Why is Seinfeld So Hard to Translate?

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In the '90s, Seinfeld was one of the most popular sitcoms in America, averaging 38 million viewers per episode in its final season. But abroad, the self-proclaimed "show about nothing" never gained more than a cult following. Though international broadcasters were quick to pick up the show, hoping for an easy hit in their own countries, viewership abroad didn't come close to hitting the same numbers as it did in America.

So, what's the deal with translating Seinfeld? In an interview with The Verge, Sabine Sebastian, the German translator of Seinfeld—herself a Seinfeld fanatic—explains a few of the many challenges she faced bringing the show to a German audience. Essentially, these boiled down to linguistic and cultural differences. More than many American shows, Seinfeld relied on word-based humor: not only was it full of difficult-to-translate puns and euphemisms, but even the sounds of words or the specific cadence of an actor's speech were part of the humor. It wasn't just the wordplay that was difficult to translate, but the delivery of the lines, the way Jerry, for example, spit out the word "Newman."

Sebastian describes struggling particularly with one episode, in which Jerry's girlfriend's name rhymes with "a part of the female anatomy." Jerry, who can't remember the woman's name, spends the entire episode throwing out guesses like "Bovary" and "Aretha," before finally discovering her real name: "Dolores."

Since the German version of the show was dubbed, Sebastian also had to make sure the translations lined up with the actors' lip movements. Since Seinfeld is such a dialogue heavy show, the translation process for one 22-minute episode could take longer than that of an entire action movie.

Cultural differences were a big issue, too. Sebastian's editor wasn't too happy with some of the German references in Seinfeld: an episode where George is mistaken for a neo-Nazi, or references to concentration camps, for instance, didn't go over well.

But beyond the objection to Germany-focused jokes, the show just didn't seem to connect with most people outside of the United States. Even in English speaking countries like England, the show wasn't a huge hit (though it should be noted the show has a small but loyal following in many countries). Jennifer Armstrong, who wrote The Verge article, speculates that an appreciation of the show requires familiarity with American culture and comedic tradition. It also requires familiarity with a certain kind of New Yorker: "The unlikeable New Yorker." Armstrong concludes that, though Seinfeld may be a show about nothing, it's "a very American kind of nothing.”