It's not just about changing the words and speaking them in French. The translation is an art, the voiceover artists doing the doubling have to be pretty damn fine actors in their own right. I found a nifty article about this exacting process at medium.com, "What it takes to be the French Jennifer Lawrence" by Mac McClelland. Something I hadn't thought about was consistency. After all we expect Tom Cruise to sound like Tom Cruise, movie after movie, not George Clooney for one film, Brad Pitt for another. The same goes for the French, French Tom Cruise should have the same voice in Mission Impossible:Ghost that he does in The Edge of Tomorrow. Tom has to sound like Tom. Makes sense, ne' cest pas?
McClelland notes ...
"Because this is Art, French dubbing cultivates personae. Every time Tom Cruise opens his mouth, the same voice should come out, so that the audience can experience the same sense of intimacy and attachment that the original-language audience does with the real Tom Cruise. Sometimes changes do happen: A decade or so ago, French Tom Cruise was replaced because he smoked too much and his voice was getting too smoky. But French audiences noticed the switch, and were not pleased.Of course they weren't pleased! Mon dieu! Tom has to sound like Tom has to sound like Tom. Which is great news for actors when they get cast as stars with long, bright futures ahead of them. Naturally, the actors playing today's stars hope their stars shine for years and years to come! Take the case of Kelly Marot.
"Kelly Marot’s breakout dubbing role was as Rachel in Glee. That got her the chance to audition for the role of Katniss in The Hunger Games, which landed her in every voice-over actor’s dream position: the designated voice of a huge American star.
If all goes well for Marot, a 28-year-old mom, she will have steady work for as long as Jennifer Lawrence does.Not only does Marot voice JLaw's voice in the movie, she's done all the books too. She even gets blurbed on the cover for doing so!
Before the dubbing begins, the script has to be translated. Like the translation of novels, writing le doublage is an art in itself. Unlike a bookish translation though, the sentences don't just have to say they same thing, they have to match up visually, so it looks like the actors are saying the same thing! Formidable!
One of the busiest writers in the world of le doublage is Deborah Perret, who also dubs the voices of Cate Blanchett, Selma Hayak, Jennifer Lopez and Holly Hunter, but makes more money consistently doing the writing. Perret makes the point that as she has aged, her voice has aged too, so she can't do the more youthful voices anymore.
Perret at work
"who scripts big releases from The Hunger Games to The Hundred-Foot Journey, walks me through it in her home office. She explains how she goes through the English script and creates, for every sentence, a sentence that is nearly identical in meaning but also as similar as possible in length. This alone is a gargantuan task, with the way French languidly weaves its way around getting an idea across. But in addition, and to make the dub look as realistic as possible, she must also identify every instance of a character uttering a word with an m, p, or b in it in English, and find a word in French with the same consonant. And the replacement word has to fit into that sentence in exactly the same spot as where the American actor’s mouth makes the m, p, or b face. She must also figure out what to put in the place of people’s first names, which she tells me Americans incessantly address each other by in movies, and even more in TV shows, but which never happens and would sound utterly bizarre in French. She also has to find words — without adding to, or changing, the meaning of the sentence — to fill the space created by all the garbage words Americans are always using: um, uh, ah, you know, I mean. When French people open their mouths to talk, they make sentences with actual words, and have but one filler: euhhh. It’s used sparingly. It cannot be put in place of every American garbage word, because the characters would sound brain-dead. Perret also has to attend to the fact that English words create more expansive, open mouth movements — whyyyyy, thaaat — while French makes a tighter, faster mm mm mm mm bup bup bup rhythm in the face (don’t even get her started on the Chinese films she occasionally translates; it makes for rough workdays, the way Chinese mouths are always open). If there’s a TV or a radio on in the background of the scene, she has to translate that dialogue, too, and if it’s JFK or the Black Panthers talking, she better be very careful to be accurate down to every nuance. If there’s content in the film about a topic she doesn’t know much about — “For Kill the Messenger, I have to do a lot of things about drugs, and I don’t use crack, at all, so I have to learn how to make crack”—she does extensive research to get a handle on the ideas and lingo she has to convert. She has to capture the nuance of words like lingo. She has to capture the spirit of English idioms that would make no sense in French (not that they make sense in English; “going cold turkey”?). British English is even worse, because the comedy so often relies on wordplay, which is practically impossible to translate. She takes the periods out of English sentences and strings them all together with commas, because while in English there are lots of natural highs and lows in the tone, the French will only keep that high-energy animation up in a run-on. And when she’s done, she watches each line over and over and over, and then reads what she wrote for it over and over and over, out loud, seeing how everything matches up, tweaking, tweaking, going back and watching the flow of a few sentences together, or a whole scene, tweaking some more.Perret's mother, Danielle Perret is a director of doublage. She has to get it right because it's all checked and double-checked.
"Even when Perret’s work is done, it’s all checked. “Twenty years ago, you wrote a script, and no one checked it,” she says. You as the writer were the first and last word on the translation. If you wanted to inject a little French edge into a line, that was your prerogative. And it happened, a lot. There’s a scene in Dirty Dancing, which French children of the 80s and 90s know as by-heart as their American counterparts, where the teenage heroine, Baby, is being scolded by her father after sneaking out for a mambo performance. “And take that stuff off your face,” he says, looking disdainfully at her makeup, “before your mother sees you.” In the version French children grew up with, he says, “And take that disgusting makeup off your face — you look like a whore.”I'd been wondering whether the film's original director had any say in how the dubbing was done. It sounds like they do and they don't. The studios definitely do!
These days, though, Hollywood studios have offices and representatives in France managing this big business, and they check everything. Everything. They force the writers to tone down the language rather than turn it up — you can say fuck and show nipples on French television, but American distributors make Perret change “You’re a dick” to “You’re an idiot” in a show. During Guardians of the Galaxy’s dubbing, Karsenti (another dubbing artist) told me, there was much handwringing on the part of Disney representatives over whether to let the phrase “sticks up their butts” be translated into “sticks up their asses.”There's a lot more interesting stuff in the article; too much for me to synthesize here. Check it out and come back and see my sometime. Merci! But before you go ... the trailer for Gone Girl en français. Rosamund Pike is voiced by Laura Blanc via the Dubbing Bros. studio.