The goal of any dub is for the new dialogue to sound as natural as the original production.
You can think of adaptation as a return to the source material.
Projects in other languages come with translated scripts, which are then often used for subtitles. But you’ve probably noticed that while many subtitles capture the essence of dialogue, the characters might speak in the original language with more nuance, detail, or slang. While necessary for ease of reading, the simplified translations are unsuitable for dubbed performance.
That’s where adaptation comes in: I edit the translation, augmenting and occasionally rewriting the text before recording. I also time the dialogue to fit the on-screen actor’s facial expressions.
The aim is to achieve consistency between the English dub and the source material’s style and culture. Research is an essential step in the dubbing process; it allows the dubbing team to decide whether a local reference ought to be changed to an Anglophone equivalent or retained to keep the cultural flavor.
For example, did you know that softball is a very popular sport in Belgium? In the Dutch series 13 Commandments, a character who mentions softball practice presented the dubbing team with an interesting challenge: should this be kept as-is since the show takes place where the sport is played, or should it be changed to a sport that would be more obviously European, like soccer? (Even with the latter, decisions must be made whether “soccer” or “football” is more appropriate.) Given the tone of the scene and cultural context, we went with softball.
Balancing cultural specificity and international clarity is one of my favorite parts of localization.
Special attention must also be given to a character’s social status and level of education, as this affects their dialect, syntax, and slang.
As they say, good casting makes all the difference in the world. The rest is easy.
Recreating a vocal performance in another language walks a fine line: too much and it sounds cartoonish, too little and it sounds mechanical. I try to capture that weird alchemy of one actor’s voice making sense coming out of a different actor’s mouth.
Jim Winker, my classical text professor at UC San Diego, taught us to conceptualize vocal performance as a balance between three techniques: pitch, pace, and volume. Add in the bird’s-eye view I have of the story and character arcs, and I can give actors all the tools they require to lay down a good take. “Excellent, we got it, moving on.”
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