This Verge piece profiles the difficulty in translating the sitcom Seinfeld to other languages. In particular, the show has had difficulty finding a solid audience in Europe (such as in Germany). Seinfeld often relied on word-based humor, American customs, and Jewish references–difficult to convey to other cultures.
Jokes are the hardest things to translate into another language, another culture, another world. A good script for dubbing an American sitcom for foreign consumption does more than literally translate. It manages to convey the same meaning, the same feeling, the same story — the same direct hit to the lower frontal lobes of the brain that produces a laugh, even though those frontal lobes are steeped in a completely different cultural brew.
More so than the average American sitcom, Seinfeld has had difficulty reaching global audiences. While it’s popular in Latin America, it hasn’t been widely accepted in Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Two decades after it went off the air, Seinfeld remains relevant to American audiences — thanks in part to omnipresent syndicated reruns — but in much of Europe it is considered a cult hit, and commonly relegated to deep-late-night time slots. Its humor, it seems, is just too complicated, too cultural and word-based, to make for easy translation.
An interesting note on dubbing:
According to Israel-based translation company Trans-That, among European countries, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain tend to opt for the more expensive option of dubbing, while smaller countries like Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands prefer subtitles. Dubbing countries often have a long history with the practice that goes back to the beginnings of the film industry. In the 1930s, when many American films were being exported to Europe, the strong preference for dubbing grew out of nationalist concerns — preserving language meant preserving cultural identity. In these countries, entire industries developed around dubbing. Today, certain voice actors will specialize in playing specific American stars, to the point where audiences expect to hear their voice each time they go to see, say, a Tom Cruise movie.
Lip-synch dubbing, despite its ultimate benefits, can get very complicated. It’s not just that the lines may not translate directly — they also have to take just as long to say in both languages and approximate, to the best of their abilities, the lip movements of the original actors. That can pose an added challenge when translating from laconic languages like English into verbose languages like German. And Seinfeld was already a very wordy show, making accurate translation that much more critical.
Definitely worth reading in entirety if you’re a big fan of Seinfeld.