Translating Sherlock: meet the French Benedict Cumberbatch

Élémentaire mon cher Watson? Turning Sherlock - and Doctor Who - French isn't always easy...

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Translating Sherlock: meet the French Benedict Cumberbatch
Written By
Paul Jones

The popularity of foreign imports such as The Killing, Borgen and French drama Spiral mean British TV audiences are becoming increasingly acclimatised to subtitling.

But across the Channel, viewers are a little more reluctant to read while they’re watching, and dubbing foreign actors into French is the norm. Yes, even the dulcet tones of Benedict Cumberbatch, and even when it comes to Sherlock…

Delphine Rivet (reporting for RadioTimes.com and French website Reviewer.fr) watched a scene from season two finale The Reichenbach Fall being dubbed into French by comedian Gilles Morvan (the voice of Sherlock) and Loïc Houdré (who stands in for Rupert Graves’s Lestrade).

Watch the exclusive video below to see, and hear, the Gallic transformation taking place, as the actors try not only to deliver their lines convincingly, but also to synchronise them with the lip movements they see on screen.

Translating a show for a new audience doesn’t begin and end with the voices, though. Sherlock’s series two opening episode, A Scandal in Belgravia, was retitled Un Scandale à Buckingham since most French viewers don’t know that particular area of Westminster, but everyone’s heard of Buckingham Palace.

Meanwhile, Wendy Tramier, who worked on translating Sherlock for French TV, found the same episode threw up “one of the biggest challenges of my career.”

When Sherlock comes into possession of adversary Irene Adler’s mobile phone, potentially packed with details of her illustrious clients, he tries and repeatedly fails to crack the code that will unlock it.

Translating the written pun “I am locked”, which later transforms into “I am Sherlocked”, on the screen of Irene Adler’s phone proved to be a two-pipe problem. 

“It took me many, many attempts,” says Tramier. “In this specific case, I had to find an equivalent. It is so brilliant in English, I couldn’t betray the original.”

The problem was that the Gallic equivalent of "locked" - "locké" - is unfamiliar as a stand-alone word in French. Luckily, "simlocké", referring to a mobile phone's simcard, is more common.

So before Sherlock manages to crack Irene’s phone, the translation of the screen display is “Je suis Simlocké” – “I am Simlocked”. And when he deciphers the code, it becomes “Je suis Sherlocké” – “I am Sherlocked,” as in the original English version.

But translators don’t always get it right. The French-dubbed version of Doctor Who initially got a lukewarm reception in France, possibly due to some dubious decision making. 

The French aren’t always keen to admit that English words have passed into regular usage there, so River Song’s catchphrase, “Spoilers!” (uttered whenever the Doctor asks a potentially awkward question about his future), was translated as “C’est pas l’heure!” – “It’s not time yet!” – which really does spoil it…

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