Downton Abbey hits Germany – with an embarrassing mistranslation

Over Christmas, the British series Downtown Abbey has finally come to German TV.

Now I am very definitely not a fan of the show. Nonetheless, the German public TV channel ZDF has once again proven its track record of buying highly acclaimed TV shows from abroad and then completely wasting them in graveyard slots and/or on “digital only” channels with tiny viewerships. Hence, Downton Abbey, a worldwide success and multiple award winner, gets broadcast in a 5 PM slot on Christmas Eve, i.e. at a time when hardly anybody is watching, while tripe like Traumschiff (the German version of Love Boat, which has gone on for far too long) or the regular stream of Rosamunde Pilcher and Charlotte Link adaptations gets primetime slots. There was also very little promotion, while homegrown nostalgia programmes like Die Adlons (quasi factual saga about a family of luxury hotel owners in Berlin between 1880 and 1945), Die Buddenbrooks (adaption of Thomas Mann’s famous novel) or Die Schatzinsel (adaption of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island) got a lot more promotion. I had to go hunting for reviews in the German press, too. Here is one from the weekly Die Zeit.

As a result, nobody I know is watching Downton Abbey this Christmas. Elderly relatives discuss the latest Rosamunde Pilcher adaption (“Well, I heard John Hannah is in it”, I remarked to blank looks all around), but have no idea Downton Abbey exists, though they are the target demographic.

However, if bad scheduling and a lack of promotion weren’t bad enough, the German version of Downton Abbey also suffers from translation mistakes. I watched about fifteen minutes of one episode before the beginning of the news, because I liked what my parents were watching at the time even less than Downton Abbey. And one of the footmen – the good-looking but backstabbing (and gay) one – entered a parlour to announce that the “Countess of Dowager” had arrived, followed by Maggie Smith sweeping into the room.

Now the title of Maggie Smith’s character is the “Dowager Countess of Grantham”. “Dowager” (which they managed to mispronounce as well) is part of her title, not a place. Now “dowager” is one of those English words that don’t have a direct German translation. And I can understand that a translator might not know such a specialized term. But whoever was responsible for translating Downton Abbey should have looked up the term rather than committing a howler like the “Countess of Dowager”.

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9 Responses to Downton Abbey hits Germany – with an embarrassing mistranslation

  1. Estara says:

    Makes me glad that if I turn on the TV at all these days, I usually watch regional third programme shows and not fiction. However, since I got broadband internet in 2003 the time I used to spend on TV is spent on the net ^^, something had to go and it wasn’t going to be games or books!

    • Cora says:

      I rarely bother with German dubs anymore, because the original is almost always better. I sometimes record them for my Mom, who doesn’t like to watch in English. But my Mom expressed no interest to watch Downton Abbey, though she later accused me of souring her on the show because of my prejudices.

      But what ZDF did to Downton Abbey (or Mad Men or Spooks or Hustle or any of the other imported programs hidden away in graveyard slots on digital only channels) really annoys me, particularly since I just saw them extoll their “high-quality programming” in a self-congratulatory news item.

  2. Daniela says:

    My mom watched Downton Abbey and was also pissed about the bad scheduling. I felt the same way about the Beatrix Potter movie that the ARD showed at 0:30. But most of the time I don’t bother with German dubs or only have the tv on as background noise.

    Both Leo and the Murs-Sanders know the word ‘dowager’ and I would expect that any decent translator uses one of the other (or both) and would look up words they aren’t sure about or familiar with. It’s always possible that the translation was correct and they changed it for the dubbing. Most blunders seem to happen when the translatated text is rewritten for the German dubbing and from what I’ve learned from fellow co-workers brains aren’t engaged so that such blunders happen. Actually the worst one was in the German version of Avengers (I remember our childhood – ich erinnere unsere Kindheit). Who knows if that was a translation error, machine translation or bad editing.

    The ‘high-quality programming’ is a joke, an absolute and utter joke. They just run around with that to justify the GEZ-fee (and even more so the new one). These days I mostly watch stuff like Phoenix and even there the better ducumentaries are not German productions.

    • Cora says:

      Oh yes, the Beatrix Potter movie! I actually missed that one due to the scheduling. I honestly don’t understand why ARD and ZDF treat the quality programming they buy from abroad this way. I guess they’re afraid if people actually find and watch the British and US programs they import, they will notice how much higher the quality is compared to homegrown programming.

      I was stunned by the “dowager” blunder, since even my old Langenscheidt dictionary knew that word (it was right at the end of a page and therefore very visible). You’d also figure that someone would notice that it’s kind of strange, if the mother has a different title than the son. Whoever is responsible, it’s embarrassing. Just as embarrassing as the regular measuring of potassium and sodium levels in CSI and its ilk. You’d figure someone would have noticed by now that it’s Kalium and Natrium in German.

      I rarely bother with the “mainstream” ARD and ZDF programming either and only watch arte, 3sat, Phoenix and the cultural programs on ARD/ZDF/Dritte of the public channels these days. And I listen to Radio Bremen’s radio programs, which are actually good.

  3. Gerhard says:

    Ueber Downton Abbey und Uebersetzungsfehler

    Das ist zwar eine spaete Antwort,aber gestern ging ja erst die 3.Staffel zu Ende.Mir gefaellt die Serie und ist besser als viele andere Serien der BBC die hier bei NPR gezeigt werden.
    Ueber Titel und falsche deutsche Uebersetzungen laesst sich streiten ,aber haben Sie schon mal bemerkt wieviele Namen im angelsaechsischen Bereich falsch ausgesprochen werden.
    BBC ist hier vieleicht eine Ausnahme ,die Leute bemuehen sich wenigstenst.
    Ueber die Qualitaet der oeffentlichen Fernsehkanaele will ich erst gar nicht reden.
    Was da am Samstag und Sonntag gezeigt wird ,ist sehr mittelmaessig.
    Ob da andere Kanaele wie Sat3 oder Phoenix besser sind , ist reine Geschmacksache.p

    • Cora says:

      Ich bin nicht so der große Downton Abbey Fan und bevorzuge eher zeitgenössische Stoffe oder historische Serien über etwas einfachere Leute. Aber von der Machart ist Downton Abbey hundertmal besser als z.B. die vom ZDF produzierte Serie über Familie und Hotel Adlon. Aber die Adlon Serie wurde überall beworben, während Downton Abbey im Nachmittagsprogramm versteckt wurde, so dass die Zielgruppe die Serie nicht mal finden konnte.

      Fehlaussprachen und -übersetzungen gibt es natürlich überall and auch Briten und Amerikaner bekleckern sich da nicht unbedingt immer mit Ruhm. Und zumindest in Deutschland ist Fernsehsynchronisation ein Closed Shop Geschäft, wo dieselben Leute schon seit Jahrzehnten agieren und dieselben Fehler machen. Freunde wissen schon, dass ich sofort anfange zu schreien, wenn bei CSI und Co mal wieder die Potassium- oder Sodiumwerte gemessen werden. Inzwischen gucke ich Synchronisationen nur noch mit Freunden und Familienmitgliedern, deren Englisch nicht so gut ist. Aber als Übersetzerin fällt es mir doch immer schwer zu verstehen, dass andere Übersetzer bei einem unbekanntem Wort nicht mal den Versuch machen, es nachzuschlagen. Und “dowager” ist nicht so ungewöhnlich.

      ARD und ZDF hatten schon immer ihre Probleme und haben in den letzten Jahren stark nachgelassen, sogar in Bereichen wie Dokumentationen, wo sie früher mal stark waren. Die Kulturprogramme sind immer noch ganz gut (verglichen mit dem, was in den USA und UK als Kulturprogramm läuft), aber die Quote ist doch zu mächtig und so lange zehn Millionen Wetten Dass? einschalten, egal wie dämlich es auch ist, wird sich da auch nicht viel ändern. Phönix, 3sat und arte haben zwar auch viel Mist, aber ab und zu findet man auch mal wirkliche Highlights. Bei den anderen Sendern habe ich schon lange keines mehr gefunden.

  4. Julie says:

    Reading about this bad English to German translation couldn’t the translators looked at the titles of the old German aristocracy and used that? I’ve heard some of the German “Downton Abbey” and while I can see using English titles such as “Lord” and “Earl” because it is about the British aristocracy translating the “Dowager Countess” as “The Countess of Dowager” is just lazy. I would have thought the translators would have used “Die Gräfinwitwe” instead.

    • Cora says:

      It’s simply a case of the translators either not knowing the term “Dowager” or being too lazy to look it up. This mostly happens with technical or scientific terms, e.g. characters on CSI measuring potassium and sodium levels, when it should be Kalium and Natrium, but apparently aristocratic titles aren’t immune either. I agree that “die Gräfinwitwe” or even “die alte Gräfin” would have been much better.

  5. nem012 says:

    Nice Hitchslap. Just wanted to add, there is indeed a translation for dowager, “Witwe”; In the case of Her Excellency, the German equivaent would probably be “Gräfinwitwe” – dowager countess.

    They could ave put much more effort into the translations; subtitles aren’t translated any better..

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