A Double Take on Dubbing

Nigel J. Ross
Scuola Superiore per Interpreti e Traduttori del Comune di Milano

Translating the dialogues of films for dubbing purposes is a glamorous part of the translation for the media business. Many translators dream of getting the chance to translate the dialogues for a movie that promises to be a big success, and perhaps even for a TV programme that may not get a very wide audience. Translating dialogues of films and TV programmes generally means translating them from English - more specifically from American English - simply because the film and TV market is dominated by the Americans. And this domination of English increases when British, Australian and other English-speaking countries' films and programmes are added to the American material.

It is worthwhile taking a look at the dubbing process from a double viewpoint. Firstly a general overview of the process is useful to highlight how translations for dubbing are actually prepared, who is in involved in the translating process, what language problems arise and what linguistic expedients are employed. Secondly a look at how the intricate task of the dialogue translator can affect the finished, 'dubbed' product will bring to light how the need for synchronized lip movements can actually influence the target language, even to the point of changing or extending meanings of words in the target language, influencing usage and syntax, and so on. Examples will be provided from the Italian language, but clearly a good many of the features noted are also very relevant to other languages, French and Spanish in particular because of their proximity to Italian.

Like it or not, the fact is that the world watches films and programmes that were originally made in English. In some countries they may be shown with subtitles, but very often they are dubbed into the local language. The dubbing process - technically referred to as 'post-synchronous dialogue dubbing'(1) - is a highly skilled technique. The process may involve a number of stages and a number of people. Once an original transcript of the dialogue has been prepared, it may be put into the hands of a translator who will be asked simply to provide a general gist of the dialogues. This first version may then be passed on to a specialist in revising dialogues who will edit the dialogues according to a number of technical requirements. A good dialogue editor will check the translation and then decide exactly which parts of the dialogue must be adapted so that lip movements can be synchronized as best possible. Clearly there is no point in spending time and brainwork on adapting parts of the dialogue when the original actor who is saying the words has his or her back to the public. Likewise if two characters are filmed speaking in the far distance and lip movements are hardly visible, synchronization is much less essential. When adapting dialogues, the first job is to pin-point the close-ups and the dialogue scenes where labial synchronization - or 'labial sync' as those in the profession call it - is required, and then work to make the dialogues fit as best possible so that the dubbers' words will almost appear to be coming from the mouths of the original actors. It is this imaginative re-writing of a translation that is often so important both for a well-dubbed film and for an influence on the target language. The final stage of the dubbing process is, of course, in the hands - or rather the mouths - of the actual dubbers, the director of the dubbing process and the studio technicians, but this is an area that can be more or less ignored at least in this context.

In many ways it is particularly apt that we should look at dubbing in relation to Italy. Apart from the fact that the Italian dubbing industry is one of the world's largest, perhaps the largest, there is a long-standing tradition of dubbing in Italy and it is internationally recognised as having one of the most competent dubbing industries. In the days of silent films, the Italian film industry was one of the most important, specializing in the production of colossal epics. More silent Italian films were exported to America than vice-versa. With the advent of the 'talkies', however, the situation changed, and slowly American movies began to take on the predominance they now have. In the twenties and thirties, however, great impetus was given to the Italian film industry under Mussolini, partly for reasons of propaganda, of course. The Cinecittà studios built in Rome were the largest in Europe and on a par with some of the big Hollywood studios. But for various technical and economic reasons, it was decided not to provide facilities for recording sound while filming at Cinecittà, all sounds being added at a later stage. So alongside incidental music and background noises, actors would dub themselves once the filming had been finished. And in many ways this situation has continued until today. As a result the Italian public has always been used to dubbed voices, and Italian actors are very skilled at handling the dubbing process. Even today, in fact, a good number of Italian films have the soundtrack added only at a later stage.

But leaving aside the history of dubbing and the dubbing of Italian films, it is worth mentioning that not all films and TV programmes may be subject to exactly the same procedure. Big foreign movies that are expected to be great box-office successes and major TV series that are expected to have large audiences will probably go through the various stages involved in the dubbing process, being put successively into the hands of a translator, an editor and a dialogue director as outlined above. In many cases, however, less important films and TV programmes will have a much lower budget and many of the roles listed above might be heaped onto one person. The translator might well be asked to adapt the dialogues for lip movements and even assist in directing the dubbers - this cuts down on costs and time, of course. Unfortunately this might also cut down on quality; an inexperienced translator may be given such a task, slips may go unnoticed and some horrible translations may result. A recent howler that came to notice was the expression "my feet are killing me" translated literally and dubbed into a film more or less word-for-word: the baffled audience obviously had visions of maniac feet likely to attack the poor actor at any moment… the mind boggles!

Avoiding the issue of such faux pas, let's take a closer look at the problems involved in synchronizing lip movements. A dialogue translator or editor must pay special attention to the most visible lip movements, particularly when they come at the beginning of speech segments, and particularly when the actor's lips can be seen in close-up. There are some consonant sounds with very distinct lip movements, the main ones being /m/ /b/ /p/ /f/ and /v/, plus of course /q/. If an actor has a line that begins with a /m/ sound, such as 'May I …', the dubber should also be given a line that also begins with a /m/. And the same goes for the other sounds mentioned. There is a little more leeway with /p/ and /b/ sounds, because although they are very noticeable, they are more or less interchangeable from a labial point of view, so a line beginning with a /p/ sound could easily be dubbed, if necessary, with a line starting with /b/. The same is true for the near-labial equivalents /f/ and /v/. The /q/ sound can, at a pinch, be dubbed with a /t/ /s/ or /z/ sound, especially when the target language does not have /q/ (as is the case of Italian).

As far as vowel sounds are concerned, the translator should try to match closed sounds with closed sounds and open sounds with open sounds, again particularly at the beginning of an actor's line. There is, however, a little more room to manoeuvre with vowels, and a good dubber can sometimes adapt vowel sounds to some extent. It is also very expedient if the number of syllables in a line are as similar as possible in the original and translated version, and mid-line /m/ /b/ /p/ and other crucial lip movements should be matched if the lips are likely to come in for close audience scrutiny.

It may be useful at this stage to look at how a couple of sample expressions might be translated from English into Italian, assuming that the actor is seen in close up and the translated version needs to provide good labial sync. For example, a very common opening is: 'I mean, …' and straightway we come across problems. Normally 'I mean,' would be translated into Italian with Voglio dire (Je veux dire in French) or Cioè (C'est-à-dire in French). But neither of these expressions are very useful labial translations. Voglio dire with five syllables is too long and starts with a /v/ which is visually very different from the original first sounds; likewise cioè is not very suitable because of the initial /te/ sound. However, since the expression 'I mean' is usually used simply to introduce a new point in conversation, it is very often possible to use another opening gambit, such as a questioning ma (mais in French) perhaps introduced by an eh. Therefore a good labial translation of 'I mean, …' could well be 'Eh, ma…', with the literal meaning of 'Ah, but…'. And once in the recording studio, the dialogue director and the dubber must then make sure that the right expression and intonation indicate that no real contradiction is intended.

Another useful example of this basic process can be shown with the common phrase 'I suppose so.' Normal Italian equivalents would be Credo! (from credere, to believe) or Penso di sì (literally, 'I think so'). But when in full audience view, 'I suppose so' has a rather noticeable mid /p/ sound and four syllables; Credo! has only two syllables, Penso di sì is a suitable length and contains a /p/ sound, but it is just the wrong position. Out of the dictionary therefore comes the Italian verb supporre, not used very often for simple confirmation, cropping up more frequently in formal contexts and probably closer in meaning to the English verb 'to presume'. Nevertheless, as it is such a good labial equivalent, it comes in very useful in dubbing, and an actor saying a very visible 'I suppose so.' will probably be dubbed with: Io suppongo di sì. Note how the two versions match beautifully as far as lip movements are concerned. Little does it seem to matter that supporre would not normally be used in such a context and neigher could the pronoun io. It is time to examine the translation and dubbing of pronouns…

Subject pronouns – I, you, he, she, etc. – generally tend to be omitted in Italian, since the verb ending usually gives sufficient information anyway. Therefore it is more usual to hear parlo … rather than io parlo … for 'I speak …'. However, when it comes to dubbing, the pronoun is often included as it can help to match lip movements. Io and 'I' are good matches, as are tu and 'you'. Problems arise with some pronouns, though, most specifically with 'she' which normally is lei in Italian, clearly a poor labial match. An English phrase such as 'She will be taking the train at 4 o'clock.' might be dubbed with something like C'è un treno alle 4 di pomeriggio (literally 'There's a train at 4 in the afternoon). A very visible initial 'she' is frequently dubbed with c'è (there is) as it is quite suitable for labial sync. The fact that the phrase has changed quite dramatically is of less consequence, though feminists could rightly object to this practice.

The above examples give a very brief picture of some of the problems involved in translating and adapting dialogues for dubbing. Many more examples could be given, identifying further 'tricks' a translator or dialogue editor might resort to. At this point, however, it will be more useful to continue on a double kind of level: looking at how lip movements can be matched in the dubbing process, and at the same time widening the scope of this analysis to look at the linguistic consequences of this process.

Good labial equivalents are particularly necessary when short phrases are spoken by an arctor in close up. A one-word expressions such as 'Great!' is a classic example. Typical Italian equivalents in normal speech might be: Magnifico! Meraviglioso! Favoloso! or Splendido! But all of these are useless for labial sync: they all have far too many syllables and/or start with very distinctive sounds. As a result, the most common dubbers' translations for 'Great' are Grandioso! (grand) Grande! (large) - ideal labial matches but not very suitable or natural as Italian expressions. However, Italians have been hearing Grandioso! and Grande! on their screens for so many years now on a near daily basis that they have instinctively begun to use them. They have now more or less become normal, everyday expressions in Italian.

The commonest greeting in English is probably 'Hi' which is dubbed fairly well with Ciao, both very suited to informal contexts. In slightly more formal contexts, however, the English 'Hello' cannot be dubbed very well with the more formal Buon giorno / buona sera alternatives - the open /h/ sound is a long way from the plosive /b/ and the Italian expressions are too long. Consequently, a lot of 'Hello's are covered by Salve, usually not a very common greeting outside the cinema, but definitely being used more and more widely nowadays (it is also used frequently to dub the French greeting Salut, of course). So once again, a term is gaining currency thanks to the influence of dubbing.

A common verb that may be problematic when labial matching is required is the verb 'to call'. While the Italian verb chiamare is a good equivalent for names: 'He's called Jones' - Si chiama Jones, it does not have so many additional uses as in English. The English phrase 'I'll call you tomorrow!' would usually translate into Italian as Ti do un colpo di telefono domani. (fairly literally: I'll give you a telephone call tomorrow.) or Ti telefonerò domani. or even Ci sentiamo domani. (We'll be in touch tomorrow) The Italian equivalents are rather too long, and lip movements are not very close. So, viewers will probably hear a phrase such as Ti chiamo domani! (literally 'I'll call you tomorrow!') which fits rather well, though it would not be the natural expression used in conversation … or would it? The repeated use of the verb chiamare on the screen with the meaning of 'to telephone' is probably the reason why it has recently extended its meaning, and can be heard in fairly general use, especially among younger speakers.

Another verb that can cause problems when labial translation is required is 'to blame' - in fact with its initial /b/ and mid /m/ sounds it can be a real nightmare. And unfortunately it seems to be one of those verbs that occur quite frequently in dramatic scenes when characters are arguing - apparently this is especially true in soap operas where close-ups are the usual routine. Normally the Italian expressions for 'to blame' would be: dare la colpa (to lay the blame), ritenere responsabile or considerare responsabile (to hold responsible) or even accusare (to accuse), but of course these are all unsuitable as labial equivalents. Therefore, the fairly rare verb biasimare is usually pressed into service, even though its meaning is stronger and closer to the English verbs 'to disapprove' or 'to censure'. But nowadays biasimare seems to be shifting its meaning, gaining a wider and a milder use.

A similar shift in meaning towards a wider sense has affected the Italian verb ritornare. While it only used to have a narrow meaning of 'return' in the sense of 'to go back', it is now also used, as in English, to mean 'to give back' or 'to send back', instead of restituire or rimandare. The translation process - probably due both to dubbing as well as a general slackness in written and oral translation - has once again altered the meaning of a word, pushing it towards the English meaning.

So far, we have mainly considered consonant sounds, but vowel sounds can be just as important and just as influential. In his book 'A Mouthful of Air', Anthony Burgess mentions some of the problems involved in dubbing the film 'My Fair Lady' into Italian:

But dubbing has become a very fine art, especially in France and Italy, and an important musical film like My Fair Lady is deemed worthy of total translation. The ingenuity of the Italian version is worth remarking on. The basic Pygmalion situation has no applicability in Italy, where one dialect is as good as another, but there is a phonetic eccentricity in Bari, the raising of /a/ to /e/ - which became the staple of Eliza Doolittle's idiolect. Though there is no aspirate in Italian, the process of teaching the girl to pronounce correctly phrases like 'In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen' was justified by her need to look ahead to accommodate British patrons of her flower shop. … 'Bloody', the climactic expletive of the original play, is replaced by 'arse' in the musical version. Italians use culo on all possible occasions, but the culo of Eliza's speech at Ascot had as devastating an effect on Italian audiences as the British equivalent on the British. …

Culo may mean 'arse', but it does not look like it. A disyllable opening with a back stop consonant /k/ and containing two vowels that have lip rounding (/u/ and /o/) is the translation of a monosyllable with an open spread vowel /a:/. No amount of goodwill in an audience can bridge the gap between what the eye sees and what the ear hears. Very few people can lip-read, but most people are aware of the consonance between the movements of the mouth and the sounds those movements produce. The dubbers of My Fair Lady were lucky in that Eliza shouted at the horse she wanted to win ('Get off your arse, Dover!'), thus distorting her sounds, and was not shot in close-up. She was far enough away from the camera not to invite labial scrutiny. Still, luck cannot often be relied upon.(2)

The typical way that an American or an English person expresses pain is 'Ow!' or 'Ouch!' - basically a very rounded open vowel sound. But the typical way that an Italian expresses pain is Ahi! or Ahia!, with no rounding of the lips. In films, however, the Italian soundtrack will use a less natural utterance such as Ohi! for labial reasons. Another example of vowel matching can be seen with the ever-present English opening gambit 'Well, …'. It often translates with allora, but of course the vowel sounds do not match; consequently, the usual labial translation is (an abbreviation of bene, 'well'), a fairly successful compromise. However, 'well' is used by all social classes of English speakers, but the shortened Italian would normally be shunned by upper-class Italian speakers, except of course on the screen. And as a result seems to be shifting its usage, gaining a wider usage.

The mentioning of 'arse' (or 'ass') a little while back leads on to a large category of words that have felt the influence of dubbing - swear words. In real life and on the screen, swear words are generally pronounced loudly, distinctly and very visibly, and on the screen close-ups are usually employed in scenes where strong language is being used to increase involvement and tension. Consequently swear words need to be dubbed very accurately. But once again a close analysis reveals that there are frequent labial mis-matches in this area. Without going into great detail - not least for the sake of decorum - it is sufficient to point out that the multi-purpose English swear-word, the 'F-word', is now gaining ground in some Italian expressions in its Italian translation - which, surprise, surprise, also starts with a wonderfully useful /f/.(3)

Word order is another area where English is influencing Italian, and dubbing is at least partly responsible because of the continuous quest for good labial equivalents. In Romance languages, adjectives usually go after nouns, and Italian is no exception, though occasionally a very common adjective may be placed in front of a noun for effect or for metaphorical usage. However, more and more examples are being found in Italian today of adjectives being put before a noun for no specific reason. Many purists object to this phenomenon, realising it is just another influence of English. A recent letter in Italy's top newspaper, the 'Corriere della Sera', protested about this trend, referring to it as a "rather too English influence"(4) This adjective-noun word order is particularly frequent when an Italian phrase relates closely to an English phrase. Examples heard recently include una veloce analisi (a quick analysis), qualche reale intenzione (any real intention), un'incredibile bellezza (an incredible beauty), delle fresche idee (fresh ideas) and le pubbliche relazioni (public relations). It must be reiterated that in the field of word order, there are probably a number of factors at work, dubbing being just one influence, but by no means an inconsequential one.

A last area where dubbing has actually influenced the Italian language is pronunciation. The pronunciation of proper names provides blatant examples of this phenomenon. Whereas in the past, Italian was more likely to follow the French pattern for pronouncing foreign names, now the English pronunciation is usually more common. In the past, 'Canada' and 'Florida' had their accents on the last and middle syllables respectively, now they both follow the English pattern with a stress on the first syllable.(5) Likewise, 'taxi' has shifted its stress from the last to the first syllable. Vice versa, the name 'Nobel', as in the expression premio Nobel, has seen the stressed syllable move from the first to the last syllable. Names such as 'Waterloo' or 'Titanic' are now more likely to sound like the way an English speaker would say them (despite the fact that Waterloo is a foreign name in English!). And ironically, the word 'junior' is now nearly always pronounced as in English, even though it is of course a Latin word and was probably originally pronounced with an initial /j/ sound.

A good part of this process of changing pronunciation can be ascribed to dubbing. In fact, when a film or TV programme is actually being dubbed in a studio, the actors who are there to add the new voices will watch a silent version of the section they are working on, but hear the original (English) soundtrack over headphones. It is clearly very useful to be able to hear the original version as it helps with the matching of voices. But hearing the English while dubbing the new soundtrack also encourages the actors to reproduce some of the sounds and the stress patterns of the English pronunciation, particularly when words are similar in both languages.

This brief look at the dubbing process has merely scratched the surface of the problems involved, the solutions employed and the influences emerging. And this brief analysis has only considered Italian, while the phenomenon is clearly very relevant to very many other languages. This is an area where influences are difficult to pin-point as they tend to be so very subtle, though they can also be quite consequential. Quite what the eventual overall consequences might be is a question open to speculation. Is this a sign of a coming together of languages throughout the world? Does it mean that languages are becoming debased? Is it simply a natural phenomenon that can be observed but need not be criticised? Is it just another example of 'linguistic imperialism'? This is not the place to answer these questions, it is simply the right context to suggest that dubbing should be seen in a double light. The actual process should be examined from the point of view of the complexity and techniques involved in providing suitable translations, but the influence that this process can have is a second, very important area that should not be ignored.


  1. Bobker, Lee R. (1974) Elements of Film, 2nd edition, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (page 89).
  2. Burgess, Anthony (1992) A Mouthful of Air, London, Vintage (pages 29-30).
  3. for a more detailed description of this aspect and others, see: Ross, Nigel J. (1995) Dubbing American in Italy, in 'English Today' no. 41, January 1995, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  4. letter to 'Corriere della Sera', 27th April 1994, entitled Quell'inflenza un po' troppo inglese.
  5. Gabrielli, Aldo (1977) Il museo degli errori, Milan, Oscar Mondadori (pages 47-48).

   Paper presented at the First International Intercultural Communication Symposium: Translation and the Media, 14-16 November 1994, Université Abdelmalek Essaadi, Ecole Supérieure Roi Fahd de Traduction, Tangiers, Morocco.




English Lang.

Art Insights