Interpreting localized humor.  Can it be done?

On June 24, Hulu became the first video streaming service to host the wildly popular 90’s sitcom, Seinfeld.

It’s no secret that the show’s legacy is a beloved one here in America.  After becoming known for its out-of-the-box and overly sarcastic sense of humor, in addition to its exceedingly wacky cast of characters, the show has remained relevant to its domestic audience through syndicated reruns, and remains an American classic – the key word here being American.

Seinfeld – An American Pop Culture Icon

It’s almost a universal truth in America – people love Seinfeld.  Its run from 1989 to 1998 was met with immense fanfare, and a TV show about “nothing” became a ratings success.  Even TV Guide called Seinfeld the “greatest television program of all time” in 2002.  Nowhere else in the world will you find America’s level of adoration for this pop culture phenom.  In fact, for much of the world, Seinfeld continues to get lost in translation.

You might be wondering how that could possibly be the case.  You are not alone.

I read an interesting article last week from author Jennifer Armstrong regarding the show’s Hulu release, and she highlighted a surprising fact – despite overwhelming success here at home, Seinfeld has not experienced the same level of fanfare anywhere else in the world, due in large part to the difficulties in translating for international audiences.

As I read the article, I thought about language hurdles and how we, as expert translators, are tasked with conveying understanding and meaning from one cultural identity to another.  What, I wondered, made this single television show so enigmatic that it failed to resonate with global audiences?

What if I told you that it’s not because Seinfeld isn’t funny – it’s quite clear that it is, the show garnered nearly 1.5 million social impressions in the days leading up to the Hulu release – but because other parts of the world just don’t get it, and not for a lack of trying.

Interpretation & Language Barriers

Now, Seinfeld is notorious for embodying many of the complex nuances of language – sarcasm, highbrow humor and cultural tropes or archetypes, just to name a few.  These are difficult to carry across language barriers.

Armstrong looked at places like Germany, and other areas of Europe, for example, where lip-sync dubbing is a more common form of pop culture translation – versus subtitles accompanying the language of origin – and found that translating the essence of Seinfeld was beyond difficult when migrating material of one cultural identity to another, all while attempting to keep the story intact.

Here’s an example, Elaine, Jerry, Kramer and George Costanza have very different interpretations of a dry pretzel.  It is a belly laugh for sure… click on the link below George and check it out.

Interpretation is extremely personal.  Think of it as lingual culture shock, so to speak.  It’s all too familiar in the translations industry.  Could the humor really be “too intelligent” as Armstrong speculated?  Could Seinfeld be too funny to translate?

Sure, it’s possible.  It could very well be.  But the fact to take away here is that language is tricky.  As an expert linguist with full proficiency in three languages, I have experienced my fair share of language roadblocks.  It is not universal, and therefore requires careful consideration throughout the translation and interpretation process.   There are so many nuances, both in individual languages and their respective cultures.

Everyone loves a good laugh, but comedy, in its essence, has always been difficult to translate.  It’s not just because the definition of “funny” varies on a cultural basis.  Although that is a valid point, and a real struggle in this industry, the fact is that jokes, especially related to pop culture, are often restricted to the material’s cultural identity.

We’ve got some pretty animated translators that can give the best comedy a run for the money.  Whether you’re translating Seinfeld, or something serious like an oilfield safety manual, you’ll want to know that every word – spoken, written or implied – is in the language and context of the receiver.  We welcome difficult language challenges and want to be your go-to resource and trusted advisor for all things spoken.

Where would Seinfeld be today without the genius comedic humor interpretations of his team?

Flor Dimassi, GlobalSpeakWith more than 18 years experience in translation and interpretation, Flor Dimassi, CEO of GlobalSpeak Translations stays on the pulse of what is happening in the international oil and gas arena. She turns language and cultural diversity into business opportunities for her clients. Learn more at www.globalspeaktranslations.com.

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