(Bleep), You (Bleeping) (Bleep): Dubbing American Films into Canadian French

The full quote is: “(Bleep), you (bleep) (bleep), I’m ‘onna (bleep) kick your (bleep) (bleep) to (bleep) kingdom come!” This is a typical excerpt from the dialogue of an American movie. How do you translate this for dubbing into French? There’s the word (bleep), the word (bleep), the word (bleep), and the word (bleep), not to mention all the others you’ll hear in the rest of the film. In English they are usually called four-letter words, but sometimes the mother steps in and the number of letters increases.

There are many problems. Let‘s look at them and then discuss the solutions. First, you have to be aware that when you’re dubbing—we’re talking synchronized dubbing here—the key word is synchronize. There are three kinds of synchronicity: there’s phonetic synchronicity, semantic synchronicity, and dramatic synchronicity.

Phonetic synchronicity is the most obvious one. There are two mortal sins in film dubbing. The first sin is to have a character say something when, on the screen, his or her lips are manifestly closed and not moving. The second mortal sin is to have a character on screen who is obviously saying something, without providing  any sound for what he or she is saying. Those two sins will send the translator/adaptor directly to hell, in the section reserved for bad film translators.

Essentially the lip movements of the actor on the screen must match the sounds you hear, those that are produced by the actor in the recording studio. To simplify, let’s say we’re mostly concerned here with bilabial consonants, i.e., the consonants that are pronounced with both lips touching. In English, as in French, there are only three, [b ] as in “bat,” [m] as in “mat,” and [p] as in “pat.” To complicate things a little further, there are also semi-labials you have to watch for, i.e., consonants pronounced with the lips coming very close but not quite touching, [v] as in “vat,” [f] as in “fat,” [w] as in “what,” and the retroflex [r] as in “rat.” Luckily, you don’t need to match these sounds perfectly. For example, the French translator/adaptor can use a word with an [m] sound to fit over any of the English bilabials or semi-labials. On the screen, the audience will only notice that the lips touch or seem to touch when a French sound is pronounced where the lips should either touch or come close to touching. We’re dealing with film, and film is illusion.

So when the screen actor in the Canadian TV series Cold Squad said, “or even four people, well . . . ” I had the studio actor say “ou quatre hommes dans ma vie.”  The audience saw the lips closing on the first and second syllable of “people” and then come close to touching on “well,” they heard “hommes dans ma vie” instead, not realizing that the sound [m] of “hommes” replaced the first [p] of “people,” that the second [p] of “people” was replaced by the [m] of “ma,” and that [w] in “well” had become the sound [v] of “vie” in French. And it worked.

I’m simplifying the process here, because I don’t want to subject you to the forty-five-hour lecture on film translation I give at the university. This gives you at least an idea of the complexity of the task of achieving phonetic synchronicity. But that is not the real problem with the dubbing of (bleep) words, because with experience and training we can match labial consonants fairly easily, whatever the word.

Semantic synchronicity, the second type of synchronicity, is the matching of meaning. Of course, we expect the dubbed version of an American film to be telling the same story in French as in English, right? But sometimes we film adaptors can cheat. I’ll let you in on a secret. For example, "one thousand" in French is “mille.” Notice there’s an [m] in the French word and no corresponding labial consonant in English. That can be a problem if you can clearly see the lips of the speaker on the screen. But depending on the context, the number 1000 may not be important; it may simply be a way of saying many. In which case, it can be translated as “des centaines” (hundreds), with no critical loss of meaning. In this case we could sacrifice some of the semantic synchronicity in order to achieve phonetic synchronicity. If on the other hand, the screen actor writes “1000” on a blackboard while saying “one thousand,” we have no choice and we have to sacrifice phonetic synchronicity to semantic synchronicity. Otherwise the audience would be shocked into awareness of the discrepancy. The audience would become aware of the translation, and we want to avoid that.

We want to maintain the illusion that what viewers hear is the screen actor speaking. This is why film translation is more of an adaptation than other types of translation. We always have to take into account the visual aspect of the text. We’re concerned with the meaning of speech, but we’re also concerned with how speech looks and how it sounds.

But what is the meaning of (bleep), (bleep), (bleep), and (bleep)? Sometimes (bleep) really means literally (bleep), but sometimes the word (bleep) is only used to strengthen a statement, or to emphasize its importance or the seriousness of the speaker’s intent, or his or her lack of vocabulary. In which case, the real meaning of (bleep) is not its lexical meaning. Then the screen adaptor needs to find the equivalent in the target language, and that equivalent may have an entirely different lexical meaning. We must take into account cultural differences.

This is where dramatic synchronicity comes into play. You want the language used in the French dubbed version of the American film you are translating/adapting to correspond to the kind of language the characters in the original are using. Doctors examining patients or performing an operation in the emergency room use precise medical terms. They won’t say “I’ll make a cut in the patient’s ‘tummy.’” They’ll probably speak of “an incision in the abdomen.” In the same way, rival drug dealers are not going to say, “The next shot will be in your ‘tummy,’” or “in your ‘abdomen’.” They’ll probably use the word “belly” or “gut.” In any case, in French, we’d use “abdomen” for the doctor, and “les tripes” or “le bid” for the gangster. And that is where a major difficulty lies for us poor film adaptors working in Canada. Words such as (bleep), (bleep), (bleep), or (bleep) are not generally used in polite conversation, nor are they often used in lectures on nuclear physics at the university. That language is heard in street talk.

So, how do you translate street talk? With street talk, of course. Well, in France, yes, but not if you’re a film translator/adaptor in Canada working in French. The French have no qualms about using their “argot” (slang), but we film adaptors working in Canada are not allowed to use the French slang expressions used in the Montreal streets, nor are we allowed to use the slang expressions used in France. We’re supposed to write dialogues in international French. Film distributors even supply us with a list of banned words and expressions. On that list are not only typical French Canadian swear words and curses, but also French “argot” curses and swear words, because distributors don’t want their films to seem as if they had been translated in France, fearing Canadian audiences would complain that the film sounds too “Frenchy” and not Canadian enough. At the same time, the distributors forbid the use of Canadian street talk, because they secretly hope the French version they will get here can be exported to Europe somehow. Except that France has adopted protectionist laws and regulations governing TV stations and movie theaters to forbid screening of audiovisual productions dubbed outside Europe—which in actual fact means Canada. 

And how does one swear in international French, i.e. standard French, French spoken and understood in all French-speaking countries? Ah, well, there’s “bordel,” “merde” and “zut,” but that’s pretty weak, something like “shucks.” I was going to add “putain,” but that’s also on the list of forbidden words, though we sometimes manage to slip it in unnoticed. Luckily “foutu” is allowed, as are “con” and “connard” and “connasse,” “enfoiré,” “enculé,” though the latter might earn a (bleep) on television. But “Criss de tabarnak d’ostie” is out of the question, even though that is what you hear when a carpenter hits his or her thumb with a hammer in French Canada.

“(Bleep), you (bleep) (bleep), I’m ‘onna (bleep) kick your (bleep) (bleep) to (bleep) kingdom come!” would therefore be translated along the lines of “Merde, espèce de connard d’enfoiré, je vais te foutre un bordel de coup de pied au cul.” But you know what? It doesn’t sound natural in any dialect. While “Mon ostie de niaiseux, je vais te kâlicer mon pied dans le cul, tu vas voir” would sound perfectly normal. Such language is readily used in plays and in films produced here, though not in television because of young viewers. Yet translators are mysteriously forbidden to use those expressions.

What we strive to do with dramatic synchronicity in film translation is to sound natural, and unfortunately the rules imposed on us by the industry often force us into an artificial language spoken on neither side of the Atlantic. So we make do with the internationally recognized swear words mentioned above (merde, con, connard, enculé, enfoiré, bordel, etc.) and trust that French-speaking Canadian audiences forgive us for not rendering accurately the richness, nuances, and dramatic impact of a resounding “Bleep!” Unfortunately, as a result, I guess French Canadians believe their favorite Hollywood actors in action movies speak too well, instead of realizing they actually have a very limited vocabulary. So I would propose that aside from a set of multilingual dictionaries, several encyclopedias, dictionaries of synonyms and antonyms, co-occurrence dictionaries, slang dictionaries, and a thesaurus, every screen adaptor be supplied with a bleeper.

Copyright 2011 by Robert Paquin. All rights reserved.