Untertiteln : Subtitles
My first sojourns into Europe were to Sweden, the Netherlands and then France. France was really just a few weeks with a family near Limoges as a school exchange, so that hardly counts. But in Sweden and Holland I got to watch some TV and it was in English, there were subtitles in Swedish (or Dutch, as the case may be, “foreign” anyway) but British and U.S. shows were pretty much part of the schedule and I think its one of the reasons why the citizens of those nations speak such frighteningly good English. So when I came to Germany I was pretty much expecting this to be at least halfway the case. It is absolutely not so. There is a whole industry dedicated to dubbing foreign (English) language films and TV series into German. The only exceptions seem to be French films (they’re all art, of course) and Monty Python.
As I said, there’s a massive industry doing this and the same actor will be dubbed by the same person every time – hey, I didn’t say it wasn’t professional. This can lead to the situation of driving along in the car listening to an advert on local radio; “Why is the man advertising a tiny, local financial planning company making all those spy/luxury yacht/gun references?” you’ll ask, “Because he’s James Bond”, you’ll be told. After staring at the person who made this ridiculous statement for several minutes, she’ll go on to scream “Watch out for that truck!” and then explain that it’s the man who does the voice for Pierce Brosnan. Obvious really.
I remember the first time I actually tried to watch German TV proper. I’d tried to watch the news to improve my vocabulary (there’s always a little picture in the corner behind the newsreader’s head, so you can guess what the story’s about) – it only meant I picked up words like “Bombenanschlag” and “Bundeshaushaltsreformdebatte” before I’d learnt the German for “I’d like a loaf of bread, please”. Anyway, the first film I watched was “Luftschlacht um England” / “The Battle of Britain“, I’d seen it often enough before and for some reason it seems to be on WDR at least four times a year. I switched on a little late, at the scene where France has fallen and Reichsmarschall Goering is inspecting his victorious pilots somewhere near Calais, and they’re eating a sumptuous dinner and speaking German (fair enough, as far as I know they may even do so in the original) and Goering looks through a pair of binoculars at the white cliffs of Dover. The film then cuts to a British airfield where, oh I don’t know, Kenneth More and Michael Caine (say) are having a smoke, then suddenly they start to speak, IN GERMAN! Oh it was truly and horrendously disturbing. I had to make a quick little mental check about the actual outcome – I like happy endings – before I could eventually sit and watch the rest of the film, but it was just wrong.
Okay, that was just strange for me personally, but everything is dubbed. Perhaps least understandably in a nation where so many people can speak English, comedy is dubbed, this must be incredibly hard to do and it shows. You can get away with dubbing the Simpsons and it still works (well I enjoy watching it – but I enjoy the visual puns in the background as much as what is spoken), but anything with word play tends to get mangled. Obviously a lot depends on the team that does it, but, and here’s an idea, why not just use subtitles? Even if it’s just for Seinfeld? Seinfeld should not speak German. It’s just not right. But perhaps explains why it was so unpopular here that it got relegated to the 1:30 a.m. slot.
Added: Something that Heiko in particular picks up in the comments. Seinfeld isn’t funny in German. It just doesn’t translate. I’m sure that German TV executives paid a fortune for it on the back of its success in the US, although just about anyone who’d watched the show would have been able to say “that’s not gonna work in German”. Yet there must surely be a large enough niche market for original programming to show Seinfeld in English.
As an aside, every sixth edition of Harry Potter 6 sold in Germany was in English. Yes, the English edition was released in advance, but there is a market there. It might just be 5 or 10% of the population, but in today’s fragmented media world, that’s actually quite a lot. And you can bet that fluent English speakers aren’t in the lowest earning quartile. Hmm. Maybe I should think about starting my own TV station. Any venture capitalists out there?
Song playing as this was published: Elin Sigvardsson – “Papercup Words”