Punchline problems

By Mark Heaney

For translators, and the viewing public, dubbing and subtitling can be a far from funny business.

dubbing of the shawshank redemption
Consider the following scene, one of my favourites from The Shawshank Redemption, the one in which the gang are sorting through books in the new library:
HEYWOOD: The Count of Monte Crisco…
FLOYD: Cristo, you dumb shit.
HEYWOOD: …by Alexandree Dumb-ass.
ANDY: Dumas. You boys’ll like that one. It’s about a prison break.
RED: Maybe that should go under educational too.
Simple, beautifully played, and funny. Heywood’s uneducated pronunciation of Dumas (pronounced doo-mah as Andy rightly points out) is a rather unfortunate one. Alexandre Dumb-ass. Unfortunate – but funny.
However, recently, I was watching the movie for the umpteenth time, this time dubbed into Spanish. Since the Spanish pronounce Dumas as doo-mas and since a ‘dooma (or a dumma‘) doesn’t exist, and certainly doesn’t refer to someone intellectually challenged, they translate it as Demas, pronounced de-mas and meaning ‘others’. Alexandre Others. Not funny.
Dubbing has its critics (among which I would most definitely include myself), and with examples such as the previous, it is easy to see why. It is not just humour that is often lost in translation. The voice of the original actor is lost and this, after all, is their main tool, their trademark – their delivery and their ability to inject their voices with emotions such as anger or menace, sadness or fragility, is what sets them apart – or not. Watching Shawshank without the hypnotically dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman? As is the case with some dubbing practitioners, words fail me.

That said, I do have a lot of sympathy for those responsible for translating movies into a foreign language. The challenges they face are many and considerable. Humour, for translators, is definitely no joke – the humour that comes from mishearings, mispronunciations, rhyme, alliteration, puns and metaphors does not readily translate. Expressions that go down well in one country may not quite be another’s ‘cup of tea’. Considerable creativity is required.
Equally, cultural factors also throw up many challenges, things such as social and historical references, customs, accents, dialects and slang. Imagine trying to dub Trainspotting for example, a film that even had to be subtitled for American audiences – and the Scottish and Americans, apparently, speak the same language. Take The Wire also, the slang-riddled hit US series that had to be subtitled in parts for US audiences. In cases such as these, translators often have to introduce concepts that are foreign to their audience, invent new dialects, deliberately make grammatical mistakes, and be highly creative with language – consider the challenges faced by the people behind the dubbing of The Wire into German.

What about subtitles, I hear you say? Well, the same trials of translating humour and culture apply. In addition, translators have less space to do it in; they need to get straight to the point. Generally limited to two lines of subtitles at a time, with each line no longer than 40 characters, long passages of dialogue must be summarised so that viewers are able to digest the subtitles quickly and follow the film. People go to the cinema, after all, to watch and not to read.

As I’m sure you’ll agree, dubbing and subtitling are far from easy tasks. So next time you find yourself hitting rewind to decipher a Texan drawl or an Irish brogue, spare a thought for the poor people who have to translate it.


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