August 19, 2011: Lost in translation…Monty Python Dubbed in Japanese

August 19, 2011

Click to see youtube of two (abbreviated) scenes from “MP&THG” in Japanese

Most of us tend to group feelings (good or bad) to certain people, places, events, or things that can affect us later in life, just by bringing those things to mind. It takes just one shaky takeoff to make someone afraid of flying forever. Looking back, I can trace more than a few really, really good events/feelings with the comedy troop Monty Python.

It all started back in high school. My lacrosse buddy, John, who knew me very well in those days, took me aside at practice “OK, Steve” he said, “Sunday night, 11pm, turn on PBS and see this show, ‘Monty Python’. You won’t regret it.” In those days, every high school student assumed there was nothing good on PBS, especially on a Sunday night, so I expressed some skepticism. “Just watch it.” John said,  “If you don’t like it, I’ll eat my helmet.” So I did watch, just as he suggested. At first it was “What the…???” but then…there was THE joke. I’m not going to tell what the joke was, because as I learned shortly after, it was an old chestnut, but as I never had heard it before, and that joke being given that pitch-perfect Python-ish bent, it struck a nerve. A major nerve! I consider myself lucky that I have been blessed with many moments of really extreme laughter since that Sunday night in high school, but I seriously don’t remember laughing uncontrollably for five straight minutes, before that night. My parents were somewhat concerned. I recovered, was forever hooked on Python and John didn’t eat his helmet.

So, I saw every show. Every single show! Luckily, late Sunday night is not exactly prime-time, so I had relatively few battles over the one set with my other seven brothers and sisters. I eventually saw all the Python movies in the theater. Another Python highlight was seeing the 2001 re-release of “Monty Python & the Holy Grail” with my former student, Isaac. Of course, the shows are all out on DVD now and I have revisited them and all the movies. So, I was thrilled to find the special-edition DVD of “Monty Python & the Holy Grail” in my library. It is full of extras and if you’re a Python fan, I can highly recommend it. Especially rewarding is the commentary by the Pythons. It’s been 35+ years since they made “MP&THG” it and it still cracks them up!

Among other extra features are clips of scenes from the Japanese version of the movie. The two scenes are “The French Castle” and “The Knight Who Say “Ni.” I was amazed to find the Japanese translation to be quite accurate grammatically, but with very different dialog! Another Python “Huh?” moment! Beforehand, I was thinking perhaps that the “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries” line might be hard to translate but, I mean, this was really different! I took the translation to my friend Teja, who understands comedy very well (he has been a stand-up comedian and uses humor in his shows on diversity) and was brought up in Japan (so he knows the language and the culture) to explain why the dialog was changed soooo much from English to the Japanese. Both scenes are interesting and even funny in a different kind of way, but I chose “The French Castle” scene to focus on. The setup is King Arthur, his knights and their “horses” are approaching a castle. Here’s a PDF of the scene as English vs. Japanese:

Monty Python

Teja explained that for the most part the Monty Python humor “just doesn’t scan” in Japanese. He said that most Japanese wouldn’t get the subtleties of the English-French rivalry that so much of the scene’s humor depends upon. “The context of humor is everything.” he pointed out, and “if you have to explain the humor, it doesn’t work.” He also said, “Humor must be absorbed through the culture it is presented through.” He pointed out that he, himself didn’t find “MP&THG” particularly funny when he first saw it, but he was still living within Japanese culture. Yet, Teja’s older brother Miguel (also brought up in Japan) loved the film, but Miguel had been in the states for a couple of years before he saw it.

In the commentary of the film, the Pythons address the humor of the “Witch Scene” when Sir Bedivere asks the villagers (besides wood) “What also floats in water?” the villagers respond (in true Python-ish silliness) with things that obviously DO NOT float, like “stones” and “churches.” According to the Pythons, that humor was lost on the French who, in their translation, substituted things like “feathers” and “crickets,” things that actually DO float.

Oh, well…I guess whatever the culture, it isn’t so important what you’re laughing at, as long as laughter is happening…and happening often. To quote my good friend Teja: “Humor is not universal, laughter is!”


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