Dubbing localization in Europe

While we see the European Union trying desperately to come to a political consensus on issues such as taxes, the Greek debt, immigration and border controls, localization has always been a national cultural and technical concept for all of the European countries. Here I’ll focus mainly on France, Italy, Germany and Spain, or FIGS, as we call them in the entertainment industry. They represent the biggest economic force in the localization business in Europe. We’ll also include Holland, Portugal and Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland) where we also localize a significant amount of content.

The different cultures and their relationship with English

Seen from the United States, all these European countries can look very similar, but the differences are in fact huge. I would say that their cultural differences are even bigger than their linguistic differences. As stated in previous articles, dubbing is for me an adaptation to a culture more than to a language, and these differences will explain why we have so many different localization approaches in Western Europe.

Historically, the FIGS have always been a land of dubbed content — even before television. Hollywood decided to dub its movies in French and German as early as the 1930s to sell them in Europe. The results were not very good, mainly due to the lack of native speaking French and German actors at that time in Los Angeles. France and Germany realized quickly that the dubbing industry had great potential and started to dub almost every movie coming from America. Italy and Spain followed shortly thereafter. 

Although the FIGS dub practically everything — and Warner Bros. (WB) creates 35 TV series a year just on its own — their approach is very different. Most of WB’s 20 theatrical releases a year are dubbed in the FIGS languages, which is not the case in the other European countries. Growing up in Marseille, France, I remember having to go to the Saturday midnight session at the theater to be able to view an American movie in English. Very few theaters were showing the domestic versions and the main reason is that, besides Germany, the Latin European countries tend to speak very poor English. I have to admit that things are changing slightly these days, as the different governments try to promote the English language among young students. Currently, cable TV is now giving Europeans the opportunity to watch American programs in English. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Southern Europeans (France, Italy, Spain and Portugal) still speak fairly poor English. This has a direct impact on the dubbing business, as everybody, not only young kids, feels more comfortable watching a movie dubbed in its own language than in English. Although we create a lot of subtitles for our content in more than 45 languages, I’ve always been a strong supporter of dubbing as I think that reading the subtitles distracts from the full viewing experience of a movie.  I won’t debate on the fact that subtitles are by nature a condensed version of the dialogue as they have to fit the screen and cannot be too long in order to be read.

Northern Europe, meaning the Netherlands and Scandinavia, on the contrary, has a long tradition of speaking English fairly extensively. These countries are relatively small compared to the FIGS  — approximately six million people for Denmark versus 70 million for France or 80 million for Germany — and one can easily understand that speaking English is critical for their opening to the rest of the world. This is why WB dubs only family entertainment movies or animated content in these countries, as small kids cannot read subtitles or understand the English version. The rest of the programs are subtitled, which is also a huge cost savings for the company, as the cost of dubbing is much higher than the cost of subtitling.

The case of Germany is different, as the Germans generally speak good English but opted to dub most of their film and TV content, continuing the tradition they started in the 1930s. It’s also a big country, forming the leading political tandem of the European Union with the French. We can easily explain the fact that Germans may tend to speak better English than the French, since German and English are both West Germanic languages while French, Spanish and Italian are Romance languages. German speakers share many Anglo-Saxon-based roots with English speakers, while French, Italians and Spanish share a lot of Latin-based roots.

It is interesting to see, given these similar roots, how a lot of names have different genders in these languages. The sea is feminine in French (la mer) but masculine in Spanish (el mar) and Italian (il mare). Examples like that are numerous and are the number one source of gentle teasing when one learns a second Latin language.

Casting differences in both parts of Western Europe

Our voice casting is handled very differently depending on whether we cast in the FIGS or in the other European countries.

As mentioned before, there is so much dubbed content in the FIGS that a professional pool of actors can make a living just doing dubbing. In the FIGS, the dubbing actors are professional, which is good for us content creators, as we have a big variety of voices to choose from. This is very interesting for animated content but less true for the live action films. In these countries, dubbing actors often become the “established” voice of one or several American actors. From a dubbing studio standpoint, one can understand that it’s better to hire a very good and experienced actor to dub a given role, as the job will be done faster and will be also cheaper for the studio. The result is that several big American actors can be dubbed by the same actor and consequently have the same foreign voice. The funny thing is that the public still accepts this fact (less and less to be honest) but it has always been a common phenomenon in the FIGS. One could think that the actors’ pools would be big enough there to avoid such a fact, even if in Italy dubbing is done in Rome, Milan and Torino; in Spain in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville; or in Germany in Munich, Berlin and Hamburg. Unfortunately, most of the cities are specialized and local actors’ pools don’t dub the same content. Rome, Berlin and Barcelona are traditionally dubbing features while the other cities dub more TV or games.

France is a special case, thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte, who centralized the country so well that everything is done in Paris!

The other European countries, especially Scandinavian ones, don’t have enough work to maintain a professional pool of dubbing actors. Most of them have other activities and are concentrated in the capitals, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Amsterdam and so on. They can be cinema actors, TV actors or often theater actors. This means that they have a double challenge when they do dubbing. They don’t have much opportunity to practice lip sync so it’s more difficult for them to achieve a perfect sync on screen, especially on a film, as the image is much bigger and any lip sync issue will be more apparent. Their second challenge is their everyday job. As most of what they dub is family entertainment content, and often animated, they have to dub characters with attitudes that are far from what they typically do. I cast some theater actors in Scandinavia for some of our animated characters, and these actors can go from a character in a classical play to a character such as Daffy Duck, which is not an obvious vocal transition. Just for this, I have great respect for these actors, who show a lot of versatility in what they can do in front of a microphone.

Of course, we cannot close this chapter without talking about the different union rules and the absence of actor’s unions in certain countries. These are issues that keep our legal department busy all year long. The difference is huge between France and Italy, where everything follows strict rules, and Germany, where actors’ fees must be negotiated before each project. Actors, dubbing directors and translators represent around 60% of the dubbing cost, and we can see a huge discrepancy all over Europe. France and Germany are at the top of the scale, followed closely by Italy. Below, we find Spain, Holland and Scandinavia with prices that are generally less than half of the French or German prices. With a Scandinavian cost of living being very similar to the French one, we can explain the cost differences because of a much stronger actors union in Paris or Rome, which is helped by the bigger revenues of the French or Italian TV channels. The new trend for the French is to dub a significant amount of TV content in Belgium where the union rules are less constraining for the studio, lowering the cost by approximately 20% compared to Paris. The other countries don’t have the option to dub somewhere else.

Aesthetics in Europe

We now understand that all these countries have different cultures. They don’t have the same relationship with the English language and don’t have the same kind of actors when they dub our movies. But what about the aesthetics, the taste of each country on how a movie should sound?

Let’s start with the voice recording. The recording rooms, the heart of any dubbing studio, vary greatly in size and functionality. All the rooms I visited in Scandinavia were fairly small, which we can easily understand as dubbing is not as common there as it is in the rest of Europe, especially the FIGS. Spain, Italy and Germany generally have bigger rooms, but they are not used the same way. The Germans and the Italians have an assistant director, who, in addition to the sound engineer and the voice director, is in charge of following the script and making sure the actors don’t forget to record a word or a line during the recording session. Because having to recall an actor, even for a single line, has a minimum cost, the studios prefer to make sure everything has been recorded at the end of the session. I always found this a bit redundant, as recording software can count each actor’s words or lines very easily, but many studios still don’t use any of these new tools. Unfortunately, recording software is still too rare in dubbing studios. This is mainly due to the fear of new processes in an already complicated and well-established working environment. All the other countries have only a voice director and an engineer working together during the recording. France, due to the long tradition of using the bande rythmo, uses “auditoriums,” which are huge rooms with a big screen where the actors can read the text while they record. As mentioned in a previous October/November 2012 MultiLingual article, this old system is the ancestor of all of today’s recording software. The French are also used to having everybody in the same auditorium. The sound engineer, the voice director and the actors are all working together in these rooms mainly built for theatrical dubbing. They even mix there, but French studios started to build smaller rooms for the TV content a few years ago, as the price of real estate rose dramatically in Paris.

Hollywood versus Europe

If the goal of dubbing is to recreate a local version that is as close as possible to the domestic version, we could ask what the difference is between Europe and Hollywood in the way dialogues are recorded.

On a live set in Hollywood, dialogues are recorded with a shotgun microphone, which is set to capture sounds from a fairly long distance with a midrange tone, to match the human voice and the perspective of the scene as closely as possible. These microphones very accurately reproduce the human voice and only the human voice, unlike the micro-phones that are widely used for dubbing in Europe. I would say that most of the microphones found in the dubbing studios are “too good” for the job. The Neumann U87, one of the world’s workhorses, is really set to capture an entire orchestra ranging from double bass and timpani to flutes and triangle. When recording a dubbing actor with this kind of microphone, the voice will sound big (like when you see something through a microscope, or when you listen through headphones) and will be very present at the final mix.

If we compare the American mixes to the European mixes of the same movie, the European voice will appear much more present and “in your face” due to the lack of perspective during the recording. This explains why tastes have changed over the years and it’s easy to observe the same in the music industry. American singers are generally more a part of the band, blending more into the mix than the French or Italian singers whose voices are much louder than the orchestra and more present in the final mix.

This phenomenon has led all of the southern European countries to have an aesthetic difference from Northern Europe, where less content is dubbed and where the American mixes can be heard in English with subtitles. The Scandinavians have a taste closer to the Americans because they listen to more American versions than the Southern Europeans, where almost everything is dubbed and mixed according to the local tastes. There is, of course, no right or wrong way to mix a song or a movie, but this is important to take into consideration when we do centralized mixing for all European countries. These differences are minimal as we want to keep a certain consistency across all the countries, but a skilled viewer could detect them easily.

Will Europe agree on localization?

I could bet that the European Union will agree on political issues such as united forces, immigration or external frontiers control before it agrees on localization. As in geopolitics, cultural issues have always been the main driver of recent history, much more than economics, and it will probably be the same in our business.

But even if the French don’t localize the same way the Danish or the Italians do, if the genders are different in one language or the other, if the movies don’t sound exactly similar all over Europe, does this really matter? In the end, all Europeans will enjoy the same movie according to their own local tastes, and for us, this is what is most important.