Cultural translation for dummies

There are obvious reasons the Kath and Kim American remake of the Aussie original didn’t work as the humour in the show derived directly from the characters’ perceptions of themselves as being different from reality and because the US version’s reality matched these perceptions it completely missed out on the comic gold of the Australian original.
Comedy is one of the hardest to culturally translate as comedy depends on the breaking of rules of language and behavior and our laughter “signals that we have recognized the break, but first we have to know what the rules are.” (Susan Purdie cited in Turnbull). While there are rules that can be applied to many contexts like a person slipping over a banana or a toddler hitting their father in his ‘crowned jewels’, which are universally comical. There are certain things that have to get translated when media is shared between cultures, these include country specific:

• Cultural references
• Culturally specific character types
• Recognizable actors
• Audience tastes

Andy Medhurst breaks down this cultural exchange in his essay A National Joke that refers to comedy as a cultural and social practice which is “shaped by and contributes to historical conjunctures; pivoting on contested and ambivalent relationships to power; constituting a repository of symbols that can be drawn on to indicate how, where and why people place themselves”. Whilst Kath and Kim failed due to the lack of effective ‘cultural translation’ the ‘It Crowd’ which showed two socially awkward friends (nerds) embarking on the road of manhood battling girls, love, friendship and life in general. I think the reason the show translated so well was due to the common themes in both the US and UK version as well of the global portrayal of the ‘nerd’ stereotype seen in current shows like The Big Bang Theory.

The clip shows a side by side comparison of the pilots episodes of both versions, so you can judge for yourself which version was more affective or how they were different.

While the US and UK culturally shares similarities, there have been remakes from completely opposite sides of the world. In the world movie channel’s ‘Ripped Off’ series it shows the original version followed by the American remake, this week’s showing Funny Games, a thriller about a home invasion. I found very little differences in script and setting as the US did its best to copy the 1997 German (Austria) version in the 2007 remake starring Naomi Watts and Michael Pitt.

I noticed more aggression and violence shown to the mother and son in the German version than the American version, presumably due to the focus on child abuse and violence against women in the US at the time. Other minor differences was the use of a German Sheppard as the family pet in the Austrian version which was replaced with the all American favorite Golden Retriever ; as well as merchandising differences in the products advertised (Coke German equivalent).


There are also ‘format type’ shows such as Big Brother, Biggest Loser and Come Dine With Me which is when the structure/ format is taken and applied to different cultures while stylized the same, just altered to appeal more to the desired country. When I finished comparing the two Funny Game versions I found myself leaning more towards the American version, why is that I wonder, something that I will be exploring in my essay. So stay tuned.


Turnbull, S (2008) ‘It’s Like They Threw a Panther in the Air and Caught It in Embroidery’: Television Comedy in Translation’ Metro Magazine Issue 159


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