Monday, April 19, 2010

What You See Is Not Always All You Get

When I think of female voice over narration, the following films come to mind: To Kill a Mockingbird, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence and Cinderella. But while studying the latter's voice over narration I stumbled upon a peculiar irregularity on my Cinderella DVD when my player accidentally turned on the German dubbed soundtrack. So instead of writing about narration I found myself exploring what gets lost in translation. 
If you're only interested in the Cinderella bit, then scroll down to the corresponding pictures.

Living in Switzerland I'm used to seeing movies in their original language with subtitles (nowadays the negative influence of dubbed German television is spreading around the multiplexes, but this is another story). Having been exposed to dubs as a child I decidedly disapprove of foreign language dubs for the following reasons:

1. dialogue changes are bigger than with subtitles that basically serve as summaries of the spoken. Dubbed lines are substitutes that have to match the length and vaguely the mouth shapes of the original. While not all languages take the same amount of words to state the same, dubbing often results in odd accents and unintended pauses. The fundamental difference to a translated book or radio play lies in the fact that these are not limited by shotlengths and therefore allow for faithful literary translations.
2. Nevertheless, dubbed dialogue is always out of sync with actors' mouths and facial expressions.
3. The dubbing not only robs an actor of his distinctive voice (sometimes dubbed voices don't even match actors' bodies), but mainly replaces half of his performance. Just think of how essential nuances in the delivery of dialogue are to a performance.
4. What's more, the whole cinematic realism approach is lost when voices aren't incorporated into the sound design. More often than not they are too loud compared to the rest of the soundtrack and almost always it sounds like people close to microphones rather than sounds emanating from the pictured environment.

Overall it can turn a film into a totally different experience. For me personally point 3 and 4 are the most annoying because they keep me from suspending my disbelief. There are some instances of primarily dubbed original versions like the films of Rosselini, Fellini and most other Italian auteurs of the era when dialogue was only written during post production. As an animation counterpart to Fellini Miyazaki (and the anime tradition of post-dubbing) comes to mind. Even though initially I had the same problems with those, I still prefer to see the original versions because in rhythm, tone and sound they represent the directors' original intentions. But these films are not the issue here.

However, I acknowledge a certain necessity for dubbing when it comes to films for people who are not able to read subtitles yet, children mostly. Disney was aware of that right from the beginning and even prepared title cards and other written stuff in his early features in several European languages. With the advent of restored editions, by the time these films got to DVD, most of these carefully translated shots have gone forever. Newer films like Lilo & Stitch are available in different versions on DVD. Regarding point 2 and 4, Illusion-of-life animation lends itself easily to dubbing. Although there's a fundamental difference between building a drawn performance according to an existing voice track and dubbing it after the animation, the strong headaccents and less specific mouth shapes are a lot more easily matched than live-action actors. In fact, Disney has been doing some pretty decent foreign language versions (unfortunately not on all films and some of the original dubs from the heyday of German dubbing studios during the 1940s and 1950s have treacherously been replaced by cleaner but sloppier soundtracks).

What bugs me is the indifference with which dubbed versions are passing for the real thing. Sometimes classics are altered, even mutilated, without any acknowledgement or caveat whatsoever. I have even witnessed a scholar dissecting a classic American film without noticing that his German soundtrack was way off target. Don't get me wrong, I like different versions of a movie as long as they are declared (as a remix, director's cut, redux, final cut, the Italian cut, etc.). Nowadays at least the dubbing writers and directors are credited at the very end. 

A short bit of history
The following comparisons are sound only, so point 2 will not distract from what I want you to listen to.

Nowadays dubbing means substituting the dialogue track only leaving the tracks for sounds and music untouched. This hasn't always been the case. While Disney seems to have always prepared separated tracks for sync studios, most American studios have only done so for high "prestige" films. Before WWII, European voice actors have been brought in to dub their lines in Hollywood. During the war and afterwards, the dubbing has mostly been done in the respective countries. In Germany, every occupational sector had at least one post-sync studio.

To cut a long story short: When a studio didn't receive separated tracks, they couldn't divide the dialogue from the music and the foley and thus had to a add a different background score that often sounded more like uninspired temp music on a rough cut. 

B-pictures: changing the whole soundtrackThough producing some of the most well-aging genre classics, Film Noir was considered a low-budget run-of-the-mill back then. Just listen to this excerpt (about 55 minutes into the film) from Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1944/46): Someone is shooting and taking flight, Marlowe follows him in his car, then catches up with him.
The Big Sleep (1) English
The Big Sleep (1) German

In the German version, the brooding music in the car is missing. Instead we hear a highly agitated piece that conveys the same mood like during the shooting.

That was certainly weird, but listen to the following example from about 31 minutes into the film:
The Big Sleep (2) English
The Big Sleep (2) German

There is no background score whatsoever which alters the mood quite remarkably. A whole layer of commenting on the screen action is lost. Just listen to the comic bassoon motif accompanying parts of the dialogue. And this, by the way, is not some Hollywood hack at work, but the celebrated Austria born Max Steiner, a direct disciple of Gustav Mahler. I wouldn't want to know what Casablanca sounds like in German.
Not taking into account lost linguistic ambiguities of the original, points 3 and 4 are definitely at work here. Without seeing the picture you wouldn't guess that these voices are supposed to come from the same room.

Losing the distinct quality of a voice
Later on, separated track became standard. So let's focus on the voices themselves. For a voice that is fairly well-known and specific I could have picked James Stewart or John Wayne. They sure have their instantly recognizable manner of speaking, which is something dubbing voices hardly ever capture. Instead I chose Marlon Brando because with his kind of method acting there's another layer involved. Method actors don't always go for intelligibility.
Here's an excerpt from the first scene of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972):
The Godfather English
The Godfather German

To be fair, the dubbing is relatively well done. But the rather odd quality of Brando's dialogue delivery doesn't translate that well. When you hear him mumbling with his rather high, throaty voice, it sounds as if the words are reluctant to climb out of his mouth. Speaking seems not to be one of his pleasures. The German actor sounds just like a thoughtful old man with a slightly rusty voice, but not without grip. The inherent laziness is translated quite well. The little pauses during the speech are often in different/wrong places so different words are accented. Notice that Buonasera's Italian accent is retained. You could say I'm looking for nuances, but isn't a director when directing the original performance?

Toned down narration
Translating voice over narration has the benefit of not having to correspond to onscreen mouths and accents. Even the timeframe is somewhat more open. Therefore translations can be more accurate in meaning and in tone. Let's listen to the prologue of Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird (1962):

To Kill a Mockingbird English
To Kill a Mockingbird German

Except for the lack of any geographical hint in the voice, this German voice over does the original justice. German voice overs of the time most often sound more stern or serious than American ones, almost like sober news anchors. What we have here is a most faithful adaptation that lacks the lazy feel of the southern drawl but doesn't distort the tone much. If anything, it tones down specific traits of the original without adding new ones.
This is what voice over narration usually sounds like: in order not to give it any different meaning, the speech is delivered in High German, the standard language devoid of any regional accents. After all, this sounds sensible to me because most of the time there are no clear analogies to German dialects that wouldn't widen the gap between image and sound. I have chosen this example because it is so close in tone to Cinderella's prologue.



At a loss for words: Cinderella


As I have already stated, I grew up on dubbed versions of most Disney classics. I still think that many of them have held the test of time quite well. As a teenager I discovered the original voices and had hardly any trouble accepting them, most of them adding several layers of meaning. There is one exception, though: Hans Conried as Captain Hook. He works pretty well as Mr. Darling, but Hook for me is always linked to the voice of Eduard Wandrey. Part of that familiarity is my being raised on a couple of Disneyland storybook records that combined an adequate narrator with excerpts from the German soundtrack including dialogue, sounds and music.

So when my DVD drive selected the German Cinderella soundtrack by accident, I was rather flabbergasted. At first I wasn't sure if I was in for a parody along the lines of Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966) (I have even read about German dubbing studios during the 60s and 70s that purposely injected corny jokes into long stretches of serious dialogue).
But then, the dialogue was from the familiar 1951 dub I have always known.

Cinderella dialogue English
Cinderella dialogue German
It sounds fairly accurate, if a tad more old-fashioned which is due to different acting habits in 1950s America and Germany.

But the prologue reminded me of the fact that voice over narration is also the part that gets most easily away with changes in content. As opposed to synchronized dialogue you wouldn't be able to judge the accuracy of the direct relation to the images if you don't know the original.

Even if you don't understand a word of German, listen to this:

Cinderella intro English
Cinderella intro German

Although on my Disneyland record (dated 1969) I hear a woman narrating the prologue, on the DVD I hear this man bragging away without really telling us anything. This new introduction is said to be on the 1992 VHS but there are rumours of it already having surfaced on 1980s re-release prints (which I can hardly believe). The original narrator is none other than Betty Lou Gerson who later provided the voice for Cruella DeVil. With her southern accent that has a singing quality to it she delivers a lively retelling of the prologue that closely matches the background score and the visuals with just enough left to the imagination.

On the other hand Joachim Pukass (who replaces Erika Goerner from the 1951 dub) sounds like a mocking teacher talking down to a couple of toddlers instead of a general audience. He mainly explains that this is a Disney film coming from the US and that "Aschenputtel" is called "Cinderella" over there. He mentions this twice and also comments on the running time of the film. He speaks in commonplace phrases and glosses over everything that is in the pictures until we see the stepsisters. He then asks in a heavy-handed manner: "who is also in our story? - Oh, yes, Anastasia and Drizella". The images are rather treated like annoying background noise. The death of Cinderella's parents is omitted completely. Rumor has it that this was done in order to get a "General Audiences" rating in Germany as opposed to a "from 6 years up".

Selfconsciousness was the least of Disney's intentions with that film. It is a classic (if Americanized) fairy tale, more consistent in tone than many of his later films. And yes, in the new intro there is not a single remark or allusion concerning the dream theme that is so central to that story. Oh, did I mention that the chorus was removed from the title and end theme?

I just wish Disney would pay as much attention to their foreign versions as to the commercials advertising them.

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