Practical examples of Localisation 2 – I choo-choo-choose to translate

If there’s one thing that has become part of international pop culture through the simple fact that it has been airing for more than 30 years then the Simpsons is definitively it. It’s not a statement that I feel will be controversial, the characters of Homer, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, Marge and so many others have become through cultural osmosis part of the set of characters and symbols that most anyone in the Western World will recognise. That’s not a very big list, if you think about it, what characters could even claim such recognition? Mickey Mouse? Pac-man? Maybe Sonic and Mario? Not many characters tend to maintain their popularity for decades, so much so that you can still find bootleg merchandise nowadays, for example I love the movies A Goofy Movie and The nightmare Before Christmas and while they’re still popular, and they still get merchandise I pay an arm and a leg to import (seriously Hot Topic should come to Europe) how often do people think about them? How big of a cultural icon are they?

There is a reason that the Simpsons has helped add words to the dictionary (look at the famous example of MEH – a statement many millenials still use to this day m-e-h) or that it has made its way through more than English speaking countries to provide a stereotypical look at what “America is”. It’s not always an accurate look, the Simpsons is above all a comedy after all, but it helped codify and define stereotypes seen in America to many a non-american. Sure italian-americans being mobsters could have been something I could have gotten through movies such as the (and I’m almost legally obbligated to praise it) excellent Godfather, or I could have gotten to know what Disco was from raiding my family’s old tape collections rather than seeing Disco Stu but that wasn’t how things were. The Simpsons have had a definitively impact in the way non Americans perceive the world, or at least most of America, and that’s something to keep in mind

Though maybe I should have figured the episode named “Cape Fear” was based on…well the movie with the same name! D’oh!

But you know today I don’t wish to discuss the excellent and varied Spanish Dubs of the Simpsons, both the European Spanish and the Latin American ones, or even that time they got banned in Brazil by joking about the country, but rather I want to discuss how the show was localised. If you think about it the Simpsons as an american made show and satire of the typical middle class American family refers to a lot of American elements, from celebrities to brands to events, many of which won’t make sense to a Portuguese kid watching it. The self-referential style of the show, where it parodies famous movie scenes and references musicals might just go over the head of someone who’s watching, especially if they were young. I shouldn’t have, perhaps been watching the Simpsons but as I fell into the trap of the animation age ghetto (where animation is for kids even as I watched American Dad, Family Guy, King of the Hill, The Simpsons and the like) as a youngling in the early 2000s I did not recognise that Drederick Tatum was based on Mike Tyson, distanced as I was by time and geographical distance from his time as heavy weight champion and as a peak celebrity and I certainly did not recognise that a scene in the episode 22 Short Films About Springfield where two characters in a pawn shop are tied and being threatened at gunpoint was a reference to Pulp Fiction of all things. Still I had a vast knowledge of early simpsons, or at least the first 10 or so seasons of the show, watching them as I did through reruns. I knew vague plot threads, and the name of characters but the only thing that was stuck in my mind with any sort of concrete detail were some of the jokes and heavy hitting moments. The jump over the Springfield gorge, Do it for her, the death of Bleeding Gums Murphy, the Simpsons could get very emotional when it wanted to. Much like a future show of Groening, Futurama those were all moments that stuck to me. I knew early Simpsons to be good, some of the highest rated and celebrated animation on TV of all time and I had good memories of it, and I had even heard tales of it being a nightmare to subtitle, so of course when Disney Plus became available here on the fifteenth of September I was curious enough to check many of the early Simpsons episodes, and what I found out? Well, I found out a lot, much more than I can write about in this post, but I hope to at least provide some practical examples…

And hey at least the Simpsons are in more than Pog form nowadays!

What use is TAB?  (or generalisation)

If I’m to be honest with you, checking episodes of the show once more and rekindling my memories with it to the point I started watching the episodes in Italian with Dutch subtitles because with my near photographic memory I could still recall most of the plot and jokes and follow around there were a lot of jokes and solid moments that were just out there enough to be, I knew references to something but which were now old enough references I couldn’t quite place. The Simpsons were a clever show, and one that liked to reference a lot of other things and while usually a Google or Bing search would clear up what the reference was to there were, I admit, some rather simple things that tripped me up, if not by context at least by their exclusivity to America.

With America being so referenced today I think that a lot of the options subtitlers opted for nowadays would not necessarily be as confusing to Portuguese viewers, remember I’ve talked about how hard and thankless a subtitler’s job is, how their work is judged by everyone who speaks so much as a hint of the language from which they’re subtitling and yet this I feel comfortable saying. It might have been the internet, or it might have been the process of globalization doing its inevitable march forward but there were references that were “erased” for a more general term in the subtitling, at least in Portuguese.

Now to be clear, this is a perfectly valid, and actually clever way to deal with the problem. If the text, show, movie whatever references something super specific and almost terminological in its nature you are better off keeping a general, vague idea of what that thing is than to try and get as specific as the original. It might seem like the lazy thing to do, the mark of someone unwilling to put in the work but it’s actually the opposite,  it’s not being a poor translator, or a bad one but rather a clever one. Especially because concepts don’t often scale one to one.

Imagine for example a title, or a job description. Portuguese Schools have this concept of a Professor Catedrático, it’s the highest tier of university lecturer you can have, a nearly honorary title you get by not only seniority and by proving your value in the area but also by being a full on PHD for 5 or more years in the area and having visible experience, maybe not in lecturing but in studying the area; It’s a thing very few can aspire to, and an area where often times you have to prove to have made visible advancements in the field you wish to become a Professor in.

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There IS an episode where Homer goes to college, but that’s not exactly an issue in it. “Dean” is easy enough to translate if you can believe it!

Now if you were to google a Translation for Professor Catedrático you would very likely come across the (American) alternative Full Professor, as they also perform many of the same tasks where they orient and manage studies rather than directly lecture and are seen as experts in their field, but is it the same? Not really, when one looks at terminology what separates two nearly identical terms is much more important than what they have in common.

I am getting off topic but what I aim to indicate here is that  a lot of references to American products and realities, often those derived heavily from reality become softer, more general terms. “Hot Pockets” will be translated as “A snack”,  a SUV becomes a “large car”, and a joke about the real emergency number being “912” (because the emergency number in the United States is 911) gets replaced with “113” (because the emergency number in most of the European union is “112” thus keeping the joke) 

But what about when the mention is not just a passing reference, or a quick mention but the whole focus of a joke? When it gets several lines of dialogue? What can a subtitler do? That’s a question that I’ve looked at before in a previous example of Examples of Localization (the answer is, often enough, nothing) but some things still slip through and confused me.

In the episode  King-Sized Homer after Homer purposefully pushes his weight to be large enough so as for him to qualify for disability he is forced (much to his delight) to work from home via computer. It’s something that will get him into trouble later, this being Homer who is not exactly known for being the best or most productive worker. Without going into many other details one of the key jokes on the episode references the “TAB” key on the keyboard, present still in most keyboards, and Homer lacking the understanding of what it is. Allow me to paint the scene:

[To start press any key is displayed on a computer as Homer looks at it, reading the instructions]

Homer: To start press any key…Where’s the Any key? I see ESC, “catarl” (control – ctrl) and pig up (pg-up – page up), there doesn’t seem to be any “ANY” key! 

(sweating and huffing) Homer: All this computer hacking is making me thirsty! I think I’ll order a TAB! 

[With a cup outreached homer pushes the TAB key]

Homer (seeing as the computer started given he pressed a key) – Nope no time for that now! The computer started!

It’s a joke which the episode will return to a couple other times, but it’s a joke that will likely confuse non american viewers. Confession time, I think of myself as mostly well versed in American culture, or at least moderately more well well versed than most Portuguese people. When a tv show references a WAWA or a Chick-Fil-A I know what those places are. Jokes on South Park about wholefoods? Those I could follow close enough…But the TAB reference confused me even as I was rewatching the episode 3 or 4 days ago.

For those who like me weren’t in the know, Tab is a drink, an american drink that apparently tastes much like soda. The fact it shares the name with the key in the keyboard, the whole basis for the joke explains why Homer thought he was ordering it, and given it was a drink it explains the outreached cup, but for a translator, subtitling to a place or country that doesn’t have TAB and has never heard of it, how do you explain the joke? How do you maintain it?


Also one of the most iconic Homer outfits and one I always used in Hit and Run

You guessed it. You  often don’t. Subtitling puts you in a bit of a hard spot because you cannot include notes or explanations like you would if you were translating a book or an article. No, you get the limited number of characters, maybe two lines and you’ve got to explain the general idea

So there were two possible ways the joke could have been translated into Portuguese while still maintaning the character limit and format of subtitles. The translator could have either kept it straight?

“Oh I’ll just order a TAB while I wait. No time the computer started” and let viewers assume tab is like Duff or Itchy and Scratchy, something that in the universe of the Simpsons represents a product, likely a drink from context, or they could’ve simplified it a bit.

“I’ll order a drink while I wait! Computer started, no time now!”  As I’ve said more than once there is no one correct option with translation and that’s one of the things that makes translation interesting, everyone will have a different take on the same scene or text to translate. Stick a hundred translators in a room get a hundred different translations has long been a given within the translation industry. There’s probably even a third, or a fourth way to translate the sentence so it doesn’t follow the script so literally but rewrites or remakes the joke! 

But the thing here, and that was something that surprised me in this particular example was that they kept the name of the drink. Perhaps they thought more of a viewer’s intelligence than I expected? Clearly, when it came to me, the faith was ill placed.


Choo-choo-choosing a Pun

Of course a wild variety of translators worked on the Simpsons over its run. Disney is evil, but it’s not “lock a translator with shackles and force them to subtitle their entire backlog of movies” evil. There’s an interesting phenomena to the Simpsons and its subtitling in that different translators often have different processes in how they approach the same translation problems.

I have talked before about puns and how much I absolutely dread them. They’re one of the biggest problems when it comes to translation as its humor in general. Perhaps calling them puns isn’t the most correct or accurate manner of refering to them but jokes based on linguistic integrity are a nightmare to maintain. Think of the prank calls Bart makes to Moe’s tavern, Oliver Klozoff might work for “all of her clothes off” but how do you maintain a similar joke? You have to come up with a variation on the name.

Depending on the episode and who is translating it attempts are either made, many of which succeed and are as funny as the original or the joke is played straight and the English name is retained. Such is the nature of puns in that some do not even attempt to translate them.

One of my favorite episodes of the show however, Season’s 4 I love Lisa has such a moment in it that I was curious at the localization of. Basically without much context it’s Valentine’s Day and as all the second grade kids get cards Lisa notices that Ralph Wiggum has received none and quickly makes him one.

Now the moment isn’t meant to be romantic, no matter what Ralph thinks but rather it is meant to be sweet, friendly, endearing in a way. The childish and fluffy way the card is written (it’s a train going I Choo-choo-choose you) just adds to that.

There are two problems that imediatelly spring to me when it comes to how to subtitle the card, the first one has to do with the sound a train makes in different languages. Onomatopeias vary, a dog’s bark “woof” is not the same in Portuguese “au au”, an explosion “Bam” or “Bang” are not the same as “boom”, so if 60’s Batman had been made in Portugal the sounds would likely have been different.

Now while Choo-choo has been used for the sound trains make it is a relatively rare sound to use. In fact there’s a whole sentence associated with the sound trains make “pouca terra, pouca terra”, even if one were to take a look at the word “Choo-choo” and use it as a basis, the more correct portuguese spelling would be “chuu-chuu”, given the closeness of the “U” sound.

The other problem of course is – what words to use? Portuguese might have an easy way out, the verb for choice, to choose in Portuguese is “escolher” (from escolha – choice), so the sound of a train can sorta be described from there, a lucky break in the Portuguese subtitler’s arsenal of tools and options but that wasn’t the one that bothered me, rather, Spanish was.

It was not something I did often, watching the show with Spanish subtitles to train my Spanish and see alternate takes on the translation but it was one that bothered me enough to check here. After all the verb for choosing in Spanish (one of them anyway) is Elegir it’s a very different sound from the “CHOOO-Choo” of a train so how did they fix it?

Let me first provide you with the Portuguese subtitle, for while it is a pretty on the nose translation (it’s a literal translation, for I choose you, maintaining the pun) it works well…

Also note that they added the text for “Happy Valentines’ Day” (feliz dia dos namorados) on at the same segment or time. This is because as the translation is so long it stays on for a longer amount of time.

It was the Spanish one which really did amuse me though, I have been hyping it enough, so here it is, same scene, same second, different subtitle:

“Eres muy chu-chu-chuli”, first of all notice how they kept the “choo-choo” part by segmenting one word, just like the Portuguese and English versions did even as the word was so small. That’s something clever that they did, but the real clever thing is how they changed the text.

Chuli, it’s slang in Spain (or at least it was a couple years ago) to the general concept of cool. The best way I can describe it is to put it in the same category of 90s words that have now mostly died out, but which meant the same general ideia, cool, awesome, amazing, maybe even tubular, to be chuli is to be a heck of a person, it’s to be a person who others find interesting and who is fun to hang around with. Someone who’s “chuli” is someone who’s just plain cool.

It’s an interesting translation. In Simpsons terms the character who we would think of as Chuli would not often veer into Ralph Wiggum of all people but that’s why it works. Sure Bart is cool, Otto is cool, Metallica are cool. But characters like Ralph and Milhouse? If you go by the meaning of the term they would not fit the bill, at least not at first glance.

But then it’s the “I want to hang around near you”, subtext that really makes the translation so genius in my opinion. Because Ralph will think this means Lisa has developed romantic feelings for him which provides the conflict for the rest of the episode and in both the Portuguese and English version I can see it. I’m not going to use words or sentences like “leading him on”, because she’s eight, and I hate the implication anyway but I can see how he could get that impression. Eres muy chuli, which basically means I think you’re cool though? It might be a better fit than the original even.

Really the localization of The Simpsons has always been, at least to me, exemplary. It was one of the first subtitled shows I followed religiously, as a seven or eight year old watching episodes without context into what the show satirised and even as I grew older and became more capable with my English and my reference game I maintain it’s still one of the best I’ve ever known. Some of the references might slip through, and some of the episodes might not have aged particularly well – but even so I cannot complain about the subtitling. It was always clever, thoughtful, and above all S-M-R-T, erm, I mean S-M-A-R-T.

Truly a pleasure to re-revisit it.


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