The Dubbing of Movies, Series, and Games in Germany

At The Drive-In
The Autokino was quite a hype in the 60s. New York Times Co.-Archive Photos@gettyimages.de

The dominance of Hollywood or the Anglo-American culture in television and movies is also present in Germany. Of course, there are many (good) German productions, but like many others in the world, the Germans also like to watch The Simpsons, Homeland, or Breaking Bad. In contrast to many other nationalities, the Germans don't have to watch those series and movies in English while reading subtitles.

Most of them are dubbed into the German language.

The reasons to do so are rather simple: Not everyone is able to understand English or even other foreign languages properly enough to watch a movie or television series with its original voices. Especially in the past, when televisions were rare and the internet had not yet been invented, it was very important to dub the movies that were displayed in theaters. At that time, most of the people in Europe and also Germany did not speak or understand any language other than their own. Germany itself was another special case: Before and during the war, many productions were merely made by national socialist companies like the ​UFA, which was an instrument of Joseph Goebbel’s propaganda machinery.

Political Issues

That is why those movies were not likely to be shown after the war. With Germany laying in ashes, the only way to give the Germans something to watch was to provide movies made by the Allies in the west or the Soviets in the east.

But the Germans did not understand the languages, so dubbing companies were founded, making Germany and the German-speaking regions one of the biggest markets for dubbing in the whole world. Another reason was a political one: Both the Allies and the Soviets tried to influence the people of their occupation zone in their own way to convince them of their political agenda.

Movies were just a good way to do so.

Today, almost every movie or TV series is dubbed in German, making subtitles unnecessary. Even games for PCs or consoles are often not only translated, but also dubbed for German-speaking players. Speaking of movies, almost every well-known Hollywood actor has his or her very own dubber who makes the actor's German voice unique – at least a little. Many of the dubbers also speak for several different actors. The German dubber and actor Manfred Lehmann, for example, gives not only Bruce Willis his voice, but also Kurt Russel, James Woods, and Gérard Depardieu. Especially when watching an older movie in which certain actors are no longer as famous as they are today, you can witness the confusion when an actor has a different voice than the one you are used to.

Problems with Dubbing

There are also much bigger problems than getting used to different voices. Dubbing is not as easy as it looks at first sight. You can't just translate the script into German and let someone read it. By the way, that is how the voice-overs are made in other parts of the world, for example, Russia. In this case, you can still hear the original voice in addition to somebody reading the translations in Russian, sometimes even by only one single man who is also dubbing women, but that's another story to tell.

The translators of the dubbing company have to find a way to translate the voices into German in a way that is more or less synchronized with the actor’s lips. You might already know that the German language tends to have very long words. Therefore, the translators often have to make compromises without expressing something completely different. This is a hard job to do.

Another problem that many Germans will have already noticed is the issue of Germans appearing in American movies. Every time this happens, there is one big question: How should we adopt it without making it sound ridiculous? Most of the times, when "Germans" are speaking "German" in an American movie, they actually don't. They tend to speak in a way that Americans think German should sound like, but mostly, it's just a hodgepodge.

Thus, there are only two ways it is possible to adapt such a scene into German. The first one is to make the figure not German but another nationality. In this case, the original German will be French in the German-dubbed version. The other way is to let him speak a German dialect like Saxon, Bavarian, or even Swiss-German. Both ways are rather unsatisfying.

The problem with Germans appearing in movies has especially been a problem in the past. Obviously, the dubbing companies thought the Germans were not ready to be confronted with their dark past, so whenever Nazis occurred, they were often replaced by less political criminals such as smugglers. A well-known example of that course of action is the first German version of Casablanca. On the other hand, the American political agenda during the Cold War was also censored in some cases. So, whereas the evil dudes have been communists or spies in the original version, they became just ordinary criminals in the German dubbed version.

It is the Same, but Different

Also, everyday cultural topics are hard to handle. Some persons, brands, and so on are just unknown in Europe or Germany, so they have to be replaced during the translation process. This makes things more understandable but less authentic – for example when Al Bundy living in Chicago is talking about the Schwarzwaldklinik.

However, the biggest challenges are still false friends and puns that don't work in other languages. Good dubbings try to transfer jokes into German with more or less effort. Bad ones just don't, which makes the dialogue ridiculous or even completely senseless. Some "good" examples of making jokes and puns die by bad dubbing are the early seasons of The Simpsons and Futurama. That is why many people tend to watch foreign series and movies in English. It became easier since the internet offers countless ways to stream them or to just order them from abroad. That is why, especially in larger cities, many movie theaters display movies in English. Also, the fact that most younger Germans can speak or understand English, more or less, makes things far easier for the customers, but not for the dubbers.

However, besides that, you still will hardly find any series on ​German television that isn't dubbed.​