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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)