Thursday, May 12, 2011

Lost in translation

When my writing partner, David Isaacs and I did a rewrite on JEWEL OF THE NILE for Michael Douglas we had to have the script approved by the Moroccan government before they'd be allowed to film there. Make sure no international crisis would be caused by one of our jokes. So the screenplay was translated into French. I was given a copy of the French version. I don't speak French (or any language including English sometimes) but my wife does. She knows at least enough to yell at desk clerks in Paris.

She read the new version and said it made absolutely no sense. Jokes were translated word by word. So characters were just speaking gibberish.

The script was approved. (Oh, if only networks had the same high standards.)

And recently I came across an episode of ALMOST PERFECT that was dubbed into German (German being the universal language of comedy). I have no idea how faithful the translation was. All I know is that everybody seemed to be angry with everyone else, even in the love scenes.

I have a lot of readers abroad so let me ask you -- do US comedies make sense in different languages? Other than pratfalls, are they remotely funny? (Watch – YES DEAR is considered the funniest US sitcom on three continents.)

There's a reason action movies do better in foreign markets than comedies. You don't have to appreciate irony to enjoy a good explosion.

I've seen a few French comedy movies and have enjoyed them, even with subtitles. And you know a joke is bulletproof if the subtitle can get a laugh. But if the comic premise is clever and the actors are good the movie should work. Interestingly, I've seen several US remakes of French comedies and despite the English-friendly dialogue, I always prefer the originals. Maybe it's just the relief of never having to see Jim Carrey.

I always wonder how faithful the subtitles are to the actual dialog. Haven't you seen this before? A character chatters for thirty seconds. And the subtitle is "Sure". Huh? Or when the subtitle occasionally gives directions. I've seen "nodding" and "takes a puff". Uh, we stupid Americans can see that.

I'm going to try to find someone German who can translate ALMOST PERFECT now. I'm dying to see if our frothy little romantic comedy became Nancy Travis in DAS BOOT.

Heading off today for Cleveland to broadcast the Mariners' three-game series with the Indians.  Join me tomorrow night at 7 PM EDT/4 PM PDT on 710 ESPN Seattle or MLB.COM for all the action and pitching changes.


KenFan said...

One of the strangest things I've ever read about is taking US sitcoms and essentially just translating the scripts into a local language and hiring local actors. I know it's been done with Married With Children (Russian) and Everybody Loves Raymond (Russian). In fact Phil Rosenthal has a pretty funny documentary (never thought I'd write funny and documentary in the same sentence) called Exporting Raymond which details his experiences. Here's a link to some Russian language clips of Married and Raymond:

Has there ever been any interest in a foreign language rebooting of MASH, CHEERS or BECKER? I'm somewhat surprised that people aren't beating down the doors to do a foreign CHEERS, it seems to me that it's one of the most "relatable" sitcoms to ever come out of the US.

Dennis Hartin said...

First time I saw Night at the Opera was in Paris, with French subtitles. A professor of mine had told me that the French love the Marx Brothers, and I asked, "What about the puns?" He said, "The puns are lost."

Sure enough, the punch line of the contract scene between Groucho and Chico (you know, "There ain't no sanity clause") was changed to some lame remark about how hopeless they both were, and the audience roared.

I guess the revised joke was at least as funny as Jerry Lewis.

Timo said...

I would translate "Almost Perfect" to "Fast perfekt" (No, it wouldn't star Vin Diesel and Paul Walker). I don't know about the "2 Singles in a double bed".

John said...

As much as the dialog, the foreign language translations or reboots of a show's theme song (back in the days when TV shows actually had a theme songs), are always interesting (and often painful) to hear.

Good luck in Cleveland this weekend, Ken. They were just saying on ESPN this morning that despite their start, the Indians are dead last in attendance so far this season in MLB, so they need all the people in the stadium they can get.

Timo said...

MASH was dubbed really good. That was a time when people who dubbed movies actually cared about what they are doing. these weren't word to word translations. They tried to get feel, the idea and the joke across.

Amanda said...

My favorite subtitled moment came a couple of weeks ago when I rented "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" (which was surprisingly funnier than I expected) and at one point, a character said "Adios!" and the subtitles read "(speaks Spanish)".

Anonymous said...

My friend and I used to do a bit where he would play Billy Graham and I was his Korean translator.
(Note: neither of us is reverend or Korean)

He would do a long rant about fire and brimstone and love and peace, with me watching him and nodding. When he finished, I would look at the audience and say, "Hee mou lot fan"
and turn back to him. Audience cracks up.
He would say, "Praise the lord, amen" I would go on for 7 minutes, with hand gestures, miming other characters, drawing diagrams and finally wiping sweat from my forehead turn back to him.
We'd then riff back and forth trying to get the length of our bits to match.

God, I miss high school.

Unknown said...

I'm german by the way.

Almost Perfect last aired on "Das Vierte" ("The Fourth" is the literal translation) in 2010. Looking at that list it seems it mostly aired on Pay TV (which I got, I get all the channels listed)

There are no DVDs out so we'd have to wait for the next airing but if you want I could try to find the pilot and transcribe the translation and translate it back.

Question is how great of a perspective you would get then because the translation back into english could be the problem then, not if the german version was funny. I mean I know the show in german and think it was funny when I saw it but we also know that you posted scenes from Almost Perfect in english here where I said "That's not really funny IMHO".

So again: I know the show in german, and I also watched "Cheers" for years when I was a teenager and twen at 1am on the german channel "RTL". It ran at least for a decade in that timeslot and it was awesome. That's why I came here in the first place (ok mainly because you got mentioned on TV Squad but I loved Cheers and that's why I wanted to read more from you).

The problem with Comedy is the same as with ALL german voiceovers. As long as you don't know the English original and as long as the translation is not total BS and your English skills aren't perfect to instantly know that the translation is shitty, you laugh your ass off.

The best example I always use is a scene from "The Simpsons", where Lisa is in a bookstore, picks a book from a shelve, takes a look into the book, puts it back and says in a dismissive tone "Zu viele Schwüre", which literally means "Too much Swearing". The problem is that the translator used the word for swearing that describes the thing you do in the stand in court, not the word for swearing AT someone, or ABOUT something. That word would be "Fluchen", which has another translation: cursing.

Those scenes are the reason why I had only one hobby when I grew up: learn more english. Because the jokes are ALWAYS better in English ESPECIALLY when you know the US culture to get all the cultural references.

But, and here's the other side of that coin: if the translator isn't paid in canned food and actually KNOWS what they are writing about, if they have the show in front of them and can look at the CONTEXT, then they are usually able to use a GERMAN cultural reference.

Until today the most highly praised translation of a computer game is by Boris Schneider Johne. He translated all of the Monkey Island games and the example he always uses is the word "root beer" in the english version of the game. What he did was translate it into the name of a german drink for kids that's called "Malzbier" which is something totally different (it's brewed and has a tiny alcohol content and is very very sweet and I get fat almost instantly when I drink it - compared to root beer that, at least to me, tastes absolutely horrible and the only reason I tried it was because I knew about this little anecdote here).

That said: if I can get a hold of an episode of Almost Perfect in German I could transcribe it and then we can all judge ourselves if the translation was good.

Question is if anyone would want to read something like that since I'm obviously quite a wordy shipmate ^^;

Blaze Morgan said...

While channel surfing once, I came upon the original "MASH" movie on the French Channel. It happened to be the scene where the hooligans are listening in on Frank and Margaret making out for the first time. The creation of the name "Hotlips" came around. I hope it was funny for the folks in Quebec, but the French had twice as many syllables and certainly didn't alliterate with "Houlihan".

I've read a fascinating history-reminiscing around the efforts to translate the popular French comic, "Asterix the Gaul". Those guys worked REALLY hard to translate the puns and jokes, and if it just didn't cross the language barrier, they made up new jokes.

Ruprect the Monkey Boy said...

Have fun here in Cleveland! I assume you'll be running in the Cleveland Marathon this weekend? Both days?

Don't forget after you finish your 5K on Saturday to head to the International Beer Fest to replenish all the calories you burn.

Or just enjoy your hotel. Either way.

A_Homer said...

I watched while living in Germany. Alot of the 1990s and 00s are done well, like Golden Girls, Home Improvement or the like. The cast of Frasier is really close in overall tone, and they catch the changes in humor-styles (like shift to farce-speed).

Simpsons is actually quite ok, but it depends on which Season (another problem as longer running shows have eventually different voice talents - Marge definitely changed over the seasons).

But if you watch an older 60s program, like "The Odd Couple" it is striking how often it is badly done. There are big stretches of silence, as if they had to wipe the soundtrack to get new voices added.

Which leads to the other point that can be great, that often there are NO laugh tracks, or seemingly played low.

Weirdest: watching Hogans Heroes in German.

Nick's Cartoon voices are really well done, like Spongebob, work as well. But he's a "spongehead" rather than "squarepants"

If you've watched, say, Married with Children or Two-and-a-half men in German, you realize too that it hardly matters regarding translation because so little is being said or simply is required. It's more like guide text.

While ironically enough, a real acid-test for translation and language skills is the Penguins of Madagascar, as the language and vocabulary is impressive for tv, and fast paced on top of that. German has to add words in any translation of English, so imagine the issues.

Steve Zeoli said...

We have a friend who married a German. One day we were all at breakfast and found it interesting to discuss all the 1960s U.S. sitcoms that our German friend had watched as a kid growing up. We'd name a show and he'd say he'd watched it. Then my brother said, "My favorite was Hogan's Heroes." The German looked puzzled and said he had never heard of "Hogan's Heroes". I looked at my brother and said, "Did you really expect that Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz would play in Germany?" Somethings translate too clearly.

Unknown said...

"Hogan's Heroes" didn't air in germany until 1992. The reason behind that I think is more due to the fact that until 1986 we only had THREE channels and NO privately owned ones at all. 86 is when they lifted the "Government Only" thing when it came to airwaves and spectrum on cable.

Anyway, the reason why Marge Simpson has a new voice actress is that the original one died. But honestly I think that's a problem EVERY long running show has.

*tarazza said...

You worked on Jewel of the Nile?! Awesome.

Mike Doran said...

Over on YouTube, I found the music of Bill Ramsey.

He's an American who, since the late '50s, has been one of Germany's most popular recording stars.

His first big German hit(schlager), circa 1959, was a German-language cover of Purple People Eater. In Deutschland, it's called Wumba Tumba Schokoladeneisverkaufer. In this version, the spaceman sells chocolate ice cream.
A number of Ramsey's other Schlagers are covers of American hits, but in most cases the German lyrics have nothing to do with the American ones. For example, the song we knew as Banned in Boston is called Das Madchen mit dem aufregrenden Gang (The Girl with the Interesting Walk).
Ramsey also does a version of Mule Skinner Blues called Missouri Cowboy, a duet with Peter Alexander that you really have to see to believe.

Many of Ramsey's other hits are German originals that would not really withstand direct translation into English (as I learned as I sat with my Berlitz dictionary trying to puzzle them out).

They're loads of fun to watch and listen to, though - particularly Souvenirs Souvenirs, Zuckerpuppe, and especially Ohne Krimi geht die Mimi nie ins Bett (have fun translating that one).

Just go to YouTube and type in Bill Ramsey.
You can danke me later.

YEKIMI said...

since I don't live that far from Cleveland, what does one have to do to come visit you in the broadcast booth?

YEKIMI said...

assuming you don't mind visitors, that is.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Here in Brazil, they generally work and make sense to the audience. Subtitled versions tend to work better than dubbed versions though.

It also depends on the actors who dub the material. Some are very good getting the content across. Others not so much.

Reactions can be mixed, depending on the audience.

I took a subtitle class a few years back. Some of the original jokes can make it through the process, but you still need to rewrite others, since they will get lost in the translation (by the way, one of my assignments was translating a State of the Union episode of The West Wing; tough lesson).

Gilles said...

Just so that you know, cheers is being done here in Madrid Spain.....I really liked the show, and I ca't wait to see it here in Spain. As you say it's really hard to make that transition.

rickles34 said...

Just so that you know, CHEERS is being done here in Spain..... Can't wait, these kind of transformation can be quite interesting.....
I loved the shoe when it was first broadcast in US.

Der Olli said...

Great dubbing:
Cheers, Frasier, Home Improvement, M*A*S*H

Not so great dubbing:
Simpsons (although the german voices are great), Seinfeld, Friends

I think the bad translation is the reason why Seinfeld never was a big hit in Germany.

Does anybody of my fellow Germans remember this?

RCP said...

Another informative and entertaining post - thanks Ken and Commenters.

Or should that be: Merci, Danke, Grazie, Gracias, SaHHa, Cheers, Thenk ye, Asante, A dank aych, Ngiyabonga...

(OK I looked most of those up)

VP81955 said...

Ken, too bad you can't cross the plane into sitcom world while in Cleveland (a la "Hi Honey, I'm Home!) -- you could run into those four funny ladies from TV Land and the guy that looks like Wayne Knight who lives across the street from them.

Chris said...

As far as I know, Romania is one of the few European countries that doesn't dub any shows, they just use subtitles and they're trying to pass a law to change things and have everything dubbed, everyone thought it's a bad idea, especially in comedy.

Subtitles around here are usually pretty good, M.A.S.H. was big and Cheers did quite well too, however from time to time they'll throw in the occasional mistake (especially with wordplays). As far as I'm concerned, you lose a lot of the show's quality by dubbing, there's no way you'll get actors as talented as the original ones and most won't even get the jokes.

Watching original American and British TV with just subtitles or without any translation did a lot for me.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in the USA and have lived in Germany for more than ten years. I do my best not to watch any dubbed television or films for reasons that I assume are obvious. The primary problem with dubbing, aside from the fundamental one of the voice actor being ultimately unable to incorporate all that the original actor put into the original performance and of course receiving no feedback whatsoever from the director of the original, is that the translations are done so rapidly that there is almost no chance that they can be done well. I once spoke to a woman on a train here who works as a translator, she said that the scenes which will be dubbed the next day are often given to the translators the previous day. She said the quality suffers greatly due to this fact. I blame the studios of course. But they alone are not responsible for this.

Personally, I am appalled that film directors tolerate this situation. I appreciate the fact that studios are run by vermin who have IQs approaching 55 and can only see money, but I still see complicity on the part of the directors who put up with this. Do they make an effort to provide good translations for the international releases? I rather doubt it.


Alan Tomlinson

P.S. Moreover, subtitles are quite rare in the German, Spanish and Italian markets; dubbing is almost universal here. I'm lucky enough to live in Berlin where original versions are available.

Jim S said...

I have a couple of seasons on Friends. Having taken French in high school and college, and studied the language in the years since, I will occassionally put on the French subtitles with English speaking. It's interesting to see how the subtlies of English are smoothed over. Chandler might come in a room and declare "Chandler is in the house." The subtitle might read "Chandler est ici" (I think that is right. If it's not, the translation should read Chandler is here.)

English has so many ways to say the same thing. it must be tough to translate the quirks of our language so that the joke translate.

Jim said...

One big factor in whether comedies work in other languages is the amount of cash the producers put up for translation and dubbing. Sometimes they pay enought to get decent translators, give them time to work on their translations, and hire good actors (some top European actors have a second life as the regular voice of big name US actors). Other times they pay so little that they just get newly graduated language and drama students looking for a bit of experience for their CV and the quality suffers accordingly. If you reckon that only one in a hundred of your viewers will get an Adolph Menjou joke, then what are the odds that the translator will be in that 1%? That's why you sometimes get those pauses - the sub-titler just doesn't get the cultural references.

And actually German comedy has had a few gems in the last decade, mostly from a small group of comics from the German equivalent of SNL. Watch out for 7 Zwerge (7 dwarves) with onetime punk princess Nina Hagen as the evil queen, (T)Raumschiff Surprise - Periode 1, a gay Star Trek parody, Der Wixxer (The Wanker - I kid you not), a spoof on popular sixties who-is-the Super-Villain-under-the-mask poiice films, and Der Schuh des Manitu (The Manitou's Shoe),l which makes fun of a popular series of German Westerns from the same period. You won't get all the jokes, but enough travel to make it worthwhile to watch.

dat said...

Apparently every US sitcom can find an audience in Chile.

Bloomberg Businessweek's Everyone Loves Rerun graphic
Businessweek's accompanying story

Sebastian N. said...

Generally the German translation of TV shows and movies is pretty good. Sometimes jokes regarding personalities mainly known in the country that produced that series but not over here are handley a bit shitty, tho. I've seen (or rather heard) them swap a US personality for a German personality which completely takes me at least out of the story.
Sometimes the German versions of series or movies are in fact funnier. I always heard the story that the German version of the old Roger Moore / Tony Curtis series "The Persuaders" was way better than the original one so that in fact the German version was the one used to do other versions from!

te said...

Have you seen Phil Rosenthal's movie about taking "Raymond" to Russia yet? I found it funny and instructive; but then, I'm just on the sidelines of BTSB.

Marcel K. said...

I second Sebastian, dubbing as a whole is done pretty well in Germany, especially for movies. For shows it's a bit of a mixed bag, it's for example often painfully noticeable that the guy translating Simpsons, Futurama and some other series just simply does not get many jokes and thus translates them awfully. Like when Bart spots some rabbis in New York and exclaims "Hey, there's ZZ Top". In Germany it magically morphed into "Hey, there are the Beatles", which doesn't make any frigging sense at all. On the whole the shows are still funny, especially as the voice actors are pretty good, but anybody who can understand the originals should watch them.

Jim said...

The quality of translation depends on how much the producers of the show are prepared to pay. A lot of stuff in Germany is well translated because they pay enough to get the sort of translators who will get those Adolph Menjou jokes. Well they pay for the sorts of shows that get prime time showings on TV. For minor stuff then it's often done by new graduates looking for some experience that can land them with a better paying job, and then even Spice Girl jokes can go over their heads.

And looking at it the other way round, foreign comedies that do well in English are usually designed that way from the start, joke by joke. Look at the first act of Life is Beautiful and there's not a single line that depends on you knowing Italian culture from the thirties and forties.

Anonymous said...

I'm an american living in Norway. Here there is no dubbing (except for childrens films) from the english, just subtitles.
I am fluent in norwegian, and MOSTLY the subtitles are pretty well done. For some WEIRD reason, often they make mistakes with numbers. I mean the famous Clint Eastwood line would maybe come out as "I know what you're thinking punk, did I fire 27 bullets or 16?"
seriously, it's often that much off. But otherwise mostly good. Saw John Candy in Uncle Buck, his nephew complains "he always gives me noogies" subtitles "nugets" which is totally missing the point.
Also, I was in Germany a while back, and they DUB...had the tv on for company in the hotel room, but was occupied with work, had it on "Married with Children" and suddenly it dawned on me...they had actually taken the time to create a GERMAN LAUGH TRACK...seriously, I don't even know how I knew this but it was a laugh track with people NOT lauging like we do in the US.
How weird is that?

Martin E. Pelz said...

But in the past that has not always been the case. There are some instances where the German translations have been really awful and had nothing to do with the original whatsoever.

One of the best examples is the initial translation of Cheers done by German television station ZDF in 1985. As far as I know it was really terrible and they did not even grasp the humor. It was so badly received with the audience that ZDF deceided to turn it off after 13 episodes.

Ten years should pass before RTL Germany put Cheers on the Air again in 1995. This time a more faithful translation was produced that lived up to the original. However, it took more than 10 years before German viewers could see Cheers in a proper translation.

There are some interesting details I would really like to share with you that clearly illustrate how bad this 1985 tranlation of Cheers was. First, they redid the original Cheers song in a German version which simply stupid. You may judge by yourself:

Secondly, they renamed the main characters with German Names: Sam Malone was renamed "Hubert Milbe". Cliff was called Uwe. Norm got the name "Helmut". Consequently, the renamed the series "Prost Helmut".

And last but not least Diane Chambers got a German surname "Diane Zimmerlinde".

No wonder that this first try to translate Cheers into German was an utter failure.

Alejandro said...

As a kid, I watched the latin american dub of The Nanny. I used to laugh. I wouldn't watch that sitcom again in any language, though. I generally avoid dubs, but I make an exception with The Simpsons. The original latin american dub (the first 15 or so seasons) is great. The voice actors were good, the translators evidently did their job (often adding their own humor to the show). On DVD I end up watching each episode twice, as I like both the original and the dub.

BTW, here ZZ Top remained ZZ Top.

Lothar said...

To add some information about the translation of the "The Simpsons". The one hired for doing the translation was also doing the translations for "Futurama" and I think that it was one of the reasons why the series failed in Germany. The translator lacked technical and "geek" knowledge, missing most of the jokes in the show in addition to his "normal" inabilities with the english language.

Here some examples:

- "Doomsday sayers cautionally upbeat" was translated to the equlivalent of "Dommsday sayers were cautionally beaten up".
- "Quick! press Control-Alt-Delete" was translated to "Quick! press the alternate control deletion" (I made up the english word as it is as existant as the used word in german "alternative Kontrolllöschung" ;-)

So 90% of jokes lost due to translation with only the slapstick parts remaining plus the virtual scratches on the chalkboard when listening to the obvious translation errors reduced the audience significantly.

The problems with the translation was upsetting the fans of Futurama leading to letters to the broadcasting station (that was also producing the dubbed version) "PRO7" with no effect.

BTW: There is a website I found right now, that convers your topic in some way. With the example Futurama the link is

Sebastian said...

Okay, so I came across this entry a few weeks too late. I watched the german "Zwei Singles im Doppelbett" aka "Almost Perfect" back in the 90s. It aired monday nights and I enjoyed it. But it's true, we do have a dubbing-problem in Germany. Those who write the translated dialogues don't seem to have any clue how to write funny stuff. They're not able to create the simplest things, such as creating a punchline. I watch sitcoms in its origin language. Yet, we do have some hit Sitcoms here, of course Two And A Half Men among them.

There were also shows which were more sucessfull here in Germany than in the US, for instance ALF. The dubbing was so well done, I even prefer the german Version these days.
Or Seinfeld: In german they swear so much, NBC would've never allowed that. And Elaine and George are really the swaring-kind of person.

But back to your own created Show: Even the name of 'Almost Perfect' was so rediculous in Germany. "Two Singles in a Double bed" doesn't make any sense at all.

Great Blog, I'm a huge sitcom-fan from Berlin. I think I have a lot of reading to do tonight.

Jeff Kelly said...

I'm a little bit late to the party because I was made aware of your blog only recently but I'd like to chip in nonetheless.

From the beginning of the 20th century to the late fifties Germany always had a strong local movie and TV business with a lot of talent so people were used to movies and TV features being in German. That's what initially brought the studios and production companies to dub foreign language material.

People were so used to German feature films that they didn't like subtitles or original language features.

From the fifties to well into the nineties dubbing work was a legitimate side venture for even the most popular German actors. In fact the German voice actors for A-list hollywood stars are usually A-list German actors with decades of career experience.

The public channels took great care to select voices with similar tone and real acting talent and the translations were usually done by experienced translators. Money was no real object and took a back seat for quality for a long time. Chances were that if you for example got to be the German voice of Clint Eastwood you'd be the German voice of Clint Eastwood your whole career and have the opportunity to voice him in every film.

The downside was that a lot of great US TV never made it to Germany. Until the late eighties we only had two major broadcasting networks and three channels in total (one local channel and the two public ones) and they were largely cherry picking the best TV (or what they thought was best which was not always the same) and ignoring everything else.

There is a host of shows that never ran in Germany at all or didn't until the mid-nineties when the private channels really took off.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M:A:S:H, Taxi, Hogan's Heroes, Star Trek TNG, Rockford PI and a whole host of other shows (We did get Baywatch though which exemplifies that real quality and what executives thought was good wasn't necesserily the same).

Jeff kelly said...

Even though a lot of talent worked on the translations and the dubs, that didn't mean that the result was any good. This entirely depended on if they got the humor and the tone of the show or if the network decided to interfere or not.

There is a rather infamous German dub of Star Trek TOS where the network tried to make the show funny because they didn't get the intent of the original and where the German version doesn't have anything to do with the original at all.

Another famous example is the Tony Curtis/Roger Moore show "the persuaders" where they abandoned the original script and tried to make it funny in the german dub, which against all odds worked but left the German version entirely unrecognizable from the original.

Other times they just recut/reedited a show to remove content they found to be offensive. They removed any reference to Magnum's tour in Vietnam from the German run of Magnum PI for example even going as far as to don't show entire episodes that had the Vietnam theme.

A lot of shows that public TV massacred in the original run were later restored and reddubed with great care by the privately owned networks.

Up until the mid-nineties the dubs were generally quite acceptable, this was in the heydays of US TV in Germany where even a sitcom like "married with children" drew 20 - 30% of the German audience and a mini-series could have the potential to be a real blockbuster.

Today dubs are generally considered to be overhead that needs to be as inexpensive as possible. The time allocated for dubs is less, the money allocated for it is less, the talent doesn't have the experience and quality it used to have and it shows.

Except for breakout hits like Frasier or The Mentalist the quality today is quite bad, so bad in fact that an underground economy in original versions has sprung up. For "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" there even exist fan movements that do their own translations and critique the official ones just because they are so awful most of the time. The head translator (may he rest in peace) was even affectionately called Ivar the terrible because he had a tendency to massacre the original script during his translations.

The quality of the dubs has become so bad that many people no longer watch them. Not because they know the original versions and like them better but rather because they no longer get why the show is funny/great/popular in the first place. Unfortunately people like OVs with subtitles even less so we're kind of stuck here.

The demand for OVs has gotten so high however that German cable actually offers channels that entirely broadcast OVs and a big draw of DVD boxsets is the fact that they also offer the original language track.

Even most cinemas now offer at least a few movies in OV

Klaus H. said...

I also live in Germany, I am 31 years old now and I am a big fan of sitcoms - I used to record many of them late night on german television station RTL including the like of Mad About You, Love & War or especially Frasier on another German station plus I watched another batch of series like Roseanne and Seinfeld in the afternoon. I was always under the assumption that the translation was okay, esp. Roseanne, Mad About You and Frasier seemed to capture quite well what was happening on the TV. And as of this day, I stand by my opinion that these shows had a good translation, and what I learned since then is, that ALF maybe is one of the few series whose German version is funnier than the original.

Then two things started to happen over the course of years:

1. I started watching late night shows from Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien on the European NBC station. That way I became much more fluent in english and had a better understanding of the spoken language and the context by just learning it in school.

2. The DVD was invented, finally I was able to watch movies and later on television shows in their original language. And what shall I say? I would never get back to German dubbing again.

In my opinion dubbing is a job that should be done by actors because the spoken language is part of acting (obviously). There is some kind of trend in the movie dubbing business in Germany that celebrity voices are popular for dubbing, especially in animated movies. I don't like that, but then again I don't listen to it.

There are two other aspects in dubbing I have experienced. The first point beeing that the budget for translations nowadays seems to be smaller compared to what it used to be, because the quality of the translation is often worrysome. If I ever catch a show or movie I do not know and watch, I always find scenes I have to retranslate into english to get the intended meaning. But then again, as a kid I did not have that ability, so maybe that is just me thinking it is different. How I met Your Mother is a series that is really bad translated according to what I have seen.

The second point is the selection of the voice. If I know a show through DVD before it airs in Germany, I really can't watch it in German because my first thought is always the voice really doesn't fit the character at all. But if I have seen the German version first, I can tolerate this because I have the connection to the voice. So this is all subjective.

Finally to come to an end, I guess you cannot generate a rule, it's always in the execution and the quality of the work. And in my opinion, the US TV show with the best translation and voice acting is Frasier.

Sebastian said...

Well, the ARD or the ZDF (major german stations) showed some sitcoms in the 60s til the 80s! They broadcated Cheers, Leave it to Beaver, I dreamed of Jeannie, The Odd Couple, The Brady Bunch ... They just picked out episodes with non-american topics, they germaned the whole show, including german names, cities, celebs etc. And they didn't show it regularly, only once in a while at 5pm. That couldn't work...

For instance "Cheers" was named "Prost Helmut" in Germanys 80s! Norm was named Helmut, the Cheers was called "Zum Fröhlichen Feierabend", Sam din't chase for women at all, they just let some kinky episodes out, or changed whole dialogues. Oh, and Sam was named Hubert. Hubert Milbe. Diane was Diane Zimmerlinde and Cliff was called Uwe. Don't believe it?
Here's the 80s german theme:

Chris said...

I'm half German and I grew up in Germany. First of all I have to mention: Please don't watch that stuff Jim suggested. It is NOT funny, not even a bit. Especially the "7 dwarfs" is so bad and these guys are not even close to SNL. Bill O'Reilly is funnier than these guys. Even Bryant Gumble, JLo or Anderson Cooper are funnier. The problem is that the prejudices are true. 95% of all Germans are not funny and we only have a few funny guys over here.
The translation is often really bad but for Seinfeld I have to say that it's just not funny for Germans as they can't really get the jokes even it would have been a godd translation.
I'm working for a German company in NY and my co-workers have to deal with Germans. They always ask me why Germans don't get sarcasm. The answer is: They're not used to it. YOu have to give them a hint or tell them that something's meant in a funny way. Otherwise they'll take it serious.
A reason why a lot of good US comedies are not successfull in Germany is that they always choose silly titles. That'S why a lot of people don't watch them as they think it's silly stuff even though it is not. It's just sad.
But since there are DVDs and internet there are more and more people watching stuff in English. They just don't give them the opportunity to choose between a German or the original version (they used to do that a long time ago but nobody knew what button to press on their remote). I guess this is why some shows are not successfull as they are badly translated and most of all shown when the show is already old. Mad Men started in Germany last autum and True Blood this year.

So if you know one of your shows is coming to Germany please make sure that at least the title makes any sense. Maybe they translate one episode and show that version to someone who knows the original version to tell if it catches the character of the show. A very bad example is the German version of in the loop. The German title "Kabinett außer Kontrolle" is in English "Cabinet out of control". And it sounds so stupid in German.

Klaus H. said...

Was the remark Germans don't get sarcasm meant to be sarcastic? No, let me assure you, I am German and like sarkasm and there are others like me out there. ;)

The problem with German standup comedy is: it is mostly very bad and/or broad - at least compared to US standup comedy. But they are the ones with mass appeal and so they get movie roles.

The best "comedy" made in Germany is political satire (called "Kabarett") - but it does not have mass appeal.

Stefan said...

Well... as an almost-30-years-old German, I feel oblieged... nay... forced into this discussion.

No, really: Most of the time, the german translations are good. You have to know that Germany is the worlds second biggest movie market, right after the US of A. (Not kidding you there; it's true.) A market as big as that justifies some costs in translations, and today's movies and sitcoms and so on's are quite well translated.

'Course, that doesn't count much for the older times. But I would like to comment this sentence:

"Did you really expect that Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz would play in Germany?"

Yeah, they played, but they weren't called "Hogan's Heroes" - it was named "Ein Käfig voller Helden", which would literally translate into "A cage full of heroes". I think this title was done in reference to a french movie which was named "Ein Käfig voller Narren" (still the cage, but this time yesters instead of heroes). That title was taken directly from the french (La Cage aux Folles), and it was a big success (the first drag queen comedy movie of all times).

Sometimes, the german translation was totally on the off-side - for a reason. Anyone remembering a mystery called "The Persuaders", starring Tony Curtis and Richard Moore? 'Twas a total flop in america, but well received in france or germany. And that was mainly because Rainer Brandt, who was responsable for the german translation, chopped out half of the text and made that half totally up by himself. He invented some screwed dialogs which were so funny that "Die 2" ("The Two" - german title used for the show) finally turned into a cult. Brandt's method of translation was used for the french version, too - which might count for the success of the show in france.

Tony Curtis begged Rainer Brandt to also write the scripts, should the show get another season (which never happend).

Even today, there are reruns of "Die 2" still around in german television, and everytime I find myself zapping into this, I'm nearly pissing myself in the pants while laughing. Rainer Brandt used sentence like "sleep well in your Bettgestell" (yes, he used an almost entirely english sentence, but mangled a german word into the end that rhymes with "well" - and "bettgestell" means the frame of the bed, not the bed itself. 'Twas hilarious because it still had a meaning, but was totally screwed, and, well, it rhymed, and did I mention that it rhymed? (I did? I thought so...) He also used the sentence "Hände hoch - ich bin Achselfetischist", which would translate into "Hands up - I'm an axilarry fetishist".

That gave the whole show this aura of not taking itself very serious, so in Germany, it was more of comedy than mystery.

Me and myself, we prefer watching many shows in the original. But i have to admit i have to use english subtitles, cause sometimes i have some issues getting everything that is said, especially when many people are talking the same time. I think that might not be that big of an issue in sitcoms, but then again, i'm more a fan of supernatural, castle, bones, nikita... (watching the us version allows me to be at least one season in advance to the german television - usually you can get the episodes 2 or 3 days after they aired in the US, including english subtitles, which is great.)

Michael said...

Hi, I am from Germany and found this blog just recently, so I am a little late on this one.

Two years ago I watched all seasons of "friends" on DVD in a row, and for the fun I sometimes switched between the original and the German dubbed sound. I would say, that about 10-20% of the jokes get lost with the translation. It's still a funny show in German but not even close to the original. Maybe also because the german voices of the characters were no good comedy actors.

Sarah said...

Preface: Ken, I just found your blog through this post* by Stefan Niggemeier, who speaks highly of you, and am very intrigued. Great job you're doing!

Back on topic: As the German daughter of an American expatriot I know enough of both cultural backgrounds to well understand the context in both languages. I am inclined to agree with what has been said here about German dubbing, by and large. There is no question that, given the choice, I would always consume any given piece of art in it's original language. However the dubbing in Germany is technically well done, the actors are good and there is a clear effort to give the audience context (as opposed to translating word-by-word).
Yet, that last part is a constant source of cringing for me. That might come from the fact that my cultural background is so strong that few English jokes sail past me. But still...
Take, for example, BIG BANG THEORYs "Soft Kitty". Great song, right? Well, this is what became of it:

Now, before you go hide in shame (=my initial reaction) concider this: This *is* a German nursery song. I take it the translator(s) thought: "Hey, what could his mother have sung for him when he was sick?" and came up with this as an answer. And, telling myself that, it sounds like a legit argumentation.
And still the translation just does not work. Often when encountering such a drastic change I wish they had just left it alone, but then again people might not get it at all.

What do you guys think? Where should the border be?


Marco said...

Hi Ken!

I am from germany, too and I am a regular reader of your blog.

For sitcoms, the second dubbed version of Cheers was done just wonderful and the same is true for Becker and Seinfeld, too. For these shows I can switch between the versions and I find them equally funny. It was very good also that Ted Danson had the same voice actor in Cheers as he had in Becker - more about that later.

The key factor is actually the same for both the original show as well as for the translated one: You need good writers!

It (often) makes no sense to directly translate everything one to one - in many situations you need to find an equivalent which fits the context and works for the target audience and in well-(re-)written Dialogue this is the case.

An example from Seinfeld: There was an episode where a teacher who (in the original Version) pronounced George's last name like _CantStandYa_. The german version was slightly different where the teacher called George _Kotztanzo_. The result is equally funny since both versions nail the point (the teacher disliking George and thus pronouncing his name like some sort of insult).

Also critical for the translated version of a show is the voice casting: I am, for example, a fan of Frasier - but I don't like the dubbed version that much because especially the voice for Roz is not matching the character at all. The (late) actress who provided the voice is technically very good (she usually dubbed for Kim Basinger) but it just did not work for the character of Roz. Same with Martin. Frasier had quite a matching voice, but I prefer to watch the original in this case even the german version is quite good in terms of the dialogue.

One thing nearly always lost in dubbed versions are accents. Let's pick Daphne Moon in Frasier as example: The fact that she's from the UK is only obvious to the german viewer as long as the dialogue mentions it explicitly. It still works in this case even without the accent because the german actress providing the voice plays her very _nicely strange_ so the character is still likeable and funny. But: Something important is still lost.

Worst example for a dubbed sitcom is, in my opinion, Friends: The writing was BAD and also the voice casting was horrible (except Chandler and Monica no voice really matched).

Finally, there are cases where a dubbed version is actually better than the original. I do not have a sitcom example but for crime series I want to mention Magnum,p.i.: Magnum was also dubbed twice: Once during the 80s where every episode was cut a little AND censored in dialogue (by eliminating much of the Vietnam background and not showing specific episodes at all!) and then a second time during the 90s (this time complete and non-censored).

What happened here is that the german voice for Tom Selleck (the actor, Norbert Langer, provides his voice for Selleck in all of Sellecks films and television series since then, including the upcoming Blue Bloods). His voice does not match Sellecks original voice at all - but way better his physical appearance on screen. This combination became so popular that when this german actor was cast as the narrator in _The Wonder Years_, that series was interpreted as the childhood story of Thomas Magnum to the german audience. So his casting for the voice of Magnum/Selleck is a huge factor for the success of the whole series over here. The same is true for T.C. (played by Roger E. Mosley): I find him a bit unsympathic in the original version - in the german version his voice and play is much warmer and matches the character of TC a lot better, IMHO.

So, what can be ruined (like Friends) can also be enhanced (in terms of interpretation for the local audience, like Magnum) in a dubbed version or be equivalent like Cheers, Becker and Seinfeld.

With the ingedients of good writers and good voice actors it can be very good.