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Studios try to lessen what’s lost in translation

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Pixar Animation’s “Cars 2” went out this summer in 44 different languages. And every country faced the same problem when it came to dubbing the aw-shucks ramblings of one of the movie’s lead characters — the country bumpkin tow truck Mater, voiced in the movie by Larry the Cable Guy.

“Mater’s kind of a redneck, but that means nothing to anyone overseas because they don’t have that particular vocal culture,” says Rick Dempsey, senior vice president of Disney Character Voices. “So we had to figure out what region of Germany, for example, has more of an uneducated population without being offensive.”

Playing that fine line while lessening what’s lost in translation so that movies work globally is a delicate yet increasingly important business as Hollywood relies more on international audiences to bolster profits.

Subtitles have been around since the age of silent film. When Hollywood converted to sound in the late 1920s, several European countries — notably Germany, France, Spain and Italy — decided to substitute the voices of their own actors in place of their American stars.

In those countries, dubbed movies still dominate multiplexes today, though European moviegoers in cities like Paris, Berlin and Madrid have the choice of seeing movies with subtitles, too. Japanese theaters typically offer both versions. In Central and South America, subtitling, a less expensive process, has always been the practice.

Both translation processes pose particular challenges, most notably for talky comedies, especially the crop of raunchy, R-rated versions out this summer. Translators using subtitles must condense dialogue, cutting proper names and modifiers to maintain the gist of what’s being said without overwhelming the audience with too many words to read.

“You’re getting a more abstract version of the movie,” says Sandra Willard, who has spent the past 30 years writing detailed reports to help translators and vocal dubbers do their jobs.

“You have to be obsessive to do this,” Willard adds. “And you have to keep up with pop culture, too, in order to ensure you’re staying true to what’s being said.”

A case in point from yesteryear, Willard remembers, was the French translator who recast the “gag me with a spoon” catchphrase from the 1983 cult comedy “Valley Girl” as “stick a spoon in my throat.”

And, no, French teenagers didn’t latch onto that one.

Massaging those kinds of cultural nuances rates as an essential part of the job. Elena Barciae writes Spanish subtitles for Central and South America using a single translation, a process she likens to being forced to create a generic language that would cover the United States, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

“The more slang, the harder it gets because slang tends to be very localized,” says Barciae, a 25-year veteran in the business. “Simple words are affected, too. ‘Bicho’ means bug everywhere except Puerto Rico, where it’s a slang word for a part of the male anatomy. That wouldn’t go over too well for the title of ‘A Bug’s Life,’ would it?”

For movies that take place in the past, like this week’s comic-book adaptation “Captain America: The First Avenger,” translators and dubbers must find linguistic equivalents of 1940s-era American slang expressions like “holy cow” and “your goose is cooked.”

Next week’s big-screen version of the cartoon series, “The Smurfs,” was an easier job. “Smurfs” is an invented word, and, as such, has already been translated in numerous languages. (The little blue creatures are called pitufos in Spanish-speaking countries and schtroumpfs in France.)

Entries found in the dictionary can pose greater problems. Most languages have no ready-made equivalent for “nerd,” even though, in English, the words “dork” and “geek” cover the same basic idea and will be in constant play during this week’s annual Comic-Con gathering in San Diego.

Sometimes, words do translate, but a country’s censors won’t allow them on screen. Barciae’s Central and South American territories are primarily Catholic countries, sensitive, she says, to profanity. Barciae removes all the f-bombs tossed in Hollywood’s R-rated comedies or waters them down to “damn it.”

“You try to get the feeling across and still get by the ratings,” Barciae says. “Subtlety is important.”

That kind of keen attention to detail may be going by the wayside. More studios are farming out translation and dubbing work to larger media companies like Deluxe and Technicolor, who offer one-stop, package deals to producers.

“This type of thing is growing fast, especially with more movies releasing day-and-date (simultaneously) around the world,” says Roy Dvorkin, senior vice president of business development at SDI Media, which owns and operates studios in 18 countries.

But the need for speed could result in less nuanced translations, Barciae believes. While this may not be as critical for action and effects-laden pictures such as “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” — where two thirds of the box-office grosses come from overseas, regardless of translation — ideas could be lost with more dialogue-dependent movies such as “Larry Crowne” or even “Bridesmaids.”

“Good translators are really writers who love working with language,” says Barciae, who has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Brown University. “And you’ve got to love movies, too, because you’ll be watching a lot of them . over and over again.”

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