Of Donkeys and Dubbing: Adaptation for the Quebec Market

Category: Culture, Language

For the sophisticated fans of foreign film and TV series, dubbing is an aesthetic no-no akin to colorizing black and white classics. But, let’s face it, a lot of moviegoers think subtitles distract from the action and prefer their movies and TV shows dubbed. In Quebec, after years of watching versions of movies and TV made in France, a strong regional industry, the political climate and public demand are putting pressure on studios to dub locally.

Now, you might be thinking, “French is French, right? What’s the problem?” Imagine Americans watching a Danish TV series dubbed in British English. They might be a tad annoyed by SOCOs (instead of the CSIs) joining the FPOS (instead of the first responders), flashing their warrant cards (instead of their badges), trying to figure out what the lager louts from the estates had got up to (instead of what stunt punks from the projects had pulled). They might even tune out when a suspect is fingered in an identity parade (line-up).

Similarly, the French spoken in Quebec is quite different from the French used in France. The differences between the accents, slang and curse words are legion. Even common words can be very different. For example, the word for “socks” in France is chaussettes. In Quebec, people say bas. In France, a shirt is a chemise. In Quebec, folks wear chandailles.

As different as the two languages are, for years, many studios just didn’t get it. Do the math. Based on population figures, the Quebec market is roughly a tenth of the market in France. If you factor in the population of all the other places in the world where French is spoken, the Quebec market share shrinks to .8%. So, for the studios, doubling-dubbing — making two versions, one for France and another for Quebec — didn’t seem to make a lot of bottom-line sense.

Although Quebec has had a dubbing industry since the ’60s, only in the late ’90s did it gain enough critical mass to started pushing for legislation, albeit with disappointing results. In 2007, however, the industry got a boost from an unlikely source: a cartoon donkey.

In 2007, Mario Dumont, a politician riding a wave of popularity as much for his telegenic good looks as for his Quebec-centric positions and the political climate, took his kids to see Shrek 3 (Miller and Hui, directors; produced by DreamWorks). His kids were not amused.

Donkey, a much-loved character, talked funny, and not in a good way. Dumont complained. Like Americans who find a British accent off-putting, a French accent strikes many in Quebec as “snooty”. And while still intimately linked to the Hexagone, a groundswell of appreciation for their own language, values and history among consumers in Quebec has translated into a growing confidence and pride in the cultural arena.

Just as in the US, top actors in Quebec are beginning to lend their names and voices to animated films in the hopes of boosting box office receipts. If the trend continues, in time the Quebec dubbing industry may just be able to give the competition in France and Belgium a run for their money.

And Donkey? In the fourth sequel Shrek Forever After (Mitchell, director), he has added québécois to his extensive repertoire. If you need guidance with navigating multimedia localization challenges such as these, contact us for more information.

Photo attribution: abdallahh