Dubbing! I love it and I hate it, but either way it unquestionably fascinates me, now more than ever. I am re-re-watching s3 of BtVS and have elected for my third round of viewing to experience the show in Spanish or French – usually alternating the two between episodes. The Spanish is a snap, but the French is a signficant challenge for me, so I rely on Spanish or English subtitles as a comprehension crutch – or maybe wheelchair when it comes to complex dialogue. I’m quite enjoying the shows with this linguistic variation, and watching/listening has really made me think about the process of dubbing – from working out a script translation to casting voice actors – as well as dubbing’s effect on the audience experience in another language and culture. I’ve been thinking of examining a specific scene since this foray began, and after seven episodes, I’ve settled on one!
From s3’s Revelations: Giles and the Scoobies have discovered that Buffy has concealed Angel’s return from the hell dimension, and they’ve staged an Angel-intervention complete with prescribed phrasing that only Willow attempts to adhere to. It’s a funny set-up on the surface, but the tone turns appropriately ugly and confrontational from nearly all sides, especially Xander’s, as he hammers relentlessly at Buffy’s disregard for everyone else’s well-being as well as her past failure to protect them. I chose this scene to highlight the dubbing in French and Spanish because, in addition to being one of my favorite pieces of writing, it offers dialogue from Buffy, Xander, Giles, Willow, Cordelia, and Oz, so we get a taste of each voice actor working in a heightened emotional state.
Even before the new voices arrive, however, we’ve got to get the script into a new language. Translating BtVS dialogue involves several challenges. The Whedonesque/Buffyspeak dialogue, such as trading around parts of speech (“the happy”) and adding unexpected suffixes doesn’t necessarily work (or might just sound odd and forced) if planted into another language. You can’t exactly translate the wordplay without doing some linguistic invention – whipping up impossible-to-correlate neologisms – which might distract from the story and or even compete with the original version! It’s a grey area where translation moves into re-creation, and the original might serve as a take-off point rather than a mirror to provide a reflection of itself.
Is that the purpose of translation? Recreation? I dunno. Food for ongoing thought – to be digested gradually and incompletely. So what to do in the meantime? Well, the Spanish teams opted to forego both of Whedon’s off-kilter grammaticality in their versions, and they take different tacks in phrasing, humor, and cultural references.
I use plural because the dubbed (DV) and subtitled (SV) versions are quite different translations. The subtitling is often more literal and aims to include more of the humor, which may or may not cross the linguistic/cultural boundary. The dubbing often frequently omits the humor or pop culture references completely, aiming instead to communicate the emotional thrust of the line or its purpose in moving the narrative forward. I see the advantages in both strategies, though I imagine that in order to explain some of the jokes adequately in another language, the SV or DV would need footnotes – and that right there would ruin the show!
Getting the lines across is crucial – but casting the voice actors is just as important! They create an integral part of the character for the audience in another language, so much so that the original often sounds a disappointment to the DV viewers! I recall living abroad with German roommates and stumbling across Dynasty (which they knew as Der Denver-Clan!) in English, which they had previously known only in its German DV. There was almost universal reaction against several of the original version’s (OV’s) voices, especially Linda Evans’ Krystle Carrington, who was deemed far too bland and simply inferior to DV Krystle – and to communicate this, everyone in the room did their best imitation of her German counterpart. Years later I get to experience her for myself, and to be honest, I’m not that bowled over:
But my anecdote illustrates the extent to which the audience identifies the character with the voice actor – as in inspiring an entire room full of casual Dynasty fans doing absolutely horrible but unsettlingly enthusiastic German Krystle Carrington impressions. The voice actor is an essential part of the character in the DV!
So imagine the importance of finding the right Willow and Xander, who I find the most difficult to equal (though not replicate – see my explanation below with Cordelia) in terms of their unique voices. Alyson Hannigan’s Willow and Nicholas Brendon’s Xander have speech that spills over with innocence, goofiness, anxiety, and warmth. Willow’s cadence often communicates trepidation while Xander’s tone smacks of smartassery without smarminess, not a simple quality to convey.
Here’s the whole gang in Spanish:
The BtVS (Buffy, la cazavampiros) section of the Doblaje Wikia includes a nearly full voice actor roster for the series. Everyone here feels adequate to me, but only Cordelia, voiced by Clemen Larumbe, comes across as outstanding. Though her voice bears absolutely no resemblance to Charisma Carpenter’s, she’s a wonderful Cordelia. I don’t mind at all that Larumbe sounds like the husky, middle-aged woman that she is because she manages to tease out Cordy’s self-centeredness and socially inept directness, plus the odd intelligent insight that arises when those two qualities mesh. If I’d first grown accustomed to Larumbe as Cordy in Spanish, switching to Carpenter in English would have been a hard jump for me. Clemen Larume’s Cordelia is my German Krystle Carrington!
Honorable mention might go to Azucena Martínez as Willow. The actress dubs for Alyson Hannigan in multiple roles, including on How I Met Your Mother and in American Pie, so this is a case of the audience identifying a voice with an actor rather than a character. I find her Willow to be a bit too chirpy, but she does stand out from the other actors, creating a voice distinct from the crowd and perhaps suitable to Willow’s innocence.
NOTE: I would have lobbied to cast a Castilian speaker to dub for Giles in order to match his Britishness in English with a European Spanish and to contrast with the other mostly Mexican voice actors. I don’t think that the US/UK and Latin America/Spain have parallel relationships, but Giles needs to sound markedly different.
This brings up a sticky point in characterization and culture, as discussed by Charlotte Bosseaux in “Translating the Britishisms in the French versions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” (Apparently the DV and SV are also different in French!) How do you translate all of the social and class signifiers wrapped up in the OV? How do you account for the cultural differences between British and US English that are tied to specifically linguistic expression if you can’t use English and all the dialectal and sociological information therein? What to do with all the geographic and cultural reference points in the OV that establish characters (especially Giles and later Spike) as so British, the flip side of which is being so un-American, so un-Buffy?
The French version doesn’t offer much in the way of Britishisms in this clip, nor do the voice actors make any great impressions:
The French Buffyfan site has a Doublage page with info on the DV voice actors, none of whom I’ll single out other than Xander, known as Alex in French and voiced by Marc Lesser, who usually comes across as suitably goofy, but this scene makes no room for a wiseacre. I think many of the DV cast members are familiar to French audiences from their other work, and I suppose that familiarity adds some value for fans; just as we have our favorite physical presences, why not have preferred vocal presences? But since I don’t watch any other shows dubbed in French, I don’t benefit from any recognition/identification, and I’m left only to consider who strikes a chord as Cordelia, Buffy, Oz, Xander, Willow, or Giles. Nobody’s totally off, but nobody’s totally on either.
It’s a tough gig to compete with the original, something to bear in mind the next time that I’m interpreting, which I do face-to-face. When I get stuck, I’ll be thankful that I don’t have to account for the actual character of the original speaker or communicate dialect variation or wacky neologisms or dated pop culture references. I may have to think on my feet, but my performance still doesn’t have to match that of the Mexican Cordelia, however much adopting that particular persona for interpretation might appeal to me on some days.