Bright Lights Film Journal

“Do You Speak Christian?” Dubbing and the Manipulation of the Cinematic Experience

European dubbing gives Hong Kong subtitling a run for its money in the Utter Weirdness department, according to this insider report

Among the true lovers of cinema these days, there seems to be more or less general agreement that colorization is a bad thing, that it’s a sin against the artform. Fans, critics, and artists have managed to hang together pretty tightly on this one.

And the film community has equally criticized the cutting down of widescreen movies for video and television (the so-called pan-and-scan process), as well as the speeding up of films so they fit better into a commercial TV time slot. Certainly all of these practices are disgraceful.

That said, there are worse things than these. More specifically, a single arguably worse thing. A thing about which nary a peep is heard in the United States, and little more is heard anywhere else. This other sin is dubbing. And while Hollywood talent gladly flew to Washington to criticize colorization in front of this or that Senate subcommittee, no one in the industry seems to have any problem with the revoicing of English-speaking actors (as well as others) in many foreign countries.

Proponents of dubbing – and consequently, opponents of large-scale subtitling – defend the process with arguments ranging from the apparently reasonable to the downright loopy. They’ll tell you that U.S. films are so dominant in the marketplace that 99 percent of all releases would have to come out in subtitled versions if dubbing were abandoned and that, let’s face it, 99 percent of filmgoers aren’t all that willing to do quite so much reading. Then, of course, there’s the last, best defense of many an indefensible process: It creates jobs. This is actually a pretty good argument, since it takes very few people to translate the dialogue of a movie and key in the subtitles, whereas dubbing employs any number of actors, actresses, technicians, etc.

The loopy arguments are a lot more fun. You’ll hear that it’s not possible to read subtitles and follow the images at the same time, or that no one can tell the difference between a dubbed film and one being projected with its original soundtrack. That’s right. Some European moviegoers will tell you with a straight face that the layperson is wholly incapable of seeing that Jack Nicholson’s lips don’t match the sounds they’re ostensibly making.

The base assumption of all of these arguments is that nothing indispensable gets lost when you do away with the original voices, that the quality and timbre of the voice is a negligible part of the performance as a whole and that, in any case, a good voiceover specialist can “do” Hannibal Lector at least as well as Anthony Hopkins can.

Those of us who’ve grown up listening to moviedom’s authentic voices and watching foreign films in a subtitled format know these assumptions are absurd. We know it’s important to hear Katherine Hepburn with her own voice (or Gerard Depardieu or Max Von Sydow or Toshiro Mifune. Let’s not forget, we’re talking about more than just American movies here.) This is a no-brainer. A big part of any performance is in the voice.

It’s also worth considering that, since the voiceover dubbing industry of any given country must necessarily involve far fewer people that did the history of cinematic acting throughout the entire twentieth century, there are fewer voiceover specialists than actors. Consequently, each has to voice more than one actor or actress. Frequently, they do several. In Spain, Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner, and Willem Dafoe are all dubbed by the same guy.

So what do you do when a couple of actors voiced by the same person appear in a film together? No, the dubbing specialist doesn’t go the way of Harry Shearer in his work on The Simpsons, exchanging lines with himself in the recording booth. Usually, they’ll bring in a new person, as was the case with the release of Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) in Spain, where Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are usually voiced by the same person. This ended up annoying some filmgoers since they’d gotten used to Pacino always having the same voice, even if it’s not his own.

On other occasions, the dubbing industry gets around the high costs and scheduling problems associated with employing children by having adults dub children’s parts. The “actors” simply put on a childlike voice and voilá. Good enough.

However, the absence of the original voice of the performers, while significant, is just one in a multitude of ways dubbing changes, and worsens, the moviegoing experience intended by the filmmakers. On more than a few occasions, you’ll find that the dubbing process has, out of necessity, changed the structure and even the plot of the film you’re watching.

What happens, for instance, when a character who is originally speaking in Spanish is then dubbed into Spanish? Well, if the scene revolves around the idea that other characters can’t understand what he or she is saying, things could potentially get a little weird. This is a problem that frequently crops up in U.S. releases, as there just happen to be lots of Spanish-speaking people in the States and they tend to show up in movies more and more often.

The dubbing industry has a few ways of confronting this situation, none of which permit the original thrust of the scene to remain intact.

Their first strategy is to change the language the Spanish speaker is supposed to be speaking. This was the solution opted for in the dubbed version of Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968).

At one point in this film, George C. Scott’s character has to deliver a check from Petulia (Julie Christie) to a Mexican character. He doesn’t know why the money is being sent to the Mexican, and he can’t ask him because the Mexican speaks no English. So George goes wandering around the neighborhood, looking for someone who speaks Spanish. He finally comes across a pair of hippies, one of whom speaks Spanish, but the guys are thoroughly unwilling to get involved.

In the dubbed version, the Mexican suddenly becomes an Italian. The George C. Scott character is turned into a Spanish-speaking doctor, in a Spanish-speaking city, who’s having trouble communicating with an Italian. And while it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that you’ll quickly run across someone who speaks Spanish in California (the film takes place in San Francisco), an unintended comic element is added when George goes walking around looking for an Italian speaker.

Dubbing’s most noxious solution to the problem of Spanish-speaking characters is the practice of shamelessly altering all of the dialogue that might indicate any kind of communication gap. While in the original version characters could be saying things like “I can’t understand you,” or “I don’t speak English” or “What did he say?”, in the dubbed version they simply say something inane. They talk about the weather or discuss inconsequential story information.

This happens in Dance with Me (1998), when recently arrived Cuban Chayanne notices Vanessa L. Williams struggling to talk to him in Spanish, and politely informs her that he can speak English. In the dubbed version, Williams says a few things in an inexplicably slow and laborious Spanish and Chayanne, instead of mentioning anything about languages, tells her he’s glad that she came to pick him up at the bus station. While it’s credible that a recent arrival to Texas would be happy to have Vanessa L. Williams meet him at the bus station, this is not the way the scene was originally meant to play. (The dubbed version really gets funny later on when they listen to a Spanish-language song on the radio and Chayanne has to explain, to an apparently Spanish-fluent Vanessa, what the lyrics mean.)

A yet more impressive and surreal strategy for dealing with English-Spanish communication problems in dubbed films is demonstrated with gusto in Tombstone (1993). Here, a bunch of gringos have a meeting at one point with a rival gang of Mexicans. A Spanish-speaking Arizonan has to translate between the two groups. What does he do when everyone is speaking Spanish? Well, he talks to the gringos in a perfectly European-inflected Castellano Spanish, and repeats what they’ve said to the Mexicans using a Mexican accent. This is like suggesting that North-Americans and Australians can’t understand each other, and will thus need translators.

In the miscellaneous category goes the dubbed version of Power (1986), the very beginning of which Richard Gere spends in Mexico, speaking English and largely unable to understand what everyone else is saying. He’s not yet dubbed. Then, when the film moves north of the border, his dubbed voice kicks in for the remainder of the movie. It’s best not to even try to figure out what the intention was here.

Along those same lines, there’s still another problem to be faced when somebody has to ask a foreigner if he or she speaks English. Should a character say, “Do you speak English?” when that very character is speaking dubbed German or Italian or Spanish? That’s a little tricky since, obviously, he doesn’t really want to know if the other person speaks English. He wants to know if they speak the language that the movie has been dubbed into. They could always just say “Do you speak German?” (in German, of course) or “Do you speak Spanish?” (in Spanish, of course), but that creates even more problems.

If you have an L.A. cabbie asking a Mexican if he speaks German, and the Mexican responding that yes, in fact, he does speak German, the film becomes problematic indeed. After all, most people sitting in the theater in Munich know that the story takes place in Los Angeles and that people there don’t speak German. (This could become especially troublesome if a real German character shows up later on in the picture.)

Solution? Phrase the question in a way that no spontaneously speaking native ever would. Ask the foreigner, “Do you speak my language?”

Yes, at the beginning of a dubbed Pulp Fiction (1994), Samuel L. Jackson maniacally demands of a terrified Frank Whaley, when Whaley nervously responds “what?” to a question, “Do you speak my language? Do you speak my language!!”

My language. Imprecise, vague, and all-purpose, this phrase is guaranteed not to give anything away. Never mind that the native speakers of all the previously mentioned languages don’t really say, “Do you speak my language?” when they want to know if a visitor speaks German, etc. They generally say the name of the language (“Sprechen sie Deutsch?”).

On occasion, dubbing specialists and translators in Spain forgo the “my language” route and opt for the arguably offensive, and even less natural sounding, “Christian”, as in “Do you speak Christian?”, or “Doesn’t anybody in this town speak Christian?” This is mostly used when the protagonist finds himself among any sort of non-Europeans.

Whether these techniques are arguably acceptable or merely ludicrous, they’re all ways of resolving problems that have to be confronted when people are speaking to people, when person A is talking to person B, in a dubbed movie.

The dubbing of a contemporary feature, however, clearly can’t limit itself to the voices of characters engaged in normal conversation. Lots of processed dubbing has to be done as well: Loudspeakers, android voices, voices on car radios (“Calling all cars. Calling all cars. Be on the lookout….”). Unfortunately, these processes are frequently done in some flimsy, standardized fashion, as dubbing studios often lack the ultra state-of-the-art audio equipment available to Hollywood these days. A synthetic voice that may have taken a considerable amount of time, effort, and expense to achieve in the original production process ends up sounding like a computer from an old Star Trek episode in the dubbed version.

And speaking of computer voices, just about every computer has one in a dubbed film. Really.

This is one way of solving another problem, that of what to do when a phrase written in the movie’s original language shows up on the screen.

When it comes to computers, the machine is given the power of speech in dubbed films, regardless of whether or not the unit included a voice synthesizer in the original version. “Downloading,” “Access Denied,” and “File Not Found” are spoken, in the appropriate language, by a computerish sounding voice.

Clumsy as this may sound, the voice is at least motivated. That is, it’s supposedly coming from some source right there in the film. This is far preferable to the now abandoned tactic, employed until the ’60s or ’70s in Spanish dubbing, of beaming in a totally unexplained mystery voice to read signs, wanted posters, and those newspaper headlines that used to come spinning toward the camera.

Our heroes would approach a fence, and we’d see a close-up of the notice, ENTRY PROHIBITED BY ORDER OF THE SHERIFF. Suddenly, a disembodied voice is heard. “Prohibido el paso por orden del sherif.” We expect everybody in the scene to start looking around to see if God is translating the signs for them.

Luckily, this practice isn’t common today. Instead, a subtitle is normally flashed on the screen in the case of signs, billboards, warnings, and such. Though you’ll still hear the newspaper headline read out loud, if not by a disembodied voice, then by the character who’s holding the paper in her hands. This is easy since we’re usually provided with a close-up of the headline, during which the (unmoving) mouth of the actress isn’t onscreen, so whoever’s doing the dubbed voice can just say the headline’s translation out loud. Never mind that this is neither what happens in the scene’s original version, nor what people habitually do when they pick up a paper.

Some kind of reading out loud to facilitate the translation is almost always employed when someone in a dubbed movie has to read a note or letter from someone else.

Of course, this gimmick was used regularly in Hollywood, so much so as to eventually become a source of humor for comics and sketch writers: Somebody opens a letter and begins reading. All of a sudden we magically begin to hear the text in the voice of the person who wrote the letter, transmitted as if via telepathy from the prison or the foxhole or the old hometown. “Dear Helen, I don’t know how to tell you this….”

A gimmick used regularly in old movies, yes, but it was just as often not used. Remember in Casablanca (1942) when Rick receives Ilsa’s note while waiting for her on the train platform? Director Michael Curtiz expected us to read the text of the note on our own. He gave us just enough time to capture it before the raindrops blurred the ink, gradually making the words illegible.

This is the route opted for more and more frequently by current directors, that of showing us the note and letting us read it. But, whichever the technique used in the original version, a dubbed edition will always use the reading-out-loud method.

All right. Almost always. Every once in a great while you’ll get a director like Stanley Kubrick, who personally supervised the dubbing of his films into various foreign languages. Apparently with his consent, written messages in Kubrick’s movies were rewritten in the new language and close-ups of them were filmed over again. In the Spanish version of The Shining (1980), when Shelley Duvall comes upon those stacks of pages on which crazy Jack Nicholson has typed “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” over and over again, we see the phrase written in Spanish, thus the scene flows perfectly naturally. (This text translation was also done with the one or two headlines and notes Tom Cruise must read in Eyes Wide Shut, though I’m not sure these changes were carried out with Kubrick’s okay, as he died well before the film’s European release.)

Is there such a thing as good dubbing and bad dubbing? Of course.

Most phrases in one language can be translated in two or three different ways into another, and the studios that know how to do dubbing well will always choose a phraseology that allows the voiceover actors to match the mouth movements of the original actors as closely as possible.

Throughout the world, the results of this process vary substantially. Anybody who grew up watching gladiator movies and Ultraman can tell you what “badly dubbed” means. (Although there was a tendency to blame the exporter nations for the poor dubbing – Japan or China or Italy – when we really should have pointed the finger at those U.S. distributers that dubbed them.)

But the existence of relatively high-quality dubbing in several countries doesn’t lessen any of the previously mentioned structural/narrative problems caused by the process.

Would the use of subtitling instead of dubbing be absolutely problem free? No. No one’s saying it would. Occasionally a problem comes up that is merely one of translation, and could be equally sticky even if subtitling were being used.

Take, for instance, Truth or Dare (1991), the Madonna documentary. Here we get a scene in which one of the dancers asks Madonna if the other dancers on the tour believe him to be gay. She says, “I don’t know. Why don’t you take a poll?” In the dubbed Spanish version, “poll” is translated as “sondeo” (survey). Fine. But a second later, as she’s sort of fed up with the guy, Madonna jokes, “Yea. Take it up the ass.” Here, she’s playing off the homonymic quality of “poll” and “pole.” Of course, in the dubbed version, the guy has just been told to take a survey up the ass. Arguably less funny. And the confusion doesn’t stop here since, it turns out, the dancer hadn’t understood the original meaning of “poll” in the first place. Madonna tries to clarify it for him, asking “Do you know what a poll is?” He says, “Yea, that’s a poll,” and points to the microphone boom in the shot, which obviously is a sort of pole.

So, whereas in the original version you’ve got a dancer who’s a bit confused about the identically sounding “poll” and “pole,” in the dubbed version he winds up pointing to a mike boom and saying “Yea, that’s a survey,” looking like some kind of nut rather than someone recognizably undereducated. But the lack of sense in this scene isn’t due solely to the dubbing. The humor depends on a double entendre that would be hard to communicate to a non-English-speaking audience even if subtitling were being used.

Hard to communicate, perhaps, but not impossible.

In the subtitled format, measures can be taken to clarify the joke or misunderstanding. (For example, the words in the original language might be written in parentheses alongside their translations into the second language, allowing viewers to see the similarity between them). This is workable because subtitles, unlike dubbing, more or less confess their true nature as a tool to aid understanding. They’re not pretending to be the dialogue. They’re not pretending to exist inside the film. They’re not trying to convince the spectator that the characters are speaking in a different language than they originally spoke in.

Is widespread dubbing going to disappear anytime soon? Not likely.

It’s bound to continue for at least a while due largely to the simple fact that not too many people seem to be against it. Filmgoers in many counties grew up watching dubbed movies and find subtitle reading tedious. And then there’s the aforementioned argument against dismantling a big business that makes lots of money and employs a substantial number of people, just to replace it with an activity that employs only a few. And for what?, many would ask. Just so we can hear Jeremy Irons’s authentic voice?

Obviously, this is a debate that isn’t going to cost North Americans much sleep, since they are currently listening to Jeremy’s real voice (as well as to that of Roberto Begnini and Catherine Deneuve, since subtitling foreign films is the more common practice in the U.S.). But if the folks who take cinema seriously were so willing to agitate against colorization, where are they now? And why do actors and filmmakers so readily do promotional tours in countries that have vandalized their movies without making a single negative comment? Why do they appear on Euro-talk shows and sit through the pro forma “let’s show a clip from your new film” segment without making some wisecrack to the host about their voice having been removed?

I’d hate to think the worst of these people. I’d hate to suggest that they’re so quick to criticize colorization only because any potential profit loss due to a supposed distaste for black-and-white movies (cited by Turner industries as an excuse for colorization) isn’t going to affect their pocket books. What possible financial difference could it make to a contemporary film star whether or not some old Bogart movie is colorized? None. So there’s no danger in taking the aesthetic high ground.

But insisting that your newest film be released only in a subtitled format will cut way down on your film’s distribution potential. Many foreign theater chains may decide not to pick it up. Your profit margin decreases. Taking a stand gets a bit dicier.

I’d hate to suggest this possibility.

It’s far preferable to believe that those in the movie business recognize voice dubbing as at least as bad an offense as colorization, and that they’re putting the pressure on behind the scenes, communicating their dissatisfaction to film distributors in those countries that resort to dubbing.

For the sake of all the real film fans, in every country, let’s hope somebody in the film industry raises an authentic voice against this process sometime soon.