Across the world there are people who are literally being John Malkovich. Or Homer Simpson or Paris Hilton. And in their home nations the voices of dubbing artists are more famous than those of their Hollywood counterparts.
The somewhat inappropriately named The Rebel Nun (“La Novicia Rebelde”) is how Spanish cinema-goers know The Sound of Music; the turgidly titled Having Fun, Very Crazily (“Curtindo a Vida Adoidado”) was what the Portuguese went to see instead of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. When it comes to the movies, there’s always been a lot lost in translation – yet despite that, the dubbing industries in countries such as Germany, Italy, Mexico and India are worth millions and, while they may not be household names, their dubbing stars are very familiar sounds.
With the dubbing actors and actresses finding work lending their voices to everything from Hollywood blockbusters to British historical dramas, and Japanese manga to international porn, Monocle has paid visits to studios around the globe, and met some of the key players keeping the ears of cinema-goers worldwide well and truly pricked.
Monocle is sitting in a Munich café with the jolly 81-year-old actor Norbert Gastell. He’s been the German voice of Homer Simpson since 1991, going down in history in these parts for his pronouncing of “Nein!” – the catchphrase he invented to mimic Homer’s “Doh!”. He blurts it out for us now, summoning a starstruck series of incredulous looks from the diners around him.
Gastell is one of the oldest dubbing actors in the business, having lent his lungs to the industry for 55 years, and his Homer is one of the most recognised voices. With almost all foreign movies and television series dubbed for the German audience, “synchronisation” is big business in Deutschland – the industry is estimated to be worth more than €87m a year. Actors and actresses such as Arne Elsholtz (Bill Murray, Tom Hanks and Kevin Kline), Dagmar Dempe (Meryl Streep) and Manfred Lehmann (Bruce Willis) are stars in their own right – or rather, their vocal cords are.
Whether the voices of the younger dubbing generation will be as recognisable as Gastell’s in 20 or 30 years’ time is uncertain. With dubbing giants such as Christian Brückner commanding up to five times as much as your average dub star to be the voice of Robert De Niro, the distribution companies rarely give out lifetime contracts for “fixed voices” any more, chopping and changing the talent between each film to keep salaries (and egos) down. They aim to keep the costs for the talent at around 30 per cent of the total dubbing budget (dubbing a feature film can cost anywhere between €35,000 and €150,000).
“Even if you get the voice of a big star, it doesn’t mean you’ll keep it any more,” says 35-year-old Munich-based Anke Kortemeier, who’s got the niche of young Hollywood starlets cornered, having played everyone from Keira Knightley to Sarah Michelle Gellar and Lindsay Lohan.
Like many of the stars, the softly spoken Kortemeier started her career as a child and was voicing Charlie Brown’s sister Sally in the Peanuts cartoons at seven years old. Having toyed with acting on the other side of the camera, she gave that up, aged 23, and has dubbed full-time ever since. Flipping the assumption that dubbing actors are just failed thesps, Kortemeier – like many of her colleagues – much prefers the anonymity of dubbing, and avoids the limelight. “With acting you have to be in contact with all the directors and producers and the cameraman and I hated it. I was on the set, and I was like an alien,” she says. “I couldn’t do it.”
Dubbing full-time is not without its trials though. Getting the timing of a laugh right, or making the sound of crying convincing takes years of practice. In Berlin, Monocle meets Anja Stadlober, the 26-year-old voice of Paris Hilton. Like Kortemeier, she also jacked in her successful acting career (she starred in weekly kids’ soap Schloss Einstein for years) to focus solely on dubbing. The irony of voicing one of showbiz’s most fame-hunting pin-ups is not lost on the camera-shy actress. “I don’t want to act again,” she says. “I like to be in the dark, where nobody knows me.”
Owning a voice that’s inextricably linked with a Hollywood celebrity’s fame can be a complicated business in Germany. The death of a dubbing actor when their American equivalent is still going strong is rather inconvenient for distributors – they’ve already got through two Marges and three Grandpas on Die Simpsons. There’s also the problem of a celebrity’s popularity suddenly stalling, wreaking havoc on the career of their German mini-me. Spare a thought for the chap who assumed he was on to a good thing voicing Mel Gibson or dear Heath Ledger. Or for Tommi Piper, who made a handsome buck in the 1980s voicing ALF in the television show. Piper’s voice was so identified with the character, that after the show was axed, work was much less regular.
Sometimes though, scoring a USP for yourself can work in a dubbing star’s favour. With a raspy vibrato about his vocals, caucasian Charles Rettinghaus has made a name for himself voicing black celebrities such as Cuba Gooding Jr and Jamie Foxx. Aren’t there any black dubbing actors in the business? “I do remember there was one guy called Daniel White,” says Rettinghaus, chuckling at the surname.
Standing on your own, in front of a microphone with only a script and your American blood brother on the screen for company can have a tremendous effect after so many years. Feeling a deep connection with your Hollywood significant other is common among the more established dubbing communities in Berlin and Munich – the key dub hubs in Germany.
Manfred Lehmann has lent his booming tones to Bruce Willis in almost 50 projects, ever since the first Die Hard in 1988. He’s the patriarch of a German acting dynasty not dissimilar to the Willis troupe – his daughter is Dascha Lehmann (the voice of Keira Knightley, Katie Holmes and Victoria Beckham in Spice World) and his son-in-law is Dennis Schmidt-Foss (Freddie Prinze Jr and Ryan Reynolds). Having only met Bruce once, Lehmann nevertheless feels a profound rapport with the actor. “I know him. When he opens his mouth I know when he’ll speak,” Lehmann says, before continuing, “He doesn’t know me, but I know him.”
With over 20 different languages in India and a film industry worth €1.74bn, the dubbing scene is big business in Mumbai, the country’s movie hub.
Almost all Hollywood blockbusters are dubbed into Hindi, and with few of the countless Bollywood films recorded with live sound, there’s many a rupee to be made dubbing the voices of some of Bollywood’s biggest stars. Pay cheques range from €1,200 to €7,200 a film.
Chetan Shashital is one of India’s leading voice actors, having started his career as a teenager dubbing the voice of a kitchen sponge-cum-mango in a confectionery advert. He went on to become the Hindi voice of Baloo in The Jungle Book and Darth Vader, and regularly voices for some of Bollywood’s greats. He says the secret to a good dub – especially when doing a recognised star – is smoothing over the flaws rather than accentuating their quirks. Cricketer Sachin Tendulkar is one of India’s most famous public figures, who has a relatively high-pitched voice. Baritone Shashital dubs for Tendulkar in television ads and does such a good impersonation that “now Sachin says he won’t do radio ads because everyone assumes it’s me,” he says.
Others aren’t as sanguine about being dubbed. Mona Shetty is the Hindi voice of Angelina Jolie, and has dubbed for many Bollywood actresses. One threatened to kill her if she ever dubbed for her again, having suffered the embarrassment of her real voice being deemed unworthy. “I was like, ‘You should kill your producer. He’s the one who decided your voice wasn’t any good,’” she says. As lucrative as dubbing the voices of Bollywood’s divas is, Shetty prefers to lend her lungs to western characters. “Angelina is fun to do because she does super powerful, crusading characters,” she says. “Most women in films here are submissive, sweet and shy.”
Times are changing in Mumbai though: as India evolves, so does the dubbing industry. Nikhil Kapoor, one of Mumbai’s leading voices, has found himself obsolete of late. “Hinglish” – a blend of English and Hindi favoured by India’s urban youth – has become a more effective communicator, says Kapoor, than his RP “accent-neutral” tone. “Producers are now looking for voices that aren’t so polished. They want the girl and boy next door, not a BBC announcer.”
While the rest of the world has embraced dubbing, Scandinavia takes the view that films should be seen in their original languages. Adults don’t blink an eye reading subtitles; it’s simply the way northern Europeans view foreign films and television. Dubbing is considered slightly odd and makes for uncomfortable (and laughable) viewing.
“Scenes from the other side of the globe would look weird if the actors spoke Swedish,” says Maja Lindfors Viklund, head of the translation programme at the University of Gothenburg. She adds: “It’s common sense to have subtitles.”
In the case of Sweden, critics of subtitles point to an Americanisation of Swedish culture, as generation after generation is brought up on foreign fare – and in most cases, Hollywood – with the result that English slang creeps into the Swedish language.
Advocates, on the other hand, win hands down; Swedes and northern Europeans overall speak great English and have a knack for other languages. It may be reductive to say that this is wholly down to the fact that films and TV content aren’t dubbed (equally, if not more important, is the fact that languages, and especially English, are a priority on every Scandinavian pupil’s school curriculum from an early age), but it’s obvious that viewing in original languages helps in learning how to speak them.
Subtitling and translation of film titles are sometimes hilariously off the mark but at least viewers can tell that something’s amiss thanks to their knowledge of foreign languages.
The only time dubbing is seen as acceptable in Sweden is at 15.00 on Christmas Eve. That’s when the whole nation sits down in front of the TV to watch an episode of Donald Duck, which has been on an annual loop since 1959, in perfectly hurdy-gurdy Swedish.
A standing joke around Hollywood used to be that the Italian dubbing of popular US actors appeared to be the work of a single voice. No doubt this was due to the late Ferruccio Amendola, a gifted actor who interpreted several A-list stars including Robert De Niro and Al Pacino – in Heat he voiced only De Niro as their characters met face-to-face in the movie.
Today, it’s harder to make such a claim as Italy employs more than 600 voice actors to dub films and TV series. “You audition for roles and it’s no longer a given that once you voice a certain actor you’ll go on playing him,” explains Massimo Rossi, who is the exception to the rule as he repeatedly secures characters performed by Sean Penn.
Worth more than €50m a year, Italy’s dubbing market is highly competitive. A blockbuster can cost more than €120,000 to dub, depending on the number of speaking parts. It’s money well spent: the industry estimates that every dollar invested results in a 300-fold return at the box office as most Italian moviegoers, like elsewhere, refuse to shift their eyes to read subtitles.
Pumaisdue is one of the powerhouses in the business, with Gladiator, Inglourious Basterds and Atonement among its credits. The studio also exemplifies an industry trend – family dynasties. Run by Fiamma Izzo, who interpreted Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, its stable of voices includes Izzo’s three sisters (who’ve covered the likes of Renée Zellweger and Meryl Streep), her niece (whose speciality is Keira Knightley), and two of her daughters.
On a balmy December morning in Rome, the Izzo clan is hard at work. Fiamma directs colleagues for Ron Howard’s The Dilemma. She sips tea and follows along with her adapted script as an actor reads, checking he repeats the inflections and pauses she’s annotated. At the actor’s side an assistant ensures everything is in sync.
“Back 40 years ago, they had more flexibility when adapting a script into Italian,” says Izzo. “The dialogue could be way off. Take Mary Poppins. Nowadays, we stay faithful to the meaning.”
Across town younger sister Giuppy is recording Meredith from television’s Grey’s Anatomy – they have only three days to prepare an episode as Italy airs the programme a week after its US premiere. The fast pace doesn’t faze her. “It’s been seven seasons. By now I know her [Ellen Pompeo’s] tics, when she takes a breath.”
Veteran actor Luigi La Monica knows about living with a character and how it sometimes leads to cinematic déjà vu. “I recently did Steve Martin in It’s Complicated. There’s a scene with the TV on and it’s The Graduate. I had voiced Hoffman so I appear twice in the same scene!”
Its proximity to Hollywood explains why Mexico has become the dubbing centre of Latin America. It has dominated the market since the 1950s; around 70 per cent of all Spanish dubbing is done here. Mexico is also widely recognised as the one with the best “neutral Spanish”, an unbiased speech pattern that suits every region’s listeners, so most Hollywood films start out here before hitting cinema screens everywhere from Bogotá to Buenos Aires. Dubbing studios further south tend to take care of televisions shows – for example, Argentina does most of Discovery Channel’s translations for the region.
The dubbing industry’s original mission was to fix blips in the movie’s audio recordings, and the idea of reaching new markets in different languages grew from there. “Due to the proximity to the United States, MGM Studios decided to experiment with Mexican radio actors. It was a success, and soon after they began setting up studios in the country,” says Eduardo Giaccardi, vice-president of SDI Media, one of the biggest dubbing companies in Mexico.
Of course, hot-blooded Latin Americans are hardly known for keeping their mouths shut, and the industry here isn’t without its troubles. In 2005, the actors who gave voice to The Simpsons went on strike after the National Association of Actors (ANDA) decided to open the market to freelancers, which meant the “senior” actors would lose some benefits they were previously entitled to. The dispute ended with a new line-up of voices substituting the actors who had played The Simpsons for 15 years, a change which didn’t go unnoticed by angry fans.
“Disloyal competition cheapens the market and brings the industry into disrepute,” says Giaccardi. “Also, because of a weak economy, fewer movies are being produced, therefore fewer are being dubbed.”
- Dubbing a film costs anywhere between €35,000 and €150,000. It costs between €3,000 and €5,000 to subtitle.
- There are over 40 specially equipped production companies that work on dubbing foreign language film and television releases.
- American and English productions account for 95 per cent of dubbing work in Germany – French and Asian imports are the next most important markets.
- When Casablanca was dubbed for the German audience in 1951, all references to the Nazis were erased from the original.
- Similarly, the Nazi scientist in Notorious by Alfred Hitchcock was turned in to a Slavic drugs dealer for the German release.