It’s different, it’s unusual, but it’s not ‘noice’: Why Kath and Kim did not survive cultural translation

Ask any self-respecting Australian what they think about the American version of Kath and Kim and they’ll probably pull an expression in reply which may look a little something like this:

Fig. 1: 'Unimpressed' (kikiwasalreadytaken, 2013)
Fig. 1: ‘Unimpressed’ (kikiwasalreadytaken, 2013)

Given the huge success of the original Australian Kath and Kim in Australia and Britain, why exactly was its American adaptation perceived to be so “jaw-droppingly awful?” (Hellard, 2008). The answer: something important was lost in translation.

Fig. 2: 'American Kath and Kim (right) and Australian Kath and Kim (left)' (Michael K, 2008)
Fig. 2: ‘American Kath and Kim (right) and Australian Kath and Kim (left)’ (Michael K, 2008)

Many viewers of the American Kath and Kim complained that a major issue with the show was the poor casting. A significant element of the humour in the Australian Kath and Kim is that the audience is aware of the fact that the actors are all roughly the same age, despite portraying different generations (Turnball, 2008, p. 114). However, in the American version there is a distinct age-difference between the characters, which completely obliterates this element of humour.

Furthermore, Turnball (ibid) explains that many of us find the Australian version to be so hilarious due to each actor’s shameless emphasis of their most unflattering features. For example, we find Gina Riley’s character Kim to be so humourous because of her horrendously distorted self-image. Kim sees herself as a sexy size 10 ‘horn-bag,’ when in reality she is size 16 forty-year-old who squeezes into tacky and ill-fitting clothes. Conversely, the 36-year-old “conventionally pretty” Selma Blair’s Kim is young, attractive and trashy enough to actually be a believable “tabloid queen” like Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan (ibid, p. 115). Goodman (2008, quoted in Hellard, 2008) explains that while the American Kath and Kim are “better looking” than their Australian counterparts, they are “…less interesting and less funny,” which has resulted in the humour being lost.

Fig. 3: 'Irony in Australian Kath and Kim' (Speedy, 2013)
Fig. 3: ‘Irony in Australian Kath and Kim’ (Speedy, 2013)

So what is the crucial element that hasn’t survived the translation process? Turnball (ibid, p. 114) suggests that “it is the role and place of irony…the gap between how a character imagines him/herself to be and how they appear to the audience.”

Whilst there is ongoing debate regarding whether Americans understand irony in foreign, particularly Australian and British comedies, or whether they actually ‘get’ irony at all, one only has to observe the huge number of successful American comedies that successfully utilize irony, such as Seinfeld, The Simpsons and Friends to see that Americans do in fact understand irony, however, as Duffy explains, “[to Americans] there is a time and place for it [irony].”

Turnball (ibid, p. 115) explains that whilst we can view the toning up and slimming down of the American Kath and Kim as simply being required to meet American audience’s expectations of what a sitcom should look like, the crucial element that may have turned audiences away from the show is that it didn’t distance itself enough from the original to gain its own identity. An excellent example of an American adaptation that successfully broke away from its original is the USA version of the British comedy The Office, which, when it “found its feet and took off in new directions…[won] critical acclaim and new audiences” (ibid).

Whilst the American Kath and Kim did make small adjustments (such as changing some character’s names and occupations), it retains many of the qualities of the original Australian version (Cash, 2008), which quite simply do not translate well into an American context. Perhaps if the American adaptation had distanced itself further from the original, it may have been more successful. I’ll let you ‘foxy morons’ decide.

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One thought on “It’s different, it’s unusual, but it’s not ‘noice’: Why Kath and Kim did not survive cultural translation

  1. Pingback: Global Tv – Grace’s Space

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