Dubbing directors “Our job is to go unnoticed”

Christoph Cierpka (right) in the Berlin rekorder studios
Christoph Cierpka (right) in the Berlin rekorder studios | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner

A director and author, Christoph Cierpka’s job is to ensure that German is spoken in international films. But how is this done? A look behind the scenes of a niche profession.

Mr Cierpka, for over 20 years you have worked as a director and dialogue author, giving German voices to the actors in international films like Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful 8” or, more recently, Tate Taylor’s “Girl on the Train”. What is it about your work that fascinates you?

Many things. I like working in a team and engaging with language, and having the chance to immerse myself in different cultures. Each film has its own particular context – be it political, social or cultural. Dubbing is not only about translating original dialogues into German, but also about conveying cultural aspects and linguistic nuances. What is more, I am fortunate enough to work on some really nice films – and can generally do so as I see fit.

Where did you learn your trade?

Dubbing direction is not something you can study at university – it’s a profession you learn “on the job”. Most of the authors and directors in the dubbing world are actors who have previously worked for many years as dubbing actors. I myself used to be an assistant director and assistant producer, though I always had links to the industry because my parents owned a dubbing company. I then gradually moved into dubbing, as a writer and director – it’s common practice for one and the same person to write and direct.

What skills did you need to bring to your profession?

Among other things an interest in languages and culture. However, it is not essential to understand the original language that is to be dubbed. Obviously it does help a great deal, as it means that one will have a better grasp of the finer points and may also be familiar with the culture of the country in question. If not – as is often the case – one needs a very good rough translation that also takes nuances of meaning into account, as well as cultural and political aspects.
 

  • In the rekorder studios in Berlin-Kreuzberg Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner
    In the rekorder studios in Berlin-Kreuzberg
  • Dubbing is teamwork. Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner
    Dubbing is teamwork.
  • Discussions with the sound designer: Is the take lip-synched? Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner
    Discussions with the sound designer: Is the take lip-synched?
  • At the mixing desk Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner
    At the mixing desk
  • Synchron direction also means working with the actors ... Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner
    Synchron direction also means working with the actors ...
  • ... and the cutter. Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner
    ... and the cutter.
  • The dialogue script Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner
    The dialogue script
  • As a rule dubbing direction takes one or two weeks. Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner
    As a rule dubbing direction takes one or two weeks.
  • “Dubbing is done at a very high level in Germany”, says Christoph Cierpka. Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner
    “Dubbing is done at a very high level in Germany”, says Christoph Cierpka.


What do you mean exactly?

Asian or East European films often make subtle allusions to political situations that a German audience will not necessarily understand off the bat. In such cases I may add some information that isn’t contained in the original dialogue, so as to make it clearer. In my role as dialogue author, I spend hours sitting in front of my monitor trying to adapt the rough translation to make it as lip-synched as possible. Sometimes I almost despair because I have the perfect sentence but it simply won’t lip-synch. I then go to the studio – thanks to the skills of the actors and cutters, we then make it work.

The original versions often contain language variants for which there is no equivalent in German. How can a character who is speaking a dialect or African American English be dubbed in a believable way?

Conveying different versions of English into German is a huge problem. In 2012, I dubbed Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained. The English spoken by the slaves deviates from standard English, in some cases also in terms of its grammar. We translated this “Black American” into a simplistic form of German. Things were more difficult when it came to the plantation owner Calvin Candie, however. In this role, Leonardo DiCaprio speaks “Southern American”, an idiosyncratic sing-song dialect that features aspects of “Black American”. There is no linguistic equivalent in German. In such situations I focus more on aspects of characterization. DiCaprio’s portrayal of the plantation owner is particularly rich in character traits – deviousness, drunkenness – that we can work with to ensure that the character remains credible in the dubbed version. Of course, it is important to have a German actor speak the part who matches the original in terms of personality – even if their voice has an entirely different timbre. One has to consider whether the voice fits the face.

Dubbing studio Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner How Germany became a dubbing nation
While most countries show foreign-language films in the original version with subtitles, the Germans have developed a predilection for dubbed dialogues. But why?

Hardly any other country dubs as much as Germany does, though this is not entirely without controversy. Especially in the period after the Second World War, many films were politically “reworked” by the dubbing process: in the case of “Casablanca”, for example, an anti-Nazi film was turned into a harmless romance. How manipulative can dubbing be?

Obviously dubbing offers considerable potential for manipulation. People may think that everything is dictated by the visual level, but that is not the case. It is perfectly possible to create new versions, as Casablanca proves. Even today, some aspects are toned down or rephrased for reasons of political correctness – in the airline versions, for instance. Films that are shown during a long-haul flight must not contain any dialogue that could prove even remotely offensive to any cultural or religious groups. Having said that, nothing is politically “distorted”. It is true that dubbing is all about fudging, but essentially we want to stick close to the original. We can do our best to produce with dignity a German version that conveys all the key messages of the original, but we will seldom achieve this one hundred percent.

Film enthusiasts also claim that dubbing leads to cultural uniformity. Younger audiences in particular prefer to watch the original versions.

With Django, many people said they were happy that the film had been dubbed because it was so hard to understand the original. Plenty of people speak reasonable English or French, but things become more problematic with other languages. Subtitles distract from the film itself, on the other hand, and in Germany are limited strictly to the arthouse domain. Whatever dubbing may be accused of, it is done at a very high level in Germany. Dubbing is only noticed when it is really poor. Basically, our job is to go unnoticed. The greatest compliment we can receive is when someone says that they did not even realize that the film was dubbed.

 

Christoph Cierpka Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner Born in 1963, Christoph Cierpka has been a dialogue author and dubbing director since 1995, responsible for dubbing over 120 cinema films into German. In 2009 he won the German Dubbing Award for his dubbing direction of Matteo Garrone’s film “Gomorrah” (Italy 2008). Christoph Cierpka lives in Berlin.