Wednesday, 10 December 2008

To Dub or Not to Dub

German culture is a dubbing culture. You can watch films from all over the world here, dubbed into German. Your average kid on the street is familiar with Danish gangs, Swedish rebels, Russian witches and French gendarmes from films - and that's all before they leave primary school. But as they get older and more pretentious, it becomes fashionable for Germans to reject dubbed films in favour of "watching the original" - either with or without subtitles. So Berlin's cinemas will show, for example, Vicky Cristina Barcelona in German, English with German subtitles and English without subtitles. You might even be able to watch it in Spanish as well, for all I know. I occasionally "watch the original" and am always amazed that everyone around me in the cinema is talking German.

I think there are so many advantages to watching a film dubbed into a language you understand very well. You don't have to read those annoying subtitles, distracting you from the action at the top of the screen. You don't involuntarily back-translate in your head (although this may be a translators' malade). You don't need your reading glasses. You can just sit back and enjoy Bruce Willis in his vest or whatever. And I think this is one reason why Germans are always incredibly knowledgeable about international cinema. They can just go along and watch the dang things, even before they get to reading age. Whereas in Britain, watching a foreign film is a chore for do-gooders and intellectuals.

Translating film and television dialogue has now become a real art form here. In the 1970s, it was seen as perfectly OK to pep up the rather dull scripts of The Persuaders, which ran as Die Zwei in German and had a huge following due to Rainer Brandt's unorthodox translations. Brandt added jokes of his own, coined neologisms (Tschüssikowski! - the stuff of a thousand school lunchbreaks) and generally ran wild with the material. I think there's still an argument for tackling dialogue in this way as a kind of cultural adaptation - if a joke just wouldn't work in the target language, why not replace it with one that does? But it's not done any more.

Nowadays, teams of professionals work on film and television dialogue. Babbel blog features a very informative interview with Frank Schröder on dubbing The Wire for German pay-TV, which gives a good impression of the process and some of the issues arising. Bear in mind that my knowledge here is all second-hand, please...

First off, a script translator (in this case the very talented Olaf Schröter) has a very short time to do a draft translation based on the film/show and a continuity sheet, not worrying overly about corresponding lip movements, etc. and perhaps providing a couple of different options for certain lines. The script translator has to have a good knowledge of the source culture and not only understand references but explain and transport them. Then the German dubbing authors take the draft and match it to the film, checking it makes sense and the lips aren't going "Oooh" when the German word is "Eeeh", or vice versa in fact, and making it sound as genuine as possible. As far as I understand, these editors don't necessarily speak the source language particularly well - rather like medieval translators from Arabic to Latin, who had Arabic-speaking dogsbodies to do the hard graft. Sometimes the authors also speak one of the roles too, as is the case with Frank Schröder.

But despite all that, the translation issues that come up are rather similar to those involved in translating literature: what to do with swearwords - tone them up or down, leave them in the original or take them out? Whether to use up-to-the-minute slang, which will date very quickly. How to deal with culturally specific terms. How to maintain a certain continuity of style across long stretches of text. And one very basic thing that I think probably troubles all translators - will it work in my language?

6 comments:

Blithe Spirit said...

I think it's terrific that German cinemas offer all these choices - in North America, we rarely see any dubbing in films. Having said that, I actually enjoy watching foreign films with subtitles for those languages that I'm trying to learn (French and German) because it does help to hear pronounciation and sometimes the context. But for say, Chinese or Japanese films - it would be great to be able to see dubbed films.
I'm about to tackle what they call the Mount Everest of films - the art cinema in Toronto is showing all 15 hours of Berlin Alexanderplatz (with subtitles!)over three days this weekend.

kjd said...

You're right of course - subtitles really are better than nothing.

Hope you survived Berlin Alexanderplatz!

Michael said...

Dubbing opened up foreign films to me at a much earlier age, no question. However, I cannot stand dubbed dialog anymore. Not that I have the urge to backtranslate, but the German dialog, by and large, is so "translated" – nobody talks like that. The off-the-wall dialogs of some of the TV series in the late 60s and early 70s made it almost believable again. When I watch a normally dubbed roadshow movie today, the dialog is just unbelievably wooden and boring. When I have the choice to see a movie in the original language, and I can understand the language of the dialog or the subtitles, I would always opt for that. But sometimes there is no choice.

kjd said...

Michael - I recently saw that cinematic highlight Madagascar II dubbed into German. Although I didn't find the dialogue wooden, I really did miss Sacha Baron-Cohen's voice as King Julien. I find that's the greatest hurdle with dubbing - matching voice and actor. Subtitles, of course, sidestep this issue.

But I'm far from a film or TV buff, I have to admit. Just often struck by how much more adventurous German mainstream taste in films is than in the UK.

Olaf said...

@Michael: That is so cliché...

The very talented Olaf Schroeter

kjd said...

Olaf! You vanity googler you!

Everybody does it...