Dubbing errors in TV series and films

If you don’t usually watch TV series and films in their original versions, then you’ve enjoyed the result of a translated script and of dubbing of the audiovisual medium. Dubbing is the process of substituting, in an audiovisual medium, the spoken dialogue of the actors in the original language for an identical or similar dialogue in another language.

You might have been surprised occasionally by confusing dialogue. Or maybe there have been times when you didn’t understand what was happening because the dialogue didn’t match the action on screen.
Translation and dubbing errors related to TV series and films are becoming much more common, especially due to the boom in streaming media services (Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime, etc.).

At Siens Translation, we’ve selected a few examples of audiovisual translation and dubbing errors. Have you encountered any of these?

In the film Blade Runner (1982) the Spanish voice-over actor says: “Yo creo, Sebastian, que eso es lo que soy” (I think, Sebastian, that that is what I am). What the character actually says in English is: “I think, Sebastian, therefore I am”. The poor translation is because of the failure to consider the reference to the famous phrase “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). The correct translation to keep that reference would be “Pienso, Sebastian, luego existo”.

In Matrix (1999), “units” was translated as “agentes” (agents), instead of “unidades” (units). Because of this error, in Spanish at one point the police officer confirms having sent two agents, but then you see four on screen. Errors like these can confuse viewers who are paying close attention.

In the film The Interpreter (2005) at one point at the crime scene, where there are two bodies on the ground, the meaning is completely lost when a character says: “Por poco se produce un asesinato” (We almost had a murder here). In the original English version, the character says: “We almost had an assassination here”. “Assassination” is incorrectly translated, given that it refers to the murder of an important person for political or religious reasons.

In episode 16 of season 3 of the series Modern family (2009-2020) Phil Dunphy is in the car with his daughters (Haley and Alex), and he says that they’ll keep going to the mall “despite Haley’s aversion”, to which the younger daughter, Alex, reacts with a chuckle. The scene makes no sense in Spanish.
When Phil says in English that they’ll keep going to the mall “despite Haley’s aversion”, it sounds acoustically like “Haley is a virgin”, which is lost in the dubbing into Spanish. Alex thinks that her dad has said the latter, which is why she laughs.

In the same series, Gloria, who is Colombian, occasionally has difficulty speaking English. In episode 22 of season 1, she says that they’re going “whale washing”, when what she wants to say is “whale watching”, but she doesn’t know how to correctly pronounce the verb “watch”. Her husband, Jay, corrects her, and she tries to repeat it and improve the sentence phonetically:
Jay: It’s “whale watching”.
Gloria: “Whale washing”.
Jay: “Watching”.
Gloria: “Washing”.
Jay: It’s close enough.
The Spanish version is the following:
Jay: Es “avistar ballenas” (It’s “whale watching”).
Gloria: “Vestir ballenas” (“whale dressing”).
Jay: “Avistar” (“watching”).
Gloria: “Vestir” (“dressing”).
Jay: Así vale (It’s close enough).
This could be considered a poor translation, because it doesn’t make much sense that Gloria would improperly repeat the same verb twice in Spanish, which is her native tongue, or that she wouldn’t know the difference between two verbs with entirely different meanings (“vestir” [to dress] and “avistar” [to watch]).

We see another poor translation in episode 9 of season 7 of The Big Bang Theory (2007-2019). Howard is talking about his mother’s health and says: “Turns out an apple pie a day does not keep the doctor away.” In Spanish, it’s translated as: “Resulta que un pastel de manzana al día no evita la visita al médico” (“Turns out an apple pie a day does not keep the doctor away”). The character is making a joke out of the common expression, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. But the joke makes no sense in Spanish, and the literal translation in Spanish sounds somewhat forced.

Despite the fact that in these funny examples we’ve seen a few errors that are the result of momentary lapses, we would like to point out that translating the script of a TV series or film is no easy task. The delivery deadlines are often tight, and sometimes only the written text is available, without the essential help of any images.

Moreover, professional translators have to keep in mind the dubbing technique of lip sync, according to which the translated dialogue has to match the movement of the actors’ mouths as much as possible. This often forces a translator to have to make a choice.

A translator has to be especially careful about other factors such as the personality and the origin of a character, as well as catchphrases, so that everything is as true to the original as possible.

As we can see, when translating audiovisual content it’s not enough to merely know how to speak the languages in question. You need a professional translator who has experience in the sector and who knows what to look for in the original, consequently either making a modification or keeping something in the translation.

And above all, a translator must always have a clear idea of what their job is:
The objective is for the audience of a dubbed TV series or film to experience the same impact as the audience of the original version.