The Difficulty in Translating Seinfeld to Other Languages

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.

Lost in Translation

Imagine this scenario. You go on a date with someone for the first (or even the second time). You’re making lovely conversation, asking the usual: what do you do? What are your hobbies? What are your favorite movies? If you’re the really nerdy type, perhaps the conversation turns to math and you’re able to massage a timely trivia question into your conversation.

As you’re asking these questions, there is that one nagging question that you want to ask, but don’t. And based on the looks of things, your date wants to ask this question as well. What you and your date really want to ask each other is this: your thoughts on marriage. You sense it in your date’s body language and facial expression: the way the eye twinkles, the brow furrows, the nose twitches. Is there a word to describe how you’re feeling about this situation?

The Word

Turns out, there is no one English word to describe how you and your date feel. But there is such a word in at least one language of the world: the Yaghan language of the Tierra del Fuego (in Chile). The word is Mamihlapinatapai and can be roughly translated as “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that they both desire but which neither one wants to start.” Pretty amazing, huh?

Wikipedia cites Mamihlapinatapai as one of the hardest words to translate (that’s a link to a fascinating article in Wikipedia).

I liked this tidbit from that article:

A similar construction occurs in Russian, where “I have” translates literally into at (or by) me there is. Russian does have a word that means “to have”: иметь (imet’) — but it is very rarely used by Russian speakers in the same way English speakers use the word have; in fact, in some cases, it may be misinterpreted as vulgar slang for the subject rudely using the object for sexual gratification, for example, in an inept translation of “do you have a wife?”.

Can you think of any other words/phrases in foreign languages for which there is no (simple) English equivalent? My favorite has to be Schadenfreude, which is a German word which doesn’t have an English equivalent but roughly translates to “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.” Feel free to share your favorite non-translatable word in the comments.

Note: there’s an article I read relating to the date scenario described in this post, but I can’t find it at the moment. When I do, I’ll update this post…