More than Meets the Ear: Dubbing and Accents on TV

Karen Lury / University of Glasgow


Dr. Who and Donna

In a recent episode from the new series of Dr. Who, the Doctor’s new companion, Donna Noble (played by Catherine Tate) assumed that since she could understand everything – from conversation to street signs – this meant that the Doctor had not taken her to ancient Rome as promised. (She thought it must be a film set – which it was, since this episode borrowed the set from the HBO/BBC television series, Rome). Regular viewers of Dr. Who will know that proximity to the TARDIS allows it to act as a universal translator for its travellers. Once Donna became aware of this TARDIS facility, a running gag then ensued so that first she, and then the Doctor deliberately used common Latin terms (‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’, ‘Status Quo’, ‘Caveat Emptor’) to find out what the Romans (actually it turns out they are in Pompeii) would hear instead. It emerges that by speaking Latin they sound Celtic, or as the Doctor pointed out, Welsh. As the most recent series of Dr. Who is shot in Cardiff and produced by BBC Wales this was yet another in-joke.

Few television markets supply their needs completely with locally-originated material. Factual programmes are frequently shot in other countries. In the absence of a TARDIS this requires broadcasters to somehow translate. The TARDIS does so perfectly and seamlessly, yet in the real world broadcasters must negotiate the compromises of dubbing or subtitles. Sometimes this means that things get lost in translation and occasionally, something is added. The choice between dubbing and subtitling often lies in convention and tradition: in the UK dubbing is used where it can apparently go unnoticed (in animation) and sub-titles are used in more specialist genres (documentary, art-house drama series and films) where audiences are believed not to be ‘put off’ by the difficulty of reading subtitles and want to be assured that the performance (of character or of self) is as ‘authentic’ as possible. In the British context there is therefore often an implied assumption – related to class and taste – about what kind of translation particular audiences will prefer.


Dr. Who and the TARDIS

But why is dubbing seen by UK audiences as easier to understand but problematic in relation to authenticity? There are two common forms of dubbing practice: one which provides a guide voice over and some dialogue translation (usually voiced by one performer), and another which uses voice-over artists to perform individual roles. In relation to the former kind of dubbing, it may be that the authenticity of the original programme is lost when there is something more akin to a transformation rather than a translation. This is not always a bad thing however: the much loved puppet animation series The Magic Roundabout was originally a French children’s programme but was famously given an eccentric, surrealist twist and a wider audience when it was screened on British television through its dubbed ‘translation’ (in effect its complete narrative transformation) by the actor Eric Thompson. Yet, more recently, anime fans have frequently lamented the way in which anime programmes translated for the Anglo-American market (sometimes involving the re-dubbing of music, voices and narration) distort the original programmes’ content and symbolism.

The more common practice is to dub voices only: recently, BBC news has taken to dubbing foreign language vox pops with voices that originate from within a particular British region or class, with the intention of giving more ‘life’ to these interviews that were traditionally dubbed in more neutral tones. (Alternatively, it may be trying to reflect the linguistic diversity of other countries aside from the UK by making regional accents – Cockney or Parisian – apparently equivalent to one another). What it demonstrates instead is how loaded with intended and unintended meaning accent remains – how accent continues to tell so clearly of our own prejudices and received assumptions about places and people. In certain instances, this vocal colouring just seems ‘funny’ (uncanny and hilarious) but it is also disruptive, even exploitative – while I know that the voice is being performed, I also find it hard to work against assumptions I have about the validity of what is being said because of how it is being said. Perhaps because I am familiar with this practice from Channel 4’s now defunct ‘youth’ magazine programme Eurotrash (which delighted in dubbing a variety of pornographic and grotesque performers and practices from continental Europe for British viewers with a range of exaggerated regional British accents) it therefore feels wrong – ludicrous and perverse – to do this in a supposedly serious news context.


Vicky Pollard on Little Britain

What the practice and business of dubbing reveals is how class and power may apparently be ‘unspoken’ in the culture but is still heard loud and clear in the voices and language of its people. The fact that humour and, in particular, the quick fire sketch show would seem almost impossible to dub or translate makes this very clear. These shows demonstrate how parochial some aspects of national culture remain. Ironically, Catherine Tate’s previous success as a comedienne is perhaps not that well known outside the UK for this very reason. Her most famous character – a lippy, white, working class, British school girl, Lauren Cooper – had the catchphrase ‘bovverred’ (as in, ‘do you think that I am bothered about what you think of me?’) In addition, her and her friends’ language was spattered with their frequent adoptions of different kinds of street-slang more often associated with the Afro-Caribbean community (‘Al-riiiiight!’) How would this kind of linguistic play be ‘translated’? Similarly, another teenage ‘girl’, Vicky Pollard, played in drag by Matt Lucas from the sketch show Little Britain (a title that of course reflects on my main point here on the parochial nature of British television) would prove equally difficult. Vicky’s endless monologues, all of which begin ‘Yeah, but, no, but, yeah but’ are funny because of the seesaw between sound-sense and nonsense. As characters, Vicky and Lauren exploit the unspoken but understood prejudices in the UK determined by the sound of class, power and race: they may do so with ironic intent, yet they inevitably consolidate assumptions about voice and personhood and enforce stereotypical associations relating to the way in which accent and linguistic markers ‘tell’ on the speaker. How easy is it to translate these kinds of characters in a manner that emphasises irony rather than bigotry?

While skilled dub artists pride themselves on adding to a performance, to synching as much as possible with the lip movements and the on-screen performers’ gestures and inference, they must inevitably transform rather than simply translate performances such as these. Done well, this may not be a problem in relation to fictional characters. Yet, if it remains the case that our perception of authenticity and even personhood remains grounded – engrained – in the voice, dubbing real people will always be problematic. For instance, I know that I would feel differently if I couldn’t hear the sound of Barack Obama’s voice; if I could understand directly what Osama Bin Laden was saying; if I did not recognise the echo and constraint of tradition, class and exclusivity in the voice of Queen Elizabeth II. And if you could hear me now – I’m quite posh and English ‘actually’ – wouldn’t that make a difference to what I’m saying?


Catherine Tate meets Tony Blair

Without a TARDIS what is to be done? Interestingly, Flow itself with its Spanish language thread on Latin American programming indicates how a more diverse range of language cultures are increasingly being maintained and expanded via the convergence of television, computers and online communities. And subtitles, which might seem to provide one kind of answer, are perhaps now more commonly accepted on television than they once were – the television news image, for instance, is more full of text than ever before. The recent success of Heroes – which cheerfully used English subtitles dancing about the screen for its Japanese characters – probably worked so well because of the graphic sensitivity inherent to the programme’s visual aesthetic; but it also revealed that if done imaginatively subtitles might be bought in to the mainstream. And, as I am writing this column I am sitting in a café with a television that is transmitting 24 hour news but with the sound turned down; yet I can watch the running subtitles (in addition to the embedded text on screen) to find out what is going on. Unfortunately, this inadvertently reveals that subtitling has its own quirks: according to the weather forecast today it is likely to be very ‘Chile’ in South West England. Hmmm…‘Little Britain’ – not so little after all?

Image Credits:

1. Donna and the Doctor

2. Dr. Who and the TARDIS

Please feel free to comment.


  • Jacqueline Vickery / FLOW Staff

    I really appreciate this article for several reasons. I think the class and race implications and connotations of accents is an important, and perhaps often overlooked, aspect of transnational media. It’s an issue I’ve briefly thought about in local American shows I watch, but I’d never thought about it in a transnational sense before. The ways in which humor and meaning can be added or lost through subtitles and dubbing is an important issue in terms of business models, representations, and humor.

  • Great piece Karen, I agree there are distinct class culture issues at work here in the UK. The representation of class or nation is indeed fascinating in terms of dubbing/subtitling but I also find the latest Doctor Who interesting with David Tennant’s Doctor having to disguise his Scottish accent for whatever ‘creative’ reason and present his Doctor as a very polite, slightly higher class English accent (and distinctly higher than Rose, Martha or Donna’s ‘London’ accents)…or perhaps that’s just what the TARDIS wants us to hear.

    In terms of the transnational we see frequent examples of British actors altering accents in the US to represent a very particular class, specifically (Scottish) Dougray Scott’s appalling English accent in Desperate Housewives though viewers in the US may not have been aware of it. I know this is slightly off topic in terms of subtitling and dubbing but it is possibly related in terms of how audiences approach characters?

  • I stumbled on this blog by searching for “accent” because i work with new English learners, not because I am into acting or voiceover but it gives me a chance to ask you all something about your world. I don’t know if any of you have heard the dubbing (doblaje) of Spanish over foreign dialog. Why is it so false? Is dubbed French or German as bad? Sure, some dubbed English sounds phoney but there are at least some natural voices. I have never heard a good Spanish dub. Is there a reason for this? Is there a cultural reason for it? I am bilingual but not completely bicultural so maybe they like the highflown, over dramatic style (like the movies of the 40s). Do dubbing artists worry at all about sounding credible or is that a higher budget issue? Funny, the spaghetti westerns were dubbed pretty well.

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