Voice-over artists bring foreign films to new audiences | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 29.07.2010
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Voice-over artists bring foreign films to new audiences

Germans watch plenty of foreign films, but rarely with subtitles. Instead, the country's dubbing industry has become one of the best in the world. The art of dubbing can be a challenge - especially for animated films.

A silhouette of a man with a film reel

You know their voices, but not their faces

Marcus Off is like a ghost. German audiences have heard his voice but have never actually seen him - nonetheless, he is quite successful in his field. Over the past 20 years, Off has been working as an actor and voice-over artist. He is one of about 1,000 established actors working in the German dubbing industry.

"It's a really cruel action to take someone's voice out and put a new one in," he told Deutsche Welle. Replacing someone's voice, someone's passion and emotions - in his work, Off is aware that he is taking something away from the original actor's performance. "Someone has done a very good job, so you have to please try to give it back to him."

From the big stage to the big screen

Marcus Off

Actor Marcus Off has 20 years experience in the dubbing industry

Some of his voice-over credits include Simon Baker's character in the television series "The Guardian" and "The Mentalist." But Off is best known for his performance as the voice of Johnny Depp's character Captain Jack Sparrow in the film "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Like many voice-over actors in Germany, Off began his career as a theatrical actor - a career path that parallels the history of the dubbing industry itself. After World War II, the theaters in Germany were in shambles. The English and American movie industries saw an opportunity to expand and have their films translated into German.

Germany's unemployed actors and theater professionals suddenly had new work opportunities and became pioneers of the country's dubbing industry.

Lost in translation

Throughout his career Marcus Off has lent his voice to films from many different countries and, depending on the original language, timing can be problematic.

"The easiest to dub are English films," he said. "It's very difficult in French because we need a lot more words to express something than they do."

It's particularly challenging when a film character has an accent. "You can't catch accents. You have to lose," said the actor. "This is a big problem and there are films which simply cannot be dubbed."

Accents are not the only subtleties that get lost when translating films. Culturally specific references need to be changed to be understood by a German audience. Some things simply cannot be adapted and the original meaning is lost altogether.

A scene from the animated film Madagascar

Animated films like Madagascar are especially difficult to dub

The problem of animation

"In animation movies like 'Shrek' and 'Madagascar' there are very often many word plays, associations, metaphors and many jokes and it's the role of the adapter to make it work," said Klaus Bauschulte, who works as a producer for Berliner Synchron, one of Germany's top dubbing studios.

"But sometimes you have to miss on one punch line because it doesn't work, but then you find a joke somewhere else," he added.

Bauschulte, who worked on the German production of "Madagascar," said an animated film is even more difficult to dub than regular films. "These artificial creatures do not breathe, they just talk and you must be much more precise."

When animated films are produced, the actors' dialogue is recorded first; then the characters are animated based on the lip movement of their living counterparts.

"Their way of talking is more precise than that of a human being. So for the dubbing actors it's more difficult," Bauschulte added.

Americanisms everywhere

While subtitles are mostly used in smaller European countries like the Netherlands and Poland, the German dubbing industry is growing bigger and better. Marcus Off said he doesn't think films will revert to subtitles for the German market because the country's dubbing industry has become too strong and profitable over the past 60 years.

Dubbing films at Studio Babelsberg

Dubbing is part art, part technology

However, the style of German used in dubbing has changed; for American films, Americanisms often turn up in the German version.

"Now you can say 'Oh mein Gott.' No one said that some years ago; it derives from 'Oh my God,'" explained Bauschulte.

"In earlier dubbing you would never have said 'Mr' and 'Mrs' which is now common, even 'grandma' and 'grandpa' is now common in German dubbing," he said, adding that dubbed movies seem to be having an influence on the everyday speech of young Germans.

That may be because, as Bauschulte said, some Germans have become so used to the dubbed versions that they believe they are listening to the real thing.

Author: Ellice Mol/gri
Editor: Kate Bowen

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