Sunday, October 11, 2015

Lost in Translation

When my writing partner, David Isaacs and I did a rewrite on JEWEL OF THE NILE for Michael Douglas we had to have the script approved by the Moroccan government before they'd be allowed to film there. Make sure no international crisis would be caused by one of our jokes. So the screenplay was translated into French. I was given a copy of the French version. I don't speak French (or any language including English sometimes) but my wife does. She knows at least enough to yell at desk clerks in Paris.

She read the new version and said it made absolutely no sense. Jokes were translated word by word. So characters were just speaking gibberish.

The script was approved. (Oh, if only networks had the same high standards.)

And recently I came across an episode of ALMOST PERFECT that was dubbed into German (German being the universal language of comedy). I have no idea how faithful the translation was. All I know is that everybody seemed to be angry with everyone else, even in the love scenes.

I have a lot of readers abroad so let me ask you -- do US comedies make sense in different languages? Other than pratfalls, are they remotely funny? (Watch – YES DEAR is considered the funniest US sitcom on three continents.)

There's a reason action movies do better in foreign markets than comedies. You don't have to appreciate irony to enjoy a good explosion.

I've seen a few French comedy movies and have enjoyed them, even with subtitles. And you know a joke is bulletproof if the subtitle can get a laugh. But if the comic premise is clever and the actors are good the movie should work. Interestingly, I've seen several US remakes of French comedies and despite the English-friendly dialogue, I always prefer the originals. Maybe it's just the relief of never having to see Jim Carrey.

I always wonder how faithful the subtitles are to the actual dialog. Haven't you seen this before? A character chatters for thirty seconds. And the subtitle is "Sure". Huh? Or when the subtitle occasionally gives directions. I've seen "nodding" and "takes a puff". Uh, we stupid Americans can see that.

I'm going to try to find someone German who can translate ALMOST PERFECT now. I'm dying to see if our frothy little romantic comedy became Nancy Travis in DAS BOOT.

UPDATE: Here's an example. It's funny even when you don't know what they're saying, right?


This is a repost from four + years ago.

30 comments:

Mitchell Hundred said...

I actually read an article this week on how automation is taking over the market for movie translation. Apparently a lot of the idioms and meaning get lost in the scuffle. It's a good read.

Markus said...

If I may, let me offer input in my uh, three authorities: someone who's watched dubbed material for most of his life, someone who prefers the English original if possible, and someone who actually makes a living as a translator.

Yes, comedy and anything else does make sense and does work when dubbed. Or rather, when dubbed well.

Of course this differs from place to place. Countries with a well-developed "entertainment industry" and a long history of dubbing experience not only have an audience that is used to being catered to in their own language, they also have the writers, translators, editors and the voice talent to provide (potentially) high quality dubbing. Less "developed" countries can't quite be expected to offer the same. I've seen samples of movies where no one bothered to actually edit the audio, simply having the dubbed voice speak "over" the original still audible in the background. Sometimes with only one voice actor speaking all roles - men, women, children. Parts of the world with a high average fluency in English tend to not bother with dubbing or subtitles at all, they do the obvious thing and just show the original. Scandinavia would be a good example for that.

That said - translating (or rather, translating well) is hard, particularly for fiction (which is probably why I do non-fiction). It's a constant struggle between conveying literal content vs. conveying an equal or at least equivalent meaning. You can imagine this is particularly difficult with verbal humor in all its subtleties, particularly across different cultures. Of course the idea is to make sense as much as possible and to get the original across, but every once in a while there are cases where you simply cannot transfer appropriately into the target language, which for humor usually means the joke gets destroyed. Too bad.

Dubbing of course also means recording some appropriate voice talent. When done well (in every respect), the result is pretty much as good as the original, sometimes even improving a bad or at least mediocre original. When not done well (in any respect), it's cringeworthy. And probably bombs. Replacing a studio audience with a generic laugh track sure doesn't help either. Sitcoms and similar shows also might suffer from what I can only call "voice fatigue" - while maybe not being rush jobs, you can sometimes tell the voice actors have been sitting in a studio all day long for a few weeks in a row to get "the new season" done in time, and there never was any sort of actual voice director around who ought to have yelled "CUT!, let's do that one more time, honey you can't talk like that, this is not the emotion we have in that scene..." They just fall back into their professionally generic over-the-top "dubbing voice" which can happen to the best and most experienced voice actors.

Ken, as for the shows you've been involved with that I know - no worries, MASH, Frasier and Becker belong to the "done well" category in German. Cheers, hmm, sometimes maybe not so much, but it's bearable.

Mike said...

Zwei Singles im Doppelbett - the title is a good start.

To recycle my comments:
The German actor that dubbed Daphne's brother does an excellent English accent.

(As I've heard) Google translate uses only search algorithms. It has no understanding of languages.

Martin said...

The simple answer is yes, it works. If you watched The Simpsons dubbed in German, you'd have the same impression of everyone being angry, but The Simpsons is popular in Germany -- so, it works. Markus is quite right that some jokes do get lost in translation -- comedy relies on puns and wordplay and sometimes there just is no equivalent so the translators do the best they can.

One of my favorite translations occurred in the German version of Airplane! -- the original (quite famous) line is "Surely you can't be serious! / I am serious. And don't call me Shirley." In the German cut the first line is, "Sie können ja nicht ernst sein!" ("But you can't be serious," using the word "ernst/earnest" which leads to the same pun with 'Ernest' that we could do in English). Obvious answer, "Ja, und nennen Sie mich nicht Ernst!" Definitely not a word-for-word translation there!

James Van Hise said...

Subtitles are clearly an art, plus you have to pay attention to what you are doing. Years ago I was at a comic convention where they had rented a print of the 1950s movie INVADERS FROM MARS to show, but somehow the 16mm print they got was subtitled for the deaf. That shouldn't have been a big deal except that instead of featuring the actual dialogue at the bottom of the screen, the dialogue was paraphrased and at times was unintentionally funny such as when the paraphrased dialogue completely changed the actual meaning of the dialogue being spoken. It added a whole new level to the film.

Ano Skribent said...

Here in Norway everything is subtitled, and I'm glad it is. This way we get to keep the original jokes and the original voices and as a bonus children learn to speak English really quickly. However I sometimes watch shows dubbed to Spanish or German (to learn languages the fun way) and I have to say that dubbing really is an art, you can tell that someone has put a lot of hard work into making it entertaining.

Tobi said...

On my first visit to Israel, back in the 60's, it was suggested that we all spend an evening at the local Bijoux. When I asked the name of the film, I was told it translated into something like "The Washing Machine". My hostess said..."You know...like all mished up...turned around and around!"
Imagine my shock when it turned out to be that great American classic, "Youngblood Hawke"!!!

Mighty Dyckerson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tammy said...

Markus-thanks for your input on dubbing, very interesting!

Tobi-while Israeli translators don't always do a good job with film titles, The Washing
Machine seemed a bit of a stretch, so I looked it up. I wasn't able to find how the film was translated, but the novel it was based on was apparently translated as "In the Vortex of Love", so I guess vortex is what your friend was going for there ;). Not a great title either, though :).

Chris Muir said...

I can't speak to comedy translations, but I can say that the only time I ever enjoyed an episode of "Baywatch" was in German, which I don't speak.

John Trumbull said...

I remember years ago watching a French Canadian film called JESUS OF MONTREAL in French with English subtitles at a friend's recommendation. There was one line of dialogue that was subtitled, "You'd make an invalid feel randy." My friend told me that the actual line was, "You'd give a paraplegic a hard-on."

N Gray said...

When working in East Germany many years ago this exact same topic came up on set one day. The wall had only come down a few years previously, and most of the crew were from the East side. At the time, there was consensus that the funniest American show translated to German was "Hogan's Heroes"... And the funnest character was Shultz because "he has a Bavarian accent!"

Go figure.

jcs said...

My favourite dubbing story involves DIE HARD (STIRB LANGSAM, i.e. DIE SLOWLY in German). When the flick hit German movie theatres it featured a terrorist called Jack. The movie exces didn't want to offend German audiences and jumped through every hoop possible in the dubbing process to conceal the fact that the crime was committed by Hans Gruber and a predominantly German terrorist group.

Ironically, Bruce Willis is an army brat and was born in a small German town called Idar-Oberstein where the US Army maintained a presence until the end of the Cold War.

Currently German dubbing budgets are tight for TV series which results in less than ideal translations. But even if everything is done, watching a dubbed show is like eating cheese made from pasteurised milk. The product is flat and lacking character. Accents, dialects, pronounciation, grammar and choice of words all contribute to a character. Dubbing strips a character of many traits.

Lou H. said...

The German voice actress even sounds like Nancy Travis.

The characters talked over the musical cues and audience laughter. Are those recorded in separate tracks so that dubbing is easier? Or are the cues and laughter completely re-recorded on the dubbed versions?

Cap'n Bob said...

Ricardo Montalban told Johnny Carson this story on The Tonight Show many decades ago. He was in a foreign country when an obviously gay young man came up to him, fawning and chirping. Then the man said, "I had the unique honor of dubbing you in (name of movie)."

elzoido said...

I'm speaking as a native german that grew up with dubbed shows and changed the viewing habits about 15 years ago to exclusively watching shows in their original version.

It has taken me a while, but I really grew to hate (!) dubbed shows. Now, I can't stand it when I enter a room and there is a TV running with a german version of a US show. The voices are wrong and they sound mostly bored, the sound is strangely hollow, the jokes are sometimes completely ruined (sometimes I translate it back to english and suddenly they make sense) and, worst of all, usually I seem to be the only person in the room bothered by all of that.

Fun fact: They completely butchered the first few episodes of Cheers in Germany. That's the reason, this show is largely unknown here. The dubbing was so bad, it didn't last for more then a few episodes. Not only did they change the title to "Prost Helmut", they also changed EVERYTHING. Sam became "Hubert Milbe", Diane became "Diane Zimmerlinde", Norm became the "Helmut" mentioned in the title. The bar was located in Germany and was named "Zum fröhlichen Feierabend" (could be loosely translated to "To Quitting Time!"). Many years later, there was a proper dubbing without that much *cough* artistic freedom, but that didn't air until 1995 and I personally have never seen that version. The spin-off Frasier however, had its fan base here without people really knowing the origins of the character.

On the other hand, there is at least one example of a show, where they added more cheeky jokes which made it a greater success in Germany than in other countries as far as I know: The 1970 UK series "The Persuaders" was translated to "Die 2" and used a very freely interpretation of the original version, sometimes even with improvised dialogue.

Nowadays however, the vast majority of german dubbings seems (at least to me) to be boring, cheap and recorded in the same small room by the same very few voice actors. This leads to very interesting problems, for example when a voice actor dies. The Simpsons was a rather prominent case here, when the longtime german voice of Marge (Elisabeth Volkmann) died and was replaced by Anke Engelke. I see the same problem for Homer looming at the horizon, because his traditional German voice, Norbert Gastell, will in a few days be 86 years old and The Simpsons don't really show a sign of slowing down. And speaking of Homer, there is another strange fun fact, that Homer's name in the first few seasons of the German dubbing was pronounced "Hoomer". I don't really know why, but that pronounciation stuck in German heads, even though they changed it to the correct version after a few years. Well.

Peter said...

I happen to love "Yes, Dear" and I live in Texas.

MikeN said...

Isn't that the guy with the big nose on Frasier?

MikeN said...

It sounds like they are talking too fast. I wonder if they invented the idea of speeding things up to put in a few more commercials.

D. McEwan said...

Some years ago I saw a production of Verdi's Otello. Now the libertto of Otello is basically Shakespeare's Othello translated into Italian, with some cuts, and sung.

The English subtitles had been translated into English literally, without bothering to check out Shakespeare's version. The result? "Put the light and then put out the light?" as Othello likens killing his wife to extinguishing a candle, noting that he can always relight a candle: "But once put thy light, I know not where is that Promethean heat that can thy former light relume," became "Turn off the light and then turn off the light?" Suddenly the Moor of Venice sounded like my dad complaining about the electric bill.

So when I created my improvised stage show Fakespeare, I invented an improv style for use in it I called "English Translation," where we improvised Shakespeare that had been translated into another language and then translated back into English. We had a lot of fun coming up with stuff like: "To live or to die. What a question!" and "Tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and the day after the day after tomorrow, and all next week, sweeps up a slow walk to the last few letters of known History."

Mike Doran said...

I don't know if this counts with the subject ...

Some time back I became familiar with Bill Ramsey's music.

Mr. Ramsey is an American (born in Cincinnati) who served with the Army in Germany in the '50s. He was with Armed Forces Radio, and as such served as a liaison with American entertainers who came to play for the troops.
After the shows, Ramsey would get together with the entertainers to wind down at clubs, and would join them in singing jazz and pop songs.
The pros enjoyed Ramsey's singing, and they, along with Germans who heard him, encouraged him to perform in his own right once he left the Army.
By the '60s, Bill Ramsey was a popular recording star in Germany, with two specialties: jazz and pop standards in English, and goofy novelties in German.
One of Ramsey's first hits was "Wumba Tumba Schokoladeneisverkaufer", which was just German lyrics to the US hit "Purple People Eater". The German version sounds just as goofy, which I guess is the whole idea.
Some of Ramsey's stuff can be found on YouTube, which is where I first found them. Since then, I've gotten a couple of his "Greatest Hits" CDs, which have driven home to me how little I remember of four years of high school German.
Which brings me to translation:
The CDs include English-language versions of some of Ramsey's German comedy songs, which I guess he made to try and have hits back in the States.
One example: "Ohne Krimi geht die Mimi nie ins Bett" and its English version, "Mimi Needs A Thriller When She Goes To Bed".
The two songs have the same subject - Mimi the girlfriend loves to read crime stories (Krimi) and it drives the guy nutty - but the German and English lyrics vary - quite a bit.
The German song came first, so the English lyrics were designed to fit the existing melody, which is catchy. Also, Bill Ramsey is a very engaging performer in both languages - something like a German-American Benny Hill.
I understand that Bill Ramsey is still around, in his eighties, and is as popular in Germany as ever (the German commenter above can correct any errors I've made here, if necessary).
Anyway, I thought I'd pass this along, for what it's worth.

Pseudonym said...

Going the other way, I used to watch the Dieter Hallervordern sketch show, NONSTOP NONSENS, subtitled into English. The slapstick still holds up, but some of the joke translations were stretching it a bit, I thought.

Markus said...

@Mike Doran:
Oh yes, Bill Ramsey. Maybe not quite "as popular as ever" (younger generations probably have no idea who he is, it's been decades at this point that he's been a staple of the German TV landscape with that type of "novelty songs"), but he's still actively making and presenting Jazz music on festivals and occasionally on TV. Several former soldiers in the allied forces in Germany have gone on to enjoy successful careers in Germany as singers and actors after leaving the army, other examples would include e.g. Gus Backus or Ron Williams, or - on the British side - the late Chris Howland.

Marco said...

Like Markus and others said already: A good dub depends on the budget and with this the people involved.

Let's pick 2 examples: Becker and Friends.

Friends was hugely successful here in germany as it was in the US - even the dubbing was WAY worse than other dubs. The gags are often ruined (because of lazy writing), the voice casting was partially horrible: Ross and Joey leave a totally different impression in the dub! Joey is not charming at all in the dub (they even ruined his famous pick-up line 'How YOU doin'?' without any reason - you could've delievered equally funny in german) and in terms of Ross you ask, why the hell Rachel wants to be with him at all (he lost all of his charm since he just sounded just like an idiot due to wrong voice direction in my opinion). Still Friends found a lot of fans in germany - including me. But I really "got" the show only when I started watching it in english - the characters made really sense there. The only episodes I still watch in german are the ones with Tom Selleck guest-starring, because he has such a fitting, perfect german voice it totally distracts me listening to his "real" voice (as crazy as it may sound).

To name a better dubbed example let's pick "Becker". It was not as successful as Friends was - but it was dubbed just excellent. The gags really worked the same way in either english or german (by just not doing word-to-word translations (which NEVER works) but finding equally funny lines that still work in the given situation). Voice casting was excellent (the whole main cast) and I for myself can switch languages back and forth and find it equally entertaining and the characters stayed true to the original. Becker is still one of my favourites and a friend of mine and me still quote it ("Der Doktor muss sich noch meinen Fuß ansehen", "Du hast doch eine Valium eingeschmissen ?!" from the episode where Becker and Reggie fly off to Chicago to name just 2).

There is a debate ongoing for a long time if dubbing is still required or should be dropped due to many reasons. I personally enjoy a *good* dub (Becker, Magnum PI, Cheers, Mad Men, Californication) because it just works "better" and more direct since it's in my own language. I really don't see myself quoting one-liners in english with friends where I do this a lot from movies and TV series. Just say "Hallo McFly - jemand zu Hause?!" to someone around my age (born 1974) and they know I am quoting Back to the future and smile. To me, a good dub is found if these phrases become commonly known and used - Back To The Future is one example.

Jim said...

It's a shame that foreign films got to be seen firstly as a synonym for soft porn and then for pretentious shite that might help you cop off with a posh bird because there's all sorts of great comedy out there. If you want an absolute gem try Sir You're a Widow, from the Czech team of Macourek and Vorlicek. The plot's pretty bonkers, would take longer to explain than the film runs, and you probably wouldn't believe me anyway, but it includes fortune telling, brain surgery, cross dressing, and limbs made from baby cows. If you like that it's worth tracking down "Who wants to kill Jessie" starring Czechoslovakia's first Playboy cover girl Olga Schoberová. Talks were apparently underway to remake that in the US with Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclean (although Olga was reckoned to be irreplaceable, especially as she didn't get to speak until the very last moment of the film) until Russia sent the tanks in in '68.

Marco said...

BTW: the clip worked for me just fine - it was funny!

D. McEwan said...

46 years ago, the great Victor Borge invited me to lunch with him, just the two of us. I was honored and delighted. An hour of me mostly listening to Victor being charming and funny I would pay a good-sized admission for (Indeed, on an earlier occasion, I had spent money to attend one of his concerts), but this private performance was not only free, but he was buying me lunch to boot.

At one point he told me a fairly long joke, and there came a very long pause before the punch line. After he'd finished the joke and I had laughed, he told me that that long pause was because he's never told that joke in English before, and he was trying to figure how to translate it while best preserving its humor. Two things struck me at the time: 1. The subject of this column, the difficulty of making verbal jokes work in translation, which had never occurred to me before (I was 19 at the time) and 2. The fact that I was the first person ever to hear this particular joke in English before. (And 3. That Victor Borge was he best lunch companion ever born.)

XantaKlaus said...

I feel like you asked that question before or there was a discussion among the commentors with that subject I already commented on some time ago.

The short answer: If the script translation is good and the voice actors are not talentless, it works fine. Frasier for example has excellent dubbing in Germany and a big numbers of joke work in German. Alf is another example of a well translated sitcom and the voice actor for Alf is much more charismatic and distinctive than the original voice actor.

Cutting costs in dubbing and translating has led to bad results. If you watch an episode of HIMYM in German and know the english language, you can follow the english grammer in the german text, which is disturbing. Even jokes were translated word for word losing all meaning. And the trend to take young and unexperienced actors (= cheaper) does not help the case.

My timeline with your work is weird Ken, I watched Frasier before I was able to watch Cheers. I watched Frasier in German first and to this day I can tolerate a German dubbed episode of it if I catch it on TV - my first Cheers experience was with the DVDs, so hearing dubbed voices for characters I already know does not work at all for me and I know several people with the same symptom.

John said...

The key line from the article above is, "For the time being, the only way to really do a proper translation is to pay, and quite a bit. And why do that when you can have it done poorly and cheaply?"

But I'm concerned that that professional quoted says that translators get the file with "time stamps" (more properly you would say that there is already a time code). No subtitler worth his salt would let someone else do their time code; it's an intrinsic part of the subtitling process, and using someone else's time code would definitely lead to a worse subtitle than if the time coding was part of the translation process (unless you've specifically trained to time code to your standard - even then, you will have to make changes as you go along). It's as dumb an idea as having someone provide the punctuation for you before you've started writing, or getting a drum track laid down before you've composed the song. Time coding well is a skill unto itself, and it's surprisingly difficul - and ime-consuming to do well.

And dubbing is never, ever a good alternative. Even the very best dubs will lose more than even a middling subtitle, because there are more limitations (time, mouth movements) than in a subtitle.

etg said...

To shortly give my two cents:

The quality of the translations depends :)

In the 70s/80s the German translators preferred funny nonsense translations which very often changed the meaning completely, sometimes for the better (most famous example: The Persuaders! which was a big hit in Germany because of the funny translation), but mostly for the worst.

The 90s started an improvement of translations, now they are mostly good, so not much of the humor is lost.

Very hard to translate are cultural references, some TV shows are well-known in Germany, but most references are lost. This is difficult for translators which have the choice to either translate the references literally, losing most of the audience, or to transfer the reference to German references, which is mostly boring or stupid.

Example: the black passengers in Airplane speak with a terrible accent, this cannot be preserved in a translation. But the translators chose to use a Bavarian accent. Well...