The Challenges of Translating Seinfeld for a German Audience

Seinfeld’s Jewish references posed a unique challenge: as Sebastian explained, “The Germans have a certain you-know-what with the Jewish.” Her editor was worried about some of Seinfeld’s Jewish jokes. “We better not say it like that,” she remembered her editor saying, “because the Germans may be offended.” She added later, recalling the incident to me, “They should be offended, in my understanding. They did it!”

Sebastian appreciated Seinfeld’s direct approach to Jewish history. She wanted to use jokes in direct translation, but the editor wouldn’t let her. She lost several battles. It was a fine line: Der Suppen-Nazi? Sure. Subtle reference to an uncle who survived a concentration camp? Not so fast. An entire episode based on George being mistaken for a neo-Nazi was problematic. So were references to the TV miniseries Holocaust and the film Schindler’s List. Take Elaine’s voiceover narration in “The Subway” episode when her train gets stuck: “We are in a cage. … Oh, I can’t breathe, I feel faint. Take it easy, it’ll start moving soon. Think about the people in the concentration camps, what they went through.”

— At The Verge, Jennifer Armstrong, the author of the upcoming book Seinfeldia: The Secret World of the Show About Nothing That Changed Everything, describes Sabine Sebastian’s translation and production of all 180 Seinfeld episodes for German television.