A few years ago, my friend Rubén Arvizu wrote a book in Spanish called ¿De Quién es la Voz que Escuchas? (Whose Voice Are You Listening To?). He had the idea of interviewing me and published our discussion in his book. We were talking about our passion for dubbing, our biggest challenges and the future of localization. I had no idea that I would later write an entire article about this very subject.
Spanish dubbing is a huge part of what we do at Warner Bros., and the reason is very simple: we distribute our content in both Spain and Latin America. Knowing that we dub for Spain and Latin America, you will already know that we have more than 20 countries that speak the same language but encompass completely different cultures.
As explained earlier in past articles, for me dubbing is the adaptation of an original content to a culture, not only to a language. This article will cover a brief history of dubbing in Spain and Latin America, and how we constantly solve this complicated equation: dubbing in Spanish . . . great, but which Spanish?
Like its neighbors in France, Italy and Germany, local versions are created in Spain for most TV programs and films. This is in part due to an order from the dictator Francisco Franco saying: “It is forbidden to project films in any language that is not Spanish.” His reason was obviously political but without acknowledging it, he forced the Spanish to create dubs that were really adapted to the Spanish culture instead of just translating American movies (and ideas) in Spanish. This kind of censorship was obviously not a good thing, but the concept of adaptation to the Spanish culture is nonetheless what we promote for our movies. The language used by the dubbing talent was obviously Castilian, as Franco wanted to keep Spain as unilingual as possible to eradicate the other local languages such as Basque or Catalan.
Well, after all these years, it is interesting to notice that it is the reconciliation of the soccer players speaking Castilian and Catalan that made it possible for Spain to become World Champion in 2010. It is recognized by the sport experts that despite the fact that Spain had two super European teams with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, the national Spanish team was regularly losing against other countries. Everything changed when the players from Madrid speaking Castilian and the players from Barcelona speaking Catalan forgot their diverging political opinions and cultural differences to really become a team. The choice of Castilian or Catalan was in this case not only cultural but highly political.
In 1998, Warner Bros. released the widely dubbed Quest for Camelot animated movie. As a family film, we dubbed it in more than 25 languages and Spain was obviously no exception. For the role of the two-headed dragon, Devon and Cornwell, we hired Juan Fernandez and Anton G. Moral, a well-known comical duo in Spain. They had a great time rewriting jokes for the domestic version, which is why they were hired in the first place, so the jokes were really specific to Castilian culture. This movie was a great success in Spain, but could not really be shown in other Spanish-speaking countries due to this cultural localization.
Spain is one of our most important dubbing countries and we started an accelerated process last year that allows Spanish viewers to watch popular TV programs such as The Mentalist, Person of Interest or Dallas in a Castilian version just a few days after the US release. Spain is the “avant-garde” of our localized territories right now and it’s only justice for such a historic dubbing country.
One of our biggest challenges in Spain is to cast high-pitched voices impersonating young characters. I remember a trip to Madrid when we launched the Powerpuff Girls for Cartoon Network. As we all know, practically everyone smokes in Europe and in Spain maybe more than the other countries. As we also know, smoke has an effect on the vocal cords and the result is that most of the actresses have a much lower pitch compared to the rest of the world. This can be attractive for singers but makes it difficult for dubbing actresses to get a youthful, small voice. Casting for the Powerpuff Girls was a nightmare, as I couldn’t find high-pitched voices without some sort of gravel in the throat that made them sound older. I eventually found the right voice talent, but we didn’t have this problem in Mexico as it’s much easier to find this kind of voice there.
Castilian localization doesn’t conflict anymore with the emergence of the other most important local language, Catalan. Being French, I was always pleased when in Barcelona I could understand (or should I say could guess) much more Catalan than Castilian. Many Catalan words are common with the French language and the accent makes it easier to follow. This is due to the fact that historically, Catalan and Occitan (spoken in the south of France) were quite close due to cultural exchanges.
We started dubbing films in Catalan (in addition to Castilian) a few years ago and it has been well received by the public. This has always been an interesting creative challenge for us as Catalan is often shorter than other Latin languages. As a rule of thumb, a literally translated text is approximately 20% longer in Latin languages (French, Italian and Spanish) than in English. It’s not the case in Catalan as words are often shorter. Tiempo in Castilian or tempo in Italian will translate to temps in Catalan. This missing syllable is going to have an influence on the lip sync that is so critical in dubbing. Even if very close to the Castilian, the adaptation has to be rethought in Catalan to match the lip sync of the movie. Our translators often have to completely change their adaptation to fit the actor’s lip motion.
After this small European tour of Spanish languages, we must visit a much bigger territory: North, Central and South America with 20 countries speaking Spanish — the vast majority of Latin American countries. These countries speak a Spanish language that is not Castilian, and is certainly not Catalan, but is defined today as Latin American Spanish, which can also vary between Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and so on.
When we dub our movies in Latin America, most of the time we use what we call neutral Spanish to avoid strong localized expressions or vocabulary specific to one country or another. In Latin America, there is a big difference between films and TV programs. Only a handful of movies are dubbed and the rest are subtitled. TV programs are almost completely dubbed in neutral Spanish, as Warner Bros. distributes programming to 55 TV stations in 20 countries. This includes live action shows and animation programs. Following the same logic, the films dubbed are the ones that appeal to a younger audience as it’s obvious that the kids cannot, or have a hard time, reading subtitles. The first dubbing country in Latin America (historically and by order of importance) is Mexico. They started very early (in the 1940s) and did a good job creatively, especially in animation dubbing. The dubbing industry is well developed there, with an actors’ union, several dubbing studios and a good pool of actors, which makes the broadcasting of dubbed programs seamless in other Latin American countries.
We can see for the last ten years an emergence of dubbing studios in Venezuela, Argentina and Chile. These countries can also do a great job dubbing TV or films but the issue is always the same: the pool of dubbing actors. As mentioned in my October/November 2012 article in MultiLingual, “Language dubbing for emerging markets,” you need a lot of good actors to dub a large volume of programming, and the training can take several years. The language could also be an issue, as these countries are not so used to speaking neutral Spanish and can have problems of acceptance in the other audiences.
Argentina is an interesting case, as Argentineans have a noticeable accent but also use some local expressions. On rare occasions, several Hollywood studios tried to create specific Argentinean film versions.
In Spain, we can localize to the Spanish culture, but in Latin America, we need to localize to 20 cultures. At this point, using neutral Spanish is certainly the first step, but it’s not enough. In 2008, my colleagues from the Warner Bros. theatrical marketing group decided to create a special Mexican version of Get Smart. The reason was that in the 1960s, Maxwell Smart, the secret agent, was dubbed in Mexico by Jorge Arvizu, a famous dubbing actor in the series called El Super Agente 86. We called the two brothers (Ruben for the dialogue adaptation and Jorge for the voice) to recreate the Maxwell Smart character. They had a lot of fun with translating and dubbing this film and recreated a lot of jokes used in the TV series more than 40 years ago. The movie had an incredible opening in Mexico, which was normal as Jorge is Mexican, but also had a big success in Argentina and the other Latin American countries. The reason is that the translation and the jokes were obviously Mexican but done in such a way that the other countries could also appreciate them.
This shows that even if all the countries in Latin America don’t have the same culture, the same sense of humor, or even the same historical relationship with the American TV or films, we can always do a translation with some humor that can be appreciated by everyone. If you make a joke about the president of Mexico, the Mexicans will laugh but the Venezuelans or the Argentineans will probably not get it or not find it so amusing, the result being that the translators have to be very careful with the use of it in their jokes. Nevertheless, for the other genres, such as action or historical movies, a neutral translation is much easier to create as the subject doesn’t have to be specifically localized for each country.
The cartoon culture in Spain and Latin America
Cartoons, and especially Looney Tunes, have always been considered the crown jewel of Warner Bros. Rightly so, since these cartoons (approximately 700) have been localized in a lot of countries and their success is worldwide. This is perhaps an exception to the rule of localizing to a culture.
It is pretty well known that the Mexican audience and surrounding neighbors love cartoons. Latin Spanish actors are excellent with the voice characterization and the animated product seems to fit them like a glove. Their sense of humor goes along well with the exaggeration and over-acting needed to recreate these crazy characters. It was so well done, in fact, that a lot of Mexican-dubbed Looney Tunes made it to Spanish TV. Of course, the voice characterization is so pushed to the extreme that it is difficult to detect an accent when an actor dubs Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck. Their voice placement makes the dubbing almost universal. Of course, one of the most famous characters, Speedy Gonzales, is Mexican, and his famous “¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!” is probably more entertaining for Mexicans than it is for the Spanish.
Looney Tunes were also dubbed in Castilian and for a little while the two versions cohabitated on Spanish TV. By the same token and for the same reason, some old Latin Spanish Hanna-Barbera cartoons dubbed in Mexico years ago are still broadcast on Spanish cable and according to my colleagues there, the kids love them.
Influence of Spanish language on US TV
For a few years, we have seen an emergence of Spanish expressions, Spanish accents or Latin American culture on US TV shows. Handy Manny is a kids’ show about the adventures of a handyman who can speak Spanish. He speaks mainly English in his US town, but from time to time uses short and easy-to-understand Spanish expressions. This teaches American kids a few Spanish sentences and familiarizes them with the Latin American culture. Another example is The George Lopez Show, the same concept but in live action where George speaks English with a Mexican accent and doesn’t hesitate to use some Spanish sentences. One can argue that California was Mexican 100 years ago and the Mexican culture is more present there (California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico) than in any other part of the country, but the East Coast is also exposed to the Spanish language from the Caribbean culture. Miami has become the Spanish hub in terms of language and culture for the eastern side of the United States. These cultural exchanges can also explain why it’s much easier for us to find young actresses who understand a valley girl attitude (typical Los Angeles teenager attitude that Cartoon Network uses a lot in its cartoons) in Mexico than anywhere else. The actors and actresses are exposed to American TV and get the right attitude much quicker than the rest of the world.
Future of dubbing in Spain and Latin America
The situation in each territory is a bit different. Spain is already dubbing almost everything coming from the United States, so it will continue this way. Catalan dubbing will continue to grow, as the Catalan government wants to help the local dubbing industry and retain the language. The economic situation in Spain will be determinant as everyone knows that a dubbed version is much more expensive than a subtitled version.
Latin America dubbed more movies last year than the previous year and this year will be no different. The number of dubbed films will continue to grow, as the majors want to target the largest audience possible. We may see some movies dubbed for specific Latin American countries but this will probably remain rare.
As for us at Warner Bros., we’ll continue to try to be as neutral and accurate as possible to make our product compatible in all Latin American countries. Maybe dubbing will even help the cultural and political future of this huge part of the American continent. Only time will tell.