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Dubbing practice in Germany:
procedures and aesthetic implications

by Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe

About 80% of all foreign language films and television programs screened and broadcast in Germany are dubbed, i.e., the words we hear are not those spoken by the film or television actors in the film’s original language, but those of German actors whose voices were recorded in dubbing studios and mixed with original sounds and music of the film or television program. This essay provides a survey, for readers not familiar with dubbing either as a process or as a daily experience of watching films or television, into the dubbing industry: what happens from the time a decision is made to screen or broadcast a foreign language film or television program in Germany, to the time the dubbing process is complete and the film or television program is ready for screening or broadcast [1] . In the second part, aesthetic issues are addressed, including the polemics against dubbing voiced in Germany’s popular press.

From bid to contract

The first stage in the dubbing process is the decision of a film company to distribute a foreign language film in Germany, or one of the German public or private television channels to buy a foreign language television program (fictional or non-fictional) for broadcast in Germany. Following that decision, the film or television company issues a call for bids to a number of dubbing companies. The majority of dubbing companies are located in Berlin and Munich, with a few others in Hamburg, Cologne and elsewhere [2] . Typically, they consist of a business manager, in charge of the entire operation, production managers, schedulers, recording technicians, cutters and office staff. Depending on the size of the companies, they own their own studios or hire them, with a tendency towards hire. They employ translators, dialogue authors and directors, as well as dubbing actors, on a freelance basis. Berliner Synchron has seventy-five employees, while in some smaller companies, several functions may be subsumed under the responsibilities of one person; for example, the managing director may also be production manager, scheduler, dialogue author and director.

At the dubbing companies invited to submit a bid, the production managers put together a detailed costing of the project in question, which typically takes a day or two. The client usually opts for the best offer. The margins for over-running the budget are negligible: sometimes as little as €1000 for a €50,000 overall budget will make the difference as to whether a dubbing company can clinch a deal with a production on tender. Typically, a decision as to which dubbing company receives the contract is reached and communicated to the bidders within one week.

Preparing for dubbing: rough translation, dialogue script and takes

The client's representative(s) then meet with the representatives of the dubbing company to discuss details of the client's requirements; they may include aspects of language to be used, e.g., avoidance of phrases relating to violence or death (Rabanus, 2004), and aspects of casting. The production managers will already have done their bid with specific speakers in mind, but the client has to approve. Sometimes the client also has specific requirements as to the author of the script and the director. Once the cast is agreed, the dubbing company’s schedulers can set about developing a dubbing schedule in line with the availability of speakers and director. At the same time, the production manager commissions a raw translation of the original text into German. This raw translation serves as the blueprint from which the script authors work. Their task is complex: the text has to sound genuinely German rather than following grammatical patterns of the original language. Moreover, and even more important, the language in German has to be such that it matches the original actor's lip movements as closely as possible. It must not be too long, so as to avoid the German voice starting before the original actor opens his or her mouth, and the German voice should, equally, not continue after the actor has finished talking. Once the dialogue authors have finished their work, the script, divided up into individual takes, each consisting of a line or two of text, is typed. The takes are numbered, consecutively, and a feature film might end up with some 1,000 takes. The schedulers schedule the recording itself by takes, and ask speakers to attend for a given number of hours enabling them to do a reasonable amount of takes that involves them.

Aspects of Recording

Dubbing studios may also be used for music or radio recording. They typically consist of a recording room and a control room. In the recoding room, soundproof to noises from outside, there are two recording areas, one for indoor scenes, and a space separated off and enclosed by a full size heavy plastic curtain, used for outdoor scenes. Each space has a large television monitor on which the takes appear and a stand with the script, with microphones in front of it. The recording room is darkened, so that the speakers can concentrate on the screens to see clearly when the actor starts speaking: they have to match that second as closely as possible with starting to say their own corresponding lines.

The actors usually stand while recording. If they are unable to stand for longer periods of time, they may use high bar chairs. They need to keep their distance to the microphone always the same, but need to otherwise imitate the posture of actor they are speaking, because the voice sounds different if the actor stands relaxed or tense, with arms straight down from the shoulders, or one arm crouched over the head, and so on. Dialogues are not necessarily recorded with all speakers present who will ultimately be heard in a given scene. According to dubbing director Benedikt Rabanus, the partner of the dubbing speaker is the original actor and not fellow speakers (2004). With no other speakers present, focus on the original actor can be more complete, while of course speakers may miss the pleasant benefits of the company of other speakers.  

Speakers do not have a chance of much rehearsal for their speaking parts, because they do not receive the scripts of their roles in advance. This practice saves costs and might be due to the client’s confidentiality concerns. Dubbing actors are invited to attend the studio for a certain amount of hours on a given day, and read the lines they have to speak from the page. Dubbing speakers are usually trained stage actors, many of whom also have experience of acting for film and television. Their training will have included voice training, which will be helpful if they develop into dubbing speakers. A “good” voice is necessary for an actor to be successful in dubbing; “good” here means several things: the actors need to be able to use their voice effortlessly, and to a much greater extent, for many more hours per day than if they were predominantly stage, film or television actors, let alone in comparison with non-actors. Dubbing actors have to adapt their voices to different original actors, making sure there are differences. Thus, Michael Chevalier (1933 -), for example, who has been in the dubbing business since 1951 and is one of the most frequently employed speakers, sounds different when he dubs Omar Sharif or Charles Bronson. In questions of doubt, the dubbing voice tends to match the appearance of the original actor more than the original actor’s voice: for example, in the television series Magnum, lead actor Tom Selleck’s voice is unexpectedly and uncharacteristically high in pitch compared with the actor’s masculine appearance, while the German voice of Norbert Langer is much lower in pitch and thus fits the actor’s outward appearance better (Wehn 1996: 11). The dubbing voice thus has to be both appropriate for the original actor and it has to appeal to a wide range of listeners—even if the character portrayed by the original actor is unpleasant, the dubbing voice must convey unpleasantness without being revolting to the listener. In all aspects of voice quality, it is open to debate how much of those qualities are inborn and how many are trainable, and to what extent.

With the actors in the recording room is one cutter who keeps an eye on whether the speaker starts and ends speaking about in time with the actor on screen, and whether there are any, sometimes minute, unwanted characteristics on the take just recorded, such as a lisp, an inappropriate hesitation, or a mispronunciation of some sort. In the recording control room, a sound engineer records each take, at times giving hints to the director as to sound quality, occasionally also pointing to speech errors that may necessitate repeating a take. In the past, achieving 80 takes per day was considered quite an achievement [3] (Wolff 2004). Today, some 220 takes a day seems to be the expected norm—a film is expected to be dubbed in about five days. The director initially briefs the dubbing actor of the context of the takes: the film or television series, the episode within the series, the character, and the character’s situation. Then the take is shown in the original. The actor reads through the line of the take once or twice, trying out different intonations. At this stage the actor or the director may suggest a different version of the text, which may sound better or be more in line, as far as meaning is concerned, with the original. The suitability of such changes needs to be checked with the help of the cutter in relation to the original actor’s lip movements. If the dubbing script contains phrases in a language other than German or if a character tries to put on, in the original, a German accent, and the dialogue author has changed this, say, into a Swiss accent, the director makes sure that, if necessary, expert advice is available to ensure that the foreign language phrases or the accent are spoken as accurately as the original suggests. The director listens closely to the recording of the takes and may ask for takes to be repeated if language is blurred, not sufficiently in sync with the original actor’s lip movements, or to suggest different intonations in line with his or her knowledge of the entire script and film or television episode, knowledge not shared by the speaker. In some cases, representatives of the client company are present throughout the entire recording process; in those cases, the director may ask for a speaker to repeat a take if the client representative suggests a different intonation or emphasis. Such client involvement may turn problematic when the client’s representative changes half way through the dubbing process and that change of person implies a change of attitude and requirements. To avoid any danger of unlawful duplication of high profile film or broadcast material, such original tapes may have been blackened, or be devoid of sounds and music, leaving only the bare voices of the original actors. Similarly, for crime plots, actors may be asked to sign non-disclosure agreements.

The phases of editing

The cutter present at the actual recordings will later, once all dubbing work is done on a given film or television series episode, compile original sound, music, and spoken dialogues into one sound track. In pre-digital days, this was a very time- consuming and labour-intensive process, implying literally cutting and pasting tape. Digital technology allows much faster and much more efficient processing of the cutting process. The better the cutter’s ability to master the technology, the better will be the end product. The appropriately edited version of the dubbing is then finally mixed with original sound and music, in the presence of a client representative.

Critical Analysis of the Dubbing Critique

Much academic and journalistic writing about dubbing published in Germany (Wehn, 1996; Hanich, 2003) [4] is polemically critical of dubbing practice, asking for it to be replaced by subtitles. The fact is undeniable: German audiences do not hear the original actors’ voices. It should be equally undeniable, however, that much of the film and television material that passes through the dubbing process has predominantly entertainment value: I would not attribute much artistic merit to the use of the voices in a comedy soap such as Scrubs in the sense that not being able to hear the original voices does not detract from enjoyment of the funny one-liners on which such a soap is based. In the following, I address the critique, with reference to its 2003 summary provided by Hanich.

1. The Language Argument


According to this view, dubbing represents a dubious homogenisation of other cultures and much of a film’s meaning can be lost. Hanich offers as an example for this criticism the loss of meaning when the working class English of the Liverpool lower class is rendered in dialect-free, standard German.


Such a criticism is problematic because it assumes that a person speaking with a Liverpool accent, or indeed any other regional accent is necessarily working class or lower class. That may be the case, but need not be necessarily so. Dubbing is, among other things, a form of translation; any process of translation loses aspects of the original. Very generally speaking, in Britain the use of dialect has a different “meaning” than in Germany, and it is not possible to translate one into the other. Moreover, if a country takes the decision to use dubbing, for whatever initial reasons, producers and consumers have to be aware of an inevitable consequence such as this. Producers can try to get some of the meaning implied by an original actor’s accent across in dubbing: even standard German can be pronounced differently while still fitting the term: consonants can be blurred, left out, or complicated words can be mispronounced to indicate lower educational level.

2. The actor argument


There are only a limited number of excellent dubbing actors; as a result, several of the major international film and television stars seen on German screens will speak with the same voice. Well-known dubbing actors’ voices are also used for television or radio advertising. The argument created by those against dubbing is that such shifting identities is confusing: allegedly, when hearing one original actor with the same voice of another, audiences are confused and there is allegedly unwelcome interference: when they see Tom Hanks they think of Kevin Kline or Bill Murray (because they are all dubbed by Arne Elsholtz).


My own experience supports the observation on which the first part of the argument is based: in Germany in the mid-1980s, there was a very popular advertisement on television for a chocolate bar filled with strawberry yoghurt. The ad showed beautiful landscapes, had a very easily recognisable song associated with it and was accompanied by a very fresh and youthful male voice enthusiastically praising the good qualities of this chocolate. At some point during the months when this ad was repeatedly shown on television, I watched a dubbed version of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and realised with some surprise that the voice of Romeo was the same accompanying the yoghurt chocolate ad. A few weeks later a television magazine ran an article on the actor in question, Lutz Mackensy, who turned out to be at least thirty-something and balding, quite different from young Leonard Whiting as Romeo.

As far as the alleged confusion of audiences is concerned, for all I know, those are assumptions: I am not aware of any audience research that empirically confirms any such hypotheses. Here is my counter-hypothesis, equally unconfirmed, but equally worth pursuing further: if a representative audience of a specific film or television program were asked about dubbing voices, I expect that a significant majority will note the fact that the same voice is used for different actors, but that from within that majority an equally significant majority will indicate that they are not confused by this and that they are not aware of any interference: they do not think of Kevin Kline when they hear Tom Hanks speak with the same voice. Further discussions with, in this case Arne Elsholtz, might well lead to the insight that although it is the same dubbing actor for Kline and Hanks, there are still differences in how the voice sounds. A case in point is Marion Degler, who very successfully dubbed both the earthy Sophia Loren and the airy Audrey Hepburn. It is precisely this ability of adjusting the voice to the character that makes excellent dubbing. Norbert Langer, for example, is an appropriate voice for as different characters as Tom Selleck in Magnum and John Nettles in Midsummer Murders. At its best, dubbing is a creative process and creates its own work of art, allowing contents, feelings and emotions to be understood and felt across the boundaries of language. Bräutigam demands that those involved in the dubbing process, managers, translators, authors, directors and actors, should be named in the credits of each dubbed film or television program, such as to make the process open and transparent, and to allow the dubbing actors the public recognition and fame they deserve (2001: 25).

3. The tampering argument


This argument refers to instances where the dubbed version of a film or television program changed or deleted some of the original film television program’s contents. For example, the 1951 dubbing version of Casablanca had deleted all references to the Nazis and was thus 20 minutes shorter than the original. In Hitchcock’s Notorious, the Nazi scientist was changed to a Slavic drugs dealer.

Another criticism of dubbing that comes under the tampering heading is that in longer television series, translators, dialogue authors and dubbing directors sometimes misunderstand or misrepresent information. Hanich mentions that in Nanni Moretti’s film Aprile there is a reference to Gabriele Salvatore, who is the director of another film, Mediterraneo. In the dubbed version of the film, the first name, Gabriele, is left out, which Hanich interprets as an indication of the dubbing team not recognising the allusion. Wehn provides a further example of the kind of misunderstanding or misrepresentation that Hanich criticises: if in an early episode the main character is very close to another character, the translation would use the familiar form of address, “Du”, rather than the formal “Sie”. If for some administrative reasons this episode is dubbed later than a chronologically later episode, the dubbing team may use “Sie” in the later episode, thus leading to an inconsistency (1996: 44) 


Wehn analysed the dubbing of Magnum, a 161-part television crime series, and found that some episodes heavily loaded with Magnum’s Vietnam memories were not included at all. In the episode Never Again the two main characters, Saul and Lena, claim to be Jewish survivors of concentration camps and members of the Masada team that hunted down former Nazis, including Eichmann. In the course of the episode, it turns out that they are former Nazis pretending to be Jews; moreover, they are the ones being hunted by Masada members. In the German dubbing, all references to the German context of Jews and Nazis are changed, shifting the scenario to Israel, Arab countries and the PLO. One scene that explicitly shows concentration camp tattoos is cut because it would have been impossible to make sense of it by merely changing the text. 

Such changes may support critics of dubbing, leading to the accusation of inappropriately changing, tampering with, falsifying the original material and thus depriving the German viewer of the genuine film or television experience. In addition, such changes raise questions of overt or covert censorship. Wehn argues that the US audience, for whom Magnum was created initially and primarily, will be at sufficient distance to the events in Never Again to continue taking Magnum as no more or less than good entertainment. If the Jews/Nazis/Masada contents of this episode had been kept in the German dubbing version, German viewers would have regarded it as a confrontation with German past, at odds with a television series meant for entertainment. Thus by changing this aspect of the original plot, the dubbing version succeeds in maintaining Magnum’s entertainment value. At the time, a German television spokesman wrote: 

Nach wie vor sind wir der Auffassung, daß es von Geschmacksverirrung zeugt, Naziterror und Judenverfolgung zur beiläufigen Staffage von Trivialkrimis in tropischer Umgebung zu mißbrauchen - wie wichtig die Thematik den Autoren in Wahrheit war, läßt sich schon daran erkennen, daß es lediglich der Änderung weniger Sätze bedurfte, um sie gänzlich unkenntlich zu machen. Gleichwohl läßt sich darüber streiten, ob man besser ganz auf diese Episode hätte verzichten sollen, wie es in einigen Fällen geschehen ist, die überwiegend mit Vietnamkriegs-Reminiszenzen dekoriert waren. (Lackschwitz, 1993, in Wehn 1996: 38) 

[We are still of the opinion that it constitutes a deviation of taste if the terror of the nazi regime and the persecution of Jews are abused as coincidental decoration of trivial crime stories set in tropical a environment. How important the authors really considered this topic is evident from the fact that it took only the change of a few sentences to make the topic completely unrecognisable. Admittedly it is open to debate whether we should have done without this episode altogether, as it happened in a few cases which were decorated mainly with reminiscences of the Vietnam war.] 

To address the issues of tampering by negligence, i.e., misunderstanding allusions and the “Du” or “Sie” issue: the fact that such errors occur is undeniable, and those in charge of dubbing can take steps to eliminate known potential sources of errors. However, it takes meticulous reading of available scripts as part of a research project to detect such errors as in Magnum and I wonder how many members of the television audience would notice. According to Bräutigam, the fact that in many instances the original text was changed to conform to the rules of the state-independent censorship body (FSK, Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle), does not speak on its own against dubbing, but it does allow questions about the society that feels the need for such censorship to allegedly protect itself against material that could destabilise its fragile re-emerging identity (2001: 16-21). It is in favour of Bräutigam’s view that many older dubbing versions of film, which intentionally changed aspects of the contents in line with FSK rules, have been replaced by newer versions which are true to the original without attempting to erase any allegedly harmful aspect.

4. The atmosphere argument


A film or television program’s music and sounds may not be on a separate track from the voices. This could be the case for cheap productions or experimental film where the film makers intentionally use direct sound as a characteristic of their work. In those cases, the dubbing studios have to recreate sound effects and music as well. The results of this practice are unsatisfactory.  


As with the actor argument, above, I have not found empirical studies to confirm this claim. Generalising from the likes or dislikes of one journalist is at best dubious. At least in theory, dubbing studios should have the same range of equipment and techniques at their disposal as radio production facilities, and might even hire a colleague from a radio studio to create the sound track. It boils down to what level of service, and thus what level of sophistication of the end product, the client wants to achieve. Today, that implies the question of the budget the client has available. Bräutigam claims that predominantly the private channels that emerged in Germany in the mind 1980s, which imported numerous low quality foreign language television series that needed dubbing provided only minimal budgets. As a result, dubbing was poor in quality and did not do the public opinion of dubbing any good (2001: 32).

5.Arguments in favour of subtitles


The dubbing of one film can cost between €25,000-150,000. In comparison, creating subtitles costs between €3,000-5,000. Thus, if more people in Germany were used to subtitles and did not expect dubbing, the film and television companies could bring more film and programs on the market. In addition, subtitles films would assist (language) learning, on the one hand forcing youngsters who want to be able to understand the films of, say, Lord of the Rings to read the book on which the film is based (Hanich does not state whether in the original language or in German translation…), on the other hand listening to an original language is said to train understanding through listening, to increase vocabulary and to get learners accustomed to the intonation and pronunciation of foreign languages. Hanich partly attributes the fact that school students in dubbing nations France, Germany, Italy and Spain are worse at speaking English than fellow-students in subtitling nations Norway, Sweden and Holland to dubbing and subtitling practices.


The learning argument is heavily flawed. Critics accuse dubbing of reducing the artistic value of the original film or television program. Even if that claim were true, and I have suggested otherwise in some of my arguments above, I would propose that the majority of viewers, who do not know the original film or television program, and who do not research dubbing professionally in journalistic or academic contexts, are not aware of any such reduction of value. They are able to watch the film or television program as an apparent whole of images and voices. With subtitles, however, there would be a division of attention between listening to the original voices and reading the subtitles. Viewers also have to complete the picture they see on screen where it is obscured by the subtitles. If viewers speak the original language, they will compare, in addition to listening, reading, watching what they can see of the images and completing the images, the spoken language they understood with the subtitles they read, immediately noticing a discrepancy between what they thought they heard and the text in the subtitles. This can lead to confusion, frustration and distraction from the film or television program itself much more readily than hearing Arne Elsholtz as both Kevin Kline and Tom Hanks. Moreover, I doubt whether the kind of English at least from run-of-the-mill US American television fare, which is probably what German viewers / learners are exposed to most, is really that conducive to support the efforts of teachers in German schools: here the aim is to teach the pupils grammatically correct English, which is predominantly standard British English.


Dubbing has developed into a technically highly sophisticated part of the media industry in Germany. Much of the criticism levelled against dubbing as a practice is at least open to further empirical research. If the original material has artistic merit, and if companies are allowed to work with a sufficient budget, they are able to deliver products that represent high quality works of art in themselves. As with any field of the arts, or media industry, there are potential problems; in some cases, it would not be appropriate to try to avoid errors, because the gain from doing so is in no relation to the time and financial effort it would take. In other cases, pitfalls can and should be avoided. In particular, clients need to be aware of what precisely they want: for good quality, which the dubbing industry is very well able to deliver, they need to pay more, allowing for better and more expensive translators, dialogue authors, dialogue directors and dubbing actors to be employed, and allowing directors more time for each take, so that they are able to ask for repeats until they are satisfied [5] .

With more time available, and without legal restrictions imposed by confidentiality, perhaps dubbing actors could be given the script in advance, to get a better idea of the character they are expected to speak. If the industry wanted to address the complaint that the same thirty or so star speakers are used again and again, they should respond to the reason of why not more available actors are used in dubbing: good voices are rare, as are the mastery of the technique and the skills required for working with a high rate of precision and efficiency (and a low rate of mistakes that necessitate repeating a take); combined, innate voice quality and high level of performance in technique are even more rare. To address this problem, vocational schools could develop specific dubbing courses.

I have demonstrated that much of the polemics against dubbing in Germany is not too soundly argued. At the same time, the polemics is not completely futile, because it points, albeit indirectly and probably unintentionally, to a number of areas that require serious further research, for example into audience attitudes towards dubbing in general, and alleged adverse effects of dubbing in particular. Comparative research could then focus on the implications of subtitling in countries where that practice prevails, to see whether the advantages the anti-dubbing views in Germany claim for it do indeed exist, and if so, to what extent. Further research could also seek to establish how precisely the same dubbing actor’s voice sounds different when dubbing different original actors, and if it is so, why. Research could, finally, focus on exploring specific training methods for dubbing actors, which probably need to go beyond, or be at least different from, the voice training aspect for stage or screen actors.  

Works cited 

Bräutigam, Thomas. Lexikon der Film-und Fernseh-Synchronisation: Stars und Stimmen: Wer Synchronisiert Wen in Welchem Film. Mehr als 2000 Filme und Serien mit ihren Synchronsprechern. Berlin: Lexikon Imprint, 2001: 25.

Hanich, Julian. “Sieben Argumente gegen die Synchronisation. Eine Polemik”, initially published in Der Tagesspiegel in 5.8. August 2003 and reproduced at URL Und$46567$659869792$/05.08.2003/683997.asp

Herbing, Björn. Interview with the author, notes, 28 May 2004.

Malzacher, Axel. Interview with the author, notes, 28 May 2004.

Rabanus, Benedikt. Interview with the author, notes, 2 June 2004.

Wehn, Karin. Die deutschen Synchronisation(en) von Magnum, P.I. Rahmenbedingungen, serienspezifische Übersetzungsprobleme und Unterschiede zwischen Original- und Synchronfassungen. Halma. Hallische Medienarbeiten 2, 1996. Download:

Wolff, Thomas Nero. Interview with the author, notes, 28 May 2004.

[1] The information in this section is based on an interview of the author with Björn Herbing, production manager with Arena Synchron, Berlin, 28 May 2004, an interview with Benedikt Rabanus, manager of Lingua Film GmbH, Munich, 2 June 2004, and personal observation at the Arena Synchron and Lingua Film dubbing studios on 28 May and 2 June 2004, respectively.

[2] See website for a list of major studios

[3] A few years ago, dubbing actor Thomas Nero Wolff discussed current practice in dubbing with Heinz Drache (1923-2002), a major theatre, film, TV and dubbing actor who retired in the mid-1990s. On that occasion Drache was proud to have achieved up to 80 takes a day.

[4] See for a bibliography, as well as pages 45-47 in Wehn, 1996.

[5] Axel Malzacher, dubbing director for the soap Scrubs, is happy if one in 220 takes per day is completely free of compromise. At least he is aware that he has made a compromise when he has approved a take—given the time he could deliver work that is free of compromise. What about directors, though, who are not even aware of compromises because that’s what they started with when they learned their trade? Axel Malzacher in conversation, 28.5.2004.   
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