Translator Sabine Sebastian tried to bring Seinfeld to Germans, yada yada yada, it flopped
By Jennifer Armstrong
Like so many of Jerry Seinfeld’s girlfriends on Seinfeld, Dolores was TV-beautiful, with glossy, reddish-blond hair, big blue eyes, full lips, and impeccable bone structure. Most of Jerry’s girlfriends brought with them a joke about the trials of dating and/or the self-centeredness of Jerry’s character, and Dolores was no exception: Jerry very much wanted to sleep with her, but he hadn’t asked her name when they met, and by the time they went out, he was too embarrassed to admit he didn’t know it. He surreptitiously searched her purse for an ID, but came up short. He asked friends to introduce themselves to her, hoping she would introduce herself back; she didn’t.
He had only one clue to go on: she’d told him that as a child, she was teased for her name: "What do you expect when your name rhymes with a part of the female anatomy?"
Jerry, George, and Kramer worked at the the puzzle: Celeste? Aretha? Bovary? Mulva?
It was not until she walked out on Jerry, disgusted that he didn’t know her name, that it came to him: Dolores!
Dolores left Jerry's life when that episode aired on March 18th, 1993. Two years later, Dolores became Sabine Sebastian's headache. Tasked with translating all 180 half-hour episodes of Seinfeld into German for dubbing and broadcast overseas, Sebastian ran into major roadblocks in bringing what she thought was one of the funniest shows she’d ever seen to her countrymen and women. The hit American sitcom so often relied on word-based humor, American customs, and Jewish references. The first two of these meant Sebastian had to go far beyond literal translation; and the latter was an ongoing sore point between her and the editor she was working with.
Aretha? Bovary? Mulva?
Dolores represented one of the toughest puzzles Sabine had encountered: "Dolores" doesn’t rhyme with any German words for a body part, and a fabricated name would detract from the joke. Just because Jerry’s friends guessed "Bovary" as a legitimate name option in English didn’t mean she could throw any old name around in German.
It was just another day in the life of a translator tackling Seinfeld. But it was a particularly vexing one.
More so than the average American sitcom, Seinfeld has had difficulty reaching global audiences. While it’s popular in Latin America, it hasn’t been widely accepted in Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Two decades after it went off the air, Seinfeld remains relevant to American audiences — thanks in part to omnipresent syndicated reruns — but in much of Europe it is considered a cult hit, and commonly relegated to deep-late-night time slots. Its humor, it seems, is just too complicated, too cultural and word-based, to make for easy translation.
With the show now finally coming to streaming services for the first time this month, Seinfeld had another shot at gaining a worldwide audience. But the fact that today it began streaming on Hulu, not Netflix, is telling: Netflix is available across dozens of countries around the world — Hulu is only available in the United States and Japan.
Jokes are the hardest things to translate into another language, another culture, another world. A good script for dubbing an American sitcom for foreign consumption does more than literally translate. It manages to convey the same meaning, the same feeling, the same story — the same direct hit to the lower frontal lobes of the brain that produces a laugh, even though those frontal lobes are steeped in a completely different cultural brew.
And because of Seinfeld’s unique approach to comedy, it poses special translation problems. In one Radboud University study of Dutch viewers’ reactions to Seinfeld, viewers commonly reported being baffled by the show’s laugh track; the audience regularly missed the joke. Some of those who did laugh told researcher Elke Van Cassel that they were laughing only because the characters reminded them of Americans they knew.
At its core, Seinfeld was, as the series famously dubbed itself, "a show about nothing": four self-centered New Yorkers making a dramatic showing of dealing with minor daily irritations and social faux pas. Can you hire a hitman to take out an annoying neighbor dog? Are those woman’s breasts real? How long can one go without masturbating? And do you care to make a bet on that answer?
When Seinfeld debuted on NBC in 1989, it felt like an acquired taste, a cult hit at best. It didn’t offer the simple, linear humor of The Cosby Show, Roseanne, or Cheers — the most popular shows at the time. Instead, it relied on sophisticated linguistic humor; implication instead of explicitness (abstaining from masturbation is, for instance, being "master of your domain"); and deconstruction of the social norms of a very particular group of New Yorkers — unlikeable New Yorkers.
Despite NBC’s low expectations, Seinfeld grew into an unlikely sensation throughout its run in the ‘90s, partly by expressing the consumerist, narcissistic elements of the era. It lasted for nine years until Seinfeld voluntarily ended it (despite NBC offering him $5 million per episode to return for another season). And it made icons of its four central characters: uptight Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), bumbling George (Jason Alexander), manic Kramer (Michael Richards), and smart-ass Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). In its final season, Seinfeld hit a peak, averaging 38 million viewers per episode. Its 1998 finale was one of the most anticipated, most watched, most passionately debated hours of American television of the last 20 years.
Seinfeld deconstructed a very particular group of New Yorkers — unlikeable New Yorkers
Even its closest cohort at the time, Friends — which Seinfeld co-creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld have often insisted "stole" its concept from them — couldn’t touch what made Seinfeld unique. Yes, both shows centered on groups of young-ish, single friends in New York City. But where Friends employed traditional A- and B-plot lines, Seinfeld zigged and zagged until bringing the most seemingly unrelated story elements together in a balletic denouement. Where Friends exploited its touchy-feely relationships, Seinfeld avoided them at all costs.
This made Seinfeld the rare TV show that was both innovative and wildly popular. It seemed poised for world domination as it entered the international syndication market. After all, as America goes, so goes the world. Right?
Sabine Sebastian hoped so. Sebastian — a jovial woman who resembles the actress Emma Thompson — works as a director, scriptwriter, and sometimes voice actor in Germany’s lip-synch dubbing business, bringing American movies and TV shows to her countrymen and women. She knows the dangers of direct translations, particularly when it comes to sitcoms. For every language-based joke that works easily — Elaine’s quest for "schwämmchen-würdig," or "spongeworthy," suitors was a one-to-one translation — many others don’t. Canadian translation company LingoStar, for instance, cites a joke that had to be simplified in a Friends episode in which Monica saw a woman’s huge engagement ring and cracked, "Oh my god, you can’t even see where the Titanic hit it." This was translated as, "Oh my, but it’s an iceberg."
Sebastian had done a lot of work for Brandtfilm, a Berlin company responsible for the dubbed German versions of American sitcoms such as M*A*S*H and The Odd Couple. In 1995, they asked her to direct their newest project, Seinfeld.
She loved the show. She’d appreciated its sarcastic wit since watching the very first episode, and she enjoyed the next-level humor it delivered as it grew ever more self-referential, nowhere better exemplified than in the episodes about the fictional sitcom Jerry. She felt lucky to get the gig, and she knew that Brandtfilm was lucky to have her on it — these things always went better when the translator was a real fan. She wanted to help her fellow Germans appreciate Seinfeld as much as she did.
With her cast and crew, she plowed through the five seasons of the show that had already aired in the United States — she would record them all in succession, then tackle the show’s remaining seasons as they concluded in America. But things went off track soon, she later told me. She didn’t care much for the scripts she was getting from the dialogue book writers. They were translating too literally. Subtle word choices could make a difference, and she changed a lot of the scripts as she recorded. By the show’s eighth season, she finally took over all writing duties.
Her main voice actors — Oliver Feld as Jerry, Traudel Haas as Elaine, Detlef Bierstedt as George, and K. Dieter Klebsch as Kramer — pitched in as well, refining lines as needed whenever they thought the translations weren’t funny enough. They soon became a united cast, as bonded as their American counterparts. (Years later, the team even reunited to reprise their roles in the German version of the Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes in which the cast of Seinfeld gets back together.)
As the actors got better at working together, they had more suggestions for improving the scripts. Often, Sebastian took entire scenes home to rework them overnight.
When it came to Dolores, of course, Sebastian had to work extra hard. Finally, she hit upon a distinctly German solution: she substituted Dolores (rhymes with "clitoris") with Uschi (rhymes with "muschi," slang for vagina). Uschi is a relatively common German name, short for Ursula. Perfect.
Not all television shows are dubbed for export — some are subtitled, and some end up with both versions available. Then, it’s up to the channels that run them to choose a format for their audiences.
According to Israel-based translation company Trans-That, among European countries, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain tend to opt for the more expensive option of dubbing, while smaller countries like Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands prefer subtitles. Dubbing countries often have a long history with the practice that goes back to the beginnings of the film industry. In the 1930s, when many American films were being exported to Europe, the strong preference for dubbing grew out of nationalist concerns — preserving language meant preserving cultural identity. In these countries, entire industries developed around dubbing. Today, certain voice actors will specialize in playing specific American stars, to the point where audiences expect to hear their voice each time they go to see, say, a Tom Cruise movie.
Apart from in certain genres like anime, American audiences rarely encounter dubbing. For one, Americans tend to consume American media; for another, there’s a clunkiness to dubbing that grates on American sensibilities. Both dubbing and translation have obvious advantages and disadvantages: in dubbing, the translation can be altered to fit the culture of the target audience; in subtitling, the original sound of the actors’ voices comes through, conveying meaning beyond language. Some viewers like reading the words; others hate it.
Lip-synch dubbing, despite its ultimate benefits, can get very complicated. It’s not just that the lines may not translate directly — they also have to take just as long to say in both languages and approximate, to the best of their abilities, the lip movements of the original actors. That can pose an added challenge when translating from laconic languages like English into verbose languages like German. And Seinfeld was already a very wordy show, making accurate translation that much more critical.
The script-writing process for foreign translation is so elaborate that it’s a wonder even one episode gets done. Sebastian had to produce 180. With the American script in hand and a direct translation into German, Sebastian worked out lines that would transmit the humor and match the actors’ lip movements. She then spoke them into her laptop while watching the episode on loop. She could watch a sentence a hundred times over if necessary. Jump back, jump back, jump back again on the DVD. All day long, she watched lines, then yelled her best translations into the computer’s microphone. Because the spoken version was the priority, writing it down wouldn’t do. Sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, she made Seinfeld understandable to German speakers. When she finished, she’d send her spoken version to a transcriber.
Translating a single sitcom episode can take longer than an entire action movie
Because of how dialogue-heavy sitcoms tend to be, translating a single episode can take longer than an entire action movie — that was doubly true for Seinfeld. A lot of close-ups, which allowed viewers to see the actors’ mouth movements, complicated matters even further. The entire process for a 22-minute Seinfeld episode took three work days, or about 18 hours total.
But while lip-syncing could be solved given enough time and patience, aligning cultural references often proved too difficult.
Seinfeld’s Jewish references posed a unique challenge: as Sebastian explained, "The Germans have a certain you-know-what with the Jewish." Her editor was worried about some of Seinfeld’s Jewish jokes. "We better not say it like that," she remembered her editor saying, "because the Germans may be offended." She added later, recalling the incident to me, "They should be offended, in my understanding. They did it!"
Sebastian appreciated Seinfeld’s direct approach to Jewish history. She wanted to use jokes in direct translation, but the editor wouldn’t let her. She lost several battles. It was a fine line: Der Suppen-Nazi? Sure. Subtle reference to an uncle who survived a concentration camp? Not so fast. An entire episode based on George being mistaken for a neo-Nazi was problematic. So were references to the TV miniseries Holocaust and the film Schindler’s List. Take Elaine’s voiceover narration in "The Subway" episode when her train gets stuck: "We are in a cage. … Oh, I can't breathe, I feel faint. Take it easy, it'll start moving soon. Think about the people in the concentration camps, what they went through."
Occasionally, Sebastian triumphed in her conflicts with editors — the practicalities of the show demanded an authentic translation. In an early episode, one of Jerry’s comedy routines addresses the fact that Nazis in World War II movies had "like two separate ‘heils.' They had like the regular ‘heil,’ and then when they were around the offices, they had like this casual ‘heil.’" There was no way to avoid a faithful translation in that case: Seinfeld made the Hitler salute as he spoke.
When Sebastian’s episodes started airing in 1996, they amassed a small, cult-level following in Germany. German TV programmers seemed confused about where it might play best: It moved from 6:50PM to 5:45AM to 11PM, then was canceled. It returned two years later at 1:10AM, then 6PM, then 11:45PM. As Dutch TV researcher Van Cassel noted in a study that examined Seinfeld’s lack of traction with Dutch and German audiences, programmers’ "indecision seems to be more of a consequence than a cause of the lack of interest displayed by the viewers. Both Dutch and German networks did try broadcasting Seinfeld at prime time at least once, but apparently the ratings did not increase."
Sebastian didn’t believe her fellow Germans rejected Seinfeld because the main character was Jewish. The dubbing issues contributed to watering down some of Seinfeld’s humor, and she thought the show was "too intelligent" for German audiences. Sitcoms weren’t their thing, and they tended to enjoy more simple, straightforward shows like police drama Alarm für Cobra 11, crime drama Der letzte Zeuge, and Medicopter 117. ALF was famously more popular in Germany than in America — the David Hasselhoff of sitcoms. Who’s the Boss? was also a sensation. Sarcasm and sophisticated, plot-based humor did not tend to appeal to large audiences there. Sebastian also oversaw dubbing for the caustic British comedy Absolutely Fabulous — it too flopped in Germany.
Thus in Germany, Seinfeld will likely continue rerunning in the early morning hours (3:45AM or 7:45AM on cable channel TNT Serie, depending on the day). Those who have continued to watch have been passionate enough to keep it around, bonding on internet message boards as they dissect Sebastian’s translation versus the original English, season after syndicated season. "I think the translation was the reason Seinfeld never was a big hit in Germany," wrote German commenter Der Olli on TV writer Ken Levine’s website. Another German commenter, Marco, defended the dubbing, citing a particularly clever substitution: "There was an episode where a teacher who [sic] (in the original version) pronounced George’s last name like CantStandYa. The german version was slightly different where the teacher called George Kotztanzo. The result is equally funny since both versions nail the point (the teacher disliking George and thus pronouncing his name like some sort of insult)."
On YouTube pages with clips of the show, the debates can be a little more direct. "In German, I do not like Seinfeld," wrote one commenter. "In English, it’s my favorite show."
The difficulties Sebastian faced in bringing Seinfeld to German speakers showed just how hard this particular show was to translate for non-American audiences. But even in England, Seinfeld wasn’t a huge hit. It seems that among the only people watching it in late-night reruns — following it through constant scheduling shuffles and frequent pre-emptions for snooker tournaments — were British comedians. Writer-actor David Baddiel told The Guardian in 2012 that he remembered talking about the show with fellow comics at clubs in the ‘90s. Sam Bain, who co-wrote British hits Peep Show and Fresh Meat, cited Seinfeld’s layered plotting and its signature move — bringing all the plot strands together with an absurdist twist — as the template for his shows. Graham Linehan, writer-director of The IT Crowd and Father Ted, said in the same piece that Seinfeld was "the funniest show on TV. … Every time I write, I’m trying to write Seinfeld."
As television globalizes and cable options proliferate, Seinfeld’s cult status has allowed it to make a few new inroads into international markets. Despite early struggles in the Netherlands, Seinfeld has found a passionate following on a Dutch version of the cable channel Comedy Central. And in 2013, French television revisited Seinfeld for the first time in more than a decade; l’Enorme TV, a new cable channel dedicated to comedy, started rerunning it on Wednesday nights dubbed in French and on Saturday nights in English with subtitles. The network found that "any channel that wants to broadcast Seinfeld must have an audience used to American life and standup culture," Julie Cantin, a spokeswoman for l’Enorme, told me. But according to her, anecdotal evidence on social media proves that "there are Seinfeld fans in France."
Perhaps Seinfeld isn’t as full of "nothing" as Americans like to think
That said, chances are that France will never have the same kind of lasting relationship with Seinfeld that the United States does. Perhaps Seinfeld isn’t as full of "nothing" as Americans like to think; or more precisely, it's full of a very American kind of nothing.
And that goes a long way toward explaining why US-focused Hulu was willing to shell out a reported $160 million for streaming rights, while internationally distributed Netflix dropped out of the bidding early. (Netflix did not respond to requests for comment.) Despite the powers of the internet, and the growing number of English speakers around the world, our ability to share pop culture across international waters — especially the nuances of comedy — remains limited by our ability to understand each other. And even when we speak the same language, our jokes may still not translate, or resonate.
Perhaps it’s to Seinfeld’s credit that it has a hard time crossing certain borders. The more sophisticated and innovative the humor, the harder it is to translate. In many of the countries where Seinfeld remains a cult hit, the more traditional Friends and The Cosby Show have long been favorites. Ross and Rachel are infuriatingly star-crossed in any language. But Mulva can only be Mulva in English.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of Seinfeldia: The Secret World of the Show About Nothing That Changed Everything, which will be published next year by Simon & Schuster. She also wrote Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic.