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November 20, 2011

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Nitmer! Good detective work there.

Series writers have to work fast. Engineering and scientific matters are frequently just as bad. Technical things in novels are superficially a little better, but don't ever assume that a novel writer knows what he/she is talking about.

Good on you for noticing but do you think that the people that made this give a shit?
Or the people that watch it.

Thanks for reminding me of Gustaf Tenggren, whose books enormously enlivened my childhood.

Good post. In regards to the difficulty of checking these things, I should point out that the 1956 B movie "The Mole People" has a scene where the protagonist reads an ancient Sumerian text. According to a professor of Mesopotamian archaeology I had as an undergraduate, the Sumerian is grammatically impeccable.

I've actually speculated that people in The Industry cultivate sloppiness as a cover, rather like a high-school student who refuses to study for a test he's afraid he's going to bomb.

As one of the apparently unprofessional slatterns in this industry (here I am!), I believe your speculation is incorrect.

Television is produced under great time and budget pressures; with a new show there's the added conceptual difficulty of trying to figure out how it works in series (shows are not their pilots, there are surprises pleasant and unpleasant). You imagine the showrunner as amateurish and afraid of failure; I see him as harried, sleep-deprived, answering the editing notes of last week's show, supervising the set that doing this week's show, and trying to make sure the writers are on track for next week's show.

Obviously the German is wrong. The question is whether it's worth the time and expense to fix it, or are the efforts of the Props department (I've never heard of a Set Artist, but I've never worked dramas) better spent elsewhere. The umlauts are dots, not story points, which matter more.

I guess we might share the same observation, which is that "research, dialogue, continuity, constructing backstories, etc." ("etc."!) are often not well done on television. Your opinion is that it seems easy to do -- even middle-schoolers can do it -- and so the fact that it is not done well must be due to bad faith or fear. My opinion is that, while no one watches TV in order to sympathize with the difficulties of its producers, it is not as easy to do as it might look.

Couple other points

1. The PC - Mac chain of custody thing could be true, but I doubt it. Macs are so common among people in the entertainment industry that it's a cliche. My guess is that someone -- the writer, the producer, the art director, the person who actually did the illustration -- thought the dropped "u" looked more authentic somehow. I don't agree, but that's my guess. Or someone just screwed up and they didn't have time to fix it. And I don't know why they don't use umlauts; they look great.

2. I'd bet money that they didn't use "Sensenmann" because "Erntemaschinene" sounded better. (I agree, btw.) My guess is that they both came up when they were looking for the German for "reaper."

I had a colleague who spoke English in a way that only Germans would understand. He tended to use the first word in the list the online dictionary spit out without regard of context. German listeners would simply retranslate it in their heads and know what was meant.
---
Semiseriously, maybe Americans are so used to garbled German* from old war movies that the real thing looks and sounds wrong to them. At least in older productions the Brits were usually very meticulous to get it right°, while American ones were notoriously sloppy. A rather funny example is in "The Battle of the Bulge" where the same canned soundbyte** is used for every occasion when a German soldier calls out independent of context.
Also, Germans tend to be afraid to protest such things***. Other countries have less inhibitions.

°Monty Python is a special case. Depending on the situation they used either deliberately garbled German or put real effort in to get it right (there is a German episode of the Flying Circus. They had to learn their roles phonetically since neither of them spoke German at the time)
*sometimes the equivalent of the Itieyoushoe-youtiemyshoe 'translation' of Japanese
**'Das kommt von da oben' (It's coming from up there). On the first occasion the phrase was actually what was called for (the soldier had noticed something on a nearby ridge) but later it became simply ridiculous. And that film had actual German crew and cast members, so getting it right would have been no problem at all.
***It may be an urban legend but I read that the Nazis became the villains in the first Indiana Jones movie because the original idea (iirc a bloodthirsty cult of Kali) met with protests from India while no one could protest against Nazis as the bad guys. Given that the Indian cult showed up in the second movie this story might be false.

I just want to say that comments like Chris Marcil's above are part of the reason I love the Internet. Anyone even peripherally involved with the NewsRadio episode "Complaint Box," one of the funniest half-hours of television comedy in history, has my utmost attention and respect. Not to mention the hundreds of other hours of great shows he's contributed to!

Now, I don't blame them for the extreme anachronism of the script [in the sense of "font"], because old German script is unreadable nowadays without special training:

I found this out the hard way when I volunteered to translate some of my in-laws' Swiss birth certificates and emigration paperwork. Equipped with 3 years' worth of high school German (along with some college German lit) and a Langenscheidt dictionary, how could I possibly fail?

Epically, it turned out. Even with a guide to help me interpret the script characters into modern text, it was an exercise in fail. Upshot is you need someone who has experience in translating German-language historical documents into English to be able to have a hope of figuring out what the documents say. For the most part. I think, too, that the language itself has changed in nontrivial ways.

All that said, has it ever been acceptable to split manchmal that way? And what is with "Bluebeards"? Did they use Yahoo Babelfish to translate that?

Anytime you have a big group of people working together on a deadline, things will slip: mistakes will get made, details will get botched and no one will catch it in review. That's life. The question is not "why are human groups incapable of producing art without any defects" but rather, given that we're going to have mistakes, where is it best to concentrate them.

Personally, I'd much prefer mistakes in German text that shows up on screen for about 30 seconds per episode than, say, mistakes in continuity or character development or non-sensical plotting. Dr Science, given that human groups have a finite quantity of attention and energy to devote to each episode, where exactly would you have preferred that they sacrificed time in order to fix the German text? Or do you think that there is no trade off to be made here?

Just out of idle curiosity - would the above commenters be as fast to excuse sloppiness of that ilk if the question was in, let's say, in blatant mangling of their own language? If, for example, the Supernatural's Winchester brothers' diary would be written in 'Engrish'? Or is it simply the kind of thinking that says 'Well, nobody really cares, because the people that matter are of course the ones who speak English' at work here?

Just out of idle curiosity - would the above commenters be as fast to excuse sloppiness of that ilk if the question was in, let's say, in blatant mangling of their own language?

Yes, absolutely. If a German television program targeted at a German audience had botched English writing on the screen for 10-30 seconds each episode, I can confidently say: I would not care.

Maybe we just disagree about values. If you want defect-free television shows (or even just much lower defect counts), that's going to increase the cost substantially. If the cost goes up, that means that lots of television shows currently produced would not be made. Given the choice between "Grimm, with completely botched German text on screen for 30 seconds each episode" and "No Grimm at all", I think the choice is really easy to make: I'd rather have Grimm with botched German.

Do you prefer having no Grimm at all? If not, what aspect of the production do you think time/money should be directed away from to be spent on the vitally important issue of German text on screen? Should they pay writers less? Get cheaper actors? Time and attention are finite, so, since you're displeased with how the staff chose to distribute them, how do you propose to do better?

Yes, absolutely. If a German television program targeted at a German audience had botched English writing on the screen for 10-30 seconds each episode, I can confidently say: I would not care.

Seconded. (They could even write it in "Engfish" for all I care. Or "Endmish." Even "Emtith." Considering the seriousness of what's in question, I would probably find it amusing. Maybe the post could have been written more appropriately from an angle of "Germans must crack up at this.")

That is: Maybe the post could have been written more appropriately strictly from an angle of "Germans must crack up at this."

Turb's corrollary to Sturgeons Law: This is the best 10 percent you is evar gonna see ;).

Chris Marcil: Thank you for commenting; I appreciate your insights.

Television is produced under great time and budget pressures

From my POV, this translates to "TV production schedules and budgets are such that it's usually impossible to do a thoroughly good job, so something's got to give." This is the hallmark of a business where doing a good job is *not* a core value.

The fan-producer, on the other hand, tends to schedule based on "how much time do I need to do a good job with these parameters?" Fans don't always create in an unscheduled vacuum -- there are lots of fests, story/art exchanges, contests, and other deadline-enabled events in the fannish world. But even under pressure of a deadline, a fan wouldn't be so sloppy as to think she could generate anything useful by running text through Google Translate.

Obviously the German is wrong. The question is whether it's worth the time and expense to fix it,

Actually, the issue IMHO is that it should never have been done that way in the first place. If either the script intern (or whoever did the googling) or the Props artist ("Set Artist" was just my unprofessional way of saying "whoever does this sort of thing") had cared about quality, about doing things right just because they like to do a good job, then there wouldn't have been something that needed so much fixing.

The umlauts are dots, not story points, which matter more.

My experience as a fan and viewer, though, is that sloppiness on small details often goes along with sloppiness on the big stuff, especially (a) plots that are more than just piles of events, and (b) consistent characterization. I don't perceive a trade-off between important and unimportant sloppiness, but a correlation. My guess is that a showrunner who is meticulous and cares deeply about the show -- cares as an artist cares, not as an investor cares -- tends to hire and encourage meticulous, caring work from the many underlings. If the showrunner is slapdash, the people who handle the details will be, too.

In the case of "Grimm", a French-speaking friend reports

I was very happily surprised by the French language in Grimm. It's good. The accent is good. The words were correct. I guess they invested so much in the French there was no money left for the German.
My guess is that they didn't "invest" in either, but there happens to be someone in the staff who knows French, and who makes sure it's right because they *care*, not because they were hired to.

As I said, German is not a minor aspect of Grimm, it's a distinctive part of the show's world-building. But the showrunners haven't bothered to have anyone around who knows German, they're doing it all with Google Translate. The showrunners are taking a slapdash, nobody-will-care approach to their world-building, so none of their staff are going to be meticulous, either.

The comment from HBK112, above:

Good on you for noticing but do you think that the people that made this give a shit?

Or the people that watch it.

encapsulates the "cynical sloppiness" I hypothesized: assuming that the people who make the shows don't care, because the audience doesn't care, which encourages the show-workers to double-down on not caring -- especially when they're under constant pressure from the money guys to cut every possible corner in time and budget. And the general impression one gets of the money guys is that they're soulless profoundly uncaring about artistic values. So the whole Industry rots from the head.

But even under pressure of a deadline, a fan wouldn't be so sloppy as to think she could generate anything useful by running text through Google Translate.

Oh, come now. You know as well as I the utter dreck put out by some fans. No fan with an ounce of sense, perhaps, but that's not exactly a universal quality, either.

Yes, it's true that many (many! Sturgeon's Law-level many!) will put out utter dreck. But it will be *familiar* dreck (can you say "high school AU"?).

I checked with the Sprogs, who are familiar with some fandoms that tilt *really* young and stupid, and they said even there they haven't seen writers who would do that. Basically, anyone who cares enough to put in more than a couple words of a foreign language knows better than to do it that way.

It's also true, of course, that the extra cost to a fan of getting foreign-language input is very low. Earlier today I saw a post asking for advice from anyone who knows Italian, for instance. The questioner probably found someone within a few hours, and the help will be free.

TV production schedules and budgets are such that it's usually impossible to do a thoroughly good job, so something's got to give.

Isn't that true in all aspects of life? In my experience, there's never enough time or money to make things perfect so we settle for giving the boss or the client a good bang for their buck. I don't think I've ever submitted work that was 100% defect free because that's the nature of humanity; we are imperfect creatures and our works are by necessity flawed.

I mean, every day, surgeons screw up and forget to remove equipment from patients before closing up. Does that mean that 'it is impossible to do a thoroughly good job in medicine'? Would we better off if surgeons charged twice as much?

a fan wouldn't be so sloppy as to think she could generate anything useful by running text through Google Translate.

Actually, I know of one fan fic author who has done just that and who has described multiple blog arguments about when doing so is appropriate.

Plus, are we talking about fan videos in which non-english text is on screen and barely intelligible for 30 seconds or are we talking about written stories where text is on screen forever? Conflating the two together seems unfair. A better comparison might be a fan fiction writer who wrote a story set in one historical period but didn't bother do much (or any) research and got many (all) historical details wrong. I don't read much fan fiction, but my spouse does and they claim that this particular problem is extremely common. You'd think that "a fan" would bother to read a wikipedia article or two before writing a story, but apparently many don't.

Finally, if you read fanficrants, it is pretty astonishing just how sloppy many many many fan authors are.

If either the script intern or the Props artist had cared about quality, about doing things right just because they like to do a good job, then there wouldn't have been something that needed so much fixing.

I see two assumptions here:

(1) That the people who work on Grimm believe that getting some German text that's barely visible on screen for 30 seconds as one of the major metrics of how good a job they did.

(2) That smart professionals who care deeply about doing a good job don't screw up.

Both strike me as nuts. It is a TV drama. What matters is character development and plot and a whole bunch of other things. If you haven't seen competent dedicated professionals screw up, especially in peripheral matters, then, well I don't know what to say.

If you want to nitpick some real fantasy, try Lord of the Rings.

It may knock the wind out of you.

Although, I did always wonder why Saruman imprisoned Gandalf at the TOP of Orthanc, when, you know, there are these eagles ...

Hmm, tried to post this three times, but been doing it between various tasks, so have screwed up somewhere.

Here is a Q&A with the Grimm showrunners.

I think that the problem is a systemic one. The ability to get high quality screencaps is a recent one, so previously, the requirement was not 'grammatically correct German script', but 'Germanic looking script'. In earlier days, the lack of visual clarity was something that was taken advantage of (cf the Easter Eggs in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Thus you have a lot more effort into making sure that boom mikes don't enter the frame as opposed to getting grammatically correct foreign language text on the screen.

Having read major parts of the multi-volume history of Middle-Earth, it is actually surprising how the LotR story turned out and seems so consistent. A lot of pathways Tolkien followed for a long time would have resulted in totally different books and many of them would likely never have become an internatonal success or gone beyond child audience*. Personally, the part where I found the book most inconsistent is the return to the Shire. How the he11 do they know that Frodo's cousin is behind it (his name is not mentioned earlier when they find out about Saruman's pipeweed trade). The original drafts have neither Saruman nor any relative of Frodo but just namless ruffians.
As far as the eagles go, I remember reading a Tolkien letter where he states that he was aware of the problem (he was actually angry that a movie version proposed to him used eagles as main transport for the fellowship). As far as I remember it, his reasoning (post factum) was that the eagles are allowed by higher powers to only tip the scales in critical situations. To be nasty, the eagles are devices only to be used when the author has painted himself into a corner and 'fate/higher power' is just the cover for that.

*did you know that in one draft Sam is confused with the chief Nazgul, allowing him and Frod escaping from Minas Morgul? Or that Treebeard was originally a hostile fairy-tale giant, not an ent?

as for the German script, I am German but am almost unable to decipher Sütterlin (the standardized form of old German handwriting). And that is Sütterlin in print. No chance in case of handwritten texts.
They could have used Gothic script. That's available in many forms.
As I have stated in an earlier post, I have the suspicion that it seen as legitimate to garble German but not e.g. French (or even Spanish). Germans are unlikely to complain while the French are notorious for that. Not to forget that it is easier to get German wrong.
It would be interesting to know how much effort is taken to get Russian right (Turkish or Icelandic* is probably not occuring often enough) given that it is even more difficult than German.

*I am just now working on a scientific hoax that requires a wee bit of knowledge of that language. I find it quite difficult. It's a Germanic language but easily rivals Latin in the high number of different forms.

*did you know that in one draft Sam is confused with the chief Nazgul, allowing him and Frod escaping from Minas Morgul? Or that Treebeard was originally a hostile fairy-tale giant, not an ent?

Or that in The Hobbit, Gandalf was the original name for the dwarf known as Thorin, in the published version?

If only the pesky Istari had thought to do away with Sauron while he was still in Dol Guldur. Stupid Maiar. That whole bit with the hobbitses could have been completely avoided.

Yeah, but this Aragorn guy (aka Strider) was originally a hobbit too (by the name of Trotter)*. And Tolkien thought that he might be Bilbo in disguise to help Bingo (now better known as Frodo).
For that matter, Sauron was originally Tevildo the Cat (and Lord of Cats). And Morgoth got chased up a tree into outer space and then the tree knocked down (Jack and the Beanstalk fashion). The story evolved a bit.
The eagles may simply have missed Mordor since Tolkien shifted it around quite a bit. It was originally much further West and North of its final position. Hey, have you seen the volcano that was here last week?

*and stayed that way up to the Falls of Rauros.

I like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Ringbearer>this quite a bit.

I appreciate the first-hand perspective that Chris has brought to this discussion, but I think his responses display a glaring lack of understanding of how fans of shows like this think in general, and what is important and not in a show like this. Comedy and sci-fi/fantasy are completely different animals; you can get away with a ton of hand-waving in the former that you just can't in the latter.

If this was an episode of some random sitcom or procedural drama where there needed to be a few lines of German for flavor, these kinds of errors would be excusable. A native speaker will have a good laugh, but the language and the lines are really just incidental, about as significant as being able to recognize places in Vancouver where the X-Files shot episodes that were canonically supposed to be somewhere in the US.

The German language isn't incidental to Grimm. It's central to one of the very premises of the show. Despite this, they don't just get it wrong--they get it blatantly, hilariously, embarrassingly wrong in a way that thirty seconds of Google or a phone call to your German brother-in-law could prevent. It's a degree of sloppiness for which there just isn't any excuse--if you're going to write your show around a language in which you're not fluent, you need to line up a native speaker who's willing to help, or risk looking really silly and having your show suffer a lingering death by ridicule.

And errors like this aren't trivial in a way only TV critics care about. They undermine the entire suspension of disbelief that makes it possible for a fan to take the show seriously--especially for the kind of dedicated fans who love the subject matter and pay attention to details.

To pick just one of these errors, one might think "Erntemaschinene" sounds acoustically cooler than "Sensenmann", but once a person is aware of the error and knows what the word means, every single utterance or occurrence of the term in the show just reminds a knowledgeable viewer that this is fake, and kills the suspension of disbelief. It'd be as if the creators of House or Grey's Anatomy routinely referred to a scalpel as an X-acto knife, or the creators of Rome egregiously butchered all the Latin.

Of course, if I or anyone else knew the answer to this, they would be famous and rich beyond their wildest imagination, but I wonder, even in rough percentage terms, what percentage of fandom needs to be sprinkled in a show like Grimm to make it work, and how far one can go in ignoring them.

The whole question of suspension of disbelief is interesting as well. I remember the doc's previous post that mentioned the new Hawaii-Five-0 and a running gun battle that defied belief, yet, if I understood the post correctly, it didn't really interfere with her watching the series. For me, the difference between "Erntemaschinene" and "Sensenmann" would be, if I noted it, a lot more grating than the visual thing that doc points out, but then I think of shows that have had mangled Japanese in them (both aurally and visually), they haven't had me walk away in disgust, though the fact that I can't actually remember any of them right now might be as damning.

Another thing that is probably just me, but I am finding that if a show is _too_ realistic, I can't watch it. I started watching Breaking Bad, and I am finding myself wishing that there were some things that would allow me to dismiss it as obvious fiction, though, as Catsy notes, this is a question of genre as well.

And errors like this aren't trivial in a way only TV critics care about.

You're right; errors like these are so trivial, that not even TV critics care about them. At least according to a quick sampling of reviews at Metacritic.

once a person is aware of the error and knows what the word means, every single utterance or occurrence of the term in the show just reminds a knowledgeable viewer that this is fake, and kills the suspension of disbelief.

I think you might be overgeneralizing here. I enjoy the show and now that I know that the German is botched, that changes...absolutely nothing for me. As for whether the show is fake, my first clue was the presence of wolfmen monsters, but if that wasn't enough for you, I guess the lack of umlauts is the next most obvious tip.


The German language isn't incidental to Grimm. It's central to one of the very premises of the show.

This is incorrect. The German language has nothing to do with the show. Knowing German is not a prerequisite for enjoying or understanding the show; the dialog is in english and what little German appears on screen is not intended to be read; that's why it only flashes on screen for a second or two at a time. Complaining about it seems akin to walking into a furniture store and whining that the fake computer on the demo desks doesn't have internet access.

German culture, or at least, the heavily bastardized and distorted notion that exists in American popular culture plays some role, but that's a different thing altogether. Folk awareness of Grimm's fairy tales is completely independent of German language ability.

They undermine the entire suspension of disbelief that makes it possible for a fan to take the show seriously

Let's be clear about what we're talking about here. In order to even notice the "problem" that Dr Science has written about, you need to have all of the following elements:

(1) you need to be able to read German
(2) you need to be paying close attention to the TV for the precise few seconds in which German is actually on screen
(3) you need good eyes or you need to be watching hi def on a good-sized screen

Wikipedia claims that about 0.4% of the US population speaks German, but I'd bet that a great deal more than that studied German or can read it to some degree. But combined with the other factors, we're still talking about ~1% of viewers who would even notice the "problem". That is consistent with the fact that user reviews on metacritic are overwhelmingly positive.

Yes, the German is abysmal--and the show is a not-very imaginative knock-off of Supernatural. The whole mess is characterized by the barest minimum of thinking--and concern for thinking.

every single utterance or occurrence of the term in the show just reminds a knowledgeable viewer that this is fake, and kills the suspension of disbelief.

The people who produced the show simply don't care; the "knowledgeable viewer" means less than nothing to them.

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