by Mara Campbell and Sebastián Arias
Audiovisual translation is full of challenges. Conveying meaning, nuance, intention, and things unsaid is not just “replacing words in the source language with their equivalent in the target”. But some projects stand out. Case in point: The History of Swear Words, a series that premiered on Netflix in January of this year.
It inevitably caught the attention of the authors—Sebastián being a seasoned dubbing director, and Mara having worked in subtitling for many years—who were eager to see how the platform would manage to localize such a show.
Dub vs. Sub
The History of Swear Words is about the grammar, etymology, syntax, and spelling of cuss words in the English language, which may not always (we dare say, seldom do) have a parallel in target languages.
What immediately stood out was that the program had not been dubbed. This might be due to the pandemic and the delays that many dubbing productions encountered, but, after watching it and confirming the inherent language and treatment complexities that such a show brings, we assumed it will never be dubbed and that must have been a conscious decision made by the producers.
Netflix uses voice-over for non-fiction works, which would, luckily, have left out the added complication of lip-syncing and isochrony (just thinking about dubbing the close-up of Nicolas Cage shouting a very long “Fuuuuck!” in the opening scene of episode 1 is a nightmare on its own).
In a show with these characteristics, the translator, with above-average knowledge of linguistics, might make decisions that don’t really work in the dubbing studio, forcing even the most experienced of directors to make changes that could erode all the care and consideration the translator dedicated to their text. The director might even use a calque, an incorrect meaning, or a term that offends a minority because they are not acquainted with current style guides.
The series’ Latin American Spanish subtitles are very good considering the circumstances, but the translator sometimes relied on translating a term and then later, for lack of a proper translation of its use, leaving it in English in quotes or, on the rare occasion where space allowed, adding some type of explanation as to what the term means. There are also whole segments where the term in the target language was different every time, and we end up seeing three different Spanish words referring to the same single English term, all because most usages in English are non-existent in Spanish. Play-on-words with “dick” as both organ and the nickname for Richards, and all five different definitions of “pussy” must have been particularly difficult. It is easy to imagine that the translators of all languages had similar conundrums when tackling this show.
But localization technique is irrelevant in this case because issues arise from the text and pose the same difficulties for dubbing as for subtitling. So, is it worth translating a show if the translators are forced to leave portions of their translation in the original language?
The Spitting Image of Monty’s Kids Singing Songs in the Hall on a Saturday Night
Some series and films have content so specific to a topic, a region, a language, that localizing them is a monumental challenge. Another such show is the Argentine satire Peter Capusotto y
sus videos, which graced Netflix’s screens a few years ago with subtitles in English.
It is hard to describe the show to a non-Argentine due to its topical and oh-so-local features, but picture a sketch show with parts with comedic structure similar to Monty Python or Kids in the
Hall, throw in a few parody songs á la Al Yankovich or Adam Sandler on SNL, and don’t leave out some social and political commentary segments comparable to the British Spitting Image (adapted as D.C. Follies in the US) but without the puppets. It was hilarious for local audiences, but most of the jokes were impossible to translate (because subtitles deprive the translator of footnotes and explanations, which still would not have helped much) as anybody who is not from Argentina, regardless of the language they speak, wouldn’t understand an iota of it. Even though the translators did a great job of conveying meanings to the best of their abilities, most of the jokes were not only not funny, but barely comprehensible.
Global Goes Local
All the major players in the VOD landscape are understanding that their productions cross frontiers more easily than ever before, and that is evident in the way the latest blockbusters are somewhat neutralized to be easily exportable and appeal to many markets. But there still are and always will be productions that retain local flavor and color and apply to a smaller demographic. Currently, AI is used in audiovisual productions to localize product placement, so the line between global and local is now blurry (Hypable, 2011) and (Twitter, 2019).
The issue is not the type of productions being brought into existence, but the idea that everything should be localized by default. Why does (better yet: why should) a VOD platform spend time and money localizing something that presents these insurmountable challenges when the audience probably will find no enjoyment in it?
Some material is almost like an inside joke. A screenwriter would never include a family joke in their script (unless they can explain it or recreate its making within the story), so why create content that only a few (considering all the countries in the world) will understand? When you talk about your sibling with a stranger, you don’t mention them by name; you say “my brother” or “my sister” because you know that if you just say “John” or “Jane”, the other party will not know who you are talking about.
Should All Audiovisual Material be Localized?
This is a complex question with many possible answers. Yes, everybody should have access to all audiovisual material. But what if having that access is almost irrelevant because the content is, in a way, “closed” and presents comprehension barriers that have nothing to do with the language in which it is being watched? Furthermore, who is to decide what shows or films fall into this category?
What if we factor in the principles of accessible filmmaking? Pablo Romero-Fresco refers to the concept of “the global film” by quoting Regina Longo: “How does the risk of translation affect the medium? How does it affect its global address? How does translation as risk, as failure, as dysfunction allow us to reconceive the global currency and globalizing nature of screen media? This risk involves mismatch, error, cultural asymmetries, appropriation, censorship, gatekeeping, etc. It also involves renewal and revitalization, activity, mobility, activation, accessibility.” (Romero-Fresco 2020). In this light, should shows like these never even get made?
Adapt or Adopt
An alternative would be to license the format and produce as many different versions as regions are interested in distributing them, in a similar way that many shows get remade around the world. For example, the adaptations of telenovelas such as the Colombian Yo soy Betty, la fea (US Ugly Betty) and Venezuelan Juana la virgen (US Jane the Virgin) retained the original idea and the main story, but localized customs, phrases, and even whole characters.
Original versions of reality shows like the Dutch Big Brother, Swedish Expedition Robinson (Survivor), South Korean King of Mask Singer (The Masked Singer), Spanish Operación Triunfo (The One), Dutch The Voice of Holland (The Voice) and the ubiquitous America’s Funniest Home Videos (originally Japanese Fun TV with Kato-chan and Ken-chan) would not hold the same appeal in foreign territories as their original versions, and are remade locally without hesitation as subtitled and dubbed versions of these series would probably not bring in the same ratings (or ignite the same passions) in foreign territories.
Political satires are a whole other story: ratings for shows such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or The Daily Show with Trevor Noah would be nonexistent if they were broadcast abroad (not to mention that they would be, at the minimum, a few days late if subtitled, probably weeks late if they were to be dubbed), so it makes more sense to have local versions that talk about events affecting the country in question.
Now, in the case of The History of Swear Words, adapting it to different regions would not necessarily be a fit solution. Some people (linguists, for starters!) would probably want to watch the other versions of the show to see how they were handled and would need them localized, somewhat propagating the original problem.
Damn! So many questions, so few answers.
The authors wish to thank translator Adán Cassan for his help and insights.
https://www.hypable.com/how-i-met-your-motheris-inserting-new-ads-into-old-episodes/ and https://twitter.com/mbrennanchina/status/1184114082804158464?s=20