Lost In Translation

Once, long ago, I talked to a self-confessed movie lover from Germany and the first thing I asked him was what he thought about the ridiculous practice of overdubbing foreign movies with German dialogue, spoken by German voice actors. He thought that subtitles ‘spoiled the imagery’ and my retort – that voice dubbing spoiled the acting – was whisked away with all the arrogance of someone who knows he wouldn’t be able to follow movies in any other language than German: acting wasn’t that important.

Well alright then, try listening to Good Morning Vietnam’s Adrian Cronauer doing his routine of very very very American jokes for the Armed Forces Radio Service in Vietnam – in Italian. You can’t translate that and I should know, because translating is what I do when I am not writing blogs. And so… they don’t translate. They are desperately trying to stuff some of their own jokes into that onslaught of hi-speed comedy Robin Williams reportedly ad-libbed. Most translators are not half as funny as Robin Williams – hell I am not even mildly funny when I quote the man directly. So this is what happens when Cronauer talks about former Vice President Richard Nixon to his antagonist, Lieutenant Hauk, who loves abbreviations like a true Army man:

Excuse me, sir. Seeing as how the VP is such a VIP, shouldn’t we keep the PC on the QT, ’cause if it leaks to the VC he could end up an MIA, and then we’d all be put on KP.

Now that makes perfect sense when you spell out the abbreviations: Seeing as how the Vice President is such a Very Important Person, shouldn’t we keep the Press Conference a secret because if it leaks to the Viet Cong he could end up Missing In Action and we would all be put on Kitchen Patrol (mess-hall duty). The joke only works because it makes sense. Not so in Italian.

S.O.S. Signore. Se l’ex VP ha un tale DNA, non dovremmo tenere la CS fuori TV? Perché senza questo ABC avremmo alla gola l’H2O o peggio il DDT dal KGB.

In English: S.O.S. Sir. If the ex-VP has such DNA, shouldn’t we keep the PC off of TV? Because without that ABC we’d have H2O up to our throats, or worse, DDT from the KGB.

More than something got lost there – I highly doubt if anyone ever laughed at that. Surely, subtitles would be hard to write for this movie as well. Probably harder still, because there’s the added hurdle of peoples’ reading speed to take. But a lot of people do understand at least parts of the original dialogue and they are better off for it. In Germany, in Italy, in France and in a number of other countries however, you’re denied that chance unless you get the DVD.

At age 10 or 11, before I’d ever learned any English, I could quote The Dukes of Hazzard and I was well aware of what I was saying. Granted, I always did have a knack for languages, but I sure wasn’t the only one who could say ‘You got your ears on, little buddy?’ – complete with Southern drawl. (It’s surprising that I later learned how to speak with a fairly British pronunciation, come to think of it.) I really believe that using subtitles instead of voice-overs helps children a lot when learning English. Here in Italy they get English in school right from the get-go at six, but most people wouldn’t know how to buy a loaf of bread in London or New York. It’s improving, but very very slowly. Let’s speed up the process and get rid of voice-overs. Older Italians will hate it, nationalists will cry havoc and, like in France, some will fear Americanization of our culture. But please… DDT from the KGB?



  1. In movies, I prefer subtitles, and I also like it when in the subs there is a note when something has no translation. I want to know, at least, that I am missing something. It won’t take long with my own insatiable curiosity to track down the meaning or the joke.

    When the joke is about the particular language, as in the example you’ve given-who is going to be able to translate all that? It’s impossible.

    In advertising, I want a VO. The likelihood of my curiosity being stimulated in the short format will not lead me to research. The message has just got to hit me more directly.

  2. My children, who don’t even have a knack for language, view all English language movies without subtitles and understand them perfectly, thanks to the internet. As for dubbing: it’s of course terrible. I remember I had German neighbours for some time years ago. They were stunned to hear Stan Laurel’s own voice. They said (though this is hard to believe) that they used to think that Stan Laurel en Oliver Hardy spoke German originally.

    Later on I saw the (very shallow) American tv series Holocaust, dubbed in German. One of the more mean German officers in Warsaw spoke with the (German) voice of Stan Laurel — which made his part as ludicrous as possible…

    And as for news: what element does it add to see footage of say President Sarkozy imitating a fish and to hear someone you can’t see reading in German or Italian a translation of what the fish is allegedly trying to say?

  3. I can’t stand it either but it’s all a question of habit. For Italian people who are used to it, dubbing is great – the sound is perfect, you don’t have to struggle to read any of the small print, and if the jokes aren’t funny so be it. It’s worth noting that Italians even dub their own programmes and local tv commercials and it is rare for il suono in presa diretta to make it to the final version of any fim. Indeed, in great masterpieces like those of Fellini, Lino Banfi, and Spaghetti Westerns, many of the actors just counted off a series of numbers and their dialogue was dubbed in later (often by different people)!

  4. Sorry, I’m a self-confessed movie lover from Germany, and I must say this: You are right! This over-Dubbing is completely rediculus, and I love the Invetion of the DVD where I “mostly” have free choice to watch the movies I like with the actors real intention.. not only that Jokes don’t work, whoever translates these things sometimes seems to be using the “I’ll just take the first word in the dictionary” technique, not matching words to what is going on in the scene.. what I don’t get is, why Movies like “trainspotting” or “man on Fire” are NOT AT ALL available with the original soundtrack in germany.. by the way, the quote from Good morning Vietnam” is only a bit better in the German version of it.. but not much ;-) Well, can’t save em all Haselhoff..

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