Multilingual films: what goes on behind the scenes

The film industry is a fascinating field for translators. It allows for creativity, research, entertainment and growth. But what challenges present themselves along the way? And who is involved in the process besides the translator?

Films translated into other languages can either be dubbed in the target language or shown in the original version with subtitles, and both options come with their own unique challenges and solutions for the linguist behind the curtain.

Dubbing: I get by with a little help from my friends

Dubbing, in this context, means taking recordings in another language and playing them over the original audio of a film or video. In doing this, it’s not just the text that matters but also what will happen to that text in the final product.

One example is choosing the right sounds. In English, if we are surprised, we might make the sounds, “Oh!” or “Ah!”, whereas in Spanish it might sound more like “Ay!” or “Uy!” Even animal sounds are described differently in different languages—while in English we might say a dog goes “woof,” in Spanish it goes “guau,” in Japanese, “wan,” in Dutch, “blaf,” in Romanian, “ham,” and in Korean, “meong!”

Another challenge is considering what the character will look and sound like when saying the translated lines. If you’ve ever watched a dubbed film and known what the actor’s real voice sounds like, it might have been hard to suspend your disbelief. Of course, there’s no perfect solution for this problem, because not all actors are polyglots (but wouldn’t it be awesome if they were?!). Instead, to lend the viewers’ imaginations a hand, nearly all famous actors and actresses are assigned one person to dub them in each language—essentially forever. For instance, Johnny Depp is always dubbed in Spanish by Luis Posada:

Notice how the voice is always the same?

So if the actor is famous, translators will not only be given the script along with the original footage, but they’ll also know what the voice will sound like reading the final product. This way, they have all the resources they need to come up with the best possible translation.

Who decides on these voices, anyway? Let’s take an extreme example. Disney’s original animated film Frozen broke records for being translated into a whopping 41 languages.

Disney actually has a specialist on board (which isn’t uncommon) who is in charge of finding the perfect voices for every language. For Frozen, Rick Dempsey, the Senior Vice President of Creative for Disney Character Voices International, was tasked with finding 40 local equivalents to Idina Menzel—no small feat.

But what does this have to do with translation, you may ask? Dempsey—and others who specialize in internationalizing films—face many of the same obstacles as us linguists. In broad terms, his job is to take a message, a feeling, a performance, and localize it in a different culture.

“Idina has one of the best voices, period. Not just in terms of her smooth tone, but also the warmth when she hits the lower end,” Dempsey said. “However, in certain territories—Taiwan, Cantonese—the voice might want to be thin because that’s part of the culture.”

Check out the final products, back-to-back:

Subtitling: time is money

On the other hand, subtitling comes with its own unique challenges. Constraints in time and space take the top spot; although some languages are less succinct than others—Spanish is some 30 percent more verbose than English—linguists must create translations that have more or less the same amount of characters. And that amount of characters is pretty much set across the board; most industry experts follow what they call the “six second rule,” which means most viewers can comfortably read the standard two-line subtitle in six seconds.

Another factor in subtitling is the art of navigating grammar, spelling and style with the end goal of reflecting accents, connotation and context. A perfect example of this is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a film known for being peppered with German, French and Italian in addition to its primary language, English.

Paloma Guridi, a translator who helped with pronunciation on the set of the movie, told us that sometimes the actors didn’t even speak the language their lines were in—for example, Christoph Waltz didn’t know Italian. But since his character was supposed to be fluent, he practiced diligently, and the subtitles read as a perfect translation into English.

Brad Pitt, however, had to portray a character who was pretending to know Italian, so he learned his lines and then purposefully laid on a thick Southern American accent. That accent was reflected in the subtitles. For example, when he stutters to say, “Sí, correcto,” the subtitle reads, “Yes, ‘er, correct.”


Films that switch between languages within the original version itself are especially challenging, requiring expert linguists on the scene to provide assistance. Paloma says Inglourious Basterds had “a large German team, a lot of Americans and then some French actors… so it was a very multilingual shoot.” And a lot of faith was put in these natives, as Tarantino doesn’t speak French or German.

Is it all fun and games, though? Alicia Camino, an audiovisual translator for Disney, tells us the pros and cons. “My favorite part is how creative it can be, adapting a culture, the humor, sometimes rhymes, coming up with new words or names… and thanks to this I’m quite up to date with slang and tendencies, especially from the US.” The cons? “I can’t choose what I translate or proofread but sometimes I’m laughing while working, sometimes crying… and when you get something boring it can be hell. When you’re watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse for hours on end, your brain goes numb.”

Typically, however, the film industry is an unpredictable and fast-paced field, and translators aren’t exempt from the chaos. But if you’re looking to specialize in something that will always keep you on your toes, it could be right up your alley.

It’s amazing how much language expertise is required behind the scenes of your favorite movies. We haven’t been called to the set of the latest Hollywood blockbuster yet, but VeraContent’s language services cover pretty much anything a multilingual media production could need.

Meagan Gardner
Meagan Gardner is a managing translator, editor and blogger for VeraContent from Indianapolis, Indiana. She has a degree in Spanish Language and a certificate in Translation and Interpretation Studies. On the weekends, you can catch her eating tacos or poorly playing the ukelele.
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