Arabic aliens? Gollum in Gaelic?
December 25, 2006 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Recently I've been fascinated with the way a good actor doing good voice acting can convey a very specific character in movies or video games. (This may seem dumb, but the Demonhunter Illidan in WarCraft III has a particularly memorable voice). What I'm really wondering about, though, is the fact that all the examples of really effective, specific voice acting seem to be English-based.

As in, I can't envision what a spanish-speaking alien voice might sound like (and I speak Spanish). I can't really imagine the sound of a demon or angry deity in Chinese (and I also speak Chinese). Is it just subtleties that I can only pick up on in English, or is the practice of speaking very differently to convey very different characters simply not as common in tonal or heavily-accented languages? Is this why we stopped doing dubbing? I'm looking specifically for examples of "evil", "ominous" or just plain unusual voice acting in foreign languages, particularly ones with more tonal/accented characteristics like Japanese/Chinese/Greek/Arabic/Hindi/Gaelic.
posted by dmaterialized to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"Boota, boota Solo?"
posted by plinth at 8:39 AM on December 25, 2006

Watch more anime, and you'll get a sense of how the Japanese think of evil people as talking. Kung Fu movies ought to be a fine source for examples of evil things and gods and stuff.
posted by aubilenon at 9:19 AM on December 25, 2006

Best answer: My friend, consider yourself lucky to be living in the year 2006 (soon to be 2007, I suppose). Multi-lingual voice acting is lots of fun to explore, and these days, it's easier to experience first-hand than it is to explain. Just pop in the DVD of your favorite fantasy or science fiction movie and change the language track. You'll get to hear what some casting director in Mexico thought Doc Brown should sound like, or the voice of Gollum as interpreted by someone in France.

If you want to hear Japanese, you can't do better than anime. Switch back and forth between the original Japanese and the English dub, and some remarkable cultural conventions will come to light. For example, here's something I observed when watching dubbed American movies in Japan: In America, we often (not always, but often) like our villains to speak in deep, booming bass voices. In Japan, villains are more likely to possess high-pitched, throaty, whispering tones. To make a long story short, this means that the dubbed voice of Darth Vader ends up sounding completely wrong.

Have fun!
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:10 AM on December 25, 2006

Try watching some more anime, or playing some high-end RPG videogames with the original voice track. More often than not, the english voiceovers are lifeless and uninteresting, and the japanese voice characterizations are incredibly varied and engaging.

It's given me a great appreciation for the nuances of voice acting, both here and abroad.
posted by Aquaman at 10:12 AM on December 25, 2006

FWIW, the voice of Illidan in Warcraft was done by Matt King, who does the GeeksOn podcast and who is also Asian. He's an incredibly nice guy- you might try asking him.
posted by mkultra at 11:49 AM on December 25, 2006

Yeah, but the core question is still not being answered, and I'm very curious as well.

Is it just a perceptual, cultural concept? The idea that highly varied, intense anime-style voiceovers appeal to Japanese (the Strongbad anime farce not being too far off) but not English-speakers is one thing.

The question remains: Is it different if you're not a native speaker? Is English just more "diverse"? (I doubt this very much.) Or is it a blending of culture and onomatopoetic restrictions that keep it sounding as flat a dmaterialized implies other language voice acting is? Languagehat? Anyone?
posted by disillusioned at 12:10 PM on December 25, 2006

I often find the opposite--I prefer watching anime in Japanese, because the English actors are just so damn bad at voice-acting.

But I think the difficult picking up tone changes or voice-specifics probably has more to do with language barriers than problems with the language itself. I mean, it's some kind of arrogance to assume English is the only language capable of carrying the kind of subtleties to carry good voice-acting!
posted by Anonymous at 12:11 PM on December 25, 2006

I agree with schroedinger on both points (that Japanese voice acting is usually much better and that a lot has to do with picking up on linguistic cues.)

That said, I always thought part of the reason that voice acting in good anime is usually so much more interesting than in American shows is that "anime" isn't considered an exclusively childish genre in Japan (at least, I don't think so!) whereas "cartoons" in the U.S. are definitely considered kid-stuff. That would matter because voice acting done for kids is usually more heavily stylized (read: annoying) and perky. I wonder if part of the reason voice acting for American games is decent is because gaming gets some recognition here as an adult pastime. Outside of English and Japanese, most languages don't have much in the way of established genres where good voice acting is considered important or prestigious; usually voice acting is used just for dubbing foreign films or shows for young kids, and in most cases things like that are pretty low-budget.

By the way, the reason I say American and not English is that British voice acting has some different conventions from American voice acting. Which might support the idea that it's not just language, but attitude towards voice acting in general.
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 1:06 PM on December 25, 2006

Best answer: I wrote the English translation of a Hungarian space sim, then helped directed both the English and German voice actors. I have to say that, within Europe at least, the conventions for full-blown 'monster' (i.e. Klingon knock-off) aliens seem pretty standardised: deep, throaty roaring, sort of drunk Russian sea captain territory.
Everything else was pretty much down to the personal interpretations of the actors - so our English guy gave the jellyfish-type aliens camp clerical voices, whereas the German dub had them more as dry, serpentine hisses. Originally I wrote the saurian aliens as speaking in a super-fast Mexican pidgin dialect, but the actor decided on slowing it right down and delivering the dialogue like a burly first mate. (which actually sounded a lot better) The cut-scenes in games tend to be timed around the English dub (it's easier to get Hungarian-English and English-Japanese translators than Hungarian-Japanese) so when we recorded the German voices the actors tended to listen to some of the English dub before deciding how to play the character.
IMHO, a lot depends on the quality of the translation. A skilled voice actor can make ropey dialogue sound pretty good, but Japanese voice actors often sound better because they're working with the original script, with the animation timed to their speech. English dubs have to cram words in or stretch sentences out to keep some semblance of lip-sync.
posted by RokkitNite at 2:46 PM on December 25, 2006

Best answer: I prefer watching anime in Japanese, because the English actors are just so damn bad at voice-acting.

Don't blame the actors (well, not always). The English actors are attempting to mimic the animation of the mouth/lips, and are matching speaking cadences to scenes. If it takes too long to say the same thing in English, you gotta say it faster. If the English translation is faster, you gotta find a way to say it slower. Also, the actors are attempting to match animation for non-verbal or untranslatable sounds, like English "umms" and "uhhs." You end up with a lot of "Akira ... ho!"

Needless to say, this is really f'n hard to do, and the English actors aren't paid terribly well. So it's unsurprising that the results are often stilted and weird.


Just pop in the DVD of your favorite fantasy or science fiction movie and change the language track. You'll get to hear what some casting director in Mexico thought Doc Brown should sound like.

I directed the voiceover for a Matrix game, and the overseas film voiceover actors were repurposed for the localized versions of the game, too. Agent Smith in German sounded cool-as-ice-evil. Morpheus in Spanish sounded like the host of Sabado Gigante.
posted by frogan at 3:11 PM on December 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

If you've ever taken a cab in north China, you'll likely have heard a pingshu broadcast playing on the radio - drivers seem to love this kind of traditional story-telling. The one performer will usually do a whole range of voices for the different characters; a gruff, no-nonsense hero; a wheedling, whiny baddie; and so on.
So it's not just common in Chinese, it has a long history that predates modern voice acting.
posted by Abiezer at 3:55 PM on December 25, 2006

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