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“The words should roll out of the mouth” – On the dubbing of “The Wire” in German

Posted on October 24, 2008 by

For the original interview in German click here.

Frank Schröder is one of the two authors of the German dubbing of the acclaimed television series “the Wire”. In an interview with Babbel Blog, he speaks about the difficulties of translating the dialogue-rich series, which portrays the day to day goings-on of the police and drug dealing millieu in Baltimore. The series has been running for the past few weeks on German pay television. Schröder not only took care of direction for the dubbing of the first season, but he also dubbed the voice of the role of the policeman “Herc”.

Babbel-Blog: Even in the USA, some have to use subtitles to understand what’s happening in the show, because the slang can be almost incomprehensible to the untrained ear. As authors of the dubbing text, were you a bit stunned at first?

Frank Schröder: At first we were a bit stunned…when the raw translation of the first episodes were ready. I had a look at them together with “continuity,” that is, the English script and the German raw translation. That way I could understand a lot more than on the first look. My English isn’t that bad, but that way it was more understandable in some places.

How do you translate terms like “re-up” when it has to do with a drug deal, or “high-rise” when it has to do with a housing project? What do you use in German for those?

The script translator, Herr Schröter, is one of the better ones in the industry. He’s a big fan of the series, and he was familiar with it beforehand, so that was a big advantage. A script translator first translates it into German. We as authors then make sure that the dialogue is coherent, that the content makes sense, and that it’s correct for dubbing. The script translator already did a very good preliminary job, he really paid attention to the dubbing systematics. And he already made suggestions. Frank Turba, my co-author and I, we then discussed what we wanted to say for specific terms, what would be the best ones to take.

For example: “The projects”, which were so often mentioned in the first season. The uninformed viewer will not be able to start out with that. We just straight out from the beginning talked about “Sozialbauten” (dir. translation, social buildings). That way we gave an explanation, and then introduced the term “projects”. That way we could keep using the term “projects”(in English).

Anything that has to do with “low-rises” or “high-rises”, we use the German equivalent, “Flachbauten”, “Hochhaus” or “Hochhaussiedlung”.

A main term – and the show’s namesake – is “the Wire”, which can’t be directly translated into German. What word do you use?

The title stays in English. On Premiere (the Pay-TV station) the series is also called “the Wire”. Within the series we’ve mentioned “Abhöraktion” (electronic eavesdropping), since the first season is all about eavesdropping.

In English there’s a lingo for drugdealing, is there also German drug slang that you can orient yourself with?

Here and there we’ve borrowed some things from German drug slang. Overall the whole story with the slang has been tough. Since it’s so good in the original, and it’s so well presented, we definitely have a hard time bringing the slang over to German. It’s almost impossible. We’ve done it in this way, that the people we’ve gotten for certain characters don’t use clear speech — that otherwise in dubbing would need to be well articulated, etc. That means slurring – every word shouldn’t be exact or clearly spoken. Words like “ist” (is) or “nicht” (not) are said without the T’s at the end, the words should roll out of their mouths and not come across very articulated.

When one is otherwise paying attention to synchronization in dubbing, it’s a straight speech, that means no throaty voices, nasaly voices, “spuckeklacker” (stuttering/lisping). You really try and make sure this doesn’t happen or you simply don’t end up using these kind of takes. But in this series we’ve had to accept them. The slums, the ghettos, the on-the-street, that should come across as authentically as possible. That the people don’t manage to speak very clearly or nicely, they can do that too – I hold my nose a little now, here and there, speak more nasaly, sometimes stutter a bit, don’t speak so clearly, so that can come across.

In general it’s really hard to bring the slang over to German as it is in the original. I’m sure there’s been a lot of urban jargon in there, but you have to be careful about momentarily fashionable speech, because what’s common right now is at one point “in” speech – once dubbed, always dubbed. So when someone watches that in five or seven years, “in” speech spoken here on the street in Germany won’t be “in” anymore, or people simply don’t say things like that anymore. So one has to take care with those sorts of things.

To bring over the style of the speech out of the slums or ghettos, we haven’t used very exact, grammatically correct German. Nobody says “Wegen des Fahrrads” (because of the bikes), rather “wegen dem Fahrrads” (’cause of them bikes), for example there we use wrong German. Here and there we’ve used other phrases, sometimes with an English or American sentence structure.

You speak the role of “Herc”, one of the policemen. One of his sayings is: “We tune ’em up, beat ’em up, lock ’em down”. How do you bring that sort of speech, the way Herc talks, over to German?

These things get worked out in different ways, it depends on the situation. We’ve made a sheet with certain terms that we’ve replaced. We have to work it out together – when different authors work on something, like in this case there was two of us, we have to consistently switch terms around. It always depends then what context the person just said that phrase. And if someone has already found a translation for that, we have to figure out if it works in the next situation.

I remember a scene in the first season, where two detectives are surveying a crime scene and say “fuck” to each other back and forth.

Great scene. It goes for over minutes, amazing.

They said “fuck” twenty times. Did you do the same?

We had a little consultation over that, but it was actually quite clear that it could just go like in the original. We had them say “fuck”, “fucker”, “fucking” etc. twenty times, it stayed that way.

One of the most important words is “fuck”. Have you used that word in English, or have you stuck German cursewords in?

We use “fuck”. But not all the time. In a thousand cases, that is, if in a hundred sentences one after another and in every sentence the word “fuck” is said three times, it gets a bit loaded down, the viewers also – it can get to be a bit of an overload. In principle we’ve left them there, but here and there at certain points when it gets out of hand and forced in the German or simply doesn’t sound good, we’ve switched it with one or another word like “scheiße” or “verschissen”, “verfickt”. We stuck to the language use of the orignial, which is sometimes kind of rough.

How many dubbers have worked in this production?

For the first season we’ve had to recruit a lot of people from the industry. Except for the starring roles, that were already established, there were a lot of little roles to fill. Hard to say how many there were – somewhere around 40-50 dubbers.

How long did you work on the first season?

The project started in July (2008) and we finished the season a week ago (beginning of October).

Are you going to start working on the second season right away?

The second season just came in and we’re working on it slowly.

Do you like the series?

Very, very good – very well done series in all aspects. The camera, great. Direction, very good. The actors, very good, very good casting. All in all it works well together.

Sometimes, when one oversees a series, after a certain number of scenes, you get the gist of it and you notice there are no ideas left. You see it in the actors’ performance and accordingly there is nothing relevant happening in the story anymore.

In the case of “the Wire” not at all. If you watch the episodes or sit in front of it writing down the texts, one never has the feeling that now a scene’s coming that doesn’t fit, or where they ran out of ideas and didn’t know how to get the message across. Never.

There isn’t one scene, at least up until now in the first season, where one has the feeling, here the series is sagging, it’s getting weaker– great, a really great series.

Do you have a favorite character?

McNulty comes to mind. I would also add Omar (picture above), I find him really interesting.

In the US Bubbles is an audience favorite. What do you think of him?

Bubbles comes across really well. He’s kind of cute in a certain context. I think he’s nice, well acted. There are a lot of characters that come across really well. Also for example Kima Greggs, as a person, she comes across great. I hope that we’ve done them justice in German. I have that impression in the studio. With our cast with Katrin Zimmermann it comes across great.

So there are really great characters. And working with them is really fun, as much in the studio as at home with the script.

I’m interested to see how the series does on German television. It’s already playing on Fox, a pay channel on Premiere. I almost can’t imagine that it will stay there. Later on the series will be somewhere on network television. We’ll see.

(Translation: Mara)


I haven’t checked in here for some time since I thought it
was getting boring, but the last few posts are
great quality so I guess I’ll add you back to my everyday bloglist.

You deserve it friend 🙂

it’s nice that you want to work in Germany, but this might be not the right place to start searching.

Hello colleagues, its impressive piece of writing about teachingand fully explained, keep it up all the time.

Sorry folks, dubbing over the series “the wire” into german language is a major fail !Nonetheless, kudos to the voice actors who tried their luck at it anyway, you’re my heroes. I was a resident of the city Baltimore when the series was created and mostly filmed on location. Matter of fact, I deal with some local artists who contributed to the soundtrack and speak like some characters in the series.
Despite the fact that I’m German, I never needed a translator or subtitles. Now and then, there might have been words that left me puzzled whether there’s an actual German translation for them. When watching a series such as “the wire” forget translating every line word by word, you loose the overall mood of the series that the director tried to convey, an authenticity. From the context of a word and how it’s used, you can still figure out the meaning. If one has an interest in the realities of the life in the inner cities of the US with its’complex problems, there should be an interest to understand why language on the streets is different.
Why as voice actors you have to over-analyze and speak about the challenges it posed to speak like the actors, nasal, unclear, street slang, etc – it doesn’t work. The o-tones might not have been provided for the simple fact that this is a series that, just like many movies with similar subject, should not be touched at all by synchronisation. this series is a little more than just entertainment, it gives you the most authentic glimpse into the scene thus far. And while the writers claim the series is fiction, it is based on real people (look up: who is Avon “Bodie” Barksdale to find out more, there’s a documentary on the real guy)
A move into the right direction would be what many scandinavian countries are already doing. Offer a film, a series like this in its original language and subtitle it as good as possible instead. The positive side effects are obvious: the audience will experience it the way that the director and everyone involved intended it to be. Sorry to you voice-actors, this may keep you out of the loop for these kind of interesting, challenging projects if the german movie & t.v. industry ever moves into that direction. It would have another positive side-effect – more folks would learn to speak english more fluently.

[…] Considerable creativity is, therefore, required. Likewise, cultural factors such as social and historical references, customs, accents, dialects and slang bring their own share of problems. Imagine trying to dub Trainspotting for example; even though the Scottish and Americans – apparently – speak the same language, the film had to be subtitled for American audiences. The same is true for The Wire whose slang-riddled scenes meant an American show had to be subtitled for American audiences. Spare a thought, then, for the people charged with dubbing it into German. […]

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“When one is otherwise paying attention to synchronization in dubbing, it’s a straight speech, that means no throaty voices, nasaly voices, “spuckeklacker” (stuttering/lisping). You really try and make sure this doesn’t happen or you simply don’t end up using these kind of takes.”

Un-fucking-believable. They are actually doing that on purpose all the time. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised because that’s what it has to be, but the extent to which they try is still somewhat astounding. That’s exactly why dubs are so horrible and unwatchable. They are sterile, boring and simply unnatural. No one talks like that in real life. Most things that make the language and speech interesting are systematically removed. Of course a lot just can’t be translated, but they can at least try more to save some authenticity by not having everyone speak perfectly.

They seem to try here, but “The Wire” is just one of those shows that’s impossible to translate. Just as with “Friday Night Lights” or “Battlestar Galactica” for example, it’s so dependent on the characters and performances that it simply doesn’t work any other way.
And it’s doomed to fail on German TV. It will be completely forgotten on PayTV and no free TV station will even consider touchich it. The show is very niche and ignored even on US television. It’s just too intelligent and unusual to survive on commercial TV – anywhere, but especially in Germany where all good shows burn.

german dubbing fucks up every single decent tv series and film and with this one it won´t be any different. agree in each and every point with pinaceae.

and yet, nobody in their right mind watches german dubbed versions. they are, too be frank, pure and utter shite.

here in vienna the cinemas showing the original versions are drawing more crowds than ever. people download more stuff directly, people buy dvds to watch the undubbed versions.

the most horrible thing on earth is humour and wit, translated and dubbed into german. they literally KILL tv shows like House.

the problem is the dubbing. simple subtitles allow far greater deviations from the original mouth movements and leave more space to actually translate meaning and sense.

dubbing is one of the biggest cultural crimes at present times.

[…] “The words should roll out of the mouth” – On the dubbing of “The Wire” in G… The Wire has started airing on German TV, in a dubbed version; fascinating interview on how to translate it whilst keep the flavour of the original show. (tags: wire dubbing translation german tv thewire language slang ) […]

I’m sure that nobody says wegen dem FahrradS; perhaps dem Fahrrad, like in the German version of this text.

[…] Here […]

[…] German interview translated to English on the challenges of translating The Wire from English into German. Proving […]

[…] Babbel (via Coudal) comes this interesting article on how German TV went about dubbing the voices for The Wire. Here and there we’ve borrowed some things from German drug slang. Overall the whole story with […]

Hi Brian, thanks for the comment. I didn´t ask about black voice actors. It would have been a good question, if they used voice actors from the turkish community, because it’s the biggest minority group in Germany and their dialect/slang is widely known and recognised.

That was very interesting, thank you for talking to them. I’m curious to know if they used tried to black voice actors wherever possible too?

[…] For the English translation click here. […]

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