Stop Trying to Make Spanish (Latin America) Dubbing a Thing


I have what I’ve gathered is considered a bit of a weird hobby: I collect dubbed editions of films and TV series. When I tell people about this, the response is usually something along the lines of: ‘Why watch dubs if you understand the original?’ The answer is that I find the dubs interesting precisely because I’m familiar with the original. It’s interesting to see familiar characters speaking other languages, to see Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters speaking Hungarian, or Schwarzenegger’s 1984-vintage Terminator tell the assembled punk rockers: ‘Tumhare kapre, mujhe de do. Abhi!’ It’s also interesting to see other people’s solutions to the linguistic puzzles posed by the slang, puns, and jokes that make up well-written dialogue.

There’s one exception to this, however: I simply cannot stand what are called ‘Spanish (Latin America)’ dubs.

For non-Spanish speakers, some background may be needed. The thing about Spanish is that it is spoken in over twenty different countries. It was introduced into those countries at different times, often by people from different regions of Spain, and, upon arriving, it mixed to differing degrees with different indigenous languages. Because of this, people in different Spanish-speaking countries have very different accents, different words for things, and totally different slang. Even things you can usually count on, like pronouns and verb forms, can be totally different. For example, if I were to say ‘Oye, anoche vi al weón que armó el cahuín ese, el de la botillería, ¿cachái?’, a Chilean would understand that I had met a fellow last night who had caused some sort of conflict and was somehow connected to an off-licence. Somebody from Mexico, Colombia, or practically anywhere else would be doing well to understand anything beyond ‘anoche vi’.

This is the fundamental problem with ‘Spanish (Latin America)’ dubbing: there’s simply no such thing ( The people doing the translations know that they’re facing an impossible task: to translate colloquial speech in a non-country-specific way that still sounds authentic, even though colloquial speech is inherently regionally specific. The result is a sort of ‘Universal Latin American Spanish’ that doesn’t exist anywhere outside of the world of dubbing, where slang doesn’t exist and swearing is either omitted or diluted to the level of ‘goodness me!‘ or ‘damn you!‘ Faced with an impossible task, ‘Spanish (Latin America)’ dubbing doesn’t even try.

Let’s take a particularly memorable example, the ‘Big Kahuna Burger’ scene of Pulp Fiction, a film where the dialogue is the main reason anyone watches it in the first place and a challenge to any translator. When, for instance, the ill-fated Brett asks Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) what his name is, he replies: ‘My name is Pitt, and your ass ain’t talkin’ your way outta this s**t.’ In the ‘ES-LA’ dub, on the other hand, Jules says: ‘Me llamo Pío. Y tu asqueroso trasero no se va a salvar de esto.’ (My name is Pius, and your disgusting bum isn’t going to get out of this), which misses the whole point of the name ‘Pitt’, which is to set up a rhyme with ‘s**t’. When Brett goes on to say that he’s sorry that ‘things got so f****d up between us and Mr Wallace’, the ‘ES-LA’ dub has him merely regret that ‘things didn’t work out’ (las cosas no hayan resultado) between them.

The amount of slang, rhyme, and varying register (‘Allow me to retort!’) would be enough of a challenge regardless of the target language; add to this the need to be ‘non-country-specific’ and there’s simply no way it can work out.

I’ve long thought that the best way to handle ‘Spanish (Latin America)’ dubbing would be to get rid of the concept altogether and simply do one dub for each Spanish-speaking country. Eliminating the need to be ‘universal’ and embracing the diversity of the Spanish that’s spoken between California and Cabo de Hornos would not only create good jobs for translators and voice actors all over the hemisphere, but also result in dialogue that sounds like something that would be uttered by actual humans rather than pod people.

Imagine a dub of Tiempos Violentos (as Pulp Fiction is officially known in ‘ES-LA’ world) where, instead of the unseasoned porridge of today’s ‘ES-LA’ dubbing, the dialogue mentioned above sounded something like this:

Brett: Oye, lo siento, eh, no escuché tu nombre, el tuyo ya me lo sé, Vincent, ¿verdad? Pero no escuché…
Jules: Me llamo Armando, y no vai a salvar el culo en esta weá hablando.
Brett: Nononono, solo quiero que sepai que … solo quiero que sepai que lamentamos que haya quedao la cagá entre nosotros y el Sr. Wallace. Nos metimos en este custión con las mejores intenciones, ¡la dura! Nunca…
Jules: Oye, ¿te hice perder la concentración? No quise hacerlo. Por favor, sigue no más, creo que estabai hablando de mejores intenciones. ¿Qué te pasa? Ah, ya habíai terminao! Bueno, bien, permíteme replicar. Marcellus Wallace ¿qué aspecto tiene?
Brett: ¿Qué?
Jules: ¿De qué país erí?
Brett: ¿Qué?
Jules: No conozco ningún país que se llame “Qué”. ¿Hablan castellano en “Qué”?
Brett: ¿Qu… qué?
Jules: ¿Castellano, conchetumare, lo hablan o no?
Brett: ¡Sí!
Jules: ¡Entonces cachai lo que digo!
Brett: ¡Sí!
Jules: ¡Describe el aspecto de Marcellus Wallace!
Brett: ¿Qué?…yo…
Jules: ¡Di “qué” otra vez! ¡Di “qué” otra vez! ¡A ver, atrévete, desgraciao culiao, di una vez más “qué”!
Brett: Es… es negro.
Jules: ¡Continúa!
Brett: ¡Es… calvo!
Jules: ¿Te parece maraco?
Brett: ¿Qué?
Jules: ¡Si te parece maraco!
Brett: ¡No!
Jules: ¿Entonces por qué te lo tiraste como si fuera maraco, Brett?
Brett: No lo hice.
Jules: Sí, lo hiciste. ¡Te lo tiraste, Brett!
Brett: ¡No!
Jules: Y la única persona con derecho a tirarse a Marcellus Wallace es la Sra. Wallace.

It just sounds better that way.

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