Monday, August 22, 2016

On Tintin and the merits of dubbing

It's not easy to translate, this I've learnt. Unless you are or at least become familiar with the languages involved, you end up butchering the one when transliterating it to the other. I believe the same goes for dubbing too, with the added caveat that one must keep track of not only language but lip-movement and emotional resonance as well.

Of course we've had landmarks in dubbing and lip-syncing as we have in translations, but for the most in both the bad, the mediocre, and the downright obscure tend to outrun the good and the great by a considerable margin. Inevitable, some will say. I won't disagree.

There probably are reasons for this. Like time. We have very little of it on our hands now and hardly any of it to appreciate the nuances and complexity of language. On the other hand I refuse to believe that we've shut ourselves to language so much that we don't care anymore. Critics, however, would tend to point out the past and argue that, despite the technical deficiencies and limitations they had to put up with, our dubbing artistes and "translators" were much better when television was first introduced to the country. Again, I won't disagree.

Just the other day I came across an online list of the seven best dubbed TV shows from here. The usual suspects were there: "Pissu Poosa", "Ha Ha Hari Hawa", and "Walas Mama" (the latter of which, I was pleasantly surprised to learn, was created by the same man who gave us Woody Woodpecker, Walter Lantz). There was one title missing though, and as the list moved up I began worrying and thinking to myself, "Have these infidels no taste?"

Well, Show Number Two ("Dosthara Hondahitha") came and went. Along came Show Number One. Tintin. I wasn't disappointed.

Tintin came from Belgium (the fact that he spoke French doesn't mean he came from France, a mistake people make of that other famous Belgian, Hercule Poirot) and so did Herge. True, the English comics did justice to Herge, but that has more to do with the symbiotic relationship between the two languages than anything else. Sinhala, however, is a different kettle of fish altogether. The challenge for those who went about "translating" Tintin was retaining fidelity to the tone and pace of the original while keeping what was dubbed as authentic and simple as possible for local audiences.

"The Adventures of Tintin" came to Rupavahini in the late '90s. It was originally a co-production between France and Canada. Telecast on HBO in 1991, it was a moderate success but for some reason caught on with TV audiences in Asia. And so it was dubbed into other languages: Persian, Japanese, Hindi, even Vietnamese. Sri Lanka had a sizable crowd that had grown up on Tintin. It made sense (as it still does) to bring the show to the country. Eventually, that's what happened.

When it came here Rupavahini was no longer flanked by Titus Thotawatte, the man who gave us "Dosthara Hondahitha" and "Ha Ha Hari Hawa". The dubbing unit was being handed over to another formidable man: Athula Ransirilal. No, I haven't met him, but I believe him to be someone who appreciates time, knows his audience, and has realised how necessary it is to steep oneself in both languages before dubbing something. In one word, perfect.

There were problems, naturally. By the late 90s Rupavahini's prospects may have improved, but that still didn't erase the fact that we were still technologically backward. For the perfect dub, two things were needed: a perfect cast and perfect translation.

The show won on both counts. Of course Tintin was spot on for a young but formidable actor (and Sangeeth Kalubowila, young and formidable at the time, has since become the veteran he was meant to be: you can read his interview with "Ada" here) who could "articulate" both naivete and resolve (two traits which helped him stand out from other comic book heroes, one can argue), but it was with the other characters that the cast aced. Big time.

Who could, for instance, not look at Bianca Castafiore and not think of Mercy Edirisinghe, that actress destined to voice and act eccentric but well-meaning ladies? Who could not read about the antics of the Thom(p)son twins and not think of Gemunu Wijesuriya? And lest I forget, who could not think of Captain Haddock's fits of fury (with all those oaths he uttered) and not think of Parakrama Perera?

It wasn't just them of course. There were other names. Like Wijeratne Warakagoda, for obvious reasons among the first featured in the opening credits. He voiced on and off and his characters were all ordinary, like the shop-owner in "The Calculus Affair" who looks up at both Haddock and Tintin as they run about wildly, looking for Cuthbert Calculus after coming across two spies out to kidnap him. Warakagoda voiced the Thom(p)son twins in the later Sirasa adaptation. With less success, though.

I wrote on Tintin to "Ceylon Today" three years ago. Here's what I observed: "And with him there were unforgettable side players, such as that old sea-dog Haddock, that forever deaf Calculus, and those two clumsy 'Siamese' Thompson twins. We can imagine them, all imperfect in their own little ways, alongside Tintin, as they try and bring down all the Rastopopulouses and Müsstlers and Müllers who ever walked this world." Rupavahini did justice not just to the heroes in his world but its villains too, and this by spicing their dialogues in a way which (I still believe) made the dubbed version superior in many ways to the original.

There are so many examples I can point out from the entire series, but to me there's one particular episode (and sequence) which illustrated it well. The story: Flight 714.

The sequence? Rastapopulous leaves Tintin and his friends inside a volcano (after inadvertently activating it with a detonator). Tintin of course escapes with the rest, but in an unlikely way: a UFO (the story was originally written at a time when the West was "haunted" by culture-shock and the American fascination with aliens had spilt over to Europe). The UFO comes across Rastapopulous and his troupe, on a small boat aimlessly moving along the sea, and awakens them. Rastopopulous looks up, asks the others as to what it is, and gets a reply from Alan.

The HBO version has him say, "Looks like a UFO." To which Rastapopulous replies: "I don't care what it is, shoot it!" Or something like that, I can't remember.

The Rupavahini version, on the other hand, has Alan say: "බොස් ඒක පියාබින පීරිසයක් වගේ." Rastapopulous' reply? "මට පියාබින කෝප්පයත් එකයි මිනිහෝ, වෙඩි තියපල්ලා!" That was neater, not least because of the word-play involved (there's no proper word for UFO, only the literal translation of "flying saucer") which the original didn't or couldn't make use of.

It's no surprise then, that after nearly 10 years I still can remember the dubbed more than the English version and this despite the fact that I still watch the latter on and off. And I'm not the only one, of course: ask anyone who was fortunate enough to watch Rupavahini back then and I'm sure you'll come across others who say they prefer that to the original.

I could write more, but words are scarcely enough. Our generation were more fortunate, I guess. We encountered cartoon series that not only were dubbed well but dubbed so excellently that we thought they were made here. Few shows, cartoon or otherwise, could match that today. No, I'm not bemoaning anything, not the quality-dip in television and certainly not the inevitability of changing times and changing tastes. Nostalgia is warranted, however. Nothing wrong with that.

Tintin was repeatedly telecast by Rupavahini. Sadly, not for the last 10 or 15 years. For reasons of copyright, I suppose (both "Dosthara Honda Hitha" and "Pissu Poosa", while popular here, were relatively nondescript in their countries), although that's not a good enough excuse. Yes, audiences are different now, but children (thankfully) are still alert to nuance and subtlety. They'd still love it.

I watched Tintin before I read him. I watched him as he fought Rastapopulous, Müller, and Müsstler with his friends. I caught on and imitated what they did. In the end (I like to believe) they shaped me, as they did with every other kid. Rupavahini helped, of this I'm certain.

And one of these days, I'd like to watch him again. In Sinhala. The child in me would love that, I know.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, August 21 2016