Saturday, July 08, 2006

German TV -or- The Keanu Effect

I have been thinking about my promise to talk about the far-left and far-right and their race-based immigration policies, and realized that the topic requires a bit more fact-finding. And having been informed by the legal staff of Liverputty that I was skating on the edge of EU libel laws--much stricter than American regs (that part's actually true)--I feel I had better be more circumspect in the future.

So I'm going to talk about Alf, or as I think of it, the Keanu Effect.

Yes, indeed, Virginia, Alf is still on television here, if not this week then next week perhaps, and certainly I saw a few episodes in passing last month. The thing to remember about shows in translation is that they only have to match the new dialogue with duration and visual content. For any imported sitcom...and the vast majority of sitcoms on German TV are synchronized American ones (the German comedies are mostly virtually-interchangeable sketch shows along the lines of Mad TV, with casts of 3 to 6 good-looking comedic actor/-esses and, apparently, one tired writer with a copy machine--rather like Minimalist's compositional techniques)...the network must first hire a translator to write a german-language script to match the lip movements of the already-filmed show (how's that for an ellipses, Lptty editorial staff?!). This does not mean that they have to translate, word-for-word, the original dialogue. The good ones transliterate.

Alf is a good example of a visually interesting show totally ruined by inept dialogue, which has been more or less saved in transliteration. Put simply, Alf in german doesn't suck. Mostly because the original dialogue has been thrown out the window. This phenomenon can perhaps be best illustrated by its eponymous exemplar, Keanu Reeves. I had, like every red-blooded American Boy, bitterly regretted KR ever since he attempted to expand from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Whereas that role was perfect for him (I can never remember whether he was Bill or Ted), when he attempted to play characters with thoughts or emotions he fell flat on his face. However, his physical comportment on camera is not actually incompatible with acting.

And he looks so good.

In Germany, the new Keanu Reeves came as a pleasant surprise. The german actor providing his voice is subtle, manly, emotional, and above all, intelligent. And Keanu still looks so good. His face, which in english, is as blank a canvas as his voice, becomes in german a wonderfully subtle palatte enlivened by the vocal nuances of his german acting. Rather like tofu, it takes upon itself the flavors of the sauce. As with Alf, an utter banality is rescued when all aural content is thrown out the window.

This doesn't always happen of course. The Nanny is a popular show here, but while all of the Fran-Fine's-Voice jokes are faithfully translated, they chose an actress with a somewhat Kathleen Turneresque timbre. It just doesn't work. And in many shows, so many puns are translated directly, rather than transliterated, that the whole point is lost. There are lots of Huh? moments when the laugh track helpfully informs you something is funny, when there has been absolutely no humor in evidence. Not that that is an unfamiliar experience, even with original sound.

Very clever shows, like The Simpsons or South Park, suffer in translation, I think, because it is simply not possible to be as verbally nimble in german as in english. The short-cuts and short words just don't exist in sufficient profusion. And the meat is, perhaps, too strongly flavored, itself, to gladly accept a new sauce.

So: Alf better, Keanu good, Bart...underwhelming.

Dear readers: if this has entertained you, or piqued your interest, please ask me questions (if not...don't). The subject of transatlanticism is too broad for a dilettante like me to organize and address in a cogent fashion. Cogency is anyway, for me, an undiscovered country.

Yours in disarray,

Escutcheon Blot

P.S. You may have noticed an increased ornamentation of my previously staid prose. I have had a battle with the corporate drones at Liverputty International and won. I will no longer be, in my more archaic moments, expurgated and eviscerated, leaving my best bits on the cutting room floor. A small victory for linguistic non-comformism against journo-corporate newspeak.


EscutcheonBlot said...

I realized I used thrown out the window twice...appalling.

Jeffrey said...

You passed up an opportunity to use the word "defenestrate."

I'd always wondered about how literal the translations are on imported tv shows. Your description of the process is extremely fascinating. I'd be curious to know how prevalent American re-runs are there and the ratio to old German shows. Would they have had more sitcom type shows or hour long crime dramas in decades past? And do they rerun that stuff?

Jeffrey said...

To continue that thought: I guess what I'm really wondering is what a German Nick at Night lineup would look like. Or any other European country, for that matter...

Clay said...

I'm wondering if we could use this phenomena to create new tv shows here by getting the Germans to re-write them. There are an unlimited number of shows that skimped on the writing, but like Keanu, have an interesting actor without any personality. We could even make a game show where they send various show through the wormhole and we guess what will come out the best.

Wagstaff said...

Very fascinating, this Keanu Effect. Is it in any way related to the Hasselhoff Recursion? You have coined a good term for this phenomenon.

It makes me wonder about how we view performances in other languages. Sometimes I think not understanding the language can help a performance. We hear the noise and see the expression while our mind is partially divided from having to read the subtitles. Example: I love Toshiro Mifune and think he's a great actor, but when I watched him with a japanese friend, she pointed out that his vocal range was very narrow, that the dialogue was stilted and the diction was quaint. Or could this just be a case of cultures always looking elsewhere and not appreciating their own?

Charlie Parsley said...

Secretly I did like Alf. I liked how he had a selfish attitude like Garfield, but Alf was more adult and sometimes vulgar in his demeaning insults.

Just last night I was discussing with a friend what might be said to be the Kate Beckinsale effect. When Kate cuts her hair, or dyes it, on takes on a character, her face will often not be recognizable as 'Kate'.

Whereas someone like Madonna, who also tansforms herself, still retains a strong essence of her persona and is not as much a 'blank canvas' as Beckinsale or Reeves might be.

I like to think that I am a blank canvas. With an Alf attitude.

escuteonblot I am quite the opera and synmphony enthusiast as you may rememebr as per our discussion?... I'd be curious to know what big operas are playing in your neighborhood, and if you ever attend them.

Anonymous said...

As to the much-vaunted "Hasselhoff Recursion", I have not seen much evidence of it. "Knight Rider" is still on fairly frequently, but I don't remember seeing any episodes of "BayWatch". Perhaps the Germans, being very body conscious, are offended (and in my mind rightly so) by DH bounding across the California sands looking rather like a motherly chimpanzee.

Sweetly yours,

EB (not on my own computer and can't remember my clever password)

EscutcheonBlot said...


There is a German 'Nick at Night'. It's called "Das Vierte" or channel 4. The line-up for today is as follows:

16:05 Quincy
17:05 Der Chef(Ironsides)
18:10 Simon & Simon
19:10 Magnum(P.I.)
20:15 Kojak: Mord im Exil(The Belarus File)
22:15 Der Mann, der Liberty Valance erschoß(The Man who shot Liberty Valance
0:20 Böse-Nacht-Geschichten(Evil Bed-Time Stories--approximately)DE
0:35 Airwolf

So that is over 9 hours of programming, only 15 minutes of which is German. There are some German reruns, and one comedian in particular who is brilliant, but more on that in a later paroxyism.

E B(on his own computer again, which means he no longer has to think for himself.)

Wagstaff said...

Wow! That Das Vierte line up is stunning, and not much different from here. I bet Airwolf benefits from the Keanu Effect.