Why German Dubbing is So Popular

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Ever hear Thanos threaten half the universe with “Ich bin unvermeidlich”?

In Germany you will. If you decide to catch an American film there, instead of hearing the original voice actors while reading German subtitles, you’re more likely to see the film dubbed in German. The German dubbing business is strong with a German-speaking population of over 80 million people (mostly in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland) that generally insists on watching foreign films and TV in German. Why is German dubbing so popular? We’ll explore some of the historical forces behind German dubbing, how it has become a high art, and why some may still prefer the original audio.

[Average read time: 4 minutes]

photo via @ansgarscheffold

Historical Background

Dubbing, known as “synchronization” in Germany, was not always popular. During the 1930s, the advent of sound films brought with it the need to localize foreign films. Subtitling films was the most cost-effective, but was not popular among viewers. Remaking the films was more well-received, but had high costs and long turnarounds. The other option was dubbing films.

However, the audience’s lack of exposure to the new medium and the stoic voice acting at the time made dubbed films feel artificial to the point that they were called “witchcraft.” Dubbing didn’t gain prominence until after World War II, when Allied forces took control of Germany and cinemas began to exclusively screen Allied content (which had been banned during the war). The Allied forces saw that the best way to reach and re-educate the local audience was by hiding the “foreignness” of their films by dubbing them into German.

From 1949 onward German dubbing grew in popularity, but it also became a form of historical censorship. International films that depicted Germans in a bad light were changed in the dub to avoid Germany’s recent Nazi past. In Casablanca (1942), which came to Germany in 1952, scenes with characters wearing Nazi uniforms were taken out and an anti-fascist Czech fighter fleeing the Nazis became a Swedish scientist escaping Interpol.

However, this form of historical censorship eased over the years, particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Films dubbed in German now are closer to their original content, though some adaptation is still necessary.

three person standing on grass field

photo via @acalmelor

German Dubbing as an Art Form

The German dubbing industry has advanced greatly since 1949, with numerous dubbing studios throughout the country, particularly in Berlin and Munich. The country has also seen a great rise in the number of German voice actors/actresses. Germany even has its own awards ceremony for German voice talents, dubbed the “German Dubbing Awards.” The event celebrates the German voices behind some of Hollywood’s most famous actors and actresses, such as Christian Brückner, the German voice for Robert DeNiro for about 35 years who is considered a star in his own right in Germany.

At the German Dubbing Awards last year, host Gayle Tufts exclaimed that “90% of people in Germany like to watch dubbed films,” to which the crowd responded in applause. Part of this is due to how sophisticated the art of dubbing has become in Germany. German dubbing studios take pride in the accuracy of their lip-sync dubbing in relation to the on-screen actor’s lip movements. To accomplish this, dubbing scripts have to be edited and shortened so that the phrasing will match the source visuals.

When translating from English to German, German is known to get much longer, anywhere from 15% to 35% longer than the English script. Professional German translators and script editors understand this linguistic phenomenon and are experienced with “timing the script”, i.e. making sure the spoken script fits in with the video time constraints.

The acting quality has also improved greatly since pre-WWII Germany. As exhibited by the German Dubbing Awards, dubbing is seen as an art form, a craft in Germany. Dietmar Wunder, who is known as the German voice for James Bond (Daniel Craig), says, “Even though you are not on camera, you have to still act the part, physically.” This appreciation for the German art form of dubbing was validated in 2014, when a Berlin court ruled that voice talents had to the right to be included in the movie credits.

man sitting beside standphoto by @kaip

Concerns About Dubbing

Though dubbing is popular among many Germans, there are some that have concerns about dubbing foreign films. When a script is translated from English to German, it has to be edited for length and to match the lip movements for lip syncing, as mentioned above. These edits can sometimes become a trade off between looking good on screen (lip sync) versus being faithful to the source material.

Dubbing also has the ability to mask the cultural nuances in a video more so than a subtitled video. The original dialogue mix is not heard and the German voice of the characters can appear in any setting (America, Japan, Brazil, etc…) which may be unsettling for some viewers.

As one writer writes, “I always found it weird that American […] surroundings and especially cultural things had a sudden German touch to it because of dubbing.” Also with the dubbing, any wordplay and cultural expressions specific to the source language may be lost as well.

When doing voice-over/dubbing, know that it might not be the best medium for some audiences. However, in the case of the German-speaking population of Europe, dubbing your content in German may be the best option to reach the audience that has come to regard German dubbing as an art form.

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