Flowing Speech: On the Complexities of Audiovisual Translation

It’s really beautiful to get carried away by your emotions while translating.

Over the course of its four-season run, U.S. television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend won acclaim and awards for its groundbreaking musical format, treatment of mental illness, and reinvention of romantic comedy tropes. Plus, it’s funny—really funny. Every episode contains jokes, quick banter, songs, and a slew of puns and double-entendres. Audiovisual translator Alicia González-Camino, who translated the scripts for Spanish dubbing, knew she’d have her work cut out for her. I spoke with González-Camino via email. Her responses to my questions, compiled below, illustrate her translation process and relationship to this project. Here she is, in her own words, discussing the show’s challenges and whether audiovisual translation counts as a literary art.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and translated from Spanish.

—Allison Braden, Editor-at-Large for Argentina

As a translator, I started out doing any translation that fell into my hands, mostly technical, and it was so boring. I didn’t enjoy translating at all. Audiovisual translation, on the other hand, allows me to be more creative. I have fun translating, and I can feel proud of the result when I successfully make a scene or especially complicated speech flow well and sound natural. It’s a kind of translation where, on the same day, you can have animated drawings with rhymes and little made-up names, something with mafiosos, full of cursing, and something funny and comedic. And in my case, since I translate from five languages, you can also change from one language to another in one day. The result is that you can have really engaging days thanks to the variety.

Plus, in the case of dubbing, the translation comes to life in the voice of the actors. And if you’re lucky, a translation of yours can become part of the whole country’s vocabulary when a show or movie is really well-known and some phrase takes hold in the popular lexicon for posterity. That hasn’t happened to me yet with my translations, but leaving my footprint through language seems incredibly fun to me, in addition to being an honor.

I guess audiovisual translation is somewhat literary, because we’re all tied to a style we have to respect. We approach works that have existing souls and, in some sense, we create works with new souls that our respective audiences can understand, provoking the same emotions and reactions as the original.

The studio Best Digital contacted me about [Crazy Ex-Girlfriend]. I looked up some information and YouTube videos to get an idea of what it was, and I accepted knowing it would be difficult. Later it turned out to be much more labor-intensive than I initially thought, and I almost finished the first season with my tongue hanging out!

For this series in particular, I would watch the whole episode first, then translate using just the script, and finally watch the whole episode again with my translation in hand. I would make changes based on the context or mouth movements, improve the flow depending on the rhythm of the original, and resolve complicated translations that I’d left to work out later. I always do it that way with comedies in order to have a complete vision of the movie or show, and the humor they use. For example, there can be a joke at the beginning of the show that they pick up again later, so it would be risky to translate it directly without seeing the second reference, since it’s possible your solution wouldn’t work later.

The most difficult aspect, from the point of view of translation, is the humor. In this series, the sense of humor is lively and constant. Plus, it’s very American humor, with lots of cultural references specific to the U.S. or even just California. Some of the jokes, double-entendres, and puns drove me insane.

It was also hard how fast some characters spoke—dialogue with interruptions, panting, pauses, hesitations. But that’s more a question of adjustment, and it was the job of Roberto Cuenca, the dubbing director, to get that right.

Another challenge is that each character has their own way of speaking and a particular vocabulary, like Darryl’s old-timey expressions and slowalmost sleepyspeech, Heather’s slightly teenager sound, and Maya’s young, “I want to be cool” way of talking. Each character has a register and distinctive touch you have to respect in the dubbing.

The fun of this series is that it’s really irreverent and politically incorrect, so I could give free reign to the spontaneity of the language (it was finally a series where I could be silly without worrying).

I translated the songs literally and the music director, Miguel Antelo, was in charge of modifying them and making them rhyme to record in Spanish. I gave him notes and suggestions for the puns and jokes in the songs, but he had the last word since the cadence of the verses and the rhymes were more important. In my opinion, there are songs that turned out incredible. (“I’m So Good at Yoga,” “Let’s Generalize About Men,” “I Give Good Parent,” and “Where’s the Bathroom?” are some of my favorites in Spanish.)

 Where’s the Bathroom? — Spanish

Where’s the Bathroom? — English

The sense of humor in this series is really distinctive. I think it’s the series with the most humor I’ve ever done, and that’s why it was one of the most difficult and complex. It’s also been really gratifying, in spite of how much I stressed over the translation!

In other series and movies, there are dialogues and scenes (generally with women throwing themselves at some guy) that aren’t very true to real life. They seem like scenes written by the mind of some man, more “male wishful thinking” than reality. I love that this series doesn’t have a problem talking about the less sexy and more real side of women, like how we get ready to go out, about fat rolls, periods, vaginal infections, motherhood that isn’t idealized, etc. It’s nice to finally see a show where women are portrayed pretty realistically, with all their nuances, imperfections, struggles, and craziness.

A viewer can relax, but for me it’s difficult to turn off “translator mode.” But even so, I laughed and even cried at some scenes while I translated. It’s really beautiful to get carried away by your emotions while translating. It lends more depth to the experience, and I think that is reflected in the translation.

There were times I wanted to strangle Rebecca (the lead character) for the things she said and did, and it was really difficult for me to identify with her and her problems, but in the end I had a lot of love for her and I was sorry the series was over. The same goes for other characters, like Valencia (who I liked more and more) and Nathaniel, who made me want to cuddle him. And obviously when the original Greg Serrano left, it was a blow for me too!

Translators work from home, and we don’t have contact with the final audience or their reactions, but, for example, I was at an audiovisual translation conference in Madrid, and there were several translation students who came up to me all excited because they were fans of the show and had watched it in English, then in Spanish. They said they loved my translation and the dubbing. For me it was one of the most special and surprising parts of the conference. It’s important to remember that your work reaches people, even though you don’t see it. It’s those moments when you truly understand that your work doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

Alicia González-Camino graduated with a degree in Translation and Interpreting and has a master’s in Dubbing, Translation, and Subtitling. She is passionate about languages and translates into Spanish from English, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese. Currently, she translates television shows and feature-length films for several dubbing studios in Spain and is a part of the video game translation team for Ankama Games. She has translated series such as Peaky Blinders, Gomorrah, The League, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, My Brilliant Friend, Vida, Wakfu, Insatiable, Howards End and Vampirina, and movies such as Mary Queen of Scots, Dumbo, Us, Good Boys, Tully, Venus à la fourrure, The Humbling, Latin Lover, Un + Une, and Breaking In.

Allison Braden is a journalist, translator, and translation consultant. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Columbia Journalism Review, and Spanish and Portuguese Review, among others. She serves as Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina and editorial assistant for the journal Translation & Interpreting Studies.