Harry Potter's Next Trick: Speaking Arabic

When Khulud Abu-Homos, a television producer at OSN network in Dubai, decided to dub the Harry Potter movies into Arabic for distribution in the Middle East, she faced a quandary: which Arabic?

The Arab world, it turns out, isn’t one world at all. It’s a collection of overlapping worlds that harbor a dizzying array of diverse people, cultures and language. The rest of the world noticed this recently in the varied ways the Arab Spring democracy movements have played out. Ms. Abu-Homos knew the choice of Arabic dialect was critical if Harry Potter’s charms were to find a place in the hearts of Middle Eastern television viewers—or to turn out to be a flop. “You don’t want to go wrong,” she said. “Instead of attracting people, you can turn them off.”

As the Arab world consumes more films and television shows from beyond the Middle East than ever before, dialect has become a critical tool in the regional battle for some 250 million Arab viewers. For the month of Ramadan, a four-week stretch that falls in August this year, broadcasters gear up for months, producing their best series, and advertisers concentrate media buys during the weeks.

That means putting a lot of thought and effort into dubbing.

Should it be Egyptian dialect, the lingua franca of Arabic comedy? Light and airy Lebanese, a proven winner for sitcoms? Syrian Arabic, edgy, serious, well suited to drama? Khaleeji, the dialect of Arabs in the Persian Gulf, the region’s most lucrative television demographic? Jordanian, which only recently made its television debut? Or the old standby, classical Arabic?

There was a time when nothing was dubbed in the region. “Dallas,” for example, was a hit in the 1980s, despite Arab viewers having to read subtitles to keep up with the machinations of J.R. Ms. Abu-Homos used to make trips to Los Angeles in the early 1990s to buy shows like “Jerry Springer” and “General Hospital” and then broadcast them in English, without even subtitles.

As televisions reached every corner of the Arab world and satellite broadcasting expanded, the search for content was on. To reach the growing number of women viewers, broadcasters snapped up Brazilian and Mexican telenovela soap operas. Producers turned to dubbing.

The choice of dialect seemed obvious. Classical Arabic is familiar to all Arabs from their formal schooling, state television broadcasts and the Quran. For years, few in the industry gave using classical a second thought—until a Turkish soap opera called “Noor” was broadcast in 2008. Looking for something new, MBC Group, the region’s biggest broadcaster, took a counterintuitive decision, especially for a Saudi Arabian-owned company: dub the series into vernacular Syrian Arabic, and yet still distribute it across the Middle East.

It was a megahit, despite the original having flopped in Turkey when it was launched, and its male co-star became a heartthrob for women across the region. The dubbing industry took off. Today, more than 100,000 technicians, voice actors, script writers and executives work in Beirut, Damascus and Cairo to transform everything from “Ugly Betty” to “CSI” and “Star Trek” into convincing and compelling Arabic.

This isn’t always easy. Big networks and boutique dubbing houses hire focus groups and tap family and friends for clues to the elusive, high-stakes choice of dialect.

“Sometimes we grab people off the street and say, ‘Have a coffee. Watch. What do you think of that?'” says Mohamed Hammad, an Egyptian owner of a dubbing company based in Amman, Jordan.

The BBC once tried dubbing the popular British children’s show “Teletubbies” into Syrian Arabic. Wrong choice. “Not even the kids enjoyed it,” says Joseph Akiki, who owns a dubbing house in Beirut. When it released the show in classical Arabic, the language most children’s programs are in, it was a hit.

Ms. Abu-Homos had a similar misfire with the crime series “Law & Order.” First, she dubbed it into Egyptian dialect. “Viewers laughed,” she says. Then she tried a version in Lebanese dialect. “They lost interest,” she says. Syrian dialect, though, turned out just right.

Mr. Hammad claims credit for recently introducing the Jordanian dialect to Middle Eastern viewers. He started out with the detective show “Castle.” The Arabic version of the show is less humorous, but “To my surprise, it was excellent,” he says. “It’s fresh. It had not been done before. But somehow it seemed natural.”

Historical dramas offer a special dilemma. Some have been done in Syrian, such as the films “The Godfather” and “300.” But dubbing in dialect can produce the same disorienting effect as Hollywood U-Boat movies that feature actors speaking English with heavy German accents. It can seem contrived. Most historical dramas are therefore dubbed in classical Arabic, to avoid the problem.

Some shows defy dubbing altogether. For Martha Stewart, for example, Lebanese dialect was “a no-brainer,” said Ms. Abu-Homos. Yet she found that Ms. Stewart, like Oprah Winfrey, is in a class of celebrity so renowned that viewers want to hear their actual voices in English. “Viewers love them for who they are, for their voices,” she says. She settled on a documentary-style Lebanese dialect voice-over for Ms. Stewart, rather than conventional dubbing.

Other shows are tricky because they cross genres. Ms. Abu-Homos says the drama “House” presented a perplexing choice between Syrian and Egyptian because of the mix of a quirky protagonist but serious plots. “He’s funny, but the show is serious,” she says. In the end, she did “House” in both Syrian and Egyptian and put the choice to viewers. Most preferred Syrian, she says. (Harry Potter was also dubbed in Syrian.)

Now Ms. Abu-Homos has set her sights on what she hopes will be the next era of Arabic dialect programming. Rather than purchasing foreign content and dubbing, she’s commissioned an original musical drama she says was inspired by “Glee”—a drama spiced up with music using Saudi Arabian actors in an Indian Bollywood setting. Two dozen Saudis just finished filming the production in Mumbai. The production is a big risk, since Saudi dialect has never been tried. But Ms. Abu-Homos isn’t deterred. “I could be mad, but I believe people are looking for something different,” she says.

Taken from The Wall Street Journal: 26.07.11