1. These Stupid Shows
Since the Iron Curtain fell enabling the flow of much-desired Western (mainly, European and U.S.) popular culture to reach Russian viewers, translation and dubbing of imported TV programs have seldom been entirely accurate. Russian audiences, whom Soviet propaganda had for decades been warning of the shallowness of the capitalist world, were probably less than surprised to hear characters on imported shows utter hackneyed phrases in dull voices. Studies show that pre-existing attitudes towards a country determine the way individuals process programming produced there. TV programs imported from the West may be popular in Russia, but are they perceived as anything more than pleasant but superficial entertainment?
Growing up in Russia, I often came across U.S. series on Russian television channels, which only show dubbed versions of imported programmes. My opinion about these shows had been quite low… until I learned English well enough to start watching them in the original form. Taking translation (substituting English with Russian) and dubbing (substituting the original voice track with the one read by voiceover actors) out of the picture has dramatically changed my opinion.
Although some Russians can gain access to unmodified Western entertainment through the Internet, lack of fluency in foreign languages remains a significant barrier for a considerable part of the audience. Thus, most Russian viewers become acquainted with Western entertainment programming by watching dubbed TV shows on television.
The problem is that, whether dubbed or broadcast with the original sound, a programme might seem to remain essentially the same to an uncritical viewer. A careful comparison can reveal significant distinctions between the two forms, but are Russian audiences aware of these discrepancies?
Below I explain why I believe that translation and dubbing in Russia are not neutral mediators between imported shows and local viewers, but often create programmes that have little in common with the originals. Metaphorically speaking, it seems that imported programmes in Russia can turn out to be the ‘evil twins’ of original shows, potentially able to cause misperceptions of Western popular culture among Russian viewers.
In order not to leave my thesis unsubstantiated, I am going to talk about metamorphosis of the critically acclaimed U.S. animated sitcom Futurama on Russian television screens. This is but one example of Russian translation and dubbing, and the reader might not see it as significant enough to create generalizations. My goal here is to start the conversation, not to provide the ultimate truth. My assessments and interpretations are all but subjective, and with this essay I hope to open ground for further discussion.
2. Russia and the West: Uneasy Relationship
I chose to focus on a U.S. show because of the concerns about Americanization still lingering in Russia and because of the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Russia today. Despite the fact that the Iron Curtain disappeared more than two decades ago, the relationship between Russia and the West, the U.S. in particular, remains strained.
Russian government occasionally uses Soviet rhetoric to accuse opposition leaders, anti-government political activists, and NGOs of being Western puppets. In 2012 Russia passed the internationally criticized ‘foreign agent law’ that requires any non-profit organisation that engages in vaguely defined ‘political activity’ and receives funding from abroad to register as a ‘foreign agent’ or pay a substantial fee. The stigmatizing term ‘foreign agent’ comes from the Cold War era and has strong associations with espionage.
Anti-Western rhetoric has been recently used by Russian politicians to talk about such controversial issues as the Russian anti-gay law and the unrests in Ukraine. Advocates of the much discussed law against gay propaganda claim that the attempts to overturn it reveal Western/U.S. negative influence. Those who voice their disagreement are accused of being Western agents trying to weaken Russian traditional value system, the basis of Russia’s uniqueness and strength. By the same token, European countries and the U.S., who have criticized Russia’s role in the Ukrainian crisis, are accused by Russian pro-government media of imposing their political agenda and trying to weaken both Ukraine and Russia.
Considering transformations that the U.S. animated TV show Futurama underwent to be shown in Russia, we should keep these tensions and political dynamics in mind.
3. Case Study: ‘Farnsworth Parabox’
Futurama is a critically acclaimed television show, and not without reason. While from the first glance the series may seem merely a goofy comedy, it provokes reflection on the modern world and its future as well as on science fiction, which is a significant genre in today’s popular culture. The show often explores controversial topics, which include environmental issues, the ethics of science, problems of racial and gender discrimination, etc.
I chose this critically acclaimed series with the purpose to determine whether Russian translation and dubbing are precise enough to convey such a show’s virtues to Russian viewers. I wanted to explore whether Russian audiences have an opportunity to see U.S. popular culture as offering not only purely entertainment-based texts but also more complex and thought-provoking programmes with carefully written dialogues and characters.
The dubbed Futurama made a good example for the case study also because it can be seen as representative of official (as opposed to fan-produced) translation and dubbing in Russia. Seasons 1-4 of the series were first broadcast by REN TV, one of the largest private federal TV channels in the country at the time of the show’s first airing (2001). The translation and dubbing for REN TV was produced by the dubbing company Studia Kiparis. According to its website, the company has provided translation and dubbing services since 1992 and works with all kinds of video products: documentaries, live-action films, TV series and animation.
For this essay I chose to analyze one episode: ‘Farnsworth Parabox’. In this episode, appropriately enough, characters encounter somebody they believe to be their evil twins.
I found that the translation of this episode is infested with numerous semantic mistakes, and the dubbing is substantially inferior to the original voiceover of the show.
In a TV series, characters’ personalities are a significant aspect of the programme’s continuity, which is one of the most important features of TV series as a genre and the one that can be easily tampered with by a careless translator or voiceover actor. Every new episode is a part of a larger story and its connections with previous episodes must be respected. Apart from being the basis for story arcs and inside jokes, continuity manifests itself in the personalities of characters as they slowly change or remain the same throughout the series. This case study demonstrates that the continuity of Futurama was repeatedly broken because of a negligent approach to the character’s personalities on the part of translators and voiceover actors.
5. Distorted Meanings: Evil Twin Invasion?
‘Farnsworth Parabox’ is the fifteenth episode of the fourth production season of Futurama. Unlike other episodes, it features only seven main characters of the show, all working in the intergalactic delivery agency Planet Express: Professor Farnsworth (quintessential mad scientist, owner of the agency), Fry (dim-witted but kind-hearted loser), Leela (charming cyclopean, strong-willed, skilled in martial arts and piloting), Bender (heavy-drinking, kleptomaniacal, egocentric and ill-tempered robot), Amy (extremely rich, spoiled, shallow klutz), Hermes (Rastafarian bureaucrat-workaholic) and Dr. Zoidberg (poor, friendless and smelly crustacean-like alien).
In this episode the Professor creates a box containing a parallel universe. Simultaneously, in the parallel universe the parallel Professor creates a similar box. Travelling through the boxes the Planet Express team meets their parallel selves. Initially sure that they encountered their own evil twins, the two teams have to overcome their mistrust and work together in order to save both universes from destruction.
In this 21.5 minute long episode I detected forty-six semantic mistakes – roughly 2 mistakes every minute. The mistakes range from slight misinterpretations of the original text to blunders that entirely change the meaning of characters’ words, rendering dialogue absurd and incomprehensible. Below the reader can find a sample of mistakes in the context of the story. Quotations from the original text are followed by close translations of corresponding phrases in the Russian version.
The episode starts in the Planet Express building as Fry pleads with Leela to go out on a date with him. ‘I know you’ve rejected me a lot before,’ he begins. In the Russian version, the whole phrase becomes ‘You ignored me.’ Although up to this episode Leela has indeed been refusing to start a romantic relationship with Fry, she considers him a true friend. Thus, in the very first minute the translation misleads the viewer, breaking the show’s continuity.
Meanwhile Professor Farnsworth is busy conducting another doomsday experiment upstairs and something is going awry. We hear him cry: ‘Buddha! Zeus! God! One of you guys, do something!’ In Russian: ‘Buddha! Zeus! God! Somebody, help me!’ In the original text, the Professor addresses his plea to divine beings, which reveals the enormity of his ego. In the Russian version he seems to be addressing his crew. Since Fry and Leela hear the cries perfectly well and do not rush to save him, one may deduce that his supplications leave them indifferent. That contradicts their personalities as they thus far have been presented by the series.
The Professor luckily is not seriously harmed and when in the next scene the team gathers around the meeting table he shows them a mysterious box and announces: ‘I need you to dispose of this crazy-ass experiment…’ In Russian: ‘I want to tell you about an idiotic experiment…’ However, the Professor does not intend to communicate anything about the box except that it must be destroyed. Moreover, throughout the series, the Professor never refers to his own experiments as idiotic, even though most of them are weird and/or dangerous.
The Professor informs the team that they will have to throw the box into the sun, for ‘only the thermal nuclear inferno of the sun has enough energy to ensure its total destruction.’ This phrase is symptomatic of the Professor’s love for the overly dramatic style, an aspect of the mad scientist parody. In Russian, however, the phrase becomes insipid: ‘Only the nuclear energy can ensure total destruction’.
When asked about the contents of the box, the Professor replies: ‘I don’t know what’s in there. But I’m sure our minds would be unable to comprehend it.’ In Russian the meaning is inverted: ‘I know what’s in there but I’m sure our brains will be unable to endure it’. Russian viewers will face a significant inconsistency later in the episode when the Professor is amazed to find out what the box actually contains.
Curious, Hermes attempts to open the box, but the Professor hits his fingers with a hammer. ‘You hurt my collator!’ Hermes cries out. In Russian: ‘You hit my extremity!’ Here we lose a part of Hermes’s personality as well as an in-joke. (Hermes is a boringly meticulous bureaucrat who adores paperwork so calling his hand ‘collator’ is both precise and amusing.)
Having given the order to destroy the box, the Professor goes away, leaving Leela in charge. However, curious Bender steals the box. Before opening it, he utters a blasphemous parody of a grace, which is quite in line with his antisocial personality: ‘We thank you, Bender, for the gift we are about to receive.’ The Russian translation – ‘We thank you, Bender, for this wonderful gift’ – does not contain any religious allusions and therefore fails to convey Bender’s irreverence.
Leela is the one who actually opens the box, and is engulfed by it to find herself in the Planet Express of the parallel universe. There she encounters the parallel team, which looks almost but not the same as the original one.
The parallel Professor sees the original Leela and, having finally understood the meaning of his invention, regrets that he did not realise it earlier: ‘Oh, I’ve been as dumb as Fry,’ he sighs. ‘Am not!’ says Fry, insulted. In Russian: The Professor: ‘How could I be as dumb as Fry?’ – Fry: ‘No!’ Fry is indeed an exceptionally dim-witted guy so his indignation is amusing, while in the translation ‘No!’ does not make much sense.
The rest of the original team travels through the box into the parallel universe. Both teams settle the problem of naming their universes (original universe becomes Universe-A and the parallel universe Universe-1). Then they discover that the key difference between the two universes is that coin flips have opposite outcomes. ‘That explains fruity here,’ says metallic-gray Bender-A, looking askance at golden Bender-1. ‘I tossed a coin to pick my finish. Fog hat gray.’ He lovingly pats himself on the belly. The transformation of this small monologue in Russian is truly mind-boggling: ‘That explains everything. I tossed a coin to commit a suicide. Terrible!’
The Professors worried that twins from parallel universes may be evil, both teams must stay in Universe-1 until this dilemma is solved. Meanwhile everybody is to keep an eye on his or her alternate self.
We see the Amys chatting on a couch at Planet Express, putting polish on their toenails. ‘We’re exactly the same, right down to the…’ Amy-A finishes her sentence abruptly as she suddenly notices that they are using nail polish of different colours. In Russian: ‘We’re exactly the same, except…’ The word ‘except’ suggests that Amy-A must have known about the polish difference before she saw Amy-1’s toenails, so in Russian her astonishment goes unexplained.
The Professors are also trying to get to know each other better. The Professor-A inquires about the strange scar on the top of the Professor-1’s skull. The latter eagerly explains that he had been experimenting to see if he could remove his own brain. ‘Getting the brain out was the easy part. The hard part was getting the brain out,’ he recounts enigmatically. Both giggle happily at this crazy in-joke that apparently only they can appreciate. In Russian: ‘Getting the brain out was easy. But putting it back – not so much.’ While the original phrase is intended to show the twisted nature of the Professor’s thinking, in Russian it becomes dull and toothless.
The Zoidbergs are discussing their spiteful colleagues when their thoughts turn to the wonderful box they both desire to own. ‘Some day they’ll watch from down in the gutter, they will, as King Zoidberg caresses their fancy box!’ says Zoidberg-A revengefully. In Russian: ‘Some day they’ll see from down in the gutter, they will, as King Zoidberg crumples their wretched box!’ Saying this Zoidberg-A is petting an imaginary box and his words in Russian do not correspond to this gesture.
The Professors finally conclude that neither of the teams is evil: Team-A can go home. As both teams sit around the meeting table, Hermes-1 walks in and asks in surprise: ‘Why aren’t you all out destroying the Professor’s box?’ In Russian: ‘Why are you damaging the Professor’s box?’ The box, nonetheless, is nowhere to be seen, and the viewer is left confused.
It turns out that everybody has completely forgotten about Hermes-A, who must be on his way to destroy the original box. To make the long story short, after some further adventures the teams manage to stop Hermes-A just in time and both universes are saved.
These are just a few examples out of the forty-six mistakes that I discovered in the translation. The reader is encouraged to imagine how much these inaccuracies can detract from the show’s coherence and influence the reader’s perception of the original.
6. Sound Matters
The fact that actors’ voices are a significant part of their performance hardly needs argumentation. With voices they can convey the whole gamut of emotions, even when their faces remain unseen. Therefore, a voice is a crucial part of any character’s personality, be it in a film or a TV series. When it is substituted by dubbing, that may affect viewers’ perceptions of this character.
If we want to learn about the quality of dubbing, the way it is produced is usually quite enlightening. Seasons 1-4 of Futurama were dubbed by two actors only: Irina Savina and Boris Bistrov. Savina and Bistrov have also been the key voiceover actors of The Simpsons. In an interview Bistrov gave to a fan website he revealed some interesting details about the dubbing process of the both shows.
According to the actor, he and Savina usually ‘receive a text immediately before the recording and ... don’t know anything [about it]. Later when you get used [to a TV show] and already know your characters you grasp the whole thing better.’ That can lead to certain inaccuracies: ‘Sometimes you start talking [when a character is] off-screen, you think he is an old guy, and then [he enters] the frame and turns out to be pretty young.’ To the interviewer’s question whether in this case they have to record the whole scene again, Bistrov answered: ‘No, you jump out [into the frame] and then start talking as he should.’
It does not take them much time to dub an episode of The Simpsons or Futurama: ‘One episode is about 25 minutes long and we dub it in around 40 minutes.’ Which is, of course, nothing compared to the time it takes the original cast to voice an episode – six to seven hours.
At the time the interview was conducted, Savina and Bistrov had just started dubbing Futurama, and the interviewer asked Bistrov if he had already developed preferences for some of its characters. His reply: ‘The thing is, when you are dubbing – you ... don’t comprehend it entirely, don’t see the big picture. Later when you watch it as a viewer, only then it becomes clear.’
This significant interview reveals several things. The voiceover actors fail to become familiar with an episode before dubbing it. They are not asked and not given time to think about a text they are going to read, to say nothing about rehearsing roles. Not surprisingly, Savina and Bistrov often fail to intonate character’s speech correctly. Thus, in the Russian version the characters speak in such a way that their intonations at times display emotions or convey meanings different from those in the original.
On top of that, Savina and Bistrov definitely do not possess enough virtuosity to substitute for all members of the original cast. We know that cast consists of eight actors and that most of them speak for several characters. Can all this work successfully be done by only two people? Bistrov might have done his best, but all male characters sound very much alike. At times, the very choice of actors seems unfortunate. Irina Savina’s voice is much higher than that of the original Leela (played by Katey Sagal), so in the Russian version Leela becomes unnecessarily girlish.
Audiences, of course, understand that the show is dubbed but are they able to see through the dubbing? This important question needs more investigation.
7. Searching for Explanations
While deciding on a sample for the case study, I could have chosen from a wide spectrum of programming with the net result being more or less the same. Poor quality of translation and dubbing is not an unfortunate exception but rather a rule that is valid for the vast majority of Western programming presented to Russian audiences (unless something has dramatically changed in the last three years that I have been out of Russia, which I doubt). How can we explain the existence of low-quality translation and dubbing on Russian TV screens?
Considering the tensions between the Russia and the West and the centralisation of the media in Russia we might be tempted to believe in ideological explanations. The relationship between television and power structures within Russia has quite a long history. If Russian television channels are run in a way that is beneficial to the government, that might manifest itself not only in biased news coverage but also in such subtle methods as encouraging low-quality translation and dubbing. Reinforcing audience’s belief in shallowness of the Western culture would justify governmental policies that claim to protect Russia from the ‘negative’ Western/U.S. influence.
However, there is a more obvious explanation: an economic one. Low-quality translation and dubbing might be explained by the negligence of Russian TV executives unwilling to pay for quality translation and dubbing, and the consequent negligence of underpaid translators and voice-over actors. Most translators in Russia receive ludicrous wages and are considered disposable, which makes dedicated, skilled professionals shun this job. Translators are underpaid because, for the executives of Russian TV channels, the quality of the result apparently does not matter as much as the opportunity to save money. The situation with Russian voice-over actors was only briefly mentioned here but their working conditions appear little better than those of translators. The important difference is that, unlike translators, voice-over actors are not ‘nameless’ and some of them even enjoy popularity with TV series’ fans, like Savina and Bistrov.
We should also take into consideration the ‘implied audience’ factor. Changes of the source text occurring while it is being translated and dubbed might be caused by a simplified idea of the audience. TV executives as well as translators and voiceover actors hired by dubbing companies in Russia might believe that Russian viewers will watch and enjoy it anyway – so why bother.
Finally, we should not forget about the possibility that audiovisual texts may be subject to conscious and unconscious manipulation by local distributors just they perceive television products as something lacking any intellectual and/or artistic value.
8. Tada! Conclusion
In ‘Farnsworth Parabox’ characters fear that their parallel counterparts may turn out to be evil twins, but to everybody’s great relief no such creatures are detected. On Russian television the situation is entirely opposite: evil twins are not expected yet they come uninvited. The analysis of the Futurama episode demonstrates that Russian and U.S. audiences may well be said to watch not the same, but two TV programmes that appear unnervingly alike yet are inherently different. It might well be that the greatest part of Russian audiences, predisposed to see goofy entertainment in all U.S. popular culture, will not consider the possibility that something is wrong with the translation. All the absurd inconsistencies and flat jokes in the Russian dubbed version – the U.S. show’s evil twin – might well be blamed on the original series and attributed to the overall shallowness of the culture that created it.
In the modern world, television is a window that many people use to look at other nations and to create opinions about them. We should not underestimate the impact that imported popular culture (and imported TV programming in particular) might have on perceptions of the countries that produce them. For those who cannot afford to travel to see other cultures with their own eyes or who do not know foreign languages well enough to gain direct access to these cultures, watching television is a main way to learn about the world. And if this metaphorical window’s glass is dirty or distorted, those who look through it trying to understand other nations might see an image that has little to do with reality.
*Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are purely subjective. If you disagree with my analysis, I am willing to start a discussion. However, I must tell you, that I lived in Russia for a long time and experiences the horrendous quality of local translation and dubbing first-hand. Also, I am kind of a linguistic snob. Words matter.