Monday, 29 April 2013

The Simpsons - Lost in Translation?


There is no such thing as a translation. Every translation is a new work. - Thomas Bernhard.

I would like to watch, for example, The Simpsons; those endearing blue and yellow folks of American TV fame. Stephen Hawking once described The Simpsons as the best programme on American TV. I respect and value his judgement. And so I switch on. 

The problem is I only receive the German version of The Simpsons on my TV. And that, believe it or not,  is a great problem. 

Briefly, there are too many words bombarding me in too short a space of time. 

My non-native-Deutschsprachigegehirn (non-native-German-speaker's-brain) is, try as it might, unable to absorb the 20-25% increase in verbal information arriving, it seems, at accelerated quantum particle speed. And so I give up. 

Pick up almost any book translated from English into German and you will see that the German version has at least 20% more pages. Why should this be?

The simple answer is that the German language needs 20% more text to say the same thing. It tries to get round this by joining words together and, where it can, by using English words and expressions like TV (Fernseherapparat) or camera (Photoapparat). But, unfortunately the basic problem remains.

You cannot 'fit the words to the action' as Shakespeare said without rushing the longwords of German through those English speaking lips and even then, because of the nature of the beast, the vital and subtle hesitations and pregnant silences are missing . . . destroyed.

I was reminded of this problem yesterday evening when I tried to watch the opening scenes from Jane Austen's Emma. The dubbed voices had to speak so terribly quickly to compensate for the extra wordage that the whole romantic effect created by the excellent camerawork and scene setting was, to my way of thinking, totally ruined. 

Is it invariably so? I was going to say it is possibly so with the exception of war films and David Attenborough documentaries. But, when I think of it, it is a problem with war films too. Laid back Royal Air Force types, for example, sound highly agitated - like Waffen SS hooked on speed. It's a surreal way of viewing TV.

Attenborough on the other hand always speaks slowly and always articulates his words, so that he becomes the exception that proves the rule. He comes across beautifully in German. 

But The Simpsons? In English they already rush their words in American cartoon fashion and then they are accelerated another 20-25% for the German viewer. Listening to Homer and co. takes some doing.

Below is an example of some published English-to-German translation. It is a short piece of text from the beginning of Dylan Thomas's play, Under Milk Wood (Unter dem Milchwald) . I have highlighted the German text. You can instantly see the problem confronting translators working for German TV and film producers. A quart won't fit into a pint pot.

First Drowned: Remember me, Captain?
Erster Ertrunkener: Denkst noch an mich, Kapitän?

Captain Cat: You're Dancing Williams!
Kapitän Kat: Du bist Williams der Tänzer! 

First Drowned: I lost my step in Nantucket.
Erster Ertrunkener: Hab in Nantucket 'nen falschen Schritt getan.

Second Drowned: Do you see me, Captain? the white bone talking? I'm Tom-Fred the donkeyman . . . We shared the same girl once . . . Her name was Mrs Probert
Zweiter Ertrunkener: Siehst du mich, Käpten? Den redenden weißen Knochen? Ich bin Tom-Fred, der Hilfsmaschinist . . . Wir haben mal beide dasselbe Mädel geteilt . . . Sie hieß Mrs Probert 

Woman's voice: Rosie Probert, thirty three Duck Lane. Come on up, boys, I'm dead.
Frauenstimme: Rosie Probert, Entengäschen dreiunddreizig. Kommt nur rauf, Jungens, ich bin tot.

Third Drowned: Hold me Captain, I'm Jonah Jarvis, come to a bad end, very enjoyable . . .
Dritter Ertrunkener: Halt mich, Kapitän! Ich bin Jonah Jarvis, hab ein böses Ende genommen, sehr vergnüglich . . . 

Fourth Drowned: Alfred Pomeroy Jones, sealawyer, born in Mumbles, sung like a linnet, crowned you with a flagon, tatooed with mermaids, thirst like a dredger, died of blisters . . .
Vierter Ertrunkener: Alfred Pomeroy Jones, Zwischendecksadvocat, geboren in Mumbles, gesungen wie 'n Zeisig, gekrönt hab ich dich mit 'ner Kruke; tätowiert mit Seejungfrauen, durstig wie 'n Löffelbagger, gestorben an den Karbunkeln . . .

First Drowned: The skull at your earhole is . . .
Erster Ertrunkener: Dieser Knochenschädel an deinem Ohr ist . . .

Fifth Drowned: Curly Bevan. Tell my auntie it was me that pawned the ormolu clock . . .
Fünfter Ertrunkener: Wuschelkopf Bevan. Sag meiner Tante: der die Kaminuhr mit den Goldarabesken versetzt hat, das war ich . . .

Captain Cat: Aye, aye, Curly.
Kapitän Kat: Aye, aye, Wuschelkopf.

Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood is a play for voices, a radio play,  and so there is no requirement for synchronous speeded-up text. Therefore it works.

In the context of TV and The Simpsons, the whole business is I'm sad to say, quite beyond me. You may well ask: Why don't they use subtitles?

I do too. 


  1. This seems to me to be a perfect reason why I have never learned to speak German.

  2. Pat, . . . and this is not even the half of it! The language is a nightmare for a foreigner. But many natives, including news editors and educators, can get it wrong. There is a book called Duden which has to be continually revised. I think Duden is the right name!

  3. subtitles! As currently done on TV the problem is lag - what is subtitled is what someone said half a minute ago - and there are some strange translations - an Irish news report about "protestants" was subititled as "prostitutes"!

  4. Monty Python has a lot to answer for.


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