Seriously, Duck Fubbing

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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?

25 thoughts on “Seriously, Duck Fubbing

  1. Heyho! That reads like a battle cry!

    I have had this discussion zillions of times. And I still insist that there is no generalization possible. And in parts I will always support Max Goldt’s statement: “Who is finally going to praise the fine work of German film dubbing companies?” 😉

    When I truly love a movie, I will watch it first dubbed, than in original. And I agree that can make all the difference! I first saw The Simpsons when I lived in America – and I was deeply disappointed when I saw them dubbed back home in Germany. And The Simpsons are of course not even the most advanced movies when it comes to subtleness of tones in language. But – as for poetry – many things in the movies are not translatable anyway, because you can’t deliver a whole cultural context and background with a few words.

    But what is in my opinion the more striking point: watching the original (to me!) makes only sense if the film is in English (which is the case in only about 50% of the movies I watch). Since (despite all the errors I might make here) this language I at least understand a bit.

    But what am I supposed to do with movies in French, Belgian, Mexican, Czech, Russian and so forth? I don’t know about your approach to that, but am I supposed to learn all these languages before seeing the movies? Or are you seriously proposing that these crude translations at the lower edge of the screen, called “subtitles” – letters, that not only rob the content of the spoken word of any phonetic specifics (being thereby even worse than dropped Belgian accents) but also disable me to follow the movies essential form of language (that of the PICTURE) were a replacement for dubbing, one could take seriously?


    I am afraid this crusade you have to fight without me. But I wish you good weather for the ride! 😉


  2. One further note on your sentences
    “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.”

    That’s only half the truth. When you live in a somewhat urban area in Germany you will almost always have the chance to watch the movies in original – in cinema. There will be at least one movie theatre playing OV (original version) near you. And OF COURSE these are the places to go to for anyone who thinks he’s capable of understanding it in the original language. And OF COURSE this would be preferable if you were.

    Still I find it sometimes a bit laughable when I hear Germans (who I know speak/understand even less English than I do) arguing for watching only original versions of movies – even if it is set in the Australian backwoods or in India or in another place whose English doesn’t sound too much like the English you learn in school in Europe…

    And: it’s not so much that one can’t “handle” subtitles. Reading is not that difficult. 😉 But it distracts you much more from the film as a film than even bad dubbing could.


  3. oops: errandum in my post from today 6:49 pm: changed one sentence (from countries [France, Belgium etc.] to languages) – overlooking that neither Mexican nor Belgian exist – so then read: “But what am I siupposed to do with movies in French, MEXICAN SPANISH and WALLOONIAN FRENCH or FLEMISH DUTCH, Czech etc….”


  4. @Stephan Winkler:

    I first saw The Simpsons when I lived in America – and I was deeply disappointed when I saw them dubbed back home in Germany. And The Simpsons are of course not even the most advanced movies when it comes to subtleness of tones in language.

    The Simpsons is a bad example since – while the German voice actors are decent – the translation of most episodes was famously botched by Ivar Combrinck, whose work suffered a bit from the fact that he apparently didn’t understand much English at all.


  5. “And I still insist that there is no generalization possible.” (Stephan Winkler)

    But that’s the beauty of Andrew’s post, he doesn’t generalise. Or at least, he adds a caveat. Dub the rubbish and mainstream films, subtitle the others. There’d still be room for debate, I think, but it looks like a reasonable starting point to me. I regularly tend to rehearse the arguments FOR dubbing (if only to enliven the debate), but in this case I understand Andrew’s frustration.

    Which brings me onto a related subject: German movie voices, whether dubbed or not. Do people actually really speak like that? I mean, really, really? (In English you have to repeat things when you mean them). After having lived for a considerable part of my life in non-German speaking countries, what strikes me most when I get home are these unbearable, nasal caricatures of a human voice that appear on telly and in the movies almost without exception. Now, I come from a corner of the German speaking world where our mothertongue is pronounced slightly differently anyway, but I’m still scratching my head when I hear all these laughably intense people deliver laughably intense phrases in voices that are only meant to be human but really put the fear of God in me. Why?

    I someone could give me an idea why there are no normal sounding speakers on telly – I’d be eternally grateful…

    And well done, Andrew, for enduring all this and still insisting that German is a language well worth knowing 🙂


  6. I agree.
    Dubbing is definitely evil.
    And it’s one of the reasons I left Germany – (^_<)

    Even worse is dubbing of Asian films (=dubbing of films from cultures that are even more different than English speaking cultures) – to me it is just wrong to hear a line like "Frau Cheung, moechten Sie auch etwas Wan-Tan Suppe?" – how are people ever to learn about other languages and cultures? I agree that while people stress the beauty of German dialects and are oh so lokalpatriotisch wherever you go, they are fairly ignorant to other cultures.
    A friend of mine who has a master degree in politics didn't know that the 38th parallel north cuts the Korean Penninsula in half.

    No matter what language I prefer dubbed films. Luckily here in Japan, they only dub the kid's films – and these will be only the morning and afternoon screening, so you can watch a sub-titled Harry Potter after 6pm.
    In fact sometimes I have subtitled dreams, people talking in German or English and the dream is sub-titled in Japanese (seriously!)

    I read an article about dubbing a while ago and the author – in general against dubbing – was amazed how in Die Hard, they had managed to dub every "M**herf***er" with a simple "Schweinebacke" – if you look at the vowels-consonant-combination it's amazing how similar a word they managed to invent.
    Watch the lip movements on the dubbed version!

    and here's a very special episode – if there was more dubbing, then probably Germans would be able to understand simple English phrases…
    Once I was on the ICE from Hannover to Berlin and a group of German (Leistungskurs!) and U.S. American high school students were sitting in the same carriage on the seats around me. The German students were trying very hard to speak English, and considering that they were in a Leistungskurs (so reading Orwell, Hemmingway, Shakespeare in class), they should have done a lot better…
    One of the American girls, was asking one of the German boys: "Can I take this seat?"
    He just turned to his friends "aeh, die will den Sitz mit nach Amerika nehmen…" – he looked very confused.

    oh, and why are there no normal sounding speakers on telly? I agree to this one as well – when I came back to Germany after two years in Scotland, even the news sounded very strange to me!


  7. To ANDRAS: I absolutely agree that Andrews post is a starting point, but you may not be aware of the fact that this discussion is not really all that new among cineasts in Germany. At least not among my friends. As I wrote: “I have had this discussion zillions of times.” And what I tried to express are some aspects of the conclusions I drew. Just as a counter-weight to what Andrew has written. I agree I can’t compete in style, unfortunately, since my English is, needless to say, not as refined and sophisticated as his.

    I am just barking some opposition to it (this probably not being very idiomatic English…;-)), as nicely as I am able to, when I think it’s worth trying… 😉 And: I think, I hope!, I am not obliged to emphasize my plain and sometimes enthusiastic approval whenever I think that Andrew has got it just right – which is most of the time.

    To SEBASTIAN: Thanks for the Combrinck link. I didn’t dig deeper into the reasons for my disatisfaction with the German dubbings of The Simpsons and Futurama and therefore wasn’t aware of that background. Thanks again!
    ps: There is one exception: I think both, Farnsworth’s as well as (and but particularly so!) BENDER’s voice is much more appropriate in German than in the original! Although many allusions get lost again, of course, in the translation. Especially with the latter. But that’s the pity with all translations, again (as stated before). You won’t (and can’t) blame Germans for not being as much aware of the cultural context of Bender’s half Mexican, half Jewish background as the “target audience” of a series like this is effortlessly so. But I know you don’t. Just another point against the assumption that NOT dubbing is necessarily and always the better solution…
    I am not long enough here to know: are you German? Or understand it? A very brilliant and very experienced author on the subject of translation and its complications is Dieter E. Zimmer (don’t know how to insert links here, either; not yet…).

    At the end a technical questions TO ALL those knowledgeable here: how do you make parts of the text oblique? The usual tricks don’t seem to work…


  8. Sarah, I feel the need to apologize for how little my young countrymen knew and managed to speak a foreign language.

    I am sure situations like these are so extremely specific and exemplarily, so unmistakeably German, that they could never ever happen to you in any other country.

    Always good to learn about other cultures. Peace. :o)


  9. One final comment for the day to Andrew himself: maybe I should state that I DO see the flaws of dubbing very clearly. And I agree with most of those you described so well.

    The whole Hochdeutsch problem is a subject of its own right, of course.

    To just mention two thoughts: FIRST: most actors are trained to speak and act very artificially in Germany. That is a very unfortunate tradition in most actor’s schools (long subject). And one of the reasons why I can barely endure theatre performances here anymore. And it’s not much better in the movies.
    SECOND: it wouldn’t have made it any better, when the Canadian guy in “In Burges” had spoken a German with Polish accent, would it?

    I’d still insist, it is not (as you put it) “a national cultural disgrace”, but rather a considerable achievement to dub movies for both, those who aren’t willing to follow subtitels for reasons of curiousity in image composition, camera and all that as well as for those who aren’t able to follow subtitles. Although I don’t hesitate to admit that it should always be done with an utmost of investment in skills, care, accuracy and phantasy – more than it usually gets.

    But I also think it says more about economics than about “national cultural decisions”, in which countries movies are dubbed or not.


  10. I agree that this discussion is not new. I myself am one of these ridiculed people that watch every movie in the original version. If I don’t understand the original language, I prefer the subtitles. True, very much gets lost in subtitles too, but at least the original voices and the athmosphere of the movie is being preserved.


  11. To Andrew: “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.”
    Can you explain the reasons behind your suggestion that subtitles only eliminate SOME jokes or plot points that depend on the things you mentioned, while dubbing kills almost ALL of them?

    And: “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.”:
    I have seen a lot of dubbed movies (obviously) and very often the originals later, and I never ever got the impression that the dubbing actors did NOT try to imitate the original actors “Tonfall”, emotional involvement, alcoholic state and all this (I do not want to cause a discussion about the word “imitate” in this context; it’s not my first choice, but I am just not able to find a more fitting replacement…)
    I admit: some of the “Synchronsprecher” did a much better job than others in this, but well: that’s how it always is, isn’t it? Maybe we have just seen different movies and you were so unfortunate to accidentally pick all those with the worst dubbings…

    To Alexandra: the experience of feeling ridiculed is not depending on the side you take in this discussion. The harshness of those who ridicule the viewers of dubbed versions can get equally nasty… 🙂


  12. In Spain, where hardly any of us can read or understand any foreign language, all non-Spanish films are dubbed. Translations tend to be quite literal and quite simple, occasionally with glaring errors. The voices pertain to one sole accent (central Spain) and often miss the meaning of phrases (double meanings are rarely translatable). At least we’ve got a variety of American films in Spanish. Things are even worse for the Portuguese and Italians.


  13. Subbing ducks, particularly with UK movies, where accent and sociolect still give relevant clues; give and take, this also goes for Canuckistan and Down Under. For those unable to capture subtitles fast enough dubbing is a crutch, for others it’s pest and pain.

    I reckon this is an age related issue (ageism, I know…). Many of our parents’ generation aren’t able to read comics, at least not in an enjoyable manner. They don’t tend to have much fun with fast paced movies with cuts every few seconds either. Linking text to pictures *and* ignoring it once it’s not needed anymore or dealing with awkward visual structures is an acquired ability and arguably an acquired taste. Besides, linguistic curiosity is sparse. Some are fascinated when listening to Chinese or Arabs with all the non-verbal clues this conveys, while being able to follow the conversation rudimentarily, some are not – suum cuique.

    Certainly economics are to blame for the German dubbing disaster in the first place, as 80 millions are a quite some market (so are the Spanish speaking), while a few Norwegians or Dutch are not, and most people will opt for the path of least linguistic resistance: that’s why their vacation trips mostly are all-inclusive. Besides, Hollywood blockbusters are popular, while Ian McKellen as Richard III was not. Yet, Scandinavians and Dutch mostly speak English far better then Huns and Dagos do, so hooray for subtitled Zwangsbeglückung. If Andrew’s southern twang makes it difficult to order fast food with German MCgulps, it’s likely that I’d have difficulties, too, in non-written exchange (just for that matter…), as John Wayne et al invariably spoke German when I was exposed to that fare in younger years.

    Essentially, subtitling is one of the things whitey is a sucker for, he just can’t help it – and why shouldn’t we be entitled to some lovable idiosyncrasy, we’re a community, too. Subtitling neither harms nor kills, so let my people go …to the next independent cinema, lest I file a grievance with my Ombudsman, err, person.

    …yes, he’s from Iowa, I know.


  14. andrew, i’m overjoyed to be able to offer an instant solution to all your ailments, its called a dvd. i’ve heard rumors of a niche business called amazon that sells a wide variety.

    amazing, isn’t it …

    as it is my debt of gratitude and general cultural obligation, i look to america for a clue as how things should be done.

    as far as i know the american solution is to basically ignore everything that is anything other than english in the original as far as the general public is concerned, notwithstanding differing deeply un-American activities by ethnic-minorities and a very few latte sipping elitists of course. come to think about it, that does somewhat resemble the german approach, funny isn’t it …

    you are correct to note that american or british tourists would never expect the guy in the gas-station in deepest rural bavaria to speak hochdeutsch, they’d expect him to speak english like everyone else does and should of course. not an unreasonable assumption since even the delta quadrant is english spoken

    that aside, yes all your points about the loss of detail through dubbing are correct and well taken.

    having that said you do argue from a very rarified position since many if not most of your compatriots would utterly fail to recognize the cultural implications of a brumm vs. scouse vs. jordy or northern irish vs. dublin accent.
    do correct me if i’m wrong and your educational background and level of intercultural experience has become the norm rather than being the exception, if so my joy kneweth no boundaries.

    ask osszy osbourne about all the complaints he got from mtv viewers being unable to get his accent, those viewers being native speakers mind you. which brings me to an other ill kept secret, many native speakers of english do grapple with other accents quite a bit,
    so much so that it’s an absolute staple of british comedy.

    the accent only provides extra clues for those in the know about the cultural ramifications it implies. same thing for all the insider jokes and references. what good does it to hear someone being accused of jumping the shark if you do not know what that phrase actually means and that it is a pop-cultural reference that has nothing to do with the real dangers of watersports as such.

    your argument about the supposed pride germany as a whole takes in it’s dialects i find weak and a little under-complex.

    the fact that a government puts something on display in a museum says nothing at all about the notions held by the general public on the subject matter.
    think of all the poor east germans trying desperately to rid themselves of the stigma their native dialect holds for them, or the status flawless hochdeutsch confers on a southerner.
    also the almost militant “lokalpatriotismus” you’ll find in certain parts of germany, is strangely akin to the regular guy/salt of the earth vs. the elitists motif in the general american discourse.

    dialect and who speaks what dialect how strongly, where and with what inflection is in german speaking countries a maze second only to the english preoccupation with accents.

    by the by, how are you faring in rural switzerland and austria, i’m having difficulties at times understanding the natives. since you lead by example i take it for granted you don’t.

    nix für ungut.

    personal disclaimer: i absolutely prefer the english original if available, but hate subtitles with a vengeance. in english language movies they are a unnecessary distraction and in other foreign films give me a far worse experience than good dubbing.

    p.s. have you ever noticed swiss, austrian and even sometimes bavarian and swabian speakers getting subtitles in german tv , if their dialect exceeds a certain threshold?

    p.p.s. i expect those fabulous “other europeans” where mostly from scandinavian and benelux, weren’t they.


  15. edit of a sloppy typist: it should of course read “…scandinavian and benelux countries … ” in the last line of my comment below.

    and just out of curiosity, is “southern American” a common usage or more of an academic linguistic quirk? i thought “American southern accent” or just “southern accent” is commonly used in the u.s., but then again you are the authority here.


  16. @Sarah:

    A friend of mine who has a master degree in politics didn’t know that the 38th parallel north cuts the Korean Penninsula in half.

    It doesn’t, I hope you are not under the impression that the 38th parallel demarks the border between North and South Korea, because it hasn’t done that since 1950. Geometrically speaking one may very roughly say it does cut the peninsula in half, but that’s Cliff-rate detail 😉

    (Cheers – another series that Ivar Combrinck was almost allowed to butcher.)


  17. I want one of these armbands, although I must say that the situation has slightly improved in Düsseldorf since the 90’s (coming from France, finding out that most films here were only shown dubbed came as a surprise): at least I can get a regular dosis of French films in French nowadays.
    One point: translators are very badly paid for subtitles, and it sometimes shows…


  18. It’s been said here already, the decision to dub films and TV series is taken on a purely commercial basis. Viewers in France, Spain, Italy and Germany have to endure dubbing – simply because these are big enough markets where investing in dubbing pays off because you reach more viewers with the dubbed version. Not to dub would mean less revenue.

    The the commercial reasoning is, however, doubtful. If you place a child in front of the TV, it will watch the English version anyway. It will just accept that it doesn’t understand it and will have to read the subtitles. In the long run, any new production will attract sufficient “new” viewers, and eventually quality productions will prevail. Factor in the macro-economic advantage of improving the nation’s English (which will prepare them for the globalised economy, thus enhance the country’s overall performance), and the alleged economies of scale of dubbing would be set off in the medium to long term. However, film companies don’t have to take into account macro-economic reasoning. So there’s probably no way this is ever going to change. And yes, it sucks.

    Small countries (which have their own language) like Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands etc. don’t dub. That’s the main reason why people from these countries speak a noticeably better English. I don’t know about dubbing in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary or Greece. Would be interesting to know also whether there’s dubbing in Russia or Poland.


  19. I am also heavily annoyed by dubbing.

    -As to the comment that a lot of information is lost when you have to read subtitles and don’t understand the original language at all (as would be the case with a Chinese movie for most readers here, I guess): I think that understanding what is being said in a film is not so much about decyphering each word of the dialogue. A lot, if not most, information is given by tone, tempo, timing, etc… Subtitles just give you an idea what people are talking about, but the real meaning only comes when combining this with image and sound. I am used to reading subtitles, and after a while you really just read them almost without noticing them, especially with more or less familiar languages. I suppose that good dubbings try to faithfully represent the original dialogue, but I can’t believe that every small arthouse movie is given the same careful treatment, and imitating original tone in the dubbed version also gets harder, the more foreign the original language is (how can a german voice actor imitate the subtleties of an originally chinese dialogue he doesn’t understand?).

    -I guess the preference of original/dubbed versions also depends on how you regard film as an art-form. If you think of a movie as a piece of art made by a director and actors, you are most interested in the original version made by the director and his team, and not in an adaptation by some (talented as they may be) voice actors who never even spoke to the original cast and crew. In fact, how can the performance by an american actor even be of any interest to you, when you never get to hear his original dialogue?


  20. I think we all owe Markus a debt of gratitude for alerting us to growing xenophobia in the US, particularly on the US Left. I was shocked to learn that such beloved US left-wingers as Mikey Moore and Alan Alda had signed on with crude slogans like “Surrender Pronto or we level Toronto”, and that the famous singer Weird Al Yankovich (who dat?) has chimed in with a call for a ‘preeemptive strike’.

    Never one to be left behind, Pat ‘Nutcase’ Buchanan has chimed in, albeit with less apoplyptic sentiments, although Buchanan cannot be blamed on the US Left. Nor on the Right, really – I’m inclined to blame Buchanan on invading space aliens from Galaxy Nine – it’s the simplest hypothesis.


  21. Here are my arguments FOR dubbing:

    – not all Germans are fluent in English, yet they want to enjoy a good movie, no matter where it comes from.
    – criticize BAD dubbing and not dubbing all together.
    – if I don’t understand the accent neither accoustically nor culturally it doesn’t help me at all. Better: Find a comparable German accent that can translate the director’s intention.
    – as always: faithful translations carry no beauty and beautyful translations aren’t faithful. Translate jokes, word plays and common cultural knowledge and history into comparable topics that are understood not only by insiders.
    – If I have to read subtitles all the time, I can’t pay enough attention to the image.
    – if I have to run the “translation engine” inside my head during the whole movie I can’t deep dive into the plot.

    as I said in the beginning, one can criticize bad dubbings – but there are examples that are just great e.g. the bud spencer and terence hill movies from the 70ies and 80ies. They are said to be even funnier and better in German than in their original language.


  22. Getting tired of the repetitive course this thread of comments has taken, just one last remark (admittedly also a repetition itself) to THOMAS and NORBERT and all those who don’t like dubbing:

    The best treatment against the headaches that dubbing seems to give you was clearly suggested in this thread by “westernworld” on June 01, 2008 at 01:52 PM (see somewhat below your post): just watch a DVD. And if you think, as I do, that one should, if possible, see movies on the big screen for all the attention to detail in the image: go to a city and watch the original in a cinema that does show OVs.

    To NORBERT: whether something was originally done for commercial reasons or not (and little is not, nowadays) doesn’t necessarily say something about whether it has a good purpose despite the fact that it helped earning money. So it is with dubbing. And when you write: “Small countries (which have their own language) like Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands etc. don’t dub. That’s the main reason why people from these countries speak a noticeably better English.” then let me add: my observation seems to suggest that inhabitants of European countries with smaller populations tend to perform better in foreign languages than bigger ones – for various, rather obvious reasons. And I think the lack of dubbed films is only a tiny portion of it.

    And once again: I DO love to see movies in original whenever I can hope to understand at least, let’s say, 60% of the words spoken – or when dialogues aren’t important at all. I think: taking the movies seriously as a form of first and foremost VISUAL art (where image composition, cuts, colors and all this are essential) requires you to look at that and not to be distracted by often even more ridiculously translated words that obscure the picture AS WELL as the content of the speech.

    To those of you who think learning Mandarin by watching Chinese movies in original will get you far – you won’t mind me remaining a bit sceptical, will you?

    Let me state a last point for today: I have a rather unpleasant feeling about some of the comments here, suggesting that dubbing should be stopped for the purpose of VOLKSERZIEHUNG (eduaction of the masses). Something like: if people HAD to see the movies in original, because they wouldn’t exist in dubbed versions, they couldn’t escape onto the soft and cosy cushion of their native language. They had to learn foreign languages and so on. – Despite the fact that I am not so sure it would even work for English, it would definitely mean a sharp decrease in people watching other foreign movies. Not out of xenophobia, but since you usually don’t go to the movies as a replacement for going to a language school.

    Anyway. There are, as so often, good arguments on both sides. And I like the fact that you have the choice to watch movies with or without dubbing in Germany.

    ps: I have never been able to see a German movie in original the year I lived in New York City.


  23. Hi –

    There are a couple of real reasons for dubbing, and they are economic.

    First of all, when the Germans started making commercial films, they were late-comes to the business, which basically (I’m simplifying here) started during the Weimar republic. This was the tail end of the silent film era, and the German film industry spent lots and lots of money on silent film stages. The important characteristic of such stages is that they paid literally no attention to acoustics, and were generally built in warehouses.

    This meant that when talk films came along, the Germans were left with a bunch of movie sets that had horrible acoustics. They couldn’t afford to build new stages – called sound stages due to the importance of acoustics – and so they made lemonade: they filmed with the equipment and resources they had (after all, this was Weimar and there wasn’t much money around), and the films were later dubbed by the actors in a proper sound booth, more often than not recreating the scenes with a good degree of acting and able to get the dialogue phrasing down right (after all, they had spoken the lines originally!).

    Given that the German film industry – largely UFA, but with some other, smaller studios – was run on a shoe-string, this didn’t change until after WW2, when the industry was re-established and film-making became an academic discipline within the German fine-arts education system.

    But since the German tradition was to make the movie and then add the spoken parts, sound effects and music in post-production, and given that the funds available to the academic community were limited, and given the fact that UFA, the big player in the market, was now in East Germany, the West German film industry, such that it was, went with what they knew and continued their tradition: this changed as German state television became the driving force behind German film making, since TV demands faster turn-around than the film industry was used to.

    Hence there has been a long, long tradition of dubbing German movies from the very beginning, based on sunken costs and shoestring budgets.

    Now, let’s look at the economics of the business.

    First of all, there is great resistance to bringing foreign films into Germany in the original language for broadcast on TV, since for many years German TV was state-owned and remains to a great deal so today (ARD, ZDF, the regional TV stations), and as such there was a mandate to bring German-language versions of movies, as that is what people were paying their TV fees for. Hence there is a mandate for dubbing.

    Second, dubbing is a lucrative business for actors who would otherwise not be working, resulting in heavy union pressure to continue to dub movies, rather than do subtitles. Quite a number of German actors are proud of their being known as the “voice of “, and if it is a popular actor, they get picked up to do all of their future films, ensuring continuity.

    Third, and this is where I see part of the problem for the German film industry, dubbing films takes the pressure off the German film industry to actually produce popular films, i.e. films that do well at the box office. As said, much of German film production is for the state-subsidized TV: while there are quite a number of folks studying film, and there are subsidies for the German film industry to train new directors, there is no requirement for commercial success (if anything, that is distained as being bourgeois and mundane), resulting in many films in Germany made that never, ever see the light of day past their first screenings. Think of the early films of Wim Wenders, but with even less camera quality, directing and editing. Painful at the very best. I’ve seen too many (I live in Germany) and they are really, really painful (one that stuck in my mind was a film that used really long and tedious fades between scenes, so long that I could count to 10 during a fade out and back down to 0 for fade in: think really, really, really long consumer-quality video fades during which the actors simply held their positions and did nothing…).

    While there have been commercial successes in Germany – Männer, anyone? – they have been few and far between, and no one seems to be bothered, since the movie theaters are filled with dubbed US films. If Germany were serious in supporting its film culture, they should make dubbed films illegal, forcing people to either watch the movie with subtitles or actually going to films made in Germany. But that would mean that aspiring film directors in Germany would actually have to make films – which we all know is hard work – and stop living off the government’s subsidies for making films that no one wants to see, but which are incredibly self-serving and indulgent. 🙂


  24. Whatever happened to multiple audio tracks on TV broadcasts?
    For decades TV remote controls had a button to switch audio tracks, but it seems to have died out. It’s rare indeed that a film is available on TV with a choice of dubbed or original soundtrack (Zweikanalton). What a shame.

    With the switch to digital broadcast technologies it seems unlikely that it’s a technical issue. My guess is that even the presumably small cost of 2 audio streams is still is not seen as viable, as the vast majority of viewers aren’t interested.

    On another note, it’s annoying that whenever anyone is interviewed in English on German TV they let the speaker get just a couple of words out before being drowned out by a narrated German translation. Heaven forbid that a German viewer should have a stab at understanding a short burst of English!

    The only exception to this that I know of is when live sport is shown on TV. For example Christian Danner commentates on Formula 1 races for RTL; we hear a driver radio his pit, Christian repeats the English, enunciating clearly, then translates. Similarly Dirk Raudies interviews motorbike racers in English for Eurosport, then translates what he asked and the response. It’s refreshing to hear people speak in their native tongue. I’m entirely happy to hear e.g. an Italian talk and then be told what (s)he said, even though I understood just a few words. I get a better feel for their personality through the tone, melody and passion of their voice.

    In defence of dubbing, my German partner is intimidated by the original English soundtrack to TV shows and films. Her English is just fine when interacting with my family or foreign visitors to her place of work, but TV and movies in English are a strain because the diction is so indistinct, the pace so relentless and the cultural references sometimes so puzzling. Subtitles help a lot, but it’s too wearying to do often. With the dubbed version she can do something else as well as watch/listen!


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