Dubbing = dumbing down

I'm not a racist. I think every culture has its merits, regardless of personal taste or preference. I also know that Belgium has a bad reputation regarding foreigners. In Antwerp, almost 33% votes for 'Flemish Importance', a political party that was even namechecked in the acclaimed American tv series The West Wing.

There's one thing that makes my blood boil, though : the process of dubbing, or postsynchronizing. The French, the Germans [Fawlty Towers?], the Italians, the Spanish, the Russians [Sting?] and a whole lot of other countries plead guilty.

Don't get me wrong : dubbing is perfectly fine for movies aimed towards children. It would be unfair to expect a six year old to understand a language that's not his own. I'm all for Disney, Dreamworks, Fox, Warner [...] movies in another tongue. Although ... in the sixties, Belgian parents had to translate the cartoons live in the cinema. There was no Dutch version available, probably because a potential audience of 20 million viewers (6 million Belgians and 14 million Dutch people) didn't outweigh the cost of a Dutch dub.

But once one can read, one should be able to understand the English version. Or French or any other language. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon should be seen in Mandareen [spelling error because I wanted to rhyme], Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain in French.

Why do I think it's such a big deal? Because a proper sense of respect for the original artists is a must. The voice is an integral part of a performance.

Take Johnny Depp, arguably one of the best actors alive : his voice in Pirates Of The Caribbean is totally different, compared to his voice in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. And again, totally different in Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. How a foreign person can say : "Oh, this or that actor is my favourite" when he or she has never heard the actor's voice, is beyond me.

I once met a very friendly Austrian guy, who was a big Jim Carrey fan. He had all his movies on VHS. But, in German. "So you're telling me you're a Carrey fan, but you have never heard his voice?" I asked the Austrian chap. "Uh, yes" he responded. We saw The Grinch later that night in English, with German subtitles. A good compromise, methinks.

While in Sweden, we had to form small groups and talk about a subject of our interest. The Germans chose the delicate topic of dubbing. They pointed out some cons ("Our English is worse") and some pros. One said pro : "The German version of Shrek includes German jokes". What they're saying is, gags about German people, places and music specifically aimed at the Germans. That 'wise decision' also introduced cons, because The Simpsons suffered badly. In the classic Season 9 episode Homer vs. The City Of New York, Bart sees three Hassidic Jews and shouts out : "Hey ZZ Top, you guys rock!". In the German version, Bart shouts : "Hey The Beatles, you guys rock!".

Why did they change the joke? Because the German suits thought the German audience would not know ZZ Top. First of all, The Beatles don't have long beards. And second, they are undermining the raison d'être of The Simpsons. Matt Groening and his writers WANT you to be confused sometimes. They encourage you to look up certain pop culture phenomena mentioned in the show. Which in turn makes the The Simpsons viewers smarter and more aware. Do you think I would know Rory Calhoun or Al Jolson without Homer and company?

Naysayers may say : "Books and comics can be translated!". But that's something completely different : it's nearly impossible to add subtitles to a book. Or you would have to print the original page on the left and the translated one on the right.

Songs are not translated, but I own a French copy of Bruce Springsteen's The Rising. There's a second booklet inserted, with all the lyrics in French. I'm totally OK with that.

Now that I mention 'songs' : the alternate audio tracks on the The Blues Brothers DVD still include the original tunes as sung by James Brown, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles. That means a German man will see and hear Aretha Franklin in German, but once she starts singing her classic Think ... it will be in English. Take a moment to 'think' this over. Aretha Franklin is speaking German, but she's singing in English. Makes sense, right!?

In closing, it all comes down to respect (that's another Franklin song!) for the original artist. Can you imagine Heath Ledger's The Joker in The Dark Knight in Spanish? I think all cinemas should be forced to play the original Christopher Nolan movie. If just as a sign of respect for Ledger. Say no to blasphemy, say no to dubbing.

Julian De Backer, 27 July 2008