For Anglo-Saxons, the concept of dubbing can carry with it a comical stigma, bringing to mind the martial arts movies, horror flicks and softcore porn films of the ’70s, where the lip movements of the actors hardly matched the (usually flat and booming) voices coming out of the screen. At the Cannes film festival—where all films must be presented in their original language, with French subtitles—it is unthinkable. But dubbing is for many cultures a matter of fact, and helps ensure films reach wider audiences.
Animation is roundly dubbed, and, even in America, audiences are used to that—think of the works of Hayao Miyazaki. But live-action is too in most offshore markets, and particularly for prints released outside major cities. In Paris, for example, it’s easy to find a Hollywood movie in VOST (original version with subtitles), but head to the provinces and you’ll hear French actors lending their voices to the screen. This doesn’t faze audiences, who have grown up with dubbed TV series from the U.S. and other markets, but it may surprise them to know that in some cases, it’s the original actor translating their own text.
Stars who have dubbed themselves in other languages are more common than one might think, including Jodie Foster, Antonio Banderas, Christoph Waltz, Salma Hayek and Danny DeVito (more on him later). But one of the more prolific is Daniel Brühl, star of Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 World War II yarn Inglourious Basterds—for which he did his own voice work in German and Spanish.
Born in Barcelona and raised in Cologne, Brühl is unusual in that he speaks fluent Spanish, German and French, having started out as a professional voice actor at the age of eight. When he was 15, Brühl was recommended to an agency for kids and began getting regular work as an actor. “I dubbed all sorts of things,” he recalls, “including a lot of very trashy films—dubbing Jackie Chan in his worst B-movies and C-movies. But I always loved the Asian and Jackie Chan movies, because most of it was just ‘Ooh-ahh-ooh’—some fighting, you know? And then only a couple of lines, which was always easy money.”
After breaking out in 2003’s Goodbye Lenin!, he became one of German cinema’s biggest stars, returning to voice work only briefly, with the German-language dub of Disney’s Cars (2006). “I was Lightning McQueen,” he laughs. But he continued to dub his own roles, though he calls it a very demanding task to “recreate that energy and that quality and that passion in the movie, and to translate that and make it as good as it was in the original … It’s nice to see that sometimes you can even improve certain things in your own performance.”
He points to his role as Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s Rush (2013), for which he received a lot of compliments from Austrians because, even in the German dub, he maintained an Austrian accent. “Which is very different to my own,” he notes, “but it was then even more authentic and believable for the Austrians.”
The subtleties are important, says Brühl. “When you dub in different languages you can play with the strings and the different qualities. And you cannot even [totally] control it because, by itself, Spanish dubbing will always sound a bit more passionate, the German always sounds cold and drier, and, well, you know French … ”
Professional voice actors often become very closely identified with the stars they dub. For every Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson or Harrison Ford, there is a local-language counterpart who generates their own share of excitement. Brühl mentions Christian Brückner, a prolific German voice actor who does Robert De Niro.
“I remember dubbing a film when I was 15,” he says, “and he was next door. I heard his voice and, of course, I thought, ‘Shit, Robert De Niro’s in there! What’s he doing here? Why the hell is he in Cologne?’ It’s so weird. In a few cases I would say they have really managed to find fantastic equivalents.”
Because there are so many nuances between languages, dubs are not straight translations from the original English, and the writers who do the actual adaptations of the language are, along with voice actors, some of the unsung heroes of the business. It takes a very keen sense of linguistics to be able to make not only the meaning fit, but also the timing.
Brühl says he generally provides input. “Especially when it comes to swear words,” the actor enthuses.
“Some German translations are just far too long and harmless and sound stupid. English is ideal, because a lot can be said in short sentences, just with a few words, whereas in German you need three times as much, and to adapt it can be quite tricky. I love to be involved and change it if necessary.”
Although Brühl says he’d prefer to see a film in its original version, he believes dubbing is important. “Some films wouldn’t have a chance to be seen in the countryside unless you dub them,” he reasons.
And although it’s more expensive, dubbing also opens up extra marketing avenues. Slotting a famous local star into a main role and having them out on the red carpet can help; so too can giving a small voice part to an influencer who will then promote the film to their followers.
In what turned out to be a savvy marketing hook borne out of what he thought would be an interesting challenge, Danny DeVito did the dub for his lead role in Illumination’s The Lorax (2012)—in Russian, German, Italian, Catalan and Castilian Spanish, despite the fact that he speaks none of those languages.
“It was kind of a crazy thing,” he recalls. “I was speaking to the producer and they were telling me about it coming out in various places … and I just said, ‘I wonder if I could do any of the international voices myself?’” He chose to do Russian first (“For some reason I thought that would be the most difficult”) and did a test, working the words out phonetically. “To keep the energy that we have in the original, you had to make some little adjustments here and there,” he remembers, “but we got going and it wasn’t bad. It took a lot longer than I imagined, but it was fun.”
DeVito says he thinks he got “pretty close” with the Russian, “Like, if you live in Moscow, I have a southern accent,” he explains. “I got pretty close with Italian, really close with the two Spanish. German was more difficult, but it was so satisfying when it got close.” Working with two coaches in each language, DeVito says the process was exhilarating but daunting. After finishing the Russian version, he says, “I had the feeling of what it must be like when people say they want to climb Mount Everest. They get to that plateau where people don’t go any farther—you get up to that spot and you go, ‘Holy sh-tballs, am I really doing that?’ Once you finished Russian it felt like you needed to lie down and have somebody spoonfeed you ice cream. Doing the movie was a piece of cake compared to this, but it was so much fun and so rewarding.”
DeVito also found a new respect for voice actors. “I have a lot of respect for them,” he says, “and [they can] rest assured that I’m not going to do it again.” Illumination’s Brett Hoffman, who was script and recording supervisor on The Lorax, says of DeVito’s achievement, “It was an amazing feat to watch.”
Hoffman also points out that Despicable Me director Pierre Coffin routinely redubs specific “Minionese” cognates, which are meant to be understood in the local parlance. But, because he makes up the language, he will also need to redub sounds that are unknowingly too similar to offensive words in other tongues. “Universal International Dubbing will give him guide tracks or suggestions for safe replacements in those cases,” says Hoffman.
Other high-profile multi-dubbers include Banderas, who did the various Spanish-language versions of his character in DreamWorks Animation’s Puss in Boots, including a Latin-American Spanish take for Mexico, Central and South America; and versions for Spain in Castilian and Catalan (he also did multiple versions for Puss’s appearance in Shrek 2, 3 and 4). According to DreamWorks’ head of post-production Jim Beshears, Banderas wanted to do Puss because it was his favorite character he’s ever done, “and for his audience in Spain and Latin America, he wanted to deliver that performance for that character to that audience”. Hayek similarly re-voiced her role as Kitty Softpaws several times, and so did Guillermo del Toro as Commandante.
When the original actor can do a foreign language version it’s a positive, says Beshears. “Actors are brands,” he notes, “and they know they need to burnish the brand—and if they really love the characters, they jump in there and do it.”