Lost in Translation:Why do some formats translate, and others don’t?

There is a biblical story meant to explain the origin of different languages- The Tower of Babel. According to the story, a united humanity spoke a single language, and tried to build a tower to reach the heavens. God viewed this attempt to reach Heaven as disrespectful, so he confounded their speech and scattered them across the world so they could no longer understand each other. The Tower of Babel is perhaps the origin of the word ‘babble’; as in, to ‘babble on’.

Unlike the times of the story of the ‘The Tower of Babel’, translation of language has now meant that this is not a barrier for different cultures to communicate. However, that doesn’t mean we can simply tell the same story in a different language, and there be no confusion. Sometimes the translated story can lose the meaning, the context, and the result is that the audience no longer understands the text as it should.

So it begs the question, if we have a ‘media format’, that is, ‘a cultural technology which governs the flow of program ideas across time and space’, (1998, Moran, p.23); Why is it that some stories are successful in the translation, and others flounder? Lets use Sesame Street as a case study.

It has been suggested that the ‘cultural proximity’ principle’ has a big impact. That is to say, an audience will be attracted to content that is produced by cultures that are somewhat as close to their own as possible (Moran, p.190.)

But what is more interesting, is to examine what makes a translation not work.

Sesame Street is one of the longest running children’s programs in history, and aired in over 145 countries in English. In 2011, there were 39 different international co-productions of Sesame Street (2013, Mares & Pan, p.141). ITeh program teaches ‘socialization skills, pioneered programming formats, developed marketing strategies, spread American ideologies, and idealized American childhoods’ (2014, p.144). In many ways, New York City is visually ever-present within Sesame Street’s format. So much so, that upon my first visit to New York City as an adult, I constantly had the theme song in my head, despite not watching the show for nearly two decades. The local Japanese version had a similar set, but with a Japanese-style corner store, instead of Mr.Hooper’s convenience store (2014, p.156). While Sesame Street’s triumph has been attributed to its ‘success at teaching cognitive skills and promoting compassion for local cultural differences’, it failed to be popular in Japan.

Whilst the American version of the show aired originally in Japan, once the show had changed and been tailored to a Japanese audience, the audience dropped off. The new format had only ‘6 minutes out of a 36 minute episode’ devoted to English lessons. It was not a success, and viewers criticized the ‘bad English and annoying character voices’. President and CEO of Sesame Workshop, Gary Knell, had said regarding the preference for American Sesame Street:

‘It’s the complete opposite of the rest of the world. . . Everyone else is saying, “Take away American imperialism”, and here, people were saying they want it imposed on them’ (2014, p.157).

Freedom suggests that without the ‘English language component and global sanitized image of urban America’ Sesame Street lost its identity and become ‘just one of many’ programs aimed at pre-schoolers’(p.158). It appears it was the American-ness of the show that appealed to Japanese viewers.

This stands in stark contrast with Sesame Street in Bangladesh (called ‘Sisimpur’). Kibria & Jain state that the program has established itself as a local Bangladeshi production, to the extent that there is little sense to Bangladeshi viewers that it was in fact a foreign import, and that Sisimpur was understood to be ‘a source of modem nationalism-of a strengthened identification among children’ in addition to ‘the traditional national culture of Bangladesh coupled with an awareness of the larger world’ (2009, p.71).



Dale, E 2009, ‘Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street’, Journal of Educational Technology & Society, no. 4, p. 396.

Freedman, A 2014, ‘Sesame Street’s place in Japan: marketing multicultural New York in cosmopolitan Tokyo’, Japan Forum, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 144-163.

Kibria, N, & Jain, S 2009, ‘Cultural Impacts of ‘Sisimpur, Sesame Street’, in Rural Bangladesh: Views of Family Members and Teachers’, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, no. 1, p. 57.

Mares, M, & Pan, Z 2013, ‘Effects of Sesame Street: A meta-analysis of children’s learning in 15 countries’, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, vol. 34, pp. 140-151.

Moran, A 2009, TV formats Worldwide : Localising Global Programs / edited by Albert Moran, Bristol : Intellect Books


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