Last weekend, I watched "In Bruges," a movie about two English hit-men sent on an obscure mission to that charming Belgian city. It was sort of an English Tarantino knockoff, with oh-so-quirky, studiedly non-PC characters (including a racist midget), banal conversations, and gratuitous high-velocity splattering of blood and brain-matter. Nevertheless, the movie had some intriguing twists, gorgeous shots of Bruges, and a fun performance by Colin Farrell.
…it was dubbed into German. And, as usual, dubbing crippled large chunks of the movie. Accents played a crucial role in the plot: we were meant to chuckle at one character’s broken English, but we didn’t know it was broken. We might have realized that one character was a Canadian because of his accent (a minor plot point), but we didn’t, because he, along with everyone else in the move, spoke uniform Hochdeutsch. I though one character was English until she explained — in dubbed-into-Hochdeutsch dialogue — that she was Belgian.
Once again, I was reminded of what a national cultural disgrace German film dubbing is. Let us review the reasons why:
- Even in the best dubbing — and trust me, not every film gets that — it’s painfully clear that the voice-overs were done in a room somewhere, by someone reading a script into a microphone. Of course, much movie dialogue is also dubbed-in later by the actors. But unlike the original actors, the German dubbers never actually filmed the scene, or immersed themselves in the emotional landscape of the movie, or personally met any of the people on-screen, or had any conversations with the director.
- Dubbing kills jokes or plot points that depend on regional accents, timing, or inflection. Of course, some of these won’t come through in subtitles either, but dubbing eliminates almost all of them. Even in a language you don’t speak, you can often tell just by sound if someone’s drunk, or just in from the country, or trying to tell a joke.
- Translating everything into Hochdeutsch means Germans don’t learn how to understand accents. I once traveled throughout the United States with Germans and other Europeans. Although most of the Europeans had problems understanding Southern American and black accents, the Germans had even more problems. They were expecting a black guy in a store in Mobile, Alabama to speak HochEnglish, just as he speaks Hochdeutsch in the movies. For a country that prides itself on its own diversity of accents and dialects (you can hear all of ’em at the House of German History in Bonn), the wholesale annihilation of Welsh, Scottish, Indian, and southern American accents (to name only English accents) should provoke outrage.
- In dubbed movies, you can’t enjoy the sound of other languages. How many people have decided to learn a foreign language because they heard it in a film, and fell in love?
- Dubbing always distorts what the characters say. Always. I have seen many films and TV shows in German (such as the Simpsons) that I knew before in the USA, and the changes are often startling. The changes are driven by the need to find German phrases that will match the characters’ lip movements. This can be hard, because saying something in German takes about 20-30% longer, on average, than saying it in English. Therefore, the dialogue either gets amputated or rushed.
Caveats: Nobody minds when ordinary Hollywood fare or TV specials are dubbed. Die Hard IV’s not going to lose too much in translation, and its core audience probably doesn’t want to be bothered by subtitles. The problem in Germany is that everything gets dubbed — even independent movies destined to be seen by people who can handle subtitles, and in which accents and dialogue are basic parts of what makes the movie work. That’s the real disgrace.
I’m feeling the urge to put on an armband. Anyone want to join this crusade?