Translator or Censor?

As foreign-language films and series surge in popularity, beware the medium that sometimes betrays the message

Image for post
Image for post
(Thibault Penin / Unsplash)

Translator, traitor

Admittedly, translating and re-writing are never mutually exclusive. The Italian version of The Simpsons reimagines many of the show’s secondary characters as speaking dialects from various parts of the Boot to reflect relevant regional stereotypes. Groundskeeper Willie, for example, is given a Sardinian accent, which capitalises on the reputation the island shares with Scotland for being rural and isolated. (The fact that he is often seen wearing a kilt is treated as a mere side effect of his eccentricity.) Translators also have their work cut out for them whenever the text draws attention to grammatical features of its original language — the English-language subtitlers of the Netflix series Call My Agent! have to deal with characters frequently alluding to the polite you in French, for which there is no equivalent in English. The shift from vous to the more familiar tu, often used as a subtle marker of the beginning of a friendship or a romance, is usually rendered as a switch to first-name basis, but sometimes it becomes “Let’s not be so formal”, without any reference to how exactly this can be achieved (what are you generally supposed to do when someone asks you to drop the formalities? Take off your shoes?). Proverbs, slang, and made-up terminology all beg to be translated using some degree of artistic license. Because “no two languages’ grammars match, their vocabularies diverge, even punctuation has a different weight […] there can be no such thing as a translation that is not ‘creative’,” as Deborah Smith wrote in defence of her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which stirred up controversy precisely because it was, supposedly, too creative. And she was dead right. Behind every good translation lies an untold number of risky decisions.

Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear

The dub, which has long been the preferred mode of audiovisual translation in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, can easily manipulate and obscure what characters say, with audiences being left none the wiser. Conversely, any French-speaking person — even a monolingual one — watching House or Dynasty with subtitles would be able to hear the actors say the words “cigarettes” and “gay” (which, like cigarette, exists in French, too). Just another reason for English speakers to be leery of dubs, along with our memories of the out-of-sync voiceovers of Hong Kong action movies, a frequent object of ridicule and parody. But in recent years, we’ve also developed a thirst for foreign-language media, and while most of us were happy to watch Parasite with subtitles, Netflix, with its all-seeing eye on its subscribers’ viewing habits, recognises that anti-dub prejudice probably isn’t long for this world. A whopping 81% of Anglophone viewers of the German series Dark watched it dubbed.

Image for post
Image for post
Netflix’s dub of ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ came under fire for alleged censorship (Christian H. / flickr)

I write about words and run about screaming. Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literature.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store