German Word For The Day

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”


A shy, retiring recluse with the overwhelming desire to tell the world all about himself....

Posted in Language & Lit, Ze Tjermans
31 comments on “German Word For The Day
  1. This might be shockingly superficial of me – and it says a lot about my lack of real hobbies – but at times when I’ve considered working in Germany I’ve always been put off by the thought of having to watch English-language sit-coms in German. But now that the heyday of the sit-com appears to have passed, and I’m currently living without a TV, anyway, then perhaps it’s time to find a new excuse reconsider.

  2. Karl says:

    My wife and I have watched every Seinfeld episode at least twice, that’s how my wife because accustomed to that dark NY humor that oftentimes breaks out into the mainstream. Every episode we would debate how you would say that in German and most of the time we couldn’t. So I was surprised when I came over here and heard that they Seinfeld in German. Only later did I realize that redid the whole dialog. That would have been an excellent candidate for subtitles, like Monty Python.

  3. David: It’s easy enough. One just buys a Sky box when in Britain (they aren’t allowed to export them), put it in suitcase, fly to Germany. Get satellite dish and move it from pointing at the German satellite to 28.2°E. For the first week you’re so delirious at the concept of English-language tv you even watch Ricky Lake.

    Karl: Seinfeld was the worst example I could think of, although some of the stuff on MTV is horribly bad, when they retain about a quarter of the words because they’re American and cool.
    “Wassup niggaz?” Replied to with a few German words and then, “bro”.

  4. christina says:

    It’s especially bad when you get good at lip reading (I’m pretty competent, after 15 years here) and know what they’ve actually said in English as opposed to the German translation. You’re right. Comedy is the worst.

    Anyone know the reason for the lack of subtitles? Wouldn’t they be cheaper than hiring actors?

  5. Simon says:

    I agree with you. Being a german and knowing the original series (thanks to the Internet) I prefer to watch them in english. Things like Family Guy, Coupling (UK) or Gilmore Girls (yes, I love it) can’t be translated properly and I learn that everytime I watch them translated. It’s a pity that there aren’t more series just subtitled, in countries like Sweden where they don’t have the money to dub every movie people speak much better english, but for german idiots you even hav to translate an englisch title to another english title (Mean Girls -> Girls Club), it’s a shame.

  6. See, Seinfled is Jewish. Most clever American comedy owes a great debt to the wryness of Jewish Humor (cf woody allen and, of course, Friends). Aren’t yiddish and german quite similar? I would imagine it would translate very well.

  7. christina: I can’t lip-read, despite the almost ten years, but I often find that I can take the German dubbing translate it back literally and work out what the word-play gag would have been in English. I don’t know who does the translations, but far too often it’s word for word, rather than getting a comedy writer to follow the basic idea, but make it actually funny in German. Just about anything shown on the private senders between 18:00 and 22:00 is like this. And it’s not that I dislike German comedy per se, Anke Engelke is good when she sticks to stand-up, for example, Harald Schmidt can be hilarious.

    Simon: A first time commenter? Welcome. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily money. I’m sure the UK could afford to dub foreign media, but no one would watch it. “Why aren’t their lips moving properly?” people would ask. I can only think of two German examples Das Boot which I remember watching as a six parter on BBC2 in the early 1980s was, naturally, with subtitles, although IMDB says a dubbed version exists, the other was, bizarrely, Schwarzwaldklinik, which Channel 4 ran a series or two of (again subtitled), before quietly dropping it.

  8. EasyJetsetter: Yes, linguist, they’re very connected, in fact I find Jiddish very disconcerting to listen to on the grounds of knowing an awful lot of seemingly random words in a sentence. But isn’t the humour more of a reflection of culture, and having a German identity is probably quite different than a Jewish identity (whichever country one is in).

  9. Heiko Hebig says:

    Is Seinfeld a very successful show in Germany? Nope. You wonder why? Because it’s humor doesn’t translate well. Why is South Park not a smash hit in Germany and also shown past midnight? Because it just doesn’t work in German.

    What I don’t get: instead of subtitles, there actually is a system that gives you a choice between the dubbed version and the original language (Zweikanalton). But ony few stations offer it, and it’s usually only offered for “artsy” movies. I think the reason is actually that the German rights to blockbuster movies are sold in German only – to ensure that, say, our Dutch neighbors don’t tune in.

  10. Heiko: Re: The cost of the rights. Good point, and one I should have mentioned – it’s certainly why those cheap DVDs in Aldi only have the German Tonspür. On the other hand, and yes I know, larger market etc. But what about all the German people who can watch sub-titled English language media from Holland, Belgium, Czech Republic etc. – I know that my local cable carrier has a Swiss channel which shows English “Blockbuster” films in Zweikanalton.

    As for Zweikanalton, it’s great except in one particular case – on Arte there’s one particular spot where the screen is split and the same man reads a text on one side in French, on the other in German. As these are both foreign languages to me, the lips are only ever synched to one language (depending on which channel I choose), I don’t know why exactly, but something about it overloads my brain, it freaks me out to watch it. I’m sure that if I watched it in “stereo” i.e. with French from one loudspeaker side and German from the other, my head would explode.

  11. BiB says:

    Another mystery of subtitles, for me, is that aren’t the dubbed-film-watchers annoyed at not hearing the original voice? Even if the viewer doesn’t understand the original language, one still appreciates the type of voice, and like does not necessarily dub like. From the more personal point of view, I must say that, just occasionally, one is so gagging to hear the old native tongue and it’s so heartbreaking to see John Thaw, say, yet not hear the lulling lilt. I also agree that Germans are missing out on a great source of free foreign language classes. Any Dane I know tells me, in deliciously good English, that they are sure the reason they speak such excellent English is from hearing the language from such an early age with Muti or Vati reading the subtitles to them.

  12. Kevin says:

    I remember sitting in a movie theater in Hamburg and a dubbed trailer for U-571 (Allies capture Nazi U-Boat, do something heroic with it) came on the screen. In what was obviously supposed to be one of the most climactic moments of the trailer — they’ve seized the sub, and are taking heavy fire from someone, but the crewmembers can only stare dumbly at the rows of gauges and controls as the ship shakes.

    “What’s wrong?” the captain-type shouts. “We can’t read these — they’re all in German! yells back one of the crew … in German. And then the whole theater bursts into laughter.

    So much for maintaining an air of action and suspense …

  13. christina says:

    actualfactual – oh yes, I was only complaining about dubbed comedy. Regular German comedy is getting better all the time. I particularily like Bully Parade and Schillerstrasse, which BTW has now been sold to N. American stations. I wonder how they’re going to deal with the translation there?

  14. well, that’s easy, they’ll just fire all the actors, re build the sets to be more “wealthy” looking, and get screenplay writers to surgically remove all the charm and sophistication, put it on Bravo and then blame the Germans for writing unfunny comedies when it’s a giant flop. Look at The Office and Coupling and Queer as Folk and so on.

  15. JCS says:

    After spending seven years in the US, adjusting to dubbed shows on German TV was one of the more annoying things. The New York accent of Seinfeld’s George and L&O’s Lenny Briscoe was gone, ER’s Peter Benton was suddenly not sounding “black” anymore and John Cleese’s characters were speaking in a terribly boring voice.

    As I pointed out to ChicagoKarl a few weeks back, many times the dubbing companies are cheating in some way. In Die Hard the terrorist is called Jack in the German version (Hans in the original) and in the 80s Sam Malone’s character in Cheers was made into a football player (ex-Red Sox in the original). While these obvious bad changes are a thing of the past, often references to local (pop) culture, politics etc. are altered beyond recognition.

    The problem is that many Germans can speak some English, but the overwhelming majority of them will simply not get puns like the famous dialogue from Goldfinger: “Hi, I’m Pussy Galore.” – “I must be in heaven.” Dubbing is about audiences being lazy and unwilling to find out about unknown expressions, looking up cultural references and learning idiomatic phrases.

    The Sony Centre here in Berlin shows films in original English versions. That’s pretty much the only film theatre I visit.. If I only could get them to prohibit smoking in the lobby.


  16. Heiko Hebig says:

    If we want our children to speak English as well as our Dutch/Swedish/Polish neighbors do, we must stop dubbing. It’s that easy. But are Germans ready for such a drastic shift? I doubt it.

  17. Don’t forget Heimat – that was on British TV (with subtitles). Well, the first couple of series of it were, at least; I don’t know about the others. I also remember watching Derrick and another German detective series – a man with a big moustache whose name started with an ‘S’ and finished, I think, with a Polish-style ‘-ski’. Perhaps those two series are best forgotten, after all, though!

  18. Heiko Hebig says:

    Tatort? Schimanski?

  19. Yves says:

    This is a subject that is very near to my heart. I consider myself lucky to be born in a country (or at least region) where the TV audience is just not big enough to dub everything into the local language (I always thought this was the reason for not dubbing). Even if it wasn’t mentioned in your post or in any of the comments, in this region of mine, children absorb 3 to 4 foreign languages from the moment they start watching TV. It is definately a big advantage in the employment market.
    Living in France now, I am becoming increasingly frustrated that there are hundreds of TV channels on offer, showing all I want to see but butchered by dubbing. So, I just don’t bother and stick to DVD’s or downloading from the internet.
    I have been known to watch Friends episodes in places like Germany or Austria and just turning of the sound and playing the soundtrack in my head. Of course, that only works when you’ve seen every episode 10 times.

  20. Kevin: yeah, that would have made me laugh too!

    BiB: It’s the subtleties of the original voice that I want to hear – even if I’m watching a Japanese film and my knowledge of the language extends to being able to ask where the train station is – I still want to hear the original tones/voices.

    Heiko:Are Germans ready for such a drastic shift?” Well I’m not sure what percentage of Britons watch foreign language film (and foreign language skills are much lower in the UK than in Germany) but the minority that do (I’m thinking average BBC2 or Channel 4 viewer here) expect films to be subtitled and would be outraged if Die Manns, Heimat, Das Boot, Amelie, whatever were dubbed. I’m sure there are great swathes of the population (said the snob) who are quite happy to watch Eastenders and leave that foreign rubbish alone though…

  21. Yves: Dude!
    Look, you can try and talk up the advantages of being born in the Flemish-speaking bit of Belgium all you want, but in the end the advantage is high quality beer isn’t it? That and a few cycling greats. Okay, and mussels, yes and good chips.

  22. Yves says:

    Actualfactual: Go on…

  23. Yves: And the wonderful people of course….. That’s it, you’re not getting any more!

  24. Schimanski – yes! In the middle of the night on ITV about 15-20 years ago. Dubbed (just like Derrick).

    Another wonderful thing about subtitles is the sport of spotting the mistakes and laughing at them. Dubbing, on the other hand, is just not fun. And it’s a horrible word for speakers of other languages to use comfortably – they so often try to speak in terms of synchronising instead. But that always makes me think of synchronised swimmers!

  25. Sorry to comment again so soon, but I’ve just thought of another example: a German TV series that was shown several times on BBC 1 at prime time (for its audience!) and that was dubbed.

  26. David: Children’s programmes don’t count! As someone who has hat to sit through Bob der Baumeister, that’s allowed.

  27. Mark Holland says:

    I was going to mention assorted Czechoslovakian dramas that used to turn up on Childrens’ BBC. That and Heidi of course.

    Fitzcarroldo and Aguirre are odd ones to watch. I started out with the German language on as that’s what I assumed Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog would default to but it all appeared wrong* and wierdly out of synch. I flicked to English and it fitted. They were speaking English after all.

    *Besides South Americans just shouldn’t be speaking German anyway. Well only a few aged Herr Schmidts of Asuncion Paraguay.

  28. AnP says:

    This is precisely the reason why I am one of the biggest customers of’s DVD Verleih program and the TurmPalast in Frankfurt. I just can’t (and have even influenced my German husband) watch dubbed shows. Whenever I do watch German TV, I watch German shows and not dubbed ones.

  29. Haddock says:

    Battle of Britain – bloody excellant film. It’s in my DVD collection, but my wife wont let me watch it when the inlaws come round!

  30. Sparky says:

    What’s the matter with the Inlaws?
    Were they personally involved?

  31. Jay says:

    Man so right on. While the films are fairly well done here and it’s cool that they are consistent about keeping the same voice for the same actor every time, it’s just weird. It would be like you walking around all day with some little German guy doing your voice. He may be able to bring across exactly what you want to communicate, but the fact is that its still not you. And some German guy, not matter how class his voice is simply never in a million years going to bring accross the experience of Sean Connery or Christopher Walken or Shatner or anyone else. The nuances that make them great actors or at least fun to watch (rather than the guys that are doing their voices) are just totally lost in translation.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "German Word For The Day"
  1. PapaScott says:

    Rub a Dub Dub

    inactualfact wonders today why all English-language movies and TV series shown here are dubbed into German. I used to be bothered by this, but I’m not anymore, probably because most movies I watch these days are on DVD with an English soundtrack…