Game of words
Game of Thrones is, without any doubt, one of the most acclaimed series of the last decade. There are many reasons for this success: it is entertaining, it keeps up the tension and it is certainly not afraid to surprise with the most unexpected plot twists. Such is their fame, that the European Fan Communities just cannot wait for the dubbed version. Viewers around the world demand fast subtitle creation for the show’s new content. We are facing, therefore, a new era of audiovisual translation, an era in which immediacy is key.
Let’s talk about the translation of this type of product.
Game of Thrones season number 6 was not only a critical and box office success, but also a translation challenge. Episode 5, to the surprise of the vast majority, relates the origins of one of the most beloved characters in the saga: “Hodor”. This long-awaited flashback narrates the trauma experienced by this character when, trying to escape from murderous creatures, he suffers a nervous episode in which he premonitions his own death. From that moment on, his name becomes “Hodor”, a nickname resulting from the phrase he heard during that episode: “Hold the door! “.
The problem is clear: how to explain the similarity of the name “Hodor” with the phrase “Hold the door” in other languages?
Some languages were lucky, as the phonetics of the name and translation were not as catastrophically different as they might have been:
German: “Halt das Tor!”… “Hodor”
Turkish: “Orada dur!” (“¡Quédate ahí!”)… “Hodor”
Other translators, however, had a harder time doing it. The Spanish version, for example, tried to persuade Spanish-speaking viewers that “!Sostén la puerta!” could lead to “Hodor.” Other Spanish translators decided to change the word “puerta” (“door”) for the word “portón” (“gate”)…. although it doesn’t seem to have worked very well either.
Italy and France did not do better. Here are their respective versions: “Trova un modo!” “(“Find a way!”) and “Pas au-dehors!” “(“not outside, referring to the creatures).
Of course, the failure of the dubbed or subtitled version of this scene does not diminish the work done by the translators, since it was an enormous challenge given their lack of information when translating the first seasons. Some suggested that the creator of the series, George R.R. Martin, should have warned about this twist during the first few seasons. This, however, poses several problems: the spoiler threat, so important to prevent in sagas like this, and the alienation of the creative process, among other things. The truth is, fixing certain serial aspects in season 1 can seriously affect the originality of the product.
Other countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, opted for a literal translation and risked the viewer not understanding this particular detail.
Difficult jokes 😕
But not only epic dramas originate translation challenges.
Sometime around the 1990s, American comedy emerged and became mainstream world-wide. So far, so good. However, this comedy is characterized by its linguistic acidity, its word games, its double meanings… In short, the joke usually goes hand in hand with the word.
This is where the translator’s challenge becomes evident, as he or she must find the equivalent of hilarious situations, an hilarity based on cultural references not known in the target culture or on linguistic aspects not present in the target language.
Thus, the jokes of this kind of American series or films vary extremely from one language/culture to another.
Here is an example: “Bazinga!“, from “The Big Bang Theory“, becomes “¡zas en toda la boca!” (“whip in the mouth!”) in Spanish-speaking cultures. This translation is based on a generalised Spanish joke, already used in other television programmes such as “Family Guy“. The translators were able to find another cultural reference, present in the target audience… although given the length of the new phrase compared to the original joke (5 words versus 1), it is somewhat difficult to place in the dubbing.
Other series, such as “The Office” or “Parks and recreation“, also require quite extreme linguistic adaptations, given the use of alliterations and double meanings.
But let us explain this with an example.
In a scene from American comedy “This is the end“, one of the characters says: “Let’s address the elephant in the room“, an English expression that is used to refer to an obvious problem that no one is talking about, an evident truth that is ignored or goes unnoticed. The visual idea of the expression is that, as the phrase suggests, there is an elephant in the room and you should talk about it. Another character in the film, ignorant of that meaning and somewhat fat, thinks that by “elephant” he means him and takes offense, creating a very funny and radical situation.
Although the expression “elephant in the room” has been accepted and is used in some Spanish-speaking groups, many do not understand the meaning, for this reason, the translator of the Spanish version of the film must completely change the joke and find a new funny phrase that fits the performance and the context. Not an easy task.
Nowadays, in our society, almost everything has been invented. This includes audiovisual products. Thus, audiovisual creators NEED to create increasingly original content, which also means clever jokes and smart oratory. Due to this, audiovisual translators must be prepared and qualified.