Landlocked comedy and swearing with style

While many American comedies seem to have no problem making the leap onto TV screens all over the world – Family Guy or South Park being great examples of how Western ideas can be transferred successfully to other countries – it’s not always the same for their British counterparts, who often seem too tied up in their own culture to be able to cross borders.

Take for instance the classic British comedy ‘Only Fools and Horses’ (from which the previous post’s clip was taken) which, for such a hugely successful programme, has never even been aired in neighbouring France, or perhaps ‘The Royle Family’, whose depiction of typical British life is deemed too foreign for non-British audiences and which, apart from tentative releases in Holland, Finland and Portugal where a high level of understanding of British culture is assumed, has also failed to gain a wider audience.

For an example of why these comedies are so hard to translate, let’s take an example from yet another successful British comedy that has failed to provoke laughter beyond the British Isles: ‘One Foot in the Grave’. (The show was actually released in Germany as Mit einem Bein im Grab but, rather than being a simple translation, this was a complete adaptation of the programme, swapping the Meldrews for Viktor and Margret Bölkhoff.)

Listening to the intro theme (although it wouldn’t pose any real problems if the programme were to be translated as it could just be left in English) we can gain an interesting insight into one of the reasons that these programmes fail to cross over with nearly every line containing highly idiomatic uses of language relating to aging which don’t have ready equivalents in a foreign tongue: ‘too long in the tooth’, ‘OAP’, ‘clapped out’, ‘run down’ etc.

It is this close proximity to the English language and a cultural boundness caused by obscure references and linguistic games that prove too hard to break down. One extreme example of the importance of the use of language in the series can be found in the episode ‘The Dawn of Man’ where the crux of the entire story revolves around the similarity between ‘popcorn’ and ‘cop porn’!

It’s not all doom and gloom though as some series do manage to achieve success on foreign soil. One famous example is ‘Father Ted’, which has accumulated many French fans thanks to its appearance on heavily Westernised channel  ‘Jimmy’ (named after James Dean and Jimi Hendrix), which is known for helping Anglophone series make their way onto French screens, and due to the fact that the premise of Catholic priests in an isolated community is one that is relatively easily transferrable.

Father Ted S01E01 with French subtitles

Indeed, the nature of the situation comedy and the relatively few obscure cultural references which are integral to the plot allow a fairly simple subtitling process. In the first episode, only a few alterations are made for the French audience and most references are simply left unchanged e.g. ‘Toffos’ at 16:05 or ‘Top of the Pops’ at 7:20.

The only alterations of note are seen when Ted’s reference to nuclear waste as ‘the old glow in the dark’ is simplified to ‘déchets’ (waste) and when the reference to Terry Wogan and another TV presenter is creatively subtitled as ‘PPDA et Pernaut’, referring to two equally famous French presenters – Patrick Poivre d’Arvor and Jean-Pierre Pernaut – and these changes are often made due to the nature of subtitling, where constraints of time and space limit opportunities for explanation or the use of long-winded phrases.

Probably the most significant challenge of translating Ted is replicating the various swear words that the programme has to offer. Interestingly, the general tendency in the French subtitles is to soften the swearing: ‘gobshite’ becomes ‘demeuré’ or ‘crétin’ (half-wit, cretin), ‘feck off’ is changed to ‘dégage’ (clear off), while ‘feck’ is rather cleverly reproduced as ‘fier’ which is not actually a swear word but plays on its similarity to ‘ficher’ (to not give a fuck about) in a similar way to ‘feck’ and ‘fuck’.

So there you have it, once all the swearing is dealt with it seems that some comedy can make the leap while others remain just too British to amuse our foreign neighbours.

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