Translating Adult Cartoons into Polish

The aim of this Wikibook is to offer practical strategies and tips for preparing Polish versions of American television adult cartoons on the levels of language and socio-cultural context. It provides the Polish translator with theoretical background of the discipline along with a series of practical exercises after every chapter to aid self-assessment.

The author will assume the reader to be a Polish native speaker with interest in acquiring or expanding their knowledge about translating adult animation. Some of the terminology used in this textbook will require a certain familiarity with translation theories and concepts.

Please note that the selection of sources and examples included in this textbook is based on a subjective choice. The author welcomes constructive criticism and contribution of other users to the project.

What makes a cartoon "adult"? edit

As the term suggests, works of short adult animation have been labelled by a country's television rating system as targeted at adults. By both Poland's and the US (with the exception of Kansas, Alabama, Nebraska, Puerto Rico and Mississippi) standards, the threshold of adulthood is the age of 18.

Duff Beer, a fictional alcoholic beverage on the animated series The Simpsons.

Animated TV shows may be considered adult for a number of reasons. Some productions are noted for experimental storytelling and animation techniques, or sophisticated storytelling. Other cartoons may be noted for a use of risqué themes and portrayal of violence, in a way that is unsuitable for younger viewers. At its developmental stage, the book examines samples from two iconic American animated series created by Matt Groening: Futurama and The Simpsons, which have gained popularity with the Polish audience over the past decade. Both shows tackle highly sensitive social and cultural issues in an entertaining form. Examples of coarse language, dark humour, and cultural references - deemed too strong or too obscure for young children to be exposed to - will be examined with the objective to help the reader acquire satisfactory equivalence of adult content in their target text.

Exercise 1: Think of a cartoon or an animated feature film you have watched in either language and answer the below questions (if necessary, refer to external sources, online or otherwise for help):

  • What is the age of target audience of the cartoon/film, according to the Polish and the US media content rating system?
  • Does the cartoon/film have the potential to appeal to more than one age group? Why/Why not?
  • Even if the cartoon/film of your choice is aimed at children, can you still think of any elements of adult world it may contain (verbal violence, sexual innuendos, items and/or actions associated with the world of adults, e.g. alcohol consumption, tobacco smoking, racial and/or religious discrimination, and others)?

History of comedy adult animation in the United States edit

The rise of comedy adult cartoon series in the United States coincides with the emergence of the American animated genre in general; the first known animation subject to censorship due to the adult-aimed content dates back already to the 1920s. The censored content included references to controversial topics in the contemporary world of adults (e. g. rum-running), while maintaining the convention of a family-oriented production all throughout. Separate, overtly pornographic cartoons also appeared at that time - 1928 Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure is one such example[1], where the title character's sexual exploits are depicted in a blatantly explicit way while at the same time aiming for a jocular effect by means of caricature and classic comedic techniques (such as slapstick).

Those strategies can be observed also in modern American animation. Shows like Mike Judge's King of the Hill, Seth Macfarlane's Family Guy or Loren Bouchard's Bob's Burgers, whilst presenting serene life of average American nuclear families, do not shy away from portraying their characters in sexual situations, having them indulge in acts of violence, infedility, alcohol consumption etc., as well as frequent depictions of blood scenes and body horror.

Language edit

Introduction edit

Due to the point-blank, bland language of adult-targeted cartoon, series such as Futurama or The Simpsons pose a challenge when adapting into Polish. Due to the complexity of audiovisual products that cartoons are, with the duality of channels it's built on, specific skills are required to render some higher-level instances of word plays (double entendres) into L2.

This section tackles the following problem for the Polish translator to be mindful of:

  • extensive use of word plays in modern adult American TV-series

Exercises in translating the language edit

Futurama is a 20-minute satirical show taking place in the future that plays on and pays homage to classic science-fiction tropes and themes while ridiculing contemporary American society [2]. It tells an unlikely story of Fry, a goofy pizza delivery boy who accidentally freezes himself on the last day of 1999 to wake up a thousand years later and find the world he knew filled with aliens and technological wonders. The language of Futurama is layered with humour which is built on Groening’s extensive use of wordplays, especially puns.

With regard to cartoons, similarly to any other audiovisual product, rendering wordplays is technically difficult for a translator.

As John D. Sanderson aptly observes in his essay Strategies for the Dubbing of Puns with One Visual Semantic LayerInvalid parameter in <ref> tag, puns are the source of most cases of inequivalence in translation in general because of the following reason:

[B]oth the formal similarity between words which are neither etymologically nor semantically linked and the multiplicity of meanings within the same word will not usually coincide between languages.

Exercise 2: Let us now test Sanderson's claim in practice. The below table shows an example of wordplay from the pilot episode of Futurama: Space Pilot 3000, along with its available translations in Polish. At the moment of expanding this section, the series has been adapted into Polish television a couple of times – twice with voice-over translations, and once with dubbing.

Your task is to provide your own translation of the excerpt. Once you are done, try to answer the questions underneath the table. This part of the chapter is followed by a detailed analysis.

Context: Fry is sent to the CryoGenetics laboratory with a pizza and finds the place deserted. He pulls a delivery note from his pocket and reads it aloud.

The note reads:

The translations:

Original Voice-over by Tomasz Potocki Dubbing by Grzegorz Drojewski Your translation
“Pizza delivery for…Icy Wiener? (I. C. Wiener)”. “Dostawa pizzy dla L. O. Dówy” “Dostawa pizzy dla…Fajfusa Lodowego?”


  • Can Fry's utterance be understood in more than one way in English? Why/why not? Elaborate.
  • On how many levels (verbal, auditory, etc.) is the pun successful?
  • Which of the official Polish translations you think is more effective in the target audience?
  • Imagine you are adapting Space Pilot 3000 for a popular Polish children's television network. How would you soften the message of the original without losing its jocular effect?
  • Present the context to a Polish friend and read them your translations of the scene (one where you have retained the curse word, and the other, softer). Which version was more effective? Gather the friend's feedback.

Scene analysis

The above play on words comprises of two levels; the first one is auditory, which incidentally, is also made up of two layers. In English “I. C. Wiener” can be understood, when pronounced as both “Icy Wiener” (fitting, given the setting in which the scene takes place) and “I see wiener” (suggesting that Fry himself falls victim to the joke). The second level of the pun is that the word “wiener” can either refer to a sausage or an unintelligent, person, a moron. The voice-over version provides an accurate rendering on the first level; the three parts: “L.”, “O.” and “Dówa” both read like potential name initials for the target receiver, and make the word “Lodówa” (Polish for “a big fridge”). However, the additional, insulting layer is abandoned, which - in effect - softens the translation altogether. The dubbed version, although it doesn’t resolve the problem of the phonetic pronunciation of the original, presents an attempt at retaining all the aspects of the original message: “Fajfus lodowy”/”An icy jerk” can easily pass as a fictional name, and it sounds "insulting enough" for the product of translation to remain in the realm of adult.

One conclusion stemming from this example is that identifying multiple layers of wordplays used in a cartoon helps the translator to effectively render instances of linguistic humour into target language

Despite minor divergences, both the voice-over and dubbing are not, by any means, unsuccessful and have the potential to appeal to the sense of humour of the target audience. Can the same be said about your translation?

Translating the culture and popculture edit

Introduction edit

The first part of the project dealt with linguistic aspects of the translation of adult cartoons into Polish. However, Polish audiovisual translators must be acquainted with the whole of the source and target linguacultural backgrounds Invalid parameter in <ref> tag in order to produce a successful adaptation for the Polish receiver. Depending on the needs and expectations of the receiving end, this trans-cultural processing of the source text to reach Polish audiences may need to include a certain dose of softening devices the role of which is supposed to smoothen out the violent and sexual content.

This section tackles the following problems for the Polish translator to be mindful of:

  • explicit cultural and popcultural references in the source text
  • domestication and foreignization of cultures

Exercises in translating the culture edit

Case study 1 edit

As previously mentioned, apart from parodying classic conventions of science-fiction, Groening’s intention for Futurama was to make it a comment on the contemporary life and politics of the United States. Also a number of popular themes and tropes from various mass media find their way into the story, be it through actual visual and/or auditory representation, or references made in the dialogues between the characters. These are all arguably easy to pick up for adult American audiences – whom Groening must have had in mind as target – a complex audiovisual product like this generally poses a challenge for Polish watchers who may lack awareness of the source reality presented by the author. Such cultural discrepancies can and are, often successfully, resolved through translation. In the words of Hans Vermeer, it is the translator’s duty ‘not only to transpose a text in a different language but also to act as a mediator in a process of intercultural communication’ [3] In order to do so, you first need to evaluate how relevant the adult content of the source culture presented on-screen is for the Polish audience and then decide if you should deviate from it or not.

Exercise 3: Based on the contents of this section and your knowledge and experience, analyze the below study example. Your task is to provide your own translation of the excerpt. Just as before, this part of the chapter is followed by a couple of questions and a detailed analysis.

Context: Still in Futurama: Space Pilot 3000, Fry and his newly-met robot friend Bender are seen hiding in the Head Museum, the New New York’s showcase of history’s most prominent personalities in head jars. There he is cornered by another character, Turanga Leela. Terrified, he backs away, hitting a shelf with the heads of US presidents on it. President Richard Nixon’s jar smashes and the head growls angrily: “That’s it! You just made my list!”. The head jumps up and bites Fry’s hand, much like a dog. Trying to pull it off his arm, Fry screams: “Stop it! Down, boy! Bad president!”. Soon, two police officers walk in to contain the situation.

Original Voice-over by Tomasz Potocki Dubbing by Grzegorz Drojewski Your translation
Nixon’s head: That’s it! You just made my list!

Fry: Stop it! Down, boy! Bad president!

Police officer #1: Alright, buddy, step away from the head!

Police officer #2: I'm gonna get 24th century on his ass!

(they both begin to beat Fry with lightsabers)

Leela: Officers, please! There’s no need to use the force!

Nixon’s head: Trafiliście na moją listę!

Fry: Przestań! Zły prezydent!

Police officer #1: Koleś, odsuń się od głowy!

Police officer #2: Zrobię mu z tyłka dwudziesty czwarty wiek!

Leela: Panowie, nie ma potrzeby, by używać mocy!

Nixon’s head: Właśnie trafiłeś na moją listę!

Fry: Przestań! Siad! Zły prezydent!

Police officer #1: Kolego, odsuń się od głowy!

Police officer #2: Zrobię mu z tyłka jesień dwudziestego czwartego wieku!

Leela: Funkcjonariusze, bardzo proszę nie używać mocy!


  • What popcultural reference(s) can you spot in the above example? Are they retained in the Polish translations?
  • What other cultural themes can you identify in the original text?
  • The expression “to make someone’s list” is a pretty common expression both in the source and target language. It does not have, however, its verbatim equivalent in the Polish language. What are some ways to translate it effectively?
  • The original text presents a situation featuring a controversial American politician. Try to domesticate it by using a Polish political figure of similarly dubious reputation. Did this strategy influence the effectiveness of your translation? Is it possible to neutralize this particular reference in translation?

Scene analysis

The scene opens with references to the Star Wars films (most notably through the lightsabers and allusion to “the force”). The exchange hints to a couple more cultural themes, particularly through a quite transparent allusion to the infamous Nixon's Enemy List which contained the names of the actual president's political enemies.

Obedience commands such as 'sit' are taught to dogs in a number of cultures. Photo by Sam Hood

Fortunately for the Polish translators, to enjoy the humorous situation of this scene, it is not essential for the target audience to know what kind of “list” is being referred to by Nixon's head; firstly, it is due to the ambiguity of Nixon’s first line (“to make someone’s list” is an expression quite frequently found both in everyday English and Polish), and secondly, it is because the joke consists of more than one layer of meaning. Note that it is perfectly enough to render the “dog” one to retain the humorous effect of the whole and still carry across the creator’s opinion about the president. Again, the dubbed version may feel more successful in this respect; here the effect is enhanced by the basic, cross-cultural command “siad!” [sit]. Also another interesting thing takes place in the original – the lines 6-8 are en echo of the famous words spoken by Marsellus Wallace from Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Pulp Fiction: “I ain't through with you by a damn sight. I'm gonna get Medieval on your ass” [4]. The Polish version of that line (“Zrobię ci z dupy jesień średniowiecza”/”I’m going to make the autumn of the Middle Ages of your ass”) from the translation by Elżbieta Gałązka-Salamon, has entered everyday language. The author of the text for the dubbed version makes a note of that and adjusts his translation accordingly.

Case study 2 edit

Much like Futurama, Groening's previous and arguably most famous production, The Simpsons draws the inspiration for its plot from the American culture, mocking various aspect of life in the U.S. (morality, family life, politics, etc.). Paradoxically, the show's comedic approach towards serious social issues is what allows it to be serious in ways that many other television shows are not Invalid parameter in <ref> tag. The main characters of the series serve as archetypes of a (stereo)typical American suburban family unit. There are five Simpsons in total: Homer (father and breadwinner), Marge (mother and housewife), and three children (Bart, Lisa, and baby Maggie) living in the outskirts of the town of Springfield. While the family's status is not exactly low, their use of vulgar expressions (especially in Homer and Bart) may classify it as substandard. Homer indulges in simple pleasures of the average American middle-aged man, as presented in the below scene from episode All's Fair in Oven War.

Exercise 4: You will be presented with a fragment of dialogue bit between Homer and Marge, along with its Polish voice-over version which aired on Canal+ network. Based on the contents of this section and personal knowledge and experience, analyze the example in the table and provide your own translation of the excerpt. Just as before, the exercise is followed by a couple of questions. This time around, however, your task will be more creative; you will be asked to provide an analysis of the scene in terms of the translation difficulties and strategies employed by the author of the official translation.

Context: Homer offers to renovate the kitchen and is electrocuted after hitting the wall socket with a sledgehammer. Marge suggests he turn off the power in the house first. Grunting in annoyance, Homer smashes his way to the garage and unearths his old collection of porn magazines hidden under the ceiling lamp.

Original Voice-over by Dariusz Rogalski Your translation
Marge: Playdude magazines? Have you been hiding bosom rags from me?

Homer Trying to. (chuckles)

Marge: These magazines are from before we were married. Maybe you should throw them away.

Marge Magazyny Zbytnik? Ukryłeś tę goliznę przede mną?

Homer: Próbowałem.

Marge: Masz je z czasów kawalerskich, może je wyrzucisz?

Questions to help with your analysis of the scene

  • Can you point to examples of adaption both on the part of Matt Groening and Dariusz Rogalski? What are those?
  • Describe the translation process behind 'Zbytnik'. What factor(s) may have influenced Rogalski's choice? Is his version effective in the Polish receiver?
  • Note that some lines in the Polish version are significantly shorter than the original. Why is that?
  • How does your translation differ from Rogalski's? Did you soften the original further? Why/why not? Note down your observations.
  • Present the context of the scene to a friend and read them your translation. Document their response and the feedback they provided.

Target audience and the Polish content rating system to be wary of edit

Final assignment edit

You should now be sufficiently acquainted with the nature of American adult cartoons. Test your knowledge by completing the final translation task of this textbook. Still unsure? Take a look at the book's external links section for resources which may come in handy in your process. For the exercise to be more effective, try to not look for Polish translations of the scene upfront.

Exercise 5: Watch the Gay steel mill scene from the fifteenth episode of the eighth season of The Simpsons: Homer's Phobia.

  1. Look up the episode's script online and look for instances of adult content. What translation problems can you identify in the entirety of the source text on the linguistic level?
  2. Take down a couple of wordplays and try to translate them into Polish in two ways: first to reach adults, then adjusting them for a younger audience.
  3. Describe your translation strategy minding the context of the scene, target audience and local content rating system.
  4. Is your translation suited more for a voice-over or dubbing? Why?
  5. List all the cultural references you found in the gay steel mill and assess their translatibility into Polish. To what extent does the translator need to domesticate to reach the target audience? Which references can be neutralized?
  6. What controversial issues does Groening touch upon? Are they relevant to the Polish reality?

External links edit

References edit

  1. Wells, Paul (2002). Animation: Genre and Authorship. The Wallflower Press. ISBN 978-1903364208. {{cite book}}: Cite has empty unknown parameter: |coauthors= (help)
  2. Doherty, Brian. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons on his new sci-fi TV show, why it's nice to be rich, and how the ACLU infringed on his rights. Mother Jones Website. 1999 March/April.
  3. Hurtado, I. (2009). Translating Proper Names into Spanish: The Case of Forrest Gump. In J. Cintas (Ed.) New Trends in Audiovisual Translation (pp. 70-83). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.