In Other Words: The Translational Challenges of Dubbing and Subtitling

Last Monday, translator Zeinab Mobarak gave a lecture on the creative arts of dubbing and subtitling at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Author-translator Mona Elnamoury was there:

By Mona Elnamoury

zeinabRenowned translator Zeinab Mobarak gave a fascinating lecture at the AUC last Monday about the challenges of translating and dubbing children’s movies from English into Arabic. However, what she said applies naturally to translating from any language into any language. The beauty of her lecture sprang from the practicality of her  professional tips, together with the sweetness of the examples she showed to prove her point.

Mobarak, as introduced by Samia Mehrez, was the star of the theatre group at the AUC. She graduated from the university with a BA in anthropology and a minor in theatre studies, and also took a number of courses in playwriting, short story writing, and Arabic literature. During the lecture, one grows to realize that all those credentials were supported by real talent and passion for both translation and the dramatic element of dubbing.

To Mobarak, translation and dubbing are vital. Dubbing in particular has opened her eyes to a whole new world. Because many people look down on dubbed productions, she wanted to shed a light on how difficult this job is. She hopes to change some people’s minds about dubbing in general. Subtitling is a challenge because of limitations of time and space.  All a translator has is the space of two lines that are going to be typed on the screen. Each line can only be six or seven words. If what is being said in the film is more than that, editing is inevitable. If the translation is proper and word-for-word, she might be able to fit it, but the speed in which the lines will appear on the screen will make it impossible for viewers to follow. The immense limitations of space and time in subtitling are great pressures on the translator.

Subtitling conveys the meaning of what is being said, but it does not convey the feeling. There is a lost element here that can only come through in dubbing, because you have a talented actor who acts anew what is being said in the target language.

On the other hand, it is difficult and enjoyable to be a dubbing translator. Why dubbing? Subtitling conveys the meaning of what is being said, but it does not convey the feeling. There is a lost element here that can only come through in dubbing, because you have a talented actor who acts anew what is being said in the target language. Subtitling does not work in children’s films. Adults go with kids and keep explaining to them what is happening. Dubbing solves this problem and makes everyone enjoy it.

We need dubbing because what is being presented is a spoken word that conveys meaning and nuances of the original language that needs to be presented as a spoken word.

Mobarak showed examples of dubbing of (The Lady and The Tramp) in colloquial Arabic. In this particular film, the characters were street dogs. The language and performance consequently had to fit the concept of how a street dog’s language would sound. Though Mobarak always gets the film and the script, she prefers to work from the film to get the feel of the words being spoken.

Dubbing has more limitations than sub-titling

Time is the first limitation of dubbing. A translator has to be careful of the duration of the sentence to make it easy of the actor to pronounce. For instance a sentence like “Good morning my friend, how are you today?” Will be naturally translated into

صباح الخير يا صديقى، كيف حالك اليوم؟

That is fine, of course, but it does not work in dubbing because a dubbing translator actually counts the syllables of a sentence. In this case the ten syllable in English that resulted in 15 ones in Arabic. Five more syllables are not acceptable. The actor won’t be able to fit them in. So a translator has to make a decision here to delete some words without losing the meaning.  صديقى  can be understood from the scene so the word goes off and good morning can be replaced by another shorter salute. The sentence becomes:

مرحبا، كيف حالك اليوم؟

  A dubbing translator needs to have the words fit the visual that appears on the screen. 

Be careful of the synchronization. This is another piece of advice from Mobarak.  A dubbing translator needs to have the words fit the visual that appears on the screen. The characters speak, and certain sounds like “o”, “a” or “m” and “p” formulate a challenge because they make certain movements in the lips.  So if we have a character that  says “so” — which is one of Mobarak’s least favourite words because we do not have many monosyllabic words in Arabic ending in “o” — we cannot use its Arabic equivalent ثم, which necessitates closed lips.

In addition to keeping the synch, a dubbing translator has to watch another element, which is how the sentence is divided up. “Good morning” cannot be translated into صَبَاحٌ الخَيرِ  because it is too long especially as the Arabic signs add to the syllables. The third point is using easy words where phonetics are natural and suitable to the context.

“We always have to remember that it is a spoken text.” A tongue twister is a disaster. There is this famous example, a line from Julie Andrews ‘s song in “Sound of Music.” The line says: “Like a lark that is learning to pray” has been translated into:

“كقبرة تتعلم الإبتهال”

Who says kakoboraten? Why would I use that word, or sing it? Or even listen to it?  Why not use كطير   for example? Who would leave the movie to look the word “lark” in a dictionary and double-check the accuracy when the reference is only to a bird?

 So, even when sometimes a sentence fits the duration, sync, vowels and all, but is a terrible sentence to say, we end up with a whole tongue twister. Here is another example: كل قبرة كانت قريبة من الكواكب تموت ببطء  Again what? How many kafs and qafs? What we need to do is to think of phonetics. Reading out the dialogue is a good way to assure that it is a good one. If there is a sentence that is giving us any trouble, we certainly change it.

Scenes with close-ups are a challenge especially in movie theatres because of the big screen. Most of the dubbing is done in Modern Standard Arabic and this puts extra limitations on the translator, because the sentences then have a certain structure. Here is another example: “A lesson we all have to learn is that the desert has no memory. “

الدرس الذى يجب ان نتعلمه جميعا هو ان الصحراء بلا ذاكرة”

 The sentence sounds right, but it is too long. 18 syllables in English and like 31 in Arabic! It does not work. Ultimately, for this sentence,  there could be this translation: ” فلنعرف جميعا ان الصحراء  بلا ذاكرة   and if it is translated into colloquial Egyptian it would be even shorter and much better:  اللى لازم كلنا نعرفه ان الصحرا نساية

A dubbing translator has to be brave enough to make important decisions that make the sentence as close to natural as possible. Editing is a must. 

Translating lyrics is even more challenging because the lyrics fit the music and so should the translation.

Translating lyrics is even more challenging because the lyrics fit the music and so should the translation. A translator should bear in mind that the translated words are going to be sung, not acted or read out. In a song, certain parts are stressed. For instance, in the song “My Bunny Lies Over the Ocean,” there are three stress points in the tune: the 1st. syllable of bunny, the 1st syllable of over, and the 1st. syllable of ocean. Naturally it could be translated into نام الأرنب فوق المحيط Now, how can this be really sung to the same tune?  What I will have to say in colloquial is  أرنوب نام فوق المحيط حبة   where all the stress points are in their proper place. Of course an addition has been made in the word حبة  .  This can been easily solved in any language if the dubbing translator has enough courage and resources. In lyrics, we have to have stress points in their places as well as rhyme. We do not have to have the same rhyming pattern as the original language but we have to have rhyme.

The first animated film was Snow White, and it was made in 1937.  Though it was all hand–made, the drawing and dubbing of that film are fantastic, and it was done in 1975. All the elements talked about earlier were observed in that film.

The main aim of translating for dubbing is to make the work sound as though it was originally produced in the dubbing language.

Zienab Mobarak is also a writer on the Sesame Street project from its beginning in Egypt in the nineties and has continued to write many songs for it for many years. She has worked with Disney in translating cartoons and songs since 1997. She did great classics like Cinderella, Pinocchio, The Princess and the Frog, The Smurfs and many others. She did translating and dubbing and in those she mostly rewrote the songs to fit the films. She translated “The Burglar” of Tawfik Alhakeem both into English and colloquial Arabic to be performed at the AUC. She has led many translation workshops in Doha and Cairo. She also participated in compiling an English-Arabic dictionary for children that was printed and published in Egypt in the nineties. She also has two published books for pre-schoolers, and has had a great career in adaptation and translation.

 Dr. Mona Elnamoury is a lecturer at the faculty of Arts, English Dept., Tanta University. She also teaches at the MSA in the faculty of Languages and Translation, and has translated Ursula LeGuin into Arabic. She also writes.