Translation Troubles in TV Land

Dubious dubbing in the Twilight Zone

If you recognize the above screen cap, you’re either the kind of person I’d like to be friends with, or simply someone who’s about my age. Or maybe both.

The image is a still from “I of Newton”, which aired as part of Episode 12 of the 1985–86 season of The Twilight Zone. This first reboot of the original Rod Serling show ran for only two seasons on CBS (and an additional one in syndication).

It took me five years to understand the brilliance of the script and the clever word play presented in the punchline.

All because of a mistranslation.

If you’ve read my word column, you know about my love for language. (If you haven’t, please do! I can really use those monthly $2.37.) I’ve worked as a writer, editor, and translator for 30 years now. And, like anyone else who has spent that amount of time doing something, it has rubbed off on me.

One of my first jobs in the field was creating Spanish-language subtitles for English-language movies and television programs. This was in Venezuela, where I grew up. Back then, in the 1970s and 80s, movie theaters showed films with their original audio and subtitles. This contrasted with the shows on TV, which were dubbed into Spanish before being aired on one of the four networks we had back then. So, I grew up watching Disney’s Robin Hood and The Love Bug in English, but Diff’rent Strokes and The Flintstones in Spanish.

With the 1990s we got cable, and with cable came HBO. In fact, HBO picked Caracas, the capital city, as its base of operations for all of Latin America. I ended up working for HBO for over a year right before I moved to the States. By that time the subtitling industry in Venezuela had grown exponentially, partly due to a newfangled technological marvel called DVD. Many films that HBO aired had already been subtitled. However, the CEOs decided that the company would subtitle in house any movie they planned on broadcasting. Which meant a lot of films had to be redone. That decision translated into more work for us (bad pun intended).

The preamble is over

That long, winding introduction finally brings us to “I of Newton”. When the 80s Twilight Zone began airing in Venezuela, it did so in Spanish and with the episodes out of order — but the latter issue is a topic for a different article. Still, there was great excitement among those who were familiar with the original show (not me; that would come years later), and those who had seen the “cursed” 1983 film (also not me, but I knew about it).

Awesome. Amazing. Astonishing. Ancredible. Those and other words that begin with “A” are what I thought about the updated series. It was great fodder for conversation on the bus ride with the kids from the new high school to which I had just transferred. It was also a fountainhead of ideas and concepts and story lines for someone with writing aspirations, like me.

One day Episode 12 aired. I don’t remember much about the first segment, but the second one was “I of Newton”. It starred Sherman Hemsley (of The Jeffersons fame) as a college professor trying to solve a brain-twisting math equation. When he says, “I’d sell my soul to get this thing right!” a demon played by Ron Glass (Barney Miller, Firefly) appears to make good on the request.

Hemsley’s character is rightly repentant of having uttered the invocation, but there’s only one way he can get out of the deal. He may ask three questions to find out about the demon’s powers. Then he can either ask fourth question or make a request. If the demon cannot answer the question or perform the request, the college professor gets to keep his soul. Here we pause for a…

*SPOILER ALERT!* Continue reading at your own risk.

I’m watching this episode and I’m thrilled. I’m also wondering how in heck the professor will get out of this jam. I mean, is there anything the Devil can’t do? Okay, maybe salsa like a real pro, but who’s gonna think of demanding he do that?

Hemsley’s character asks the questions, and then explains he will make a request. And then he utters the words “Go to hell!” The Devil screams as he begins melting away with very cheap television special effects from the 80s, and the college professor goes back to work on his math problem.

Go to hell! Go to hell?

Those of you who remember the episode in English may recall that those were not the words that came out of the professor’s mouth.

Except they did, in Spanish.

It was a big letdown. It didn’t make sense. How was going to hell supposed to defeat a demon? Why in heaven’s name would a demon or the Devil not be able to go to hell? Isn’t that where he came from? Isn’t that where he lived and worked and had his summer home?

The more I thought about it, the more confused I got. Discussing it with my younger brother did not provide any insight. Talking it over with my bus-mates the next morning didn’t help, either. They were all prisoners of the bandwagon effect, laughing up the ending as though it had been the cleverest and most logical solution.

Go to hell? I wanted the writers of the show to go to hell for leaving me curious yet clueless.

The big reveal

Five years later… it hit me. Like a bludgeon the size of a car, of course, because I got the opportunity to finally see the episode in its original language.

In 1991 I was visiting a friend in Mamaroneck, New York, and staying at her parents, where she was spending the summer. I was watching TV when “I of Newton” happened to air as a rerun. I paid strict attention to every word the two characters said throughout the eight minutes and change. And by the time Sherman Hemsley made his request to the Devil, I was on the edge of the living room couch.

“Get lost!”

Not “go to hell”. Get lost. Of course it had to be “get lost”.

The figurative idiomatic expression had been transformed into an impossible literal task for the Devil. That made effin’ sense!

Because, during the episode — and in answer to the college professor’s third question — the demon had explained how he could find his way back from anywhere you sent him.

“Get lost” was logical and clever. “Go to hell” was idiotic and, well… idiotic.

But then a new conundrum popped into my mind. Why had the Spanish translator of the episode chosen “go to hell”? Not only did it make no sense within the plot, but the Spanish equivalent of “get lost” (piérdete) works perfectly. It means “get lost” in both the literal and figurative sense, just as it does in English.

I’ll never know the answer to that burning question, but it has always stayed with me as an example of the importance of accurately translating and adapting content. This was years before the concept of “localization” was brewed up by marketing moguls. And yet it was clear to me that the translator had failed miserably in understanding the product and its intended audience.

By the summer of 1991, I had already been working several months as a subtitle creator in Venezuela. I like to tell people that a dubbed 1980s Twilight Zone episode helped me change my approach and become a better and more conscientious translator.

Below is “I of Newton” in its entirety… and in English! Enjoy.

This article was inspired by this very interesting piece on translation written by Clare C.H. Definitely worth reading!

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” ― Albert Einstein ▹ My logophile column:

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