in Translation

Though cartoons are entertainment and are made to be both fun and funny, they also act as important education platforms for kids. Children absorb a lot from their favorite cartoons – they learn about their own culture, about values and morality in their society, and about what makes a character a good or bad person (or animal, as is often the case in cartoons). As such, in order to create translations that teach, cartoon linguists often need to be far more creative and transformative with the content than would be considered acceptable for adult media translators. In today’s Simply CSOFT, we’re going to examine the ways in which translators create culturally appropriate content for kids.

kids culture

Teach History

Every culture has a history of associations with outside people and places, but that history can be offensive to other cultures. For instance, the 1992 Disney animated film, Aladdin, opens with an Arabian merchant crossing a desert. As he rides his camel, he sings “Arabian Nights,” a song that includes the phrase “It’s barbaric, but it’s home.” While the “barbaric” designation of Arabian civilization conveys some of the historic relationship between Europe and the Middle East, it can appear as racist and unacceptable. For translators, they might choose a word whose meaning is closer to “wild” or even “primitive,” but should avoid words that convey a value judgment. For translators from areas that have enjoyed a more positive past with Arabian civilization, they could even choose words like “adventurous” or “spirited.” Whatever the target language’s society has to say, the translator needs to massage the meaning of the cartoon to get as close as possible.

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Define Propriety

Children love cartoons, and will watch their favorites over and over, so it’s no wonder that they eventually internalize the lessons taught by them. That means they’re great vehicles for helping kids learn what’s acceptable in society. In the 2005 film, Madagascar, Marty the zebra says to his lion friend: “Excuse me! You’re biting my butt!” This isn’t particularly rude language by American standards, but for other cultures it crosses a line. In the Georgian translation of the film, the translator changed the line to “Pardon! Is it possible that your teeth pierced me?” The meaning of the source text is captured, though, by a change of registry from informal to very formal with the use of a much more proper form of “you.” This registry shift indicates the zebra’s confusion and nervous fear without violating the societal norms of the target region.

Convey Culture

Cartoons are most children’s first media product and are therefore their first taste of culture. It’s important that the cartoons’ embedded cultural aspects prepare them for their society. For the Chinese translation of the movie Transformers, the translators did a great job of choosing the movie’s character names. Megatron was named 威震天 (wei zhen tian, meaning “power that trembles the sky”), Menasor was called 飞天虎 (fei tian hu, meaning “tiger flying in the sky”), and Thundercracker was 惊天雷 (jing tian lei, meaning “sky-rocking thunder”). These names not only convey the power and awe intended by the original names but are also lifted from Chinese martial literature and demonstrate the iconic style of the 3-character name for Chinese legendary heroes.

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As a translator, creativity is always important but when it comes to cartoons, one needs to go far beyond what would normally be acceptable in translation. Sometimes drastic changes need to be made in order to do the cartoon’s most important job: teach.


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