The secrets behind the award-winning dubbing of ‘The Simpsons’

The duo trying to ensure the series loses nothing in translation say the key lies in staying hidden

Dub steps: Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa.
Dub steps: Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa.

For dubbing to be good you mustn’t notice it: that’s the motto of Ana María Simón Rius, the 71-year-old actress responsible for adapting and directing the Spanish dubbing of such landmark American series as The Sopranos and The Simpsons. Her daily work on the latter has just earned her, for the second year running, the award for best film and TV translation and adaptation work in Spain from Atrae (the Spain Association of Translation and Adaptation). Once again, she is sharing the prize with her right-hand woman, translator María José Aguirre de Cárcer, who also shares her same professional philosophy: the work has to pass unnoticed to make the product shine.

The steps that have to be followed before an episode of The Simpsons reaches Spanish TV screens are precisely measured. “As soon as you walk in they ask for the work to be done yesterday,” says Simón, who has spent the last 30 years working against the clock. She inherited the job of adapting and directing the dubbing of The Simpsons from actor Carlos Revillas after he died in 2000. “It was very tough. What’s more Carlos also dubbed Homer. And there were a lot of complaints from fans over the change of voice. But what were we going to do? Right away I sat down with a half-finished script. I did voice auditions and I replaced him with Carlos Ysbert. We were working with tears in our eyes. But Carlos [Ysbert] took over the character and did a marvelous job.”

‘The Simpsons’ initially flopped in Germany: “They translated it literally, and people didn’t find it funny”

For the script to get to the dubbing actors in perfect condition it first has to pass through the hands of translator Aguirre. The 60-year-old says she loves languages so much that her husband often calls her a “nerd:” “Because I even love watching films in Danish,” she laughs. It was her ingenuity that came up with the Spanish translation of Bart’s famous catchphrase “Eat my shorts” – “multiplícate por cero” (literally, “multiply yourself by zero” – or “get lost”). The work of a translator does not consist of changing one word for another: “I endeavor to give the original work the utmost respect, but the jokes also need to be understood here, too. If not, the work has failed,” she explains. “Eat my shorts” doesn’t make much sense translated literally into Spanish, but if you simply translate it as “get lost,” it loses its spark. “So you have to invent another play on words to substitute the original,” says Aguirre, who has been battling with the series’ scripts since it was first broadcast in Spain in 1990, combining it with those of other hit shows such as The X-Files, Lost and Seinfeld.

Aguirre says that The Simpsons was initially a flop in Germany: “They translated the script literally, and people didn’t find it funny. In fact, Fox [the show’s producer] congratulated the Spanish studios because it was the best translation of The Simpsons that had been done. And in Germany it was the worst,” she explains proudly. “Translators need to do their research. A line said by someone highbrow is not the same as one said by someone from the Bronx. And what’s more, it is essential that you don’t always trust what it says in the dictionary. I am always asking a doctor friend of mine about things, and he has often said to me: ‘It’s great that you consult me because I am fed up with seeing films about doctors where everything they say is absurd.”

When Aguirre’s translation is finished the script continues to the next phase: the adaptation. Here Simón takes charge of seeing which lines fit into the mouths of the characters: “There are times when you need a whole sentence to say in Spanish what you can in two words in English. And you have to adjust it. Or when an actor says ‘I put myself in your shoes’ and the Spanish translation is ‘me pongo en tu piel’ [I put myself in your skin]. But how are you going to say that if the actor is pointing at their feet, for example? You have to turn them around so that they don’t lose meaning and turn out funny. […] It’s not always easy, but it is a very nice, artistic job.”

After that it is time to record the dubbing, which is “always done by actors, who are the best dubbers. The voice of Bart, for example, belongs to Sara Viva. It seems as if she is made for the character, or the character is made for her. It is amazing,” explains the director, who in daily life admits that she alternates between watching dubbed and original version films. “They are not incompatible. I am in favor of people being able to choose. The important thing is that the work is well done.”

And that, in her world, means it goes on staying hidden.