When I included the film adaptation of Harry Potter as a topic for my course I intended to consider how the movies betray or enhance the text –yes, the old-fashioned fidelity criterion. Also, I wanted to examine the very British cast. However, I ended transforming the two planned lectures into far more active sessions on, first, translation (with the help of Ariadna García Turón, working Harry Potter for her BA dissertation) and, second, dubbing.

A friend suggested that I contact Masumi Mutsuda, the actor who dubbed Harry into Catalan. Although a bit disoriented by his name (his dad is Japanese, his mum Spanish) I did so and he, very generously, allowed himself to be interviewed not only on Harry-related matters but on the much wider issue of dubbing. It was, for all of us, a great lesson on how culture works. Also, the best possible ending for the course.

Masumi’s answers allowed us to understand not only how the whole process of dubbing a film works, starting with casting, but also how invisible this practice is. When I asked which scene I should show as a sample of his work, he chose one in Deathly Hallows, part 1, when Harry, Hermione and Ron –much stressed and on the run from Voldemort– quarrel. Ron then leaves. You should see the surprised faces of my American and British students, hearing the trio they know so well speak in a totally unknown language… We had to explain to them matters as peculiar such as the fact that several famous Hollywood actors share the same Spanish or Catalan voice. And this is odd. Yet, we take it for granted.

Dubbing was introduced by Hollywood studios as soon as sound made it into films (1927, The Jazz Singer). In the Babel tower that Europe is this resulted in a split in the 1930s between countries who opted for subtitling and those, like Spain, which chose dubbing. The high illiteracy rate of spectators made reading subtitles impractical. I refer to the times of the Spanish Republic (1931-6). Franco’s regime, imitating Hitler and Mussolini, passed a law in 1941 banning subtitles in any language spoken in Spain and making dubbing compulsory, albeit only in Spanish Castilian. Subtitles were gradually allowed from the 1950s onwards (in Castilian, for art-house films). Dubbing into the other languages, however, only re-emerged in the 1980s with the new regional media. Dallas made TV3 very popular.

Masumi Mutsuda argued that, for the spectator, the most reasonable practice should be to see in the original version the films whose original language the spectator understands and, then, consume dubbed versions for the rest. This sounds very sensible. Yet, I put a stop to this in my own practice when I saw a Korean thriller (I forget the title) in which a gang of Chinese criminals and a gang of Korean villains met to discuss business –they spoke English to each other but their native language among themselves. Now imagine all this dubbed into Spanish… Ironically, it seems Masumi dubbed the scene!!

Children, who cannot really read fast-moving subtitles proficiently until at least twelve (my guess), are quite another matter. I don’t know how they manage in, say, Finland, when they show Disney films to kids who don’t even know how to read, but in that context the matter of dubbing makes sense. Actually, Masumi and my own students were at the centre of a fascinating, still on-going war between the Generalitat and the Hollywood distributors for dubbing into Catalan.

I chronicled that in an article you can find in my web. Basically, Warner Bros. declined to dub the first Harry Potter film (Philosopher’s Stone, 2001) into Catalan, despite having obtained already a subsidy to do so from the Catalan Government, Generalitat. 50,000 angry parents of the 200,000 children who’d read the book in Catalan (as many as children who’d read it in Spanish in Catalonia) started a furious campaign… that led Warner Bros. to apologise and to offer a few subtitled copies (useless…). They agreed to dub all subsequent Harry Potter films into Catalan. Now: my students were among these 200,000 children, the campaigners were their own parents or their peers, and Masumi was cast to be Harry from the second film onwards –he did dub the first one, too, for its TV3 release. He knew about the conflict, my students did not or had forgotten.

My students moved onto the original version of the books and films as soon as they could, around age 13, and often with great difficulties. Considering that most started reading Harry Potter aged between 7 and 10, you can see how great their dependence was on the translations of the books (and how nonchalantly these were produced!!) and on dubbing –in the language of their choice. Dubbing even affected the translation in the Catalan case and it many others it seems. The (very questionable) translator Laura Escorihuela was replaced after book four when she refused to give Warner Bros. for free the right to use her translation as the basis of dubbing for the first film. What a story…

Masumi tells me that in Japan dubbing actors (or voice actors, the term he uses) are big stars with specialised magazines, fans, etc. Here, even though their contribution is so crucial for our access to foreign culture and their quality amazingly high, they’re anonymous. He himself, though a professional making a living off his trade, runs a small start-up company with some friends on the side. Just in case work turns slack.

I believe that film critics are very much to blame for this state of affairs. I hate it when they praise the work of a particular actor despite having seen a dubbed version of the film in question (when they even mispronounce the names of actors or characters that is obvious). If they got into the habit of seeing both versions and praising the talent of the voice actors, things would be quite different. The pretence that voice actors contribute nothing and are just a transparent medium for the original actor to shine should be dropped urgently.

Thanks Masumi!! I’ll do my best to teach this to anyone who’ll listen.

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