the nod-and-a-wink delivery of George, the sharp tack of Soup Nazi, and the blitheness of Elaine, however, and they're precious sitcom treasures. German, meanwhile, is many things, and succinctness and measured delivery don't rate amongst them.
And then, of course, there were the Nazi jokes. The translators were constantly warned about offending viewers by reminding them what terrible people their grandparents had been, leading to lines about concentration camps and Schindler's List getting chopped as well as, holy shit, an entire episode about George being mistaken for a Neo-Nazi.
Some jokes did make the cut, however. The skit where Jerry discusses formal and casual heil salutes had to stay because passing it off as a new form of waving wouldn't have fooled anyone. Soup Nazi only just made it through. Soup Nazi! One of the show's most famous moments nearly wound up on the cutting room floor. What, did they also think about adding a car chase into "The Chinese Restaurant"? Replacing all of the euphemisms in "The Contest" with the characters straight-up saying "I have not masturbated yet?"
I'm seriously asking, because I'll be damned if I'm going to risk prison time pirating this bullshit.
Captain America Became Captain Coward In China
Captain America: The Winter Soldier gives us a little window into Steve Rogers' mind as he considers the things he's missed during his 70-year stint as a Capsicle, and depending on the country who owns the theatre you happen to be sitting in, five of those items will change to fit that country's pop culture favorites.
So Marvel clearly understands the concept of localization, right? They're surely aware that the Marvel Universe isn't limited to countries in which English is the primary spoken language.
Well, whoever handled Cap's internationally-friendly to-do list was either not involved or not awake for the other Avengers movies. If watching Age Of Ultron wasn't punishment enough on its own, Chinese audiences had to put up with bewilderingly literal subtitles.
In one scene, Captain America says, "You get hurt, hurt 'em back. You get killed ... walk it off." In Chinese, that became: "Run fast if someone tries to kill you." Good advice if you're a mailman or a Cracked columnist, but not so much if you're all that stands between the free world and a psychotic robot (not to mention several different alien species and, oh, you know, Thanos).
Iron Man's speech about going on a suicide mission also lost a lot of gravitas when "We may not make it out of this," was translated into "Let's back off now." The phrase "son of a bitch" became "my old, familiar partner" (the two are not, of course, mutually exclusive). Cap's "I'm home" became "I'm good," and a line about waiting too long became "I'm too old," which, while plausible if you're waiting in line at Disneyland, should be alarming when spoken by any superhero.
When Gamora says, "Your ship is filthy," Star-Lord cheekily whispers back, "She has no idea," alluding to the unspeakable things that can be revealed by a blacklight. What audiences read was "Your ship stinks," and "No culture is terrible." Truly, food for thought.
Star-Lord calling Ronan "turd blossom" was also mysteriously translated to "big face." Um ... good ... one, Star-Lord? Make fun of his hands next.
Gamora's "I will not succumb to your pelvic sorcery!" became "I will not succumb to your rhetoric sorcery!" And each time a character was meant to insult Rocket by calling him "rodent" or "weasel," it was translated into "small raccoon," which happens to be a term of endearment if you are Chinese, not unlike France's "little cabbage." As a result, the already-saucy Interplanetary Unusual Attacking Team's sarcasm meter exploded and took half a city block with it.
Finally, Star-Lord's "We're the Guardians Of The Galaxy, bitch," became "We're the Guardians Of The Galaxy, slut." Movie-goers were reduced to tears. Some went home, others stayed for the laughs, but most just tried to puzzle out what the hell was going on. In the end, Marvel still made bank in China. Who's ready for Interplanetary Unusual Attacking Team 2, big-faces?!
"... Baby One More Time" Was A Lot More Innocent In The Original Swedish
Let's drop the act. You read the title for the entry and now, deep down, you want to listen to the song six or seven times. It's totally fine. I wrote this a few weeks ago, and I'm probably still listening to it right now.
Speaking of, do you know what other pretense we should drop? That this song is about "a girl's feelings after a break-up with her boyfriend." This song is all about fucking and so probably wound up serving as a soundtrack to more teen pregnancies than the "psst" of someone opening a wine cooler or the "clunk" of someone dropping a driver's seat back.
The people who wrote the song, however, might disagree with that assertion. See, "... Baby One More Time" was actually written by a group of Swedish composers under the assumption that "hit me" was a euphemism for calling someone on the telephone. That's the true meaning of the song -- Britney just wanted her boyfriend to pick up the damn phone and talk to her, something he'd have a better chance of doing if she didn't spend her after-school hours doing kicklines in the hallways.
Now all Britney had to do was convince America that it was an innocent ballad about unrequited love and not -- we repeat, not -- a call-out for some boogie-woogie. That sounds like an easy task to anyone who doesn't know that America is to sex what the preacher in Footloose was to dancing.
In a last-ditch effort to convince the public that they weren't trying to sell teeny boppers onto the idea of whips and chains, the record label shortened the title to "... Baby One More Time." Britney, meanwhile found the whole thing goddamn hilarious because there's nothing that makes teenagers happier than pissing off stuffy adults.
Harry Potter Is A Totally Different Book From Country To Country
At first glance, Harry Potter seems like it'd be the easiest thing in the world to translate -- every page is riddled with made-up words, nonsensical nomenclature, and preposterous prepositions. Quidditch? Snape? England? It's super-easy to translate words that don't exist, in that you don't bother. Who the hell's going to complain?
Much like Seinfeld, Harry Potter is riddled with wordplay. It permeates everything from spells to locations to characters, and so the difficulty for translators wasn't foreign-izing J.K. Rowling. It was to become J.K. Rowling, and to invent new made-up words that, mindbendingly, had tangible meanings.
Let's start small: Quidditch. It's not a real word so, as our hypothetical lazy foreign translator, you write in a localized made-up word and call it a day, not realizing that you've f**ked it up. In actual fact, Quidditch is an acronym comprised from the balls used in the game: the Quaffle, the Bludger, and the Snitch. The translators could (and did) change the name of the game, but few realized that it needed to be capable of being dismantled into three other words.
Okay, let's up the difficulty a little: Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley, the places where the wizarding community buys their broomsticks, wands, and date rape drugs. "Diagon" and "Knockturn" are, again, made-up words, but they're used to create an atmosphere -- "Diagon" is a strong word reminiscent of regality, whilst "Knockturn" rings of unsavoriness and getting your head kicked in.
The obvious solution for translators would be to translate "Alley" into whatever language they're working with and join the two together -- for instance, Knockturn Ruelle in French and Callejon de Diagon in Spanish -- or, alternatively, use two localized words to elicit a similar good/shady atmosphere.
Do you get the feeling that it's a little more complicated than that, however? You're right to think so.
"Diagon" and "Knockturn" weren't just words that built the mood of their respective locations. When prefaced onto "Alley," they formed two new words: "Diagonalley" (a play on "diagonally") and "Knockturnalley" (a play on "nocturnally"), references to how the wizarding world isn't straight-edge like the muggle world and conducts its affairs in the dark.
But none of that compares to the Tom Marvolo Riddle. In The Chamber Of Secrets, he reveals his name to be an anagram of "I am Lord Voldemort" because he only had the chance to learn either murderspells or the art of subtlety. This is a major plot reveal, so the translators couldn't avoid the task ahead: they had to think of a suitably malevolent-sounding name that also doubled as an anagram of that phrase (or a similar one).
And do you know what? They fucking did it. I know the rest of this article is about ways the translations ruined the original material, but this is impressive enough that I want to call it out. And it's my goddamn article, so ... He's Tom Elvis Jesudor ("Je suis Voldemort" or "I am Voldemort") in France, Tom Mersvoluko Riddle ("And here I am, Lord Voldemort") in Bulgaria, and Tom Dredolo Venster ("Voldemort den store" or "Voldemort the Great") in Norway, among numerous other iterations.
I've been reading Harry Potter since the beginning and I still can't recognize every instance of wordplay, pun, allusion, and acronym (you might be in the same boat). Spare a thought, then, for the translators who had to recognize all of this from the very beginning, never knowing whether that single word they couldn't find a suitable translation for might have wound up playing a larger role in the future books.
It's also only after you realize how different the books are between countries that one inescapable conclusion springs to mind: Unless you possess a supernatural gift for languages, you will never read the entirety of Harry Potter because every translation gives you a slightly different version of events. The multiverse exists, you guys, and it's sitting on bookshelves everywhere right now. Fire up your babel fish and go exploring.
Marina et Adam sont l'equivalent de Cagney & Lacey ou de Mulder & Scully de Cracked, bien que sans les 90 coiffures malefiques. Vous devriez les suivre sur Twitter. Adam a aussi une page Facebook et pourrait ecrire n'importe quoi ici car personne ne va jamais traduire cela. Psyche! Je savais que vous le feriez.
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