Not so long ago, my brother and me were watching Shin Chan on [adult swim]. If you don’t know what [adult swim] is, that probably means you either don’t have cable TV or you don’t live in US. Let me explain it then. It is a cable network which shares the same channel with Cartoon Network. At 10pm, cartoons for children end, and [adult swim] block starts. The network specializes in adult themed animation which includes syndicated shows such as Familly Guy, American Dadm Futurama, as well as originals like Seth Green’s Robot Chicken, the excellent Venture Bros cartoon an many others. They also air a lot of anime like Ghost in the Shell, Evangelion, Fullmetal Alchemist, Cowboy Bepop, FLCL and etc.
Most of the shows that they air on regular basis are pretty good. They either are really funny and quotable, or damn good anime. They do experiment a lot though and I believe this is why they got Shin Chan. I’m not really a huge fan of that show, but I’ve seen worse. That’s besides the point though. As we were watching it, my brother commented on how weird it was that this Japanese cartoon was full of American pop culture references. He was right, the show made references to Britney’s meltdowns, popular reality TV shows and made jabs at more or less popular Hollywood actors.
“It’s Almost as if it was specifically targeted at the US audiences,” he mused.
That’s because it was.
You see, wacky comedy shows such as Shin Chan or FLCL cannot be merely translated into English. If you would do a simple direct translation, you would end up with a thick, incomprehensible soup of Japanese cultural references. Things such as various puns, word play, sexual nuances and language specific idioms do not translate well. Trust me, they don’t. Take any two languages, and you will end up with a lot of popular turns of phrase that make absolutely no sense. A good example here, is “the bees knees”. If you think about it, It doesn’t even make much sense in english. How do you translate it, so that will fit within the time frame, match the lip flops and convey the same idea? It’s difficult!
It’s even worse with pop culture references, especially if the source and target cultures are so different. This is especially evident for Japan which doesn’t share our common western cultural heritage. They have their own fairy tales, their own folk heroes, different proverbs and distinct traditions. There is a huge cultural gap there. This makes referential humor, funny allusions, nuances, puns and verbal jokes very culture specific. Slapstic, physical and situational humor tends to be universal, but anything subtler may often be impossible to grasp for an outsiders without the propper cultural background.
In literature (and graphic novels) you can always use footnotes to explain away the tricky jokes and references. For example, when I was growing up in Poland I used to read Spider Man comics which tended to be heavily annotated. The footnotes explained continuity problems, references to other events in Marvel universe that were not published in Poland, and often added little bits among the lines “in USA it is common to blah blah blah”. I’ve also seen similar things done in Manga – where a footnote will explain a joke or allusion to you by providing the necessary background information. This preserves the original intention, but likely looses on spontaneity. If someone needs to explain the joke to you, it is usually less funny. But, at least you get the gist of the author’s original intention which is good.
Unfortunately you can’t do that in animation. You just can’t stop the action to explain something to the viewer. So what do you do? You replace the jokes with equivalent or similar ones that will be easily grasped by your target audience. Yup, you go and change the meaning, tone and intention of the original hoping to preserve the funny, and try not to introduce inconsistencies to the story.
This is a very difficult task as you may imagine. A lot of jokes get completely lost in translation, and must be rewritten from scratch. Thus the dubbed episode of Shin Chan or FLCL may end up being quite different from the original. Sad part is that translators are usually not humorists (and vice versa), so the quality of jokes you get in the dubbed version may vary. You can take a show that was pure gold in original, and turn it into a below average comedy where jokes are hit-or-miss.
I believe that this is why so few Japanese comedy shows get rabid fan following here in US. They are just damn hard to localize well. More action/plot oriented shows such as Ghost in the Shell or Evangelion on the other hand do very well here, because they have less referential, culture specific contents.
It’s like this: forced attempts at humor made by localization teams usually can’t compete with American shows made by real virtuosos of obscure pop culture references and cultural in-jokes. They are out of their league. So shows like Shin Chan end up being only moderately funny and moderately popular. Especially if they are juxtaposed against Family Guy, Robot Chicken or South Park.
Still, next time you are watching a foreign comedy and it throws surprisingly relevant pop culture references at you, you should keep in mind these were not in the original. They were written by the translator(s). So if you found them funny, check the credits for who did the localization and give him some props. As a bilingual person, I can attest that their job is incredibly difficult. I often grasp at straws to translate simple idioms between two languages deeply rooted in western culture.
Seriously – I think that the worst thing that can happen to you as a translator, is when the two people your are mediating between decide to get clever, and they start throwing puns, and word jokes at each other – in their own respective languages of course. If that happens you either try to explain the jokes in context, or try to steer the conversation in another direction. And if you choose the former, it quickly becomes awkward. Someone throws a one-liner pun, and then you go into a 15 minute long conversation with the other guy trying to explain to him why it was funny.
Anyway, people who do these localizations for Japanese shows have it even worse. They have to reach across great cultural divides. The fact that they can still come up with something that makes sense, and works within the context is nothing short of amazing.