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HUMOR AND TRANSLATION

Dubbing Buffy

By Mark Herman

Literary translation is hard. Literary translation of sung lyrics that remain singable in translation is harder. And, perhaps hardest of all, is literary translation of sung lyrics for dubbing, where it is desirable to make it seem as if the translated words are coming out of the lips and mouths of the on-screen characters.

The movements, gestures, and mouth positions of the on-screen characters, like all the visuals of the original, cannot be changed. Therefore, lip synchronization requires the dubbed translation to be sayable (or singable) in the same time slot allotted to the original. Furthermore, the sounds of the original must be mimicked to the extent possible.

Dubbing also involves a problem not completely solvable by translators: the sound, pitch, or accent of a dubbed actor may not correspond to the visual presence of the on-screen actor. When this happens, the on-screen actor and the dubbed voice separate into two entities. The voice becomes disembodied, and the audience has what Charlotte Bosseaux calls an “uncanny” experience.

These matters are extensively discussed in her book, Dubbing, Film and Performance: Uncanny Encounters (Peter Lang, 2015). Bosseaux uses as examples the dubbed French versions of two episodes from the sixth season of the popular American television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the seventh (musical) episode “Once More With Feeling,” and the eighth (non-musical) episode “Tabula Rasa.”

(By the way, as if to prove once again that translators and translation get no respect in the U.S., Bosseaux points out that between 2001 and 2011, for the Hollywood films that were the top grossers and/or won the Oscar for Best Picture, almost half the total revenue was generated in foreign markets by versions that were subtitled or dubbed. Nonetheless, the percentage of the total production costs for a Hollywood film allocated to translation is usually between 0.1% and 1 %.) (215-16)

Obviously, if lip synchronization is a goal, more than the usual amount of literal meaning is lost in translation. For the French dubbed versions of Buffy, among the things that are lost, perhaps surprisingly, are references to sex. Bosseaux asks readers to consider lines said by Spike, a British vampire, comparing himself to Giles, another British character:

Randy Giles? Why not just call me “horny” Giles or “desperate for a shag” Giles? (201)

All three sexual words (“randy,” “horny,” and “shag”) are eliminated in the dubbed French version, and a reference to Voltaire’s French novel Candide is introduced:

Candide Giles? Autant m’appeler “innocent” Giles ou bien “simple” Giles tant qu’on y est?

(Naive Giles? Why not call me “innocent” Giles or “simple” Giles while you’re at it?) (201-02)

French “Candide” is connected to English “Randy” in that both are names and adjectives. However, the meanings of the adjectives—“naive” and “credulous” for “candide,” and “hungry for sex” for “randy”—are totally different. Why then choose “candide”? Bosseaux speculates that one of the reasons could be an attempt at lip synchronization. The “d”s come in the same places in both words, increasing the possibility that the viewer will consider “Candide” to actually be emanating from the on-screen character’s mouth.

One severe problem for translators of Buffy is that two of the characters are British, and their speech patterns clearly distinguish them from all the other characters who are American. Further, Spike uses British slang:

Oh, listen to Mary Poppins! He’s got his crust all stiff and upper with that Nancy-boy accent. You Englishmen are always so … (191)

The dubbed French signals Britishness by English references rather than by vocabulary, and the slang is eliminated (except for “bon sang”—literally “good blood,” figuratively “damned”—which is certainly not British slang):

Ecoutez-le le rosbif! A l’entendre on croirait qu’il annonce la météo à la télévision. Vous les Anglais, vous êtes tellement … Bon sang! Reine Elizabeth, Big Ben, Tour de Londres, Tamise, Buckingham …

(Listen to the roast beef! Hearing him, you could think he’s announcing the weather forecast on TV. You Englishmen are so … Damned! Queen Elizabeth, Big Ben, the Tower of London, the Thames, Buckingham … (194)

According to Bosseaux, “‘rosbif’” is a pejorative term used to allude to the way British people traditionally cook beef (195). Therefore, while it may signal “British” to the French, it is highly unlikely that Englishmen would use “roast beef” as an epithet to refer to each other. So, the French dubbed Spike is not the original Spike, but someone different. However, he still retained enough interesting qualities, as did all the characters of Buffy, to make the show a hit in France.

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Submit items for future columns via e-mail to mnh18@columbia.edu. Discussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.

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