January 4, 2010

We recently celebrated the 3rd birthday of Spanish Cow’s wee calf, which reminds me of probably the worst cow joke based on Scottish English pronunciation (a quite, erm, long list, I’m sure) ever to see the light of day:

-Why’d the overworked Heilan’ coo (that’s “Highland cow” for the uninitiated) suddenly look so radiant?

– Coz she had a week aff.

If you get that joke, and have no Scottish blood in you, well – hats off to you, kind sir.

Along with a mountain of DVDs, we got him a “BIG-Bobby-Car”, the biggest-selling ride-on car in the world, apparently. For anyone that fancies it, we got it from Temi Toys Bobby Car Shop, a UK-based online retailer specialising in quality toys made by German toy manufacturer, BIG.

And why did the blog writer indulge in a blatant bout of nepotism to promote a friend’s business? Well, because he could.

Let’s return to the supposed subject at hand. As the wee man was zooming around the living room, one of his newly-acquired DVDs was blaring in the background. Having a toddler does expose you to the delights of all types of children’s TV, of course. On a grinding, daily basis. And as our particular toddler has done quite a bit of transatlantic traversing recently, it’s been fascinating to see how American television deals with the linguistic challenge of dubbing (or not, as the case may be) children’s programmes that originate from the UK or elsewhere, and vice versa.

Britain tends to rabbit-punch above its weight in this area, with a remarkable amount of cartoons, puppet shows and CGI creations having made their way onto the seemingly never-ending swathe of U.S. kids’ channels. Instead of being put off by the Teletubbies, who toddled over the pond in the late 90s, American TV has welcomed British newcomers with the most open of arms. Roary the Racing Car, Bob the Builder, Charlie and Lola, Rubbadubbers and Kipper represent just a small selection of recent British imports that have been given the American treatment, but what an “American” treatment actually represents is clearly open to debate.

The lack of a consistent approach (not just in the U.S.) in this area is remarkable, but perhaps not all that surprising, if you take into account the fragmented nature of the language services industry and the costs and logistical issues involved in full linguistic and cultural localisation.

Looking at some specific programmes, the grandaddy of ’em all is Thomas the Tank Engine – Reverend Awdry’s stories, adapted for the small screen by Britt Allcroft, have enjoyed incredible success all over the globe. Long before Tinky Winky of the Teletubbies was having his sexuality questioned, Thomas, James, Edward et al were invited to strut their stuff across the pond. Somewhere along the track (pun intended; so much so it’s painful, like being hit by a train), though, along with the understandable decision to bring in an American-accented actor for the narration and character voices (initially provided by legendary stand-up comic George Carlin, who did a commendable job of whining like Percy and carping like Gordon) someone appears to have come up with the bright idea of making what can only be described as arbitrary changes to the original script, which leads to some quite amusing sequences where James will tell Toby in forceful Yankee tones “that’s just rubbish!” or “don’t be so cheeky!”. The more specific terminological differences (guard’s van/caboose, trucks/freight cars, points/switches etc.) were indeed adapted, fortunately, thereby saving 5-year-old trainspotters (itself a British term) from Dallas to Duluth from begging Santa for a US English-British English dictionary. Interestingly, the Fat Controller officially became “Sir Topham Hatt” for American audiences at this point, and has never had to deal with references to his weight in the U.S.A. Whether this was for reasons of political correctness or to emphasise the series’ Britishness is unclear.

The pragmatic Bob the Builder and the breathless Roary the Racing Car have both undergone a more comprehensive – but not complete – localisation process where the scripts and some names are changed. So Bob speaks with an American accent (provided by sardonic comedian Greg Proops, he of Whose line is it anyway? fame) and refers to a “wrench” rather than a “spanner” and a “truck” instead of a “lorry”. There is the odd slip, with old potboilers “soccer” and “football” spattered around in a seemingly random fashion, although this is probably down to a careless initial check of the script at the American end. As an aside, Spanish Cow was in fact recently forced to explain (post-transatlantic move) to his slightly confused offspring why Bob suddenly “sounded funny”. As yet another aside, the Gaelic version shown on BBC Scotland (no longer viewable in the Spanish Cow household) was always a favourite back home, simply due to the fact that Bob’s Gaelic alter ego is “Calum Clachair”, and just happens to share a first name with the aforementioned offspring.

In Roary, a show where the main characters have to deal with more violent head-ons than Silvio Berlusconi and Tiger Woods (oh c’mon, I couldn’t resist), the localisation of the voices has been taken so seriously that Mr Carburettor’s accent has been modified so that he now speaks like an Italian-American from New Jersey rather than an actual Italian, and Plugger’s Caribbean tones have morphed into a Texas drawl. Some voices from the original version do remain, notably Marsha’s and Cici’s (“Zizzy” in the U.S. version). It’s possible that this was done as a nod to their creators or perhaps they simply ran out of voices and/or money. Although, having had the dubious pleasure of wandering around the opulent Roary tent at the Melbourne Grand Prix earlier this year, the latter seems unlikely. As already mentioned, many of the characters’ names have been given an American makeover, with “Drifter” becoming “Dragga” and “Plugger” being swapped for “Lugga”. One rather head-scratching change comes in the form of the pesky rabbit’s moniker, which transforms to “Furz” from “Flash”. What’s up with that, Doc?

Peter Kay’s star turn in the role of Big Chris is not maintained stateside, and you could argue that the programme is all the poorer for it. However, in a nice touch that even cynical, hard-bitten followers of this blog (thanks for the support, you two) will appreciate, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. replaces the former Formula One world champion Stirling Moss in the role of narrator in the US version.

There is a third category of programmes for little people making the trip across the Atlantic: those that haven’t been touched at all. Kipper and Rubbadubbers, as well as the excellent Charlie and Lola, are three examples where unusual restraint has been shown (but again, perhaps simple economics came into play), but this is not necessary a bad thing, as it has introduced the warbling yet well-matched tones of Martin Clunes (Kipper), Sean Bean and John Gordon Sinclair (both Rubbadubbers) to a brand new audience. Rubbadubbers also includes something that every children’s programme should have: a character with a Scottish accent. That is, with the exception of Scooby Doo and the Loch Ness Monster, a cartoon whose only notable achievement is knocking Christophe Lambert (Highlander) off top spot in the “worst on-screen Scottish accents of all time” list. Although, in a spirit of fairness, Sean Connery’s or Ewan McGregor’s American accents do tend to induce the type of squirming only found in Managing Director offices of Maclaren (they of the finger-pummelling pushchairs, a new concept in baby goods) and Eurostar (they of the 16-hour undersea imprisonment, a new concept in European travel).

It’s important to note that this whole thing works both ways, of course. Unlike the majority of top-quality adult dramas that cross the ocean from America, British TV executives do regularly give the green light to an element of localisation on children’s shows. During the psychedelic adventures of the joint Canadian/American production The Backyardigans, for example, “soccer” (yes, that linguistic thorn yet again) is routinely replaced with “football”, as “diaper” is with “nappy”. The voices are also re-dubbed with slightly posh English accents. It’s interesting that the name of the series escaped untouched, given the different meanings of the word “yard” in the English-speaking world. It makes you wonder if the hard-working editors and dubbing artists that attack these things are so tied up in the script and voicing that the actual name isn’t even given any consideration. Spanish import PocoYo (roughly “MiniMe” in English) – voiced in the UK by the ubiquitously comforting Stephen Fry – is another case in point.

And then there are the programmes whose raison d’être is to encourage language learning, such as Dora the Explorer, its poorer relation Go, Diego, Go, the superior Ni Hao Kai-lan and Handy Manny. The ability of young children to pick up a foreign language is well-documented – long before the tabloids were babbling hysterically about their misinterpretation of the “newborn babies cry in native tongue” study that came out last year, much research had already been published over the years confirming that, as far as foreign language acquisition is concerned, you need to hit ’em with it while they’re still young.

Dora is an intriguing example, not least because it may plant Spanish language seeds in younger generations that will only bear fruit many years later (even if all it achieves is introducing young minds to the actual concept of a foreign language, it will have done well). As the teaching of Spanish is still nothing like as widespread in the UK – in the States, many children’s programmes can be switched to Spanish at the press of a remote control button, instantly transforming Bob the Builder into Bob, el Constructor – as the Old Firm of French and German, the language of Cervantes looks to have got one over on those of Baudelaire and Goethe here (the lesser-known Pigloo apart), imprinting words and phrases (rather random ones, admittedly) on impressionable young minds as the eponymous Dora resolutely makes her way “through the forest, over the mountain and across the river”.

Fascinatingly, Dora the Explorer is used as a tool for learning English in France as well as in many other nations. So the parts that are normally in English are dubbed into French, and the Spanish bits are replaced by English (still with me?). Given that episodes are chock-full of piñatas, sombreros and the like, the dubbing teams in these countries must have felt like going “through the forest, over the mountain and into the river” at times. Of course, we’re now entering much-explored territory that links countries that dub to poor foreign language performance (when compared to countries that subtitle)…but that, my friends, is a whole ’nother topic for a whole ’nother day.

Sesame Street was one of the first children’s programmes to include smatterings of Spanish in each episode, which gave it a very exotic aura when it first aired on UK TV back in the early 70s, given that the teaching of anything other than French, German or Latin during that period would have been a laughable concept. The undisputed value of Sesame Street as a learning device was a topic recently explored by “Lynneguist” in her brilliant “Separated by a common language” blog, which is most definitely worth a bidialectical glance, if you have a minute. As many of her posters point out, it is a real shame that the show is no longer shown in the UK, apart from in Northern Ireland, where a spin-off entitled Sesame Tree has lived up to its promise of promoting tolerance in the region. Sesame Street is a veritable localisation pioneer, with locally-produced versions adapted to local needs in existence all over the globe. In the South African version, there is even an HIV-positive character, Kami, brought in to increase awareness in an area where AIDS has reached epidemic proportions. Kami has friends in high places, having appeared on-screen with Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, no less.

It would indeed be heart-warming to see Sesame Street brought back to British screens (well, non-Northern Irish ones, anyway), but given that the BBC mistakenly believes that they already have enough shows that cover literacy and numeracy, that seems about as likely as Sarah Palin being able to locate Belfast on a map.

The increasingly widespread teaching of Mandarin Chinese also now has a televised outlet, in the form of Ni Hao Kai-lan. As multicultural attempts go, it’s a slightly more stimulating effort than Dora, focussing on Chinese culture as well as language. Again, while it’s not going to make your 5-year-old fluent overnight, its horizon-widening potential cannot be understated.

Coming back to the Anglophone world, another present recently acquired by the wee man was The Gruffalo, voted the UK’s favourite bedtime story last month, a not inconsiderable accolade. With the star-studded film version having been watched by a pretty staggering 9 million people on Xmas Day in the UK, it raises the question as to whether or not it will be re-dubbed for US audiences, when it makes its inevitable leap across the water. The voices of Robbie Coltrane (The Gruffalo), Helena Bonham Carter (narrator) and Tom Wilkinson (fox) may well be kept in place if the Harry Potter formula is used, where the U.S. versions of the books are bursting with replacement American vocabulary and grammar (there are hundreds of examples, according to an interesting if slightly pointless study carried out in 2001), but the films use British actors and a British English script. It actually says something about the sophisticated nature of the young mind that this inconsistency is not really questioned. What it says, I do not know. Something, anyway.

Happy New Year to you all.