When I first offered my services as a translator to film and TV producers who did dubbing
and postsynchronization here, in Montréal, I was told they did not need translators, but
adapters. I remember arguing that translation was adaptation,
that you did not just
copy words from a dictionary automatically, that every sentence, every word, every comma, was
the object of a decision, of a transposition into another context, not just linguistically, but also
socially and culturally. But these people had a set idea of what a translator did, and they
couldnt be moved. It was only when I told them I also translated poetry and songs that I
got their attention. That, they knew, required adaptation.
At first, I was given documentaries to adapt into French. Well, there
wasnt much adaptation to be done here. It was mostly straightforward translation. Except
you had to take into account certain elements you would not necessarily pay attention to in a
written translation. For instance, time and tempo. In the case of a narration, the translation has to
follow the image and refer to its various elements as they appear on the screen. So, even if an
inversion would be more appropriate in the target language, it may not be indicated if it does not
suit the picture. The illusion to be maintained always is that the audience is watching an original
When a voice-over technique is used, the length of your text has to correspond to the
length of the speakers text, and even be shorter. Thats when you see the speaker
on the screen and a translation is supplied so that you hear the person speaking a foreign language
in the background and an actors voice is voiced over that, drowning it and
taking its place, though the audience always hears the foreign language in the back. This provides
the illusion that an interpreter has stepped in and is simultaneously translating what that person is
saying. The studio actor/interpreter does not play a role with emotions as if it were acted out. He
or she is merely an interpreter who repeats what the person is saying. Here the difference between
a translator and an adapter is that the adapter must make this speechwhich is often
improvisedsound as if it were a well thought out discourse. No hesitations, no
ungrammatical sentences, no interrupted utterances, no mistakesunless they contribute to
the scenario. The studio actor must have a flawless text, even if the character on the screen is
hesitant or speaks English as a second language, not mastered very
With documentaries, the constraints that require adaptation
are thus mostly timing and
grammatical soundness. Most documentaries have both narration and voice-over,
but in all cases
the main objective is to give the audience the illusion that they are watching an original
After a while, I was entrusted with documentaries where there was also some synchronous
dubbing, then with feature films and TV series where everything was dubbed. This is where the
screen actor says the lines in one language, but the audience hears them in another. The illusion to
be maintained is that the studio actors voice belongs to the screen actor. This is achieved
through various techniques. The one we generally use in studios here is the rhythmo band.
The rhythmo band
No, this is not a group of Latin music performers. Its actually a 35 mm film strip
on which the text and voice noises are hand written in black ink by a calligrapher, so that the
studio actors can substitute their voices for those of the screen actors. My task is to provide the
calligrapher with a text to copy. To do this, I am given a mother band, a dull matte white 35 mm film strip on which someone has written down all the text and voice noises as
performed by the screen actors in synchronicity with the image. I write my translation/adaptation
with a lead pencil above or below these markings. Everything is noted on the mother band, not
only the text, but also the inspirations, expirations, hesitations, smacking of the lips (as in a kiss),
everything. Because the studio actors will have to reproduce all this.
Sometimes the original soundtrack is not synchronous with the original image. Indeed, as
you may know, most films and TV productions nowadays are shot without sound and the
soundtrack is added afterwards in a studio. This is called postsynchronization. And with the
increasing number of international casts in contemporary productions, often the voice you hear in
the so-called original version is not the voice of the actor you see on the screen. Even as early as
in La Strada, Anthony Quinn did not speak Italian and had to be dubbed. But
getting carried away and losing sight of my topic.
The writing out of the original text and voice noises onto the mother band is called
detection. The detector uses an editing machine to unwind the white strip of 35 mm film synchronously with the film hes detecting and writes
the text with a lead pencil on this white strip at the exact place where the voice is heard in the
film. He stretches stressed vowels and shortens the unaccented ones, writes probly
for probably in English, or habm for haben in
German, if that is how these words are actually pronounced. And so on and so forth. I say
he because the detector Im working with on the series Im presently
adapting from German is a man, but there are also women detectors (and they are as competent
and as well paid as their male counterparts).
The detector also uses a number of conventional signs to indicate if the mouth is closed or
open at the onset and at the end of each utterance. For instance, the word stop
may be pronounced with a momentary closing of the mouth on the voiceless bilabial stop
p, then an opening of the mouth after, when the air is released. But if
stop is the last word of the utterance, the mouth may also remain closed after the
p is pronounced. Try it. See? That means that the translator/adapter cannot add a
sound after the bilabial. For instance, I couldnt put départ or
débat, since the audience would see the mouth closed and still hear a
sound after the bilabial consonant. Ill get back to this later.
The detector also underlines those bilabial consonants (b, m, p) wherever they occur, and
puts a small circle underneath the semilabials (f, v, w, English retroflex r).
Im expected to put bilabial consonants over the bilabial consonants in the original text, so
that the viewer can be tricked into believing that the screen actor is really pronouncing what the
studio actor is saying. I can put a b over an m or a
p, I can even put a semilabial over a bilabial. Or I can put a b over
an f or a w, and so forth. And I can skip some of these when there
is a long succession of such consonants. For instance, probablement has four
bilabials while probably only has three. But that is part of the illusion of
Were talking about illusion after all. I mean, we know that when actors are gunned
down in an action movie, they dont really bleed to death. And when they say I love
you, they dont always mean it in real life. In the same way, this whole undertaking
is meant to maintain an illusion: synchronism.
This is where adaptation comes into play. Synchronism is coincidence in a point of time.
There are three kinds of synchronism: phonetic
synchronism, semantic synchronism, and
dramatic synchronism. Phonetic synchrony is achieved when the lip
movements of the screen
actor match perfectly the sounds produced by the studio actor, not only words, but also breathing,
grunts, screams, etc. Actors do that in the studio, even if they are invisible. They make gestures,
and get into their roles. Im almost surprised when I see they dont wear costumes.
When I started translating/adapting TV series and telefilms for dubbing, I became
obsessed with phonetic synchronism. I watched peoples mouths as they spoke, not only in
films and on TV but at the grocery store and on the bus, everywhere. I was literally reading
everybodys lips. I looked at myself in the mirror and made faces as I pronounced words or
sentences. I dug out my old books on phonology and brushed up on definitions of articulators and
Word order is tricky when translating for dubbing from English into French.
Independence Day is Jour de lIndépendance.
Sometimes, you can cheat: if the mouth of the man on the screen is open before he starts
speaking, you can sometimes squeeze in a couple of syllables before the first word, provided they
do not contain bilabial consonants which would require him to close his mouth. As long as his
mouth is open, the audience does not know if hes saying anything. They trust what they
hear. Illusion. So, you could probably have the studio actor say jour de without
As a result, my first adaptations were perfectly synchronous from a phonetic point of
view, but the sentences were a bit twisted on the grammatical and lexical levels. I mean, no formal
mistakes, but plenty of awkward constructions. I had to fit the word to the lips at all cost. I could
do it. I experienced victory every time I managed to turn a phrase that would match the
articulatory mechanisms of the source language, never mind if it sounded a bit weird in the target
language. I figured the audience wouldnt notice. Theyd be so caught up in the
action and so impressed by the perfect phonetic synchronism of this version that they
wouldnt notice it was strange for a cop to speak of the
décédé (deceased) for the dead, because it
fit the lip movement better than mort. I ended up writing what Jim Palmer, a friend
and collaborator of mine, calls dubbage.
It wasnt all that bad. Im being hard on myself here, and Im looking
at my early work with the benefit of 15 years of experience. What I mean is that this phonetic
constraint can be overwhelming and can lead to being blinded to other constraints which should in fact have priority.
Obviously a translators main objective is that the translated text have the same
meaning as the underlying text. So semantic synchronism is a priority, even more so than phonetic
synchronism. But not always. For instance, there are cases where a number can be replaced with
another number that better fits the lip movement if no damage is done to the overall meaning of
the scene. Take the number two, zwei in German; in French, trois
would be more synchronous than deux, but I have to ask myself, is it possible to
replace it in this scene? Is the number crucial, or could it be any number? This is where judgment
and adaptation come in.
Lets look at an example taken from a German television police series Im
working on now. In one of the episodes, there was a reference to Frau Dusward, the owner of the
apartment, die Besitzerin der Wohnung, but because of word order in French, I
could not call her la propriétaire. There was no place to put the bilabial
ps. So, I simply said she was the tenant (la locataire) of that particular apartment.
It did not make any difference to the plot anyway.
In most cases, though, phonetic synchronism must be sacrificed in favour of semantic
synchronism. When translating/adapting an educational video on mathematics or physics, it is
essential that the vocabulary be scientifically accurate. The only phonetic constraint that must
necessarily be observed is that the voice must not be heard once the speaker has finished speaking,
nor must he be seen blabbing away while no sound is uttered. This can be achieved by condensing
or filling the text as appropriate. There are also a certain number of culturally fixed phrases.
To be or not to be cannot be translated any other way than Être ou
ne pas être. So the adapter has to use his judgment and his sense of compromise in
Yet another constraint that takes precedence over phonetic concordance is dramatic
synchronism. Its important that the characters speak with a certain amount of realism. If
they shake their heads (at least in most European languages), they should be saying
No, if they nod assent, the sentence should be affirmative, even if theres no
phonetically congruent expression available. Language level, use of idiomatic expressions, realism
are all factors to be taken into account. The character has to sound real. Then, if
his lips dont follow exactly the flow of the sounds, it wont appear so strange to the
audience. The audience must never be surprised by the text, unless that is the intent in the original
Accents are difficult to deal with, because an equivalent cannot always be found. Generally
to distinguish a character with a British accent from an American in a given scene dubbed into
French, adapters rely on diction and choice of words. The British character will tend to speak like
an aristocrat and thus set himself off from the other characters. But what if all the characters are
soldiers and theyre all working class? The adapter must somehow give additional
information on the origin of the character in the text itself, sometimes in a comment from another
character. Usually, though, the characterization is achieved on the screen by the actors
dress or by his way of delivering his lines or his physical attitude. Im thinking of Steve
McQueen with his chewing gum, his baseball and his mitt in The Great Escape/La grande
I remember translating/adapting into French an animated British feature film entitled
Truckers/Les Voyageurs, where urban gnomes were contrasted with country
country gnomes spoke in a characteristic Yorkshire dialect, which set them apart in their speech. I
therefore gave their French voices a Canadian Acadian dialect, which is conveniently similar to the
Berrichon accent in France. In French, the country gnomes used archaic syntactic forms, such as
javons, javions, jaurions for jai, javais,
jaurais and il avont, il aviont, il auriont for il a, il avait, il
aurait. Of course, I had to fight a little with an editor at Radio Canada, our national
broadcaster, to have them accept this apparent deviation from the grammatical norm, but I finally
won, thanks to the support of Isabelle Laffont of Les éditions Robert Laffont, who were
sponsoring this production.
Examples of adaptation
Here are a few examples of adaptation taken from the German police series Im
currently adapting into French. In episode 19 of the Soko 5113 series, a man was
convicted for a murder he hadnt committed and spent seven years in prison before his
innocence was recognized. Seven years, sieben Jahre, occurs repeatedly
throughout the episode in different contexts. Each time the problem was to cover the
b in French, because sept ans has no bilabial consonant (in spite of
the spelling). Each time, I had to rely on a different scheme.
Er schuldet mir sieben Jahre.
Il me doit sept ans maintenant.
Ich habe sieben Jahre...
über nichts anderes nachgedacht.
Tu timagines, pendant sept ans,
jai pensé à rien dautre tout
In sieben Jahren hat der es aber
vom Verkaüfer weit
These three sentences are taken from three different scenes of the same episode. In the
first example, a word relating to time (maintenant/now) is added. This notion, which was
understood in the original, allows phonetic synchronism and corresponds better to the rhythm and
the length of the German sentence.
Notre vendeur en a fait du chemin
depuis sept ans, tu trouves pas?
The second sentence is spoken in two stages, with a pause after Jahre, to indicate
emphasis This allowed me to put three vowels in French where there were only two in German.
By adding Tu timagines at the beginning, nothing significant is added from
a semantic point of view, but phonetic synchronism is ensured, and dramatic synchronism is
reinforced, since the expression is idiomatic and contributes to the realism of the dialogue. The
speaker emphasizes the word sieben and stresses the first syllable, making it
In the third example, word order had to be inverted. The seven year period is mentioned at
the end of the French sentence, whereas it was at the beginning in German. The idiomatic
expression faire du chemin (to come a long way) is synchronous phonetically and it
enriches a line made even more realistic by adding tu trouves pas
(dont you think) at the end, which also guarantees phonetic
These three examples show how translation for dubbing really requires adaptation.
Its not just a question of translating dialogues, they have to be rewritten.
In France, at SACEM (Société des auteurs, compositeurs et
éditeurs de musique), those who translate/adapt films and TV broadcasts for dubbing are
called dialoguistes, screen writers. In fact, thats exactly what we do. We
write dialogues for the screen, except the lines have already been spoken by the screen actors and
we have to find a text that fits their lip movements and the length of the utterance, as well as their
gestures, the situation, the character, and the setting, not to mention what they are actually saying.
So I end up watching the screen actors eyes and hands, and paying as much
attention to his body movements as to the shape and position of his mouth. Once Ive
translated or have read a translation of what the actor is saying, I look at the screen and watch the
speaker say the lines. Then I ask myself what would that character be saying in French, or in
English, depending which language Im translating into. Indeed, this adaptation, or screen
writing, can be done by someone who doesnt even know the underlying language,
provided the screen writer is supplied with a working translation of the script. When translating
from English or from French, I supply my own translation, but not so with other languages of
which I know very little. So far, Ive also adapted German, Swedish, and Italian telefilms
or TV series, though Im far from fluent in these languages.
I began this career by concentrating on the lip movements and phonetic synchronism, until
it became an obsession. Then I gradually widened my preoccupation to encompass as well the
actual playing and performing of the actors. So that, from a translator, I became an adapter, and
finally a screen writer.
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