Adventures in Subtitling and Soccer

I am in the midst of a true culture war here in Argentina, and all I have for protection is my trusty blanket. I was watching a broadcast of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” the other night that was subtitled in Spanish for consumption throughout the South American Spanish-speaking countries, including Argentina, and his guests included Judah Friedlander, a comedian best known for his role on “30 Rock”, though I must say I do not watch that show. In a rather amusing interview (seen here, though I was not able to locate a version containing the subtitles that caught my attention), Mr. Friedlander advertised himself as the “World Champion of the World”, expounding on his long list of athletic exploits, ranging from sprinting to synchronized swimming. Along the way, he mentions his soccer abilities and then he and Conan share this exchange:

J.F. – Do you know who Pelé is?

C.O’B. – Sure, he’s the greatest soccer player of all time.

J.F. – Yeah, he’s my father.

Now, I could talk at length about the perception and knowledge of soccer in the US, but suffice it to say that Pelé was the one man who was most associated with the sport in the US until the arrival of David Beckham. This mostly resulted from the time he spent with the New York Cosmos in the 70’s as well as his overall role as a world ambassador of the sport. Proclaiming him as the “greatest soccer player of all time” is not generally a big deal there or in most places. However, let’s look at the translation of the subtitles…

J.F. – Conoces a Pelé?

C.O’B. – Claro, es uno de los mejores jugadores de todos los tiempos.

J.F. – Sí. Es mi padre.

Hmmmm….in Spanish the subtitler changed the content of Conan’s sentence (to “one of the greatest players of all time” for those who don’t read Spanish) to avoid listing Pelé as the greatest soccer player of all time. For me, that’s a first. There was no phrasing in English that was difficult to transmit in Spanish, it was not a cultural reference that people in South America would not understand…instead, it was simply a censoring of Conan O’Brien’s opinion of great soccer players. Because that would be offending Diego Maradona. So when discussing target-oriented translations with your friends or colleagues, remind them that if you disagree with what a person says, just translate it differently and the viewers or readers will never know the difference!