You’d think a film as accessible as “Indiana Jones” or “Back to the Future” would play to audiences worldwide without a snag--but Bill Stern knows better.
It’s Stern’s job to adapt films for French, German, Spanish and Italian audiences and supervise their dubbing (he free-lances, most often for Universal). “There are always cultural references in the script that aren’t understandable in other countries,” he noted, “so we have to find something with the same meaning.”
Case in point: “Remember in ‘Back to the Future’ when Marty’s mother calls him Calvin Klein because of his underwear? Calvin Klein does not exist outside America--but you have to find something.
“For France we chose Pierre Cardin, and when I saw the picture in Paris the audience screamed with laughter. In other countries there isn’t even Pierre Cardin, so I came up with Levi Strauss--Levi’s. So Marty’s mother called him Levi.”
Stern’s qualifications are nearly as diverse as the languages he translates. A language/literature/film major from Columbia, he received his BA in French language/literature at the University of Alaska and studied film at New York University. He speaks French, German, Italian, Spanish, Czech and Russian. After “two months--an eternity” as a Moscow press attache, he returned to America and work at Warner Bros., marketing “All the President’s Men” for European audiences in 1976.
“While I was in France, I went to see ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ dubbed in French, and it was excellent. I thought, ‘Great--but what if they’re not all done like that?’ ”
As he soon learned, they’re not. “Frank Marshall (co-producer of “Gremlins,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) told me a funny story about ‘Gremlins,’ ” Stern recalled. “In the film, somebody says, ‘Why don’t you come up to my apartment? I’ve got cable.’ The Spanish translation: ‘Come up to my apartment. I’ve got telegraph.’ Luckily they caught that one. In another film a cop told a driver, ‘Pull over.’ In Italy he said, ‘Give me a sweater, please.’ ”
Part of the problem, the 38-year-old Stern says, is dealing with dubbing performers and directors who strive to be mini-Spielbergs. “In ‘Back to the Future,’ Marty says, ‘Doc, you’ve disintegrated Einstein!'--but the German translation said, ‘You got rid of Einstein.’ I told the director the word was ‘disintegrated,’ and he said, ‘Marty wouldn’t use a word like that.’
“Earlier in the film, Marty says, ‘Buckle up, Einie.’ The Spanish said that wouldn’t work: ‘Dogs can’t buckle their own seat belts.’ ”
Stern’s most difficult film? “ ‘Indiana Jones.’ Consider this: Indiana always looks angry, but Harrison Ford’s performance is always measured and calm. But the dubbing actors usually play their performance to the face, not to what they hear, and they were making Indiana Jones a raving maniac.
“Also, the essence of (the heroine) Willy’s character is that she never has any idea she’s in danger. But all the actresses were crying and terrified. That was truly destroying the movie--it made it into a heavy melodrama instead of a light adventure comedy. I really had to fight on that one; those actresses were directed line by line.”
His next film? “I’m starting work on ‘The Color Purple.’ Black dialect is particular to America; you can’t do it in another language. I’m going to suggest emphasizing the agricultural imagery, the biblical imagery, the sexual imagery which gives the dialogue its texture. It will reflect the social environment if not the actual dialect.”