Translator or Censor?
As foreign-language films and series surge in popularity, beware the medium that sometimes betrays the message
A mall Santa is suffering with chronic inflammation of the bowels. He’s tried every drug on the market; nothing’s worked. Then he fortuitously falls into the care of Dr. Gregory House, who hands him a prescription for a treatment that, while effective, isn’t exactly orthodox. The patient squints at the slip of paper and reads: “Wholegrain … rice?” House explains that rice is a tried-and-true remedy for inflammatory bowel disease. Mall Santa’s next question is whether or not there’s a risk of becoming addicted. “Practically all the drugs I prescribe come with that kind of danger,” says the doctor. “The only difference is that this is completely legal.”
If you’re a French fan of House M.D. and watched the series dubbed in your native language, this is how you’ll remember the scene. You might be a little confused, however, if you watched it with the original soundtrack. In the English-language version, House doesn’t give the man a prescription for wholegrain rice, but for cigarettes. Which makes the patient’s reaction a bit more logical. Nicotine — highly addictive. Brown basmati — not so much.
Why the change? Was the translator hungover the day this particular script arrived in his pigeonhole? Mistakes happen — the dubbing studio that worked on Twin Peaks translated the phrase red herring word-for-word as hareng rouge, which to Francophone audiences evokes nothing more than a fish supper. But those in charge of adapting House, writes television critic Martin Winckler, knew quite well what they were doing. As he explains in his book Petit éloge des séries télé, French TV translators have made a noticeable habit of veering quite dramatically off-script.
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.
But that’s not what was going on with the House scene, despite what some industry professionals might argue. In response to Winckler’s criticism, a representative from ATAA, a French translators’ association, asserted that the author was ignorant of the constraints placed on translators by the medium in which they work. What the audience hears needs to sync up with the actors’ lip movements and avoid running too long or too short — otherwise, it disrupts the immersive experience of watching a dub. True, but as Winckler himself points out, this shouldn’t be an issue in the case of House, since the word for cigarettes is the same in French as it is in English. The rep mentions another factor that may result in a less-than-faithful translation: the recommendations of France’s regulatory body for audiovisual media, which include an advisory against the glorification of tobacco products. This excuse seems a bit more on the money. The joke was nixed because it might incite people with IBS to go out and buy a pack of Marlboros — okay, if you insist. But don’t forget that only two decades or so before House, the targets of this kind of moral panic were quite different. For a 1982 episode of Dynasty, the French dubbers changed the climax of Steven Carrington’s coming-out speech from “Say it: ‘Steven is gay’” to “Say it: ‘Steven is sick’.”
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.
This seems to be by the company’s design, as the translated soundtrack was the one that played by default when an episode of the series began. Why Netflix takes the time to produce English-language dubs in the first place is perplexing. Dubs are vastly more expensive and time-consuming to produce than subtitles, and by involving more meddling hands, they leave more room for snags and disputes. In 2003, a group of French actors refused to continue lending their voices to the translation of Friends due to dissatisfaction with their salaries, and season eight of the sitcom had to be broadcast in its original version with subtitles.
Well, there can be no doubt that Netflix has the extra cash to burn, and we can take comfort in the fact that the streaming service’s translation guidelines explicitly state that “[d]ialogue should not be censored or softened.” In practice, however, this isn’t always evident. In 2019, Netflix’s in-house dub of the Japanese series Neon Genesis Evangelion was criticised by many viewers for skirting around the romantic undertones of two male characters’ friendship by changing a line that had previously been translated as “I love you” to “I like you.” Translator Dan Kanemitsu suggested that the decision was in the interest of leaving the nature of their relationship up to interpretation, but long-time fans of the franchise countered that any question marks hanging over the characters’ sexuality had been eliminated by the manga, which includes more clear-cut love scenes between the pair. An isolated incident, perhaps, but one that signals just how easily this insidious kind of editorialising can take place, even in the new millennium.
Edgar Allen Poe said to believe half of what you see and none of what you hear, a good rule of thumb for the consumer of an audiovisual translation (as, I’m sure, it was intended to be). Subtitles can mislead, no doubt, but only to an extent; by choosing subs we still get the flavour of the dialogue as it was meant to be heard, and recogniseable words, the actors’ intonation, and even the length of a spoken line can alert us to overly-liberal translation practices. The dub, on the other hand, creates the illusion of being the original version — it is, by its very nature, deceptive. It has its purpose, of course. Children and the vision impaired need it, as well as audiences who struggle with literacy. But those of us who can do without it should consider that a blessing. A preference for subtitles isn’t necessarily the mark of a snob. It’s born out of a desire we should all have: to keep the filter between ourselves and the art we consume as thin as possible, because we never know who’s trying to take advantage of it.