Friday, July 24, 2015

"You don't know my name, do you?"

A translator's struggle to export Seinfeld to Germany.

The hardest joke to translate, out of 180 episodes, was the one where Jerry doesn't know the name of the woman he's dating, but only knows it "rhymes with a female body part."

Nazi jokes were also dicey:

Seinfeld’s Jewish references posed a unique challenge: as Sebastian explained, "The Germans have a certain you-know-what with the Jewish." Her editor was worried about some of Seinfeld’s Jewish jokes. "We better not say it like that," she remembered her editor saying, "because the Germans may be offended." She added later, recalling the incident to me, "They should be offended, in my understanding. They did it!"

Sebastian appreciated Seinfeld’s direct approach to Jewish history. She wanted to use jokes in direct translation, but the editor wouldn’t let her. She lost several battles. It was a fine line: Der Suppen-Nazi? Sure. . . . An entire episode based on George being mistaken for a neo-Nazi was problematic. So were references to the TV miniseries Holocaust and the film Schindler’s List. Take Elaine’s voiceover narration in "The Subway" episode when her train gets stuck: "We are in a cage. . . . Oh, I can't breathe, I feel faint. Take it easy, it'll start moving soon. Think about the people in the concentration camps, what they went through."

Occasionally, Sebastian triumphed in her conflicts with editors — the practicalities of the show demanded an authentic translation. In an early episode, one of Jerry’s comedy routines addresses the fact that Nazis in World War II movies had "like two separate ‘heils.' They had like the regular ‘heil,’ and then when they were around the offices, they had like this casual ‘heil.’" There was no way to avoid a faithful translation . . .