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International Perspective: Dubbing Comes of Age With Latest Technology

Jan 27, 2008  •  Post A Comment

I can remember watching Johnny Carson interviewing Michael Landon, who was talking about how silly he looked speaking Japanese in one of the early dubbed episodes of “Bonanza.” Dubbed television was a novelty back then. Today, however, nothing could be farther from the truth, as it seems that everything is now dubbed and/or subtitled into one language or another. And there is a very good reason for that: money!
While no studio gets rich on the Turkish version of its programming, when you add in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese, the return can become overwhelming.
Considering the number of foreign-language TV markets, plus the DVD industry, you can see why language customization is such an important aspect of our business. So while no one market may be of tremendous significance, as a group they can represent more revenue than the U.S. itself.
The world is getting smaller, and today’s international television business is one reason why. Parisians, for example, love to watch “trailer-trash bandits” being hauled off to jail in “Cops.” Watching torrid romantic encounters in a Latin telenovela dubbed into French in Africa’s Ivory Coast may seem strange, but it’s true. Even Americans now accept some dubbed TV fare, with such popular series as “Iron Chef.”
Japanese sci-fi movies of the 1950s and ’60s showed little concern for either acting talent or lip-sync accuracy. Thankfully, today there are translation and recording tools designed specifically for the process, which has led to improved quality, both artistically and technically.
Regrettably—and in spite of the herculean efforts of many—the fact is, dubbed will always be dubbed. You can’t take 20 languages and have Tony Soprano’s lips move in perfect synchronization to them all. Instead, skilled adaptors slice and dice the new language so that the mouth movements are in cadence with the original dialogue. Directors add good casting and talent and, voila, audiences accept Tony around the world.
If it all sounds easy, it’s not. Most dubbing work is done with native speakers in the territory where the language is spoken. While many countries have state-of-the-art facilities, many do not.
In spite of the presence of mega-post facilities, much of the dubbing industry remains in the hands of mom-and-pop companies, controlled locally by families who have passed their dubbing expertise down from generation to generation. I’ve visited homes in Rio where bedrooms had been converted to dubbing “studios” and makeshift control rooms were set up in kitchens. I’ve even had to step around a goat to enter a tattered old dubbing house in Mumbai. If the studio execs only knew that their DA-88 tape was made on a machine sitting next to a toaster oven in the kitchen!
So, you ask, how does the work get done? In many cases, with great difficulty and expense. Some of the majors have established offices in 10, 15, 20 or more countries just to oversee their language conversion processes. But even then, who sees that the dubbing in Mexico is consistent with the dubbing in Taipei? Well, that’s the rub.
What was until recently a crazy matrix of boxes filled with videotapes and paper scripts being flown around the world—and often lost in customs—or e-versions being sent from office to studio is finally becoming state-of-the-art.
Thankfully, technology and the Web, along with some revolutionary software, have finally begun to help us along. A show going into 20 languages now can share assets that were unavailable in the past. When a new animated series needs to be dubbed into 14 languages, instead of traveling to 14 branch offices and visiting 14 dubbing providers, just one high-end, centralized language services provider, or HUB, can get the job done. There may not be too many right now, but that will change in time.
Today, one videotape or video file is sent, along with an e-script, to the HUB. A script “template,” with the original language, is created. It contains character names, time-code decisions and any metadata necessary to explain any unusual circumstances, such as Oprah’s vagina talking to her anus, a situation presented in a recent “South Park” episode.
Glossaries are created for each language so trained translators know when Dr. House says, “You’re fired” it doesn’t become, “You’ve been terminated” or “Your services are no longer required,” etc.
When you multiply the number of networks times the number of series times the number of episodes times the number of seasons times the number of markets—and add the DVD world to that total—you realize the language-customization industry is one of the fastest-growing and economically booming areas in the business today.
In fact, as video-on-demand, video games and mobile technology bring programming to more audiences, dubbing and its text counterpart, subtitling, generates even more complex and widespread needs.
What if I want to download the most recent episode of “Lost” onto my iPhone, but I’d like to view it in Italian? Well, Mom and Pop may still be the best option to convert the dialogue, but who’s going to get that Italian into my phone?
Thankfully, there are a few of us taking a good, hard (and creative) look at the world through our plasma screens, computers and cell phones … and we’re doing it in many different languages. While technology seems to have ignored the international language customization business for years, we finally seem to be making up for lost time.

Ken Lorber is president and CEO of TM Systems and its language services division, the Kitchen, with facilities in Miami, Los Angeles and Caracas, Venezuela, and affiliates worldwide
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