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Dub artists: The desire to make new 'Friends'

They may look and act the same, but there's something a bit strange about the voices of those famed English-language actors and actress on the screens of Slovak televisions. For who would have thought that little Rudy Huxtable could speak Slovak... or Urkel for that matter?
It was after the fall of communism in 1989 that English-language television productions began swamping Eastern bloc airwaves. The assortment of western situation comedies, mini-series, and movies now regularly viewed from the comfort of one's living room are the result of hours of behind-the-scenes work, where actors and translators utilise their talent and love for the art to present the foreign productions in the Slovak audience's native tongue.


The Slovak 'Friends': (from left) Stano Kráľ (Ross), Katarína Brychtová (Rachel), Bibiana Ondrejková (Phoebe), Ivan Šándor (Joey), Andrea Karnasová (Monica), and Dušan Cinkota (Chandler).
photo: Courtesy of Andrea Karnasová

They may look and act the same, but there's something a bit strange about the voices of those famed English-language actors and actress on the screens of Slovak televisions. For who would have thought that little Rudy Huxtable could speak Slovak... or Urkel for that matter?

It was after the fall of communism in 1989 that English-language television productions began swamping Eastern bloc airwaves. The assortment of western situation comedies, mini-series, and movies now regularly viewed from the comfort of one's living room are the result of hours of behind-the-scenes work, where actors and translators utilise their talent and love for the art to present the foreign productions in the Slovak audience's native tongue.

It's work that all involved take quite seriously: "I'm just her voice, but I don't want to spoil her performance," said Andrea Karnasová on playing Monica in the American television series Friends. "There used to be a lot of problems with dubbings. A few years ago, sometimes when I would be watching a movie at home, I would have to turn it off because the dubbing was so bad. And that's what dubbing is about, you can't spoil the movie." Karnasová also provides a Slovak voice for Jennifer Lopez and Claire Danes, and can be heard regularly as the eldest sister on the Cosby Show.

Bibiana Ondrejková plays Phoebe from Friends and is the voice of Julia Roberts and Julia Ormond. "You have to use your heart, it's not just technical, to be synchronised with the character. You have to use your emotions and soul," she said. "I change my voice when I do it, and try to use her intonation. I try to use her accent and melody of speech. She is a little bit crazy and I like her."

The first stage of the dubbing process is the easy part - the translation of the English script into Slovak. Once the dialogue is translated, an adjuster reworks the text to fit the constraints as dictated by the mouth movements of the actors. For shows such as Friends, JAG, NYPD Blue or The Cosby Show, Vladimír Soják serves as both translator and adjuster.

The difficulty in adjusting is that it often takes more words to say the same thing in Slovak than it does in English. Cutting the Slovak to fit the English mouth movements, while maintaining the meaning, is often nothing short of a science. Further complications arise for the adjuster when references are made to American culture or figures that are unknown to foreign audiences.

"When it's something that only the Americans know, and there's a hidden meaning, this is one of the biggest challenges," Soják said. "If possible, I'll toss in a brief explanation of what is being referenced, to explain if it is a famous actor, old television show, popular saying or president."

Soják added that it's impossible not to lose some of the meaning of the original dialogue, but the general story line comes across uninhibited. Making his work easier is 20 years of translating experience and 30 years of studying American culture.

The dubbing work done on such hits as the Cosby show and Friends takes place in a sound room on Jakubovo námestie. Situated in the centre of the room is a microphone around which the actors huddle in a semi-circle while facing a large-screen television set. Each actor and actress wears a headset which transmits the original English language dialogue while the action takes place in front of them.

Seated in front of a soundboard behind a one-way mirror, a director and sound technician monitor the scene to bring it all together. The process hiccups along at 30 second intervals, and the majority of scenes are repeated several times until the monitors are satisfied that the Slovak words match the English mouth movements as best as possible. A 30 minute episode often takes an afternoon to completely dub.

"The level of Slovak dubbing is very good," said Magda Debnárová, a representative of LITA, an association supporting the rights of performing artists that represents the authors of dubbing translators and adjusters. "It's comparable with that in the Czech Republic and Germany, which is of a very high quality."

No Glory

The Slovak actors and actresses providing the voices receive little of the fame, fortune, glamour and glitz of their on-screen counterparts. The work is done more for the love of the art than a fat paycheque and many dubbers supplement their work in other facets of entertainment.

"It's not like in America where you have theatre actors, movie actors and television actors. We are doing everything - television, movies, commercials, moderating, dubbing and theatre. The market is not so big here so you have to spread your talent out," Karnasová said.

Ondrejková complements her dubbing income in other behind-the-scenes work in television, on Radio Twist and performing on the theatre stage. The variety of work, she said, keeps life interesting. "I like to work one day doing one thing and the next day doing another. But what is frustrating is the money that we make in comparison to what they make in Austria or Germany, which is about twice as much," she said. Depending on the number of scenes, a Slovak dubber can make anywhere from 800 to 2000 crowns [$19 to $47] per episode.

Further frustrations arise when looking at the quality of some western movies in proportion to the amount of money spent to produce them.

"My goal is to make a real good movie - something artistic," Karnasová said. "It is frustrating to see how much money is spent on [expletive] movies in the states. I am really crying when I see this."

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