Sunday, January 13, 2008

Cultural Limits

One of my students works creating subtitles for whatever television shows and movies come her way. Sometimes she works with bad B-movies (or worse) which go straight to DVD and are of extremely dubious quality. At others, she works with American television shows or documentaries. In her most recent lesson, she was working on subtitles for an episode of a BBC series for the first time.

My job when working with her is to take the parts of the script which she can't understand due to the obscurity of the reference or the cultural connotations. In most cases, this isn't much of a problem for me. However, dealing with a British-made show brings more challenges to the experience as there ultimately are references to things I'm not familiar with like the names of specific establishments that have not been popularized in America (or Japan). As one example, I can say that before this lesson, I'd never heard of "The Baron of Beef."

I'm actually quite a great fan of British television and these days spend more hours watching British drama than American thanks in large part to the Mystery Channel (for which, not so coincidentally, my student was subtitling the show we discussed) and the fact that I'm not keen on much current American drama aside from House and Lost. I'm particularly keen on A Touch of Frost (which I recommend strongly to anyone who can find it in their T.V. listings) and Poirot, though both of these are rather old now. It does take awhile for things to make their way to Japan from any country.

Despite a fair amount of viewing experience with both drama and comedy made in England, I can't say that I'm very well-versed in some of the jokes and their references. At times, the only thing I can do is guess then turn to Google during the lesson to confirm my suspicion. I'd say I'm correct about 90% of the time. For instance, I'm still not sure why someone would say "hello, sailor" when encountering a drowned dead body in the water except that being in the water is connected with sailing. My only exposure to the phrase "hello, sailor" has been through Monty Python and the context for the joke was quite different.

I think my students figure that we all speak English so we all understand anything said in English, but there are clear cultural differences. Actually, I'm pretty sure my British friends wouldn't even agree that "we all speak English" in regards to Americans. If you watch enough of another country's popular media, you can start to see some of the threads which commonly run through their collective consciousness to which they can relate and to which you may not. One of the biggest examples of this that I've noticed is that Oscar Wilde's life or quotes make an appearance far more often in British shows than an American might expect. He was mentioned in the crime drama I just saw a bit of in my students's lesson and also in The Thin Blue Line which I saw last week (and, of course, is in a Monty Python sketch and mentioned in Black Adder). I'm not sure that I've ever heard him mentioned or quoted in an American show except obliquely as a reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray. I imagine similar references to politicians and presidential peccadilloes which run through many U.S. shows in particular may be a little obtuse for some.

In Japanese job advertisements for teachers, some schools will request a "North American native English speaker" or a "British native English speaker" and this can get feathers ruffled amongst those who want to apply for the job and don't fit this seemingly arbitrary criteria. While I'll grant that some of these preferences are a bit frivolous, I can also see where sometimes a particular person or group of people may be better served by someone who grew up in one particular cultural environment or another. In the case of my student and for this one lesson, she may have been served a little better by a British teacher, but only this one time. ;-)


ThePenguin said...

It's probably safe to say 98% of the British population have never heard of this "Baron of Beef" either. It looks like a nice pub in the English inaka. I grew up in the neighbouring county and passed through the general area just after Christmas, and the name doesn't ring any bells.

Going out on a limb, I'd hazard British people have more exposure to things American than the other way round, but even then I had what I'd describe as "secondary culture shock" when I lived in Japan for the first time and encountered a lot of American things which aren't at all common in Europe ("so that's what an Oreo is!").

I'm not quite sure about "hello sailor", but it's a phrase laden with sexual innuendo and sounds like a greeting a lady of dubious virtue working in a port would use to good effect. Any usage in the context of a water-borne corpse is probably ironic.

lina said...

interesting observation. Whenever I watch TV shows here in Malaysia that have sub titles, I wonder whether they were translated by human or by robots because the context of what is being said were lost in translation.

ターナー said...

I work with two British guys and that's a fairly accurate rundown - I only understand what they're saying 90% of the time.

Shari said...

Penguin: It's interesting that a reference to an obscure eating establishment is used in a fairly well known show. Well, my student told me it was successful and well-known. It's Dalziel and Pascoe which according to has been running for 12 seasons. I guess I don't have to feel quite so bad for not having heard of it. ;-)

I'd say it's very safe to say that British folks have had more exposure to American pop culture and media than the reverse. It's been my feeling that those in America who want to experience British cultural products have to actively seek them out whereas I think most of the people in the U.K. would have to actively seek to avoid U.S. culture...and even then it'd be a bit like ducking the rain in a downpour. ;-)

The context for using "hello, sailor" that you mention is the one I was familiar with and, though it could be seen as ironic, it seems a little obtuse in the situation it was used.

Lina: According to my student, translators often have to alter or trim their subtitles to suit what can reasonably be read in a certain time frame so maybe a bit is being shaved off. It's hard to say, of course. :-)

Thanks to both of you for commenting!

Anonymous said...

My Dad is British and there are still things I don't understand.
Here's an interesting link:

Emsk said...

I was just about to give you my take on "hello sailor", but The Penguin has done it for me and all teh beter than I would have. Cultural references are things that must be hard for anyone to translate, so good luck there.

It's true enough that us Brits have a wide exposure to American shows and cultural references while you'd have to go looking for it on your side of the pond, but I do think we probably get the cream of the crop (or maybe I simply don't watch enough television). 24 is big as is 'Sex and the City', but these are shows which are huge in the US as well.

My sister lives in New York and she was once asked if she knew a particularly side-splitting sitcome about department store with a woman who kept talking about her erm, nether regions, and a camp gay man. Turns out it was 'Are You Being Served?', a show which aired in the 1970s and which is considered pretty dated now. Also popular with American friends is the gruesome Benny Hill.

I have another sister whose husband is American, and one evening we tried to explain the humour behind 'Carry On' movies. In case you're not familiar, they were a series that ran from the 1950s to 1970s which featured more or less the same cast in each film. As time went on they became more and more risque. Nowadays they're considered pretty sexist, but you can still appreciate the humour. Each story had basically the same plot and the same stock characters, a big fat lady who's after a skinny man who's trying to get away from her, a camp gay man, a couple of dirty-minded men who are trying to get off with a couple of younger women, one of whom is blonde and busty. It also includes a lot of what some call 'seaside, end-of-the-pier' humour (i.e., lavatorial humour which we seem to love!). I'll never forget the look on my bro-in-law's face when he turned to us and earnestly asked, "What's so funny about going to the beach?" The 'Carry On' series reached its zenith with 'Carry On Camping'. In the early 1990s a host of popular British comedians attempted to resurrect the formula, albeit in a more politically correct maner, with 'Carry On Columbus', but it wasn't the same.

But are you aware of the genius who was Frank Spencer in 'Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em'?

Claytonian said...

I think hello sailor would be used as a joke pickup line in America.

An interesting phenomenon that I saw a special about last night was the crumpet craze. Carry On films were mentioned a lot. Maybe you can still find it on Google video.

mjgolli said...

I so much prefer British television to American. BBC America is one of my favorite channels. I love the humour, and they seems to be made so much better.

Monty Python was my first exposure to British TV and humour, and "The Prisoner" is one of my favourite shows of all time. In case you don't know, it is Patrick McGoohan's '60s sci-fi/spy freakout. It only ran for 17 episodes, but words cannot do it justice. Here's to you, Number 6!

Just like with any language, there are dialects and local terms that can be alien to someone from even a relatively short distance away. For example, my aunt...born and raised in Ohio...moved to Maine in 1980. Within a few years, she was speaking like a native Mainer. "Did ya pahk ya kah in the dohyahd?" i.e. "Did you park your car in the dooryard?" In this case, dooryard is driveway. Or like down south, all carbonated beverages are "Cokes", even Pepsi.

I think using the terms "American English", "Canadian English", "Australian English", etc. would be appropriate for the major varieties of the English language. The term "English", by itself, should be reserved exclusively for that which is of British origin...give credit where credit is due!

I say "Hello, Sailor!" to my dad all the time, since he was a Navy Seal in Viet Nam. We also call him "Popeye", tell him "Hey, GI Joe! Me love you long time!" and say that "Navy Seals are sissies!" LOL! He eats it up. All terms of endearment, of course! :)

Shari said...

Sorry that I'm delaying in responding to these comments. I've been super busy the last several days.

anonymous: Thanks for the link. It's very useful and may come in handy.

Turner: lol. I think I understand them about 95% of the time. ;-)

Emsk: I haven't seen Benny Hill for ages. In fact, I think I last saw it on late night cable in college. I'm not sure anyone watches it in the U.S. anymore. It's got to be incredibly dated. I haven't seen as much British comedy as drama, I think...mainly because it doesn't get translated into Japanese as often so it doesn't get shown. In fact, I was surprised that "The Thin Blue Line" was being shown on the Super Channel here (though I guess anything with Rowan Atkinson gets a shot except Black Adder which I had to fork over $100 for DVDs of).

I never heard of "Carry On or Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em" though I did watch "Coupling" through all of its seasons. I'm not sure how good it was by most standards. I thought it was good at times, but not stellar.

Claytonian: I'll give Google video a look!

Mjgolli: Among all the other things we seem to have in common, we also have an affinity for British T.V.! I had totally forgotten about the Southern tendency to call all soft drinks "Cokes" but after you mentioned it, I remembered!

I think I like the pacing on British shows better. They don't seem to feel like they have to rush the viewer from scene to scene or line to line as much. Sometimes it seems American producers of movies and whatnot believe we all have the attention span of hyperactive children.

Thanks to everyone for leaving great comments and reading! I enjoyed them very much.

ターナー said...