April 29, 2013

By Kurt Swenson

Translating a Sneeze

Kurt Swenson is an associate producer for Sesame Workshop’s international co-productions.

Permit me to introduce you to a couple of our Irish friends. The big purple one you see on the left in the picture above is Potto Monster. He’s a jovial, caring, slightly neurotic inventor. The redhead with the big ears on the right is Hilda the Hare. She’s a rambunctious and energetic Irish Hare. And they’re the best friends who populate Sesame Tree, our adaptation of Sesame Street, produced for the children of Northern Ireland.

‘Potto’s Heard of Cows,’ episode 7 of the second season of Sesame Tree, centers on a pop-up book of animals, which creeps-out Potto to no end. When he turns a page and up pops a white, wooly sheep, Potto shrieks and ducks for cover.

“What is it, Potto?” Hilda asks.

“That sweater has a face!” Potto cries.

(Of course, as this is a series made for Northern Ireland, the clothing item is called a “jumper,” not a “sweater,” but I’ve translated it to a more local, American dialect for the sake of this blog.)

 That sweater has a face. A pretty amusing joke, if I do say so myself. Not that I wrote the joke or anything, but I did have a hand in its creation, by killing the originally written joke.

As Sesame Workshop’s Associate Producer on the Sesame Tree series, part of my job was to help train the local Irish creative and production team in all things Sesame: the unique Sesame model, process, culture, characters, attitude … the whole shebang. The goal being that the finished product, Sesame Tree in this case, feels like a cohesive part of the “longest street in the world,” Sesame Street.

Part of this training process includes reviewing and commenting on early drafts of scripts. My colleagues and I make a concerted effort not to be overbearing in our comments, and we take special care to be sensitive to the differing social and cultural norms of the country we’re producing the Sesame adaptation for. Even so, it is inevitable that sometimes a joke is going to get killed.

In this case, the originally written joke didn’t involve a sheep at all. It was a jellyfish. Originally, Potto turns the page of his pop-up book of animals, and up jumps a picture of a jellyfish, at which he screams in fright.

“Potto, it’s just a jellyfish,” Hilda says to him.

“A jellyfish?” Potto responds, “But it looks like a sneeze!”

It looks like a sneeze … a jellyfish looks like a sneeze?

When I first read the joke in the first draft of the ‘Potto’s Heard of Cows’ script, I had to pause a moment, and think about it. Yes, I realized, if the sneeze results in the release of a large amount of mucus, I guess it could look a little like a jellyfish. And indeed, once I had thought about it for a while, I thought it a funny idea, if also a little gross. During the script review meeting with Veronica Wulff, Sesame Workshop Producer, and Natascha Crandall, Director of Educational Content, we all were of the same mind: kill the joke.

“Sorry, Danny, snot jokes aren’t very ‘Sesame,’” my kill comment began in our first draft notes.

“Let alone the fact that we can’t expect the young audience to connect the idea of a sneeze resulting in so much snot that it happens to look like a jellyfish – an animal a lot of children might not even recognize. Please use an animal more normal to a child.”

And like that, the jellyfish became a sheep, and the sneeze became a sweater with eyes. It was simpler, and funnier. A joke that was originally too abstract for our young audience became more accessible, all the while maintaining the absurdity of Potto Monster’s character. In my mind, our comment had done Danny Nash, the writer, a favor. It had resulted in a better joke. The episode turned out to be one he could be proud of. Everyone seemed happy with the change, and no feathers had gotten ruffled. Production moved on. The Sesame Workshop international adaptation process had worked again.

Or so I thought.

“You killed my favorite joke!” Danny told me with exaggerated outrage.

It had been about two years since ‘Potto’s Head of Cows’ was first broadcast, and it had receded well into the back of back of my memory of past projects. Danny was visiting New York, so I’d taken him to one of my favorite Greek restaurants, well off the beaten path of Times Square tourists. Now Danny had decided to interrupt this casual dinner amongst former colleagues to confront me about something that’s been eating at him for a long time: I killed his favorite joke. The jellyfish looking like a sneeze was his favorite joke!

I was completely set aback.

“Your favorite joke? Really?”

So I repeat the standard line that we’d established with our script notes two years previous: It was a good joke – funny – for adults. But Sesame Tree was for kids, and jellyfish just aren’t familiar animals to most kids, and the idea that a jellyfish might look like a mound of snot would be even less familiar.

“Unfamiliar to American kids, maybe.” Danny told me.

He proceeded to explain a joke which only the Irish – whether child or adult – could properly get.

Danny asked me to imagine a parent and young child in America, walking along a beach and coming across the familiar sight of jellyfish, slimy-looking sludge, washed up onto the shore.

“What’s that?” the child asks.

The parent, being playful, might answer: “Why, it’s seal snot.”

To which the child would laugh at the silly idea and say, “No it’s not!”

(And maybe the parent, if cheeky, would reply: “Yes, it’s snot!”)

“But that joke would not happen like that in Ireland.” Danny continues.

“In Ireland, seal snot is exactly what that jellyfish on the beach is. Exactly!”

Once Danny has made sure that he had me completely confused, he continues.

“In Irish – not in English – in Irish, the name for jellyfish is ‘smugairle roin,’ which literally means ‘seal snot.’ It’s a joke, embedded in the Irish language itself!

So, in Ireland, when a parent and child walk along a beach and come across jellyfish, a parent can say: “Look! A seal must have a cold!”

And the child would get it!

(And maybe the child, if clever, would run with the joke and say: “Yeah! He’s sneezed all over the beach!”)

With that explanation, all was clear to this ignorant American, and I apologized to Danny for killing his favorite joke.

A darn good joke it was too. Seal snot, and all.

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