by Florian Reichart

Note: This is the English version of the recent article “Bon Sub, Bad Dub: Die spezielle Problematik der Synchronisation québeckischer Filme”, originally published in German.

Ever since the DVD came out on the market by the late 1990s, I have always appreciated one specific thing about this medium: I am not talking about the possibility of selecting chapters, avoiding endless rewinding or forwarding, I am also not talking about the plenitude of bonus materials which is sometimes indeed quite interesting. Nor am I talking about the superior image quality in comparison with the VHS tape, nor about the idea of “multiple, selectable camera angles” which was originally heavily propagandized, but then dropped almost like a hot potato. The actual revolution that came with the DVD was the opportunity to have immediate access to the original version of a film and the option of subtitles with it. Of course there had been the possibility of watching films in the original language (with subtitles) on VHS and TV before, but the real breakthrough was without a doubt the DVD.

But this development must not conceal the fact that Deutschland is still “Dub-land”, meaning that – especially among the big films shown in the theaters and on TV – most films are dubbed into German. The one who thinks that this is the case all over the globe, is mistaken. Apart from a few other bigger countries with a economically relevant film industry (e.g. France or Spain), people in most countries around the world grow up with subtitles in the theaters and on TV. It would be just way too expensive to dub all foreign films coming into – say – Finland or Bulgaria into Finnish or Bulgarian respectively. Subtitles are definitely a lot faster and most of all cheaper to produce. In Germany, film industry and tradition are still big enough to spare dubbing the fate of being ditched, despite the fact that original versions of films have become more popular with the arrival of the DVD. I would like to make clear at this point, that dubbing a film can be a piece of art of its own sometimes and I do not want to give the impression that I am looking down on this profession with contempt. But I would also like to stress that I – almost without an exception – do prefer a subtitled original version of a film to a dubbed version because I strongly believe that this version is much closer to the original idea of the director.

What I have just said seems to be valid for films from any country in the world, but I would like to direct the attention to the idea that in certain cases the dubbing of foreign films can be an especially severe intrusion into the originality and the idea of the film. There are two cases in my opinion when this happens:

  1. the film uses different languages and features the theme of communication problems related to language.
  2. the film was shot in a language that is a minority language in the country that produced the film.

The first point seems to be pretty understandable, the second might need some further explanation. What I mean is this: If I see a dubbed film from France or Italy, I am well aware of what kind of language has been replaced by the German dubbing, in this case it is French and Italian. The problem becomes more complex and severe if – to take a rather abstract example – the Danish-speaking minority of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein produces a film which henceforth tours the world with the label “Made in Germany”. We have exactly the same case here with films from the francophone Canadian province of Québec, films this blog is dedicated to. It can be assumed that more people in the world know about the fact that Canada has a francophone province then people who know that there is a Danish-speaking minority in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Still, it can also be assumed that most people in the world still think of English as the language of Canada. So if a film from Québec is completely dubbed into German, one could get the impression that English was the language replaced by the dubbing and not French.

Therefore, the dubbed German version of the popular Canada/Québec-coproduction Bon Cop, Bad Cop (directed by Eric Canuel) seems to be an especially cruel “dubicide” since both arguments that I just mentioned are to be found here. This mixture of crime and comedy is about an anglophone police officer from the province of Ontario and a francophone police officer from the neighboring province of Québec. A dead body is found right on the border between the two provinces and the two police officers who are completely different characters are forced by their superiors to work together on this case  which of course causes a lot of trouble. What makes this film really enjoyable is hardly the rather conventional crime plot but the clash of Anglo-Canadian and Franco-Canadian language and culture. The film revels in making fun of all kinds of prejudices and stereotypes. The film is bilingual, using a somewhat equal mix of English and French. So if a film like this is robbed of his original languages and its bilinguality by a German-only dubbing, then this is nothing less than a castration of the film’s original idea. In defense of the German DVD it has to be admitted that the disc also contains the original version of the film but in this of all cases, a dubbed version really seems to be superfluous. It also can be taken for granted that if the film is broadcasted on German TV, it will be the dubbed version. In such cases one can only hope that the dubbing industry is indeed a dying dinosaur. Or, talking about Bon Cop Bad Cop: that the serial-(language-)killer will be eliminated.