Completely lost in the translation

Nothing much has changed in the world of dubbing in the last half a century.


As far as I can recall, I was around eight or nine years old when my parents bought their first television set. It was a big box contraption that weighed a ton and sported a bunny ears aerial on top.

Unfortunately, the aerial was not quite up to standard. For three days my father tried his best to get the picture visible. During this process my vocabulary was greatly enhanced as my father used words I’d never heard before while moving the bunny ears to every conceivable position. An aerial on the roof eventually solved the problem and we became part of the television society.

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My favourite programme was Mirage, a series about two fighter pilots. It was a French series dubbed into Afrikaans. Back then, the SABC bought many series and dubbed it into Afrikaans as locally produced content was very limited and the policy was to split content 50-50 between English and Afrikaans.

There were other dubbed series too, like Buck Rogers and Alpha 1999, which I also loved. When dubbing, the scriptwriters obviously try to match words with the lip movements of the actors. The result is that they too often use words nobody ever says.

I was reminded of this the other day when watching a movie on Netflix. A Portuguese crime thriller, I was expecting the original soundtrack with English subtitles. Unfortunately, the movie was dubbed into English, with English subtitles.

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After five minutes, I realised that nothing much has changed in the world of dubbing in the last half a century. Supposedly a thriller, I was at times crawling on the floor with laughter.

“We must find the malefactor before it is too late,” the protagonist ordered his team. Malefactor? Really? What happened to terrorist, or bomber?

As the movie reached its crescendo, the leader of the special ops team whispers in his radio: “We must eliminate the harbinger before he can sound the alarm.” That was just too much for me.

On the upside, I must admit that I had to pause the movie a few times to look up the meaning of some words, but any sense of suspense was completely lost in the translation.

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