Translator, Adapter, Screenwriter Translating for the audiovisual

When I first offered my services as a translator to film and TV producers who did dubbing and postsynchronization here, in Montral, I was told they did not need translators, but adapters. I remember arguing that translation was adaptation, that you did not just copy words from a dictionary automatically, that every sentence, every word, every comma, was the object of a decision, of a transposition into another context, not just linguistically, but also socially and culturally. But these people had a set idea of what a translator did, and they couldnt be moved. It was only when I told them I also translated poetry and songs that I got their attention. That, they knew, required adaptation.

The documentary

At first, I was given documentaries to adapt into French. Well, there wasnt much adaptation to be done here. It was mostly straightforward translation. Except you had to take into account certain elements you would not necessarily pay attention to in a written translation. For instance, time and tempo. In the case of a narration, the translation has to follow the image and refer to its various elements as they appear on the screen. So, even if an inversion would be more appropriate in the target language, it may not be indicated if it does not suit the picture. The illusion to be maintained always is that the audience is watching an original production.
When a voice-over technique is used, the length of your text has to correspond to the length of the speakers text, and even be shorter. Thats when you see the speaker on the screen and a translation is supplied so that you hear the person speaking a foreign language in the background and an actors voice is voiced over that, drowning it and taking its place, though the audience always hears the foreign language in the back. This provides the illusion that an interpreter has stepped in and is simultaneously translating what that person is saying. The studio actor/interpreter does not play a role with emotions as if it were acted out. He or she is merely an interpreter who repeats what the person is saying. Here the difference between a translator and an adapter is that the adapter must make this speechwhich is often improvisedsound as if it were a well thought out discourse. No hesitations, no ungrammatical sentences, no interrupted utterances, no mistakesunless they contribute to the scenario. The studio actor must have a flawless text, even if the character on the screen is hesitant or speaks English as a second language, not mastered very well.
With documentaries, the constraints that require adaptation are thus mostly timing and grammatical soundness. Most documentaries have both narration and voice-over, but in all cases the main objective is to give the audience the illusion that they are watching an original production.
After a while, I was entrusted with documentaries where there was also some synchronous dubbing, then with feature films and TV series where everything was dubbed. This is where the screen actor says the lines in one language, but the audience hears them in another. The illusion to be maintained is that the studio actors voice belongs to the screen actor. This is achieved through various techniques. The one we generally use in studios here is the rhythmo band.

The rhythmo band

No, this is not a group of Latin music performers. Its actually a 35 mm film strip on which the text and voice noises are hand written in black ink by a calligrapher, so that the studio actors can substitute their voices for those of the screen actors. My task is to provide the calligrapher with a text to copy. To do this, I am given a mother band, a dull matte white 35 mm film strip on which someone has written down all the text and voice noises as performed by the screen actors in synchronicity with the image. I write my translation/adaptation with a lead pencil above or below these markings. Everything is noted on the mother band, not only the text, but also the inspirations, expirations, hesitations, smacking of the lips (as in a kiss), everything. Because the studio actors will have to reproduce all this.
Sometimes the original soundtrack is not synchronous with the original image. Indeed, as you may know, most films and TV productions nowadays are shot without sound and the soundtrack is added afterwards in a studio. This is called postsynchronization. And with the increasing number of international casts in contemporary productions, often the voice you hear in the so-called original version is not the voice of the actor you see on the screen. Even as early as in La Strada, Anthony Quinn did not speak Italian and had to be dubbed. But Im getting carried away and losing sight of my topic.
The writing out of the original text and voice noises onto the mother band is called detection. The detector uses an editing machine to unwind the white strip of 35 mm film synchronously with the film hes detecting and writes the text with a lead pencil on this white strip at the exact place where the voice is heard in the film. He stretches stressed vowels and shortens the unaccented ones, writes probly for probably in English, or habm for haben in German, if that is how these words are actually pronounced. And so on and so forth. I say he because the detector Im working with on the series Im presently adapting from German is a man, but there are also women detectors (and they are as competent and as well paid as their male counterparts).
The detector also uses a number of conventional signs to indicate if the mouth is closed or open at the onset and at the end of each utterance. For instance, the word stop may be pronounced with a momentary closing of the mouth on the voiceless bilabial stop p, then an opening of the mouth after, when the air is released. But if stop is the last word of the utterance, the mouth may also remain closed after the p is pronounced. Try it. See? That means that the translator/adapter cannot add a sound after the bilabial. For instance, I couldnt put dpart or dbat, since the audience would see the mouth closed and still hear a sound after the bilabial consonant. Ill get back to this later.
The detector also underlines those bilabial consonants (b, m, p) wherever they occur, and puts a small circle underneath the semilabials (f, v, w, English retroflex r). Im expected to put bilabial consonants over the bilabial consonants in the original text, so that the viewer can be tricked into believing that the screen actor is really pronouncing what the studio actor is saying. I can put a b over an m or a p, I can even put a semilabial over a bilabial. Or I can put a b over an f or a w, and so forth. And I can skip some of these when there is a long succession of such consonants. For instance, probablement has four bilabials while probably only has three. But that is part of the illusion of cinema.
Were talking about illusion after all. I mean, we know that when actors are gunned down in an action movie, they dont really bleed to death. And when they say I love you, they dont always mean it in real life. In the same way, this whole undertaking is meant to maintain an illusion: synchronism.


This is where adaptation comes into play. Synchronism is coincidence in a point of time. There are three kinds of synchronism: phonetic synchronism, semantic synchronism, and dramatic synchronism. Phonetic synchrony is achieved when the lip movements of the screen actor match perfectly the sounds produced by the studio actor, not only words, but also breathing, grunts, screams, etc. Actors do that in the studio, even if they are invisible. They make gestures, and get into their roles. Im almost surprised when I see they dont wear costumes.

Phonetic synchronism

When I started translating/adapting TV series and telefilms for dubbing, I became obsessed with phonetic synchronism. I watched peoples mouths as they spoke, not only in films and on TV but at the grocery store and on the bus, everywhere. I was literally reading everybodys lips. I looked at myself in the mirror and made faces as I pronounced words or sentences. I dug out my old books on phonology and brushed up on definitions of articulators and articulation points.
Word order is tricky when translating for dubbing from English into French. Independence Day is Jour de lIndpendance. Sometimes, you can cheat: if the mouth of the man on the screen is open before he starts speaking, you can sometimes squeeze in a couple of syllables before the first word, provided they do not contain bilabial consonants which would require him to close his mouth. As long as his mouth is open, the audience does not know if hes saying anything. They trust what they hear. Illusion. So, you could probably have the studio actor say jour de without anybody noticing.
As a result, my first adaptations were perfectly synchronous from a phonetic point of view, but the sentences were a bit twisted on the grammatical and lexical levels. I mean, no formal mistakes, but plenty of awkward constructions. I had to fit the word to the lips at all cost. I could do it. I experienced victory every time I managed to turn a phrase that would match the articulatory mechanisms of the source language, never mind if it sounded a bit weird in the target language. I figured the audience wouldnt notice. Theyd be so caught up in the action and so impressed by the perfect phonetic synchronism of this version that they wouldnt notice it was strange for a cop to speak of the dcd (deceased) for the dead, because it fit the lip movement better than mort. I ended up writing what Jim Palmer, a friend and collaborator of mine, calls dubbage.
It wasnt all that bad. Im being hard on myself here, and Im looking at my early work with the benefit of 15 years of experience. What I mean is that this phonetic constraint can be overwhelming and can lead to being blinded to other constraints which should in fact have priority.

Semantic synchronism

Obviously a translators main objective is that the translated text have the same meaning as the underlying text. So semantic synchronism is a priority, even more so than phonetic synchronism. But not always. For instance, there are cases where a number can be replaced with another number that better fits the lip movement if no damage is done to the overall meaning of the scene. Take the number two, zwei in German; in French, trois would be more synchronous than deux, but I have to ask myself, is it possible to replace it in this scene? Is the number crucial, or could it be any number? This is where judgment and adaptation come in.
Lets look at an example taken from a German television police series Im working on now. In one of the episodes, there was a reference to Frau Dusward, the owner of the apartment, die Besitzerin der Wohnung, but because of word order in French, I could not call her la propritaire. There was no place to put the bilabial ps. So, I simply said she was the tenant (la locataire) of that particular apartment. It did not make any difference to the plot anyway.
In most cases, though, phonetic synchronism must be sacrificed in favour of semantic synchronism. When translating/adapting an educational video on mathematics or physics, it is essential that the vocabulary be scientifically accurate. The only phonetic constraint that must necessarily be observed is that the voice must not be heard once the speaker has finished speaking, nor must he be seen blabbing away while no sound is uttered. This can be achieved by condensing or filling the text as appropriate. There are also a certain number of culturally fixed phrases. To be or not to be cannot be translated any other way than tre ou ne pas tre. So the adapter has to use his judgment and his sense of compromise in any situation.

Dramatic synchronism

Yet another constraint that takes precedence over phonetic concordance is dramatic synchronism. Its important that the characters speak with a certain amount of realism. If they shake their heads (at least in most European languages), they should be saying No, if they nod assent, the sentence should be affirmative, even if theres no phonetically congruent expression available. Language level, use of idiomatic expressions, realism are all factors to be taken into account. The character has to sound real. Then, if his lips dont follow exactly the flow of the sounds, it wont appear so strange to the audience. The audience must never be surprised by the text, unless that is the intent in the original audiovisual document.
Accents are difficult to deal with, because an equivalent cannot always be found. Generally to distinguish a character with a British accent from an American in a given scene dubbed into French, adapters rely on diction and choice of words. The British character will tend to speak like an aristocrat and thus set himself off from the other characters. But what if all the characters are soldiers and theyre all working class? The adapter must somehow give additional information on the origin of the character in the text itself, sometimes in a comment from another character. Usually, though, the characterization is achieved on the screen by the actors dress or by his way of delivering his lines or his physical attitude. Im thinking of Steve McQueen with his chewing gum, his baseball and his mitt in The Great Escape/La grande vasion.
I remember translating/adapting into French an animated British feature film entitled Truckers/Les Voyageurs, where urban gnomes were contrasted with country gnomes. The country gnomes spoke in a characteristic Yorkshire dialect, which set them apart in their speech. I therefore gave their French voices a Canadian Acadian dialect, which is conveniently similar to the Berrichon accent in France. In French, the country gnomes used archaic syntactic forms, such as javons, javions, jaurions for jai, javais, jaurais and il avont, il aviont, il auriont for il a, il avait, il aurait. Of course, I had to fight a little with an editor at Radio Canada, our national broadcaster, to have them accept this apparent deviation from the grammatical norm, but I finally won, thanks to the support of Isabelle Laffont of Les ditions Robert Laffont, who were sponsoring this production.

Examples of adaptation

Here are a few examples of adaptation taken from the German police series Im currently adapting into French. In episode 19 of the Soko 5113 series, a man was unjustly convicted for a murder he hadnt committed and spent seven years in prison before his innocence was recognized. Seven years, sieben Jahre, occurs repeatedly throughout the episode in different contexts. Each time the problem was to cover the b in French, because sept ans has no bilabial consonant (in spite of the spelling). Each time, I had to rely on a different scheme.

Er schuldet mir sieben Jahre.
Il me doit sept ans maintenant.

Ich habe sieben Jahre... ber nichts anderes nachgedacht.
Tu timagines, pendant sept ans, jai pens rien dautre tout le temps.

In sieben Jahren hat der es aber vom Verkafer weit gebracht
Notre vendeur en a fait du chemin depuis sept ans, tu trouves pas?

These three sentences are taken from three different scenes of the same episode. In the first example, a word relating to time (maintenant/now) is added. This notion, which was understood in the original, allows phonetic synchronism and corresponds better to the rhythm and the length of the German sentence.
The second sentence is spoken in two stages, with a pause after Jahre, to indicate emphasis This allowed me to put three vowels in French where there were only two in German. By adding Tu timagines at the beginning, nothing significant is added from a semantic point of view, but phonetic synchronism is ensured, and dramatic synchronism is reinforced, since the expression is idiomatic and contributes to the realism of the dialogue. The speaker emphasizes the word sieben and stresses the first syllable, making it longer.
In the third example, word order had to be inverted. The seven year period is mentioned at the end of the French sentence, whereas it was at the beginning in German. The idiomatic expression faire du chemin (to come a long way) is synchronous phonetically and it enriches a line made even more realistic by adding tu trouves pas (dont you think) at the end, which also guarantees phonetic synchronism.
These three examples show how translation for dubbing really requires adaptation. Its not just a question of translating dialogues, they have to be rewritten.


In France, at SACEM (Socit des auteurs, compositeurs et diteurs de musique), those who translate/adapt films and TV broadcasts for dubbing are called dialoguistes, screen writers. In fact, thats exactly what we do. We write dialogues for the screen, except the lines have already been spoken by the screen actors and we have to find a text that fits their lip movements and the length of the utterance, as well as their gestures, the situation, the character, and the setting, not to mention what they are actually saying.
So I end up watching the screen actors eyes and hands, and paying as much attention to his body movements as to the shape and position of his mouth. Once Ive translated or have read a translation of what the actor is saying, I look at the screen and watch the speaker say the lines. Then I ask myself what would that character be saying in French, or in English, depending which language Im translating into. Indeed, this adaptation, or screen writing, can be done by someone who doesnt even know the underlying language, provided the screen writer is supplied with a working translation of the script. When translating from English or from French, I supply my own translation, but not so with other languages of which I know very little. So far, Ive also adapted German, Swedish, and Italian telefilms or TV series, though Im far from fluent in these languages.
I began this career by concentrating on the lip movements and phonetic synchronism, until it became an obsession. Then I gradually widened my preoccupation to encompass as well the actual playing and performing of the actors. So that, from a translator, I became an adapter, and finally a screen writer.


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SPRETI, Hubert von, Film in Eastern and Western Europe and the Importance of the American Film Business Within the European Market, Mdias en Europe de lEst et de lOuest : des enjeux partags, des solutions communes?, The European Institute for the Media, Manchester, 1991.

Robert's website:

Copyright Translation Journal and the Author 1998
URL: -
Translator, Adapter, Screenwriter Translating for the audiovisual
Author: Robert Paquin, Ph.D.
Robert Paquin was born and raised in Pointe-Saint-Charles, a working class district of Montreal, Canada. He studied French and English literature, as well as French and English linguistics, at the University of Montreal, where he received first a licence s lettres, mention lettres anglaises, then an M.A. in English. After which he obtained a Ph.D. from Kings College, University of London, England. He taught literature, linguistics and translation as a lecturer in various universities of the province of Qubec. Robert Paquin has translated 13 books, some of them by such internationally known authors as Matt Cohen and Michael Ondaatje. As a literary translator, he was awarded an honourable mention by the Canada Council for the Arts in 1984. Having been Vice-president and President of the Literary Translators Association of Canada, he remains very active in that organization. In 1984, Robert Paquin started his own company, JARP. Since then, he has adapted for dubbing or for subtitling into French or English more than 57 feature films and television series. He has been invited to lecture on literary translation, and on translation for the audiovisual media, in several universities and international conventions in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Germany, and Brazil. A distinguished poet in his own right, Robert inundates his friends and female acquaintances with poems. He has published two collections of poems and, under the pseudonym of Dr. Bobus, often gives live readings of his blues poetry, accompanied by professional blues musicians. 
By Robert Paquin, Ph.D.
Published on 06/10/2005
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