“Dubble” Trouble

by Translation Guy on October 19, 2009

President Obama’s media blitz, almost a month ago, included the Spanish media too. His English-language interview on Univision was dubbed into Spanish, and some people just didn’t like it. Not that it wasn’t historic, with a presidential appearance on the biggest Spanish language TV network in the US, and controversial (the President said “illegal immigrant” instead of “undocumented alien,” much to the chagrin of interviewer George Ramos), but because of the technique used to translate the interview into Spanish.

Univision is available on cable in most of the country, with local stations in over 50 markets with sizeable Latino populations. Univision’s major programming is closed-captioned in Spanish, but unlike main competitor Telemundo, it almost never provides English subtitles.

Jose Simian, columnist for Mediaite, thinks the interview was, to use an incredibly overused term (future blog on that in the works), lost in translation:

As I began to watch the interview he gave to Jorge Ramos, I found myself moving closer and closer to the TV, as if I were deciphering a strange language. The premier Spanish network had made the awful choice of dubbing instead of subtitling the interview. It took me back to my childhood, watching Hollywood films on Chilean TV on endless school afternoons—suffering because cowboys, pirates, lawyers and superheroes shared the same toothpaste-commercial voices. Later on, my brother and I turned this nonsense into a game: who could name more films or series in which this same overdubbing artist had taken over a famous actor.

But the miseries of being born on the wrong side of English stop being funny when you are trying to understand what the President is saying on relevant matters, and another voice paired with a lousy sound mix make it impossible. (The internet version sounds much better.) Yet, the problem is not only that sound mixing may be tricky and the dubbing artist may remind you of the Latin American translation of Homer Simpson (which it did). Univisión’s choice was regrettable because what makes dubbing movies simply wrong (beautifully explained by Dolores Prida in The Daily News) applies to politics, too: much of what is being said resides in accents, pauses and inflections.

The dual Spanish-English dub technique used here is what we call UN-Style VO. In the translation business, this is best practice and what we tell our clients is best for their audience for documentary and news. The idea behind leaving the original language on the dub at a lower volume is so that the lips of the speaker aren’t completely disconnected from the audio, avoiding the dreaded “Hercules Effect” of a bad lip-sync.

However, when we do head-of-state work, which we do a lot of being across the street from the UN, we usually recommend subtitles, because that is the common practice. Until I read Jose’s column I never much thought of the reason why, we just followed customary diplomatic practice. But it looks like Univision’s no-subtitle policy rubbed some folks the wrong way.

I’ve heard from my American Spanish-speaking friends how annoying those old movie dubs could be, and UN-Style VO is supposed to be the antidote, but it looks like for some viewers it can engender the same negative reaction.

So, was the problem with technique or execution? Or was their no problem at all? I’d really appreciate feedback on what people think of this kind of voice-over work.


  1. Heratio says:

    For a non-native speaker of Spanish, Obama does a credible job with this speech. Only, the rhythm and some of the accents are way off at times.

  2. Malio222 says:

    Clearly he did not write the speech. Was Obama really the best the Democrats could find to deliver a speech in Spanish? I swear, I’m not a Republican 😉

  3. I still think that if official language is English there is no need to spend so precious time on translating speeches into Spanish.

  4. Thanks Obama, it’s about time!

  5. HolyChow says:

    I heard the radio en vivo at http://www.vivoradio.com and I am likely to vote you in 4 years!

  6. Markus says:

    It’s sad that so many conservatives are angry—no, incensed—when someone suggests that English speakers should learn a second language. It strikes me as hopelessly small-minded.

  7. Nomes says:

    That’s hardly a revolutionary idea. There have been language requirements in schools for decades and it’s well known that a second language makes a business career easier.

  8. Honshu says:

    Why did Obama say that we need to teach our kids Spanish? Why not French since Canada is also our neighbor? Why does he want future generations to know Spanish?

  9. LoveGenie says:

    who cares i don’t need to know spanish, german or french this is america, if you cant speak english dont live here

  10. Markov27 says:

    The biggest problem with the people who are anti-Obama is that they lack any kind of creative thought. If you don’t say PRECISELY what you mean, they’re lost. Any kind of literary license is completely lost on them.

    • Ken says:

      I’m lost even when people say precisely what they mean. And this blog is proof that my literary license expired years ago.

      Whether U R fo’ or agin’ the govmint, power speaks a language all its own. Obama is competing for the support of Spanish-speaking citizens, and plays the multi-cultural card. Is it a winning hand? At home and abroad?

  11. RedOne says:

    Yes, some Canadians speak French, but over 80 of the Land mass to our south is comprised of Spanish speaking countries.

  12. Froggy says:

    Yes, some Canadians speak French, but over 80 of the Land mass to our south is comprised of Spanish speaking countries.

  13. TheJumper says:

    Why not. hell, people in Europe speak 2, 3, or more languages. I learned Spanish in school – I live on the border though.

  14. 11111 says:

    Canada has two official languages, and we already know one of them.

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