TV in Translation: The Fault In Our Cultural Translation Part 1 (Comedy)

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It is plainly obvious. Comedy, satire and humour are all crucial parts of entertainment across every single culture in the world. As Andy Medhurst explained, comedy ‘plays a pivotal role in the construction of national identity’. It’s in the fundamentals of belonging, if you are included and you understand, you belong. If someone tells you a joke or vice versa, and laughter ensues then belonging achievement unlocked!
Not only does the joke make us laugh, but it speaks volumes about why it makes us laugh and how it forms our national identity when we start to understand what is implies. Comedy goes for the fault lines in our cultures, particularly satire. Take Chris Lilley in….anything…and it’s obvious the fault lines of society are a comedic goldmine. But these fault lines aren’t all the same between cultures, some may be universal like the typical slapstick comedic relief- but others require much more than a punch line or a banana peel to be understood. This is where translating comedy TV shows from one country to another can ultimately fall flat.

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Adapting tv shows from one country to another is nothing new, what has changed is its impact. In the days before pre-video recorders, shows would not generally be seen outside their country of origin unless it was aired on free-to-air. However today, access can be almost uninterrupted either now airing on free to air, video or dvd releases, on Foxtel/Austar/Cable etc or even downloaded/viewed on the internet (it’s a pirates life for me!) Shows were transported across oceans before the digital revolution, but with this instaneous access there is no gap in communication. We are acutely aware of the counter-part through these means, and therefore inevitable that we will draw comparisons and criticisms.

But first off, why bother adaption and translation? Hey Dad..! that aired on the Seven Network in 1987-1994, rather than remade was translated and dubbed for over twenty countries. Neighbours also was packaged ‘as is’ and was incredibly popular in the UK particularly. Their rather simple depiction of Australian suburbian family values was easily accessible and understandable to other countries and cultures that already had an existing infrastructure of ‘suburbia’ to understand the basic plot and context of Neighbours and Hey Dad..!, thus there was no need to re-image and re-brand.tumblr_m9wenk6lQg1qbngkko1_500

However, with comedy, its conception lies within the cultural setting it exists, transportation and translation requires more than just words on a page. Comedic relief resides in inflection, timing, nuance, gesture, sound and silence, and most importantly: irony. What Sue Turnbull suggests is the crucial element that makes a comedy translate is the gap in interpretation of how the character imagines themselves/ is portrayed and how we as the audience sees them.
Selma Blair portrays the American ‘Kim’ in the US adaption of  Australia’s “Kath  & Kim”, who intended to portray the Americanised Kath as based on ‘Tabloid queens Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears’ The gap in interpretation was almost non existent- the American Kath saw herself as a tabloid queen and the audience saw her as a tabloid queen. Whereas with Gina Riley’s Kim, saw herself as a horn-bag, and Rileys performance revealed her as self-deluded and ridiculous.  The room for irony was lost and so was the humour.
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Is it simply the stereotype of Australian “boganness” just doesnt have a translatable counterpart? The British Series The Office, sold rights in over 80 countries, and was a success story in tv translation, but the translation came at a cost. In the US reimaging, characters names’ were all changed and were all better looking and more ‘upbeat’ than their characters of origins. Ricky Gervais’ performances as David Brent were toned down in the cultural translation to recontextualise and thus lost what made David Brent ‘so awful and so funny’. US’s The Office closely followed the plot of The British version that was ‘less than stellar’ then took off in a new and original direction, diverting from the original and finding critical aclaim. Its mistranslation eventually led to success, whereas Kath & Kim (US) led to failure.

The success of a comedy show’s translation depends greatly on its context and ability for the audience to ‘get the jokes’, not only this but also how it is produced and portrayed to allow the room for irony. Or more simply, perhaps some jokes are just not translatable and will always belong to one group and exclude (or not be understood by) others.

Andy Medhurst, A National Joke: Popular Comedy and English Cultural Identities, Routledge, Londong and New York, 2007, p.1

Turnbull S 2008, ‘It’s Like They Threw a Panther in the Air and Caught It in Embroidery’, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, no. 159, vol. 1