When the agency makes you do a voice-over with a bad translation.

June 22, 2012 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The other day I was talking to some colleagues who do voice-overs for radio, television, and industrials. Soon, the conversation turned to those times when the interpreter gets the script for the voice-over or for a commercial just to learn that the original English text has been poorly translated.  Of course, depending on the client, and sometimes the accessibility of the director and producers of the piece, the interpreter can make some observations and request changes to the script so that the actual foreign language native-speaker can understand the commercial or the show.  There are cases when the producer requests a new translation before the shooting. This is the ideal situation.

However, many times when we bring this up, we face hostility from the agency and the production crew. We are often told that the script was sent to a translator, that it has been translated, and that you were hired to do the voice-over or as voice talent on the screen, and that is all.  One of my colleagues shared that a few days earlier, even after trying everything above, she had to shoot a commercial for an automobile using a translation of a script that was hard to memorize because the translated words did not make any sense.  In her target language a car is never “fresh” or “aggressive” and the stereo is never “very ready,” but as a professional, she had to do the T.V. commercial.

My question to those of you who do voice-talent work is:  Do we show our professionalism by doing the job, even with a bad translation, as long as we bring this up with the agency, the producer,  and the director? or, Is it our duty to protect the company that owns the product to be advertised, and should we stop them from becoming the laughing stock of the community they are trying to reach?

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§ 12 Responses to When the agency makes you do a voice-over with a bad translation.

  • Tony,

    I found myself on the other end of what you describe above. The voice talents refused to do the voice-over because the translation was “horrible. No one talks like that in my country.” The agency asked me to fix it. It was indeed an extremely, poorly done job.

    So, I imagine that if the voice-talents can do it, why not the interpreter?

    That agency spent a few thousand dollars to make the job right, they got a very happy customer in the end, and plenty of new business to justify their decision.

    It is a matter of how issues are presented, I believe. If the agency feels they can lose a good client, they will pay closer attention, but if they think the professional is having a tantrum, they will ignore it.

  • I just think it’s fascinating to meet another interpreter/translator who does voiceover work. I have done some in the past and would love to do some again; be that as it may, I have never had to voice a bad translation. I wonder if you could disclose your credentials as a professional translator so they know you speak as a language professional and not just a voice talent. If you approach it right, you might even win their business for future translations.

  • Sarai says:

    You have raised such an interesting professional dilemma – I’m not in the same stream, but I think it would depend on my financial situation – it pays to be professional, but sometimes you have to ask if it is worth your reputation, I guess.

  • Nenad says:

    Being at the both sides (translator & VO actor) I had luck to avoid such situations, however, it did happen a few times durig the years. I’ve always pointed the problem to the agency/client and sent them the corrected version as a suggestion. If they persist with the reply that “it has already been approved…” I just do what the old joke in my contry says: NASA to the Idiot – just feed the monkeys and do not touch the buttons!

  • Hello Tony.
    Yes, I have had the problem too in the past. I am based in Genoa, Italy, and have had to do voice-overs for products prepared for the local government agencies here. I remember changing the voiceover for a documentary in English as it was impossible to read as it stood and also one for a museum/art gallery which would have confused the poor visitor completely. Well, it is embarrassing, but when it is your own language and the result goes to Brussels and the EU, or is going to be in the earphones of poor tourists coming to your acquired “home” town then you change the text!
    I have learnt to insist on having the material to “look at” before the session – not easy as they always say it is easy to read as it is your mother tongue – and to be ready to get the pencil out at the very least.

  • notaohio says:

    Greetings, Tony.

    I advised a director and studio engineer that a script contained errors. Initially they didn’t want to be bothered due to costs and time constraints. After explaining my credentials as an interpreter and translator, they opened up and allowed for minor changes. Their first response was “we had this translated.” I asked “by whom? A professional?”. Their response was meek – a friend had done the work. I patiently explained the need for correct copy and didn’t insult the translator, but explained the need to assure proper language would result. But, sometimes the fellow who writes the check commands the scene and doesn’t allow for input from others. Remember, a voice talent is to take direction and leave the diva/o attitude at the door. What I learned was other professionals don’t necessarily have the passion we share for language. Thanks for the topic.

  • Reblogged this on TerpTrans and commented:
    Any interpreters/translators have this experience? I would bet even voice actors with a native speaker’s ear and a bad translation might have the same problem? (Reminds me of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.)

  • No agency can ‘make’ you do something, if you are an independent freelance professional. If you feel that being associated with a poor-quality text will be bad for your reputation, then just walk away.

  • I come across this routinely in my VO work in Hebrew. The agreed solution with the agency is that I do two versions: one as printed, and a corrected version. I then charge a ‘post-production’ fee on top of the straight VO work. The end client has repeatedly asked for me, so something’s working alright, but ironically they haven’t taken up my offer to do the translation, as well, even though that’s my main work.

  • Emilia Balke says:

    I am a Bulgarian voiceover artist with 18 years of experience as a freelance BulgarianEnglish translator in the United States. The problems that I encounter are usually due to translations that are too literal and don’t sound natural in Bulgarian. Most of the time, when there is a problem with the translation, my clients allow me to record a corrected version along with the approved version, but they don’t pay me extra for that. I like it when in-country consultants or clients who are native speakers listen in during the recording session. They have been very appreciative of my suggestions so far.

  • Carolyn says:

    Could you just ad-lib???? Say you thought it sounded better on the spur of the moment???? I haven’t done VO, so I have no idea, but…just asking.

  • I am regularly called upon to provide the Hebrew voicetree messages of a large international computer company in Israel, and I often encounter this problem with the scripts I’m given. As Giovanna pointed out, sometimes the translation is so “off” that I keep stumbling over it in the reading.
    The solution is simple, and standard practice: you make one reading as written, then provide an alternative, corrected version, usually at the end.

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