Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer as Gaeilge

WHAT’S the Irish for ‘D’oh!’, or ‘hey, Bert,’ or ‘You bastards. You killed Kenny’?

Padraic O’Neachtain has the answers. He’s a producer and actor in Connemara, with Telegael, which dubs programmes such as Dora The Explorer (below) and Sesame Street into Irish. He’s also the voice of Elmo.

A former presenter of Echo Island, on RTÉ, Padraic has been in Irish language TV for 15 years, so he’s well versed in turning the Cookie Monster into An Ollphéist Briosca (or an Ollphéist Bicít, depending on your Irish). Padraic talks of the control exerted by the American producers of the original shows, and of maintaining a voice for years. He has nailed Elmo: one Stateside big wig wrote him a letter commending his performance as the best of the international Elmos.

“As a kid even, I always enjoyed doing voices,” Padraic says. “You would be practising away on it, moving your diaphragm and stomach, and tightening your vocal chords.

“Your objective is to try and make the voice as close to the original as possible — maybe it’s easy, in that regard, in that decisions are taken out of your hands.”

Bríd Seoighe is a producer at Abu Media, another company in Galway that specialises in dubbing programmes into Irish. She and Padraic know the voice actor selection drill for particular characters. “We would be dealing with the producers of the show, not the actors behind the voices.” she says. “Normally, the Irish producer will shortlist the best three [voices] in their opinion, as well as a preferred option, and send this out to the company that made the original cartoon. They will choose one, hopefully, and agree with you and send some directions as to how the voice should be directed to get the best quality. They may want to see the final product, also.”

Padraic says: “with all of our shows that come from the States, you need to put down voices and send them over, three voices per character usually, and they will listen to them.” Far from the cliché of the cigar-chomping producer returning calls in between gulps of Scotch, he says, “it’s usually a girl in an office that casts the voices all over the world. They’re very nice and I don’t think they smoke cigars — all the emails are ‘have a nice day’ and ‘super awesome’.

“They decide then, usually fairly quickly, in 24 or 48 hours, and they come back and say ‘this is the person’, and they might say something like ‘they need to bring the voice up’ or that it needs to sound a little more nasal.”

Challenges abound. We all know that a sentence as gaeilge can be longer — or shorter — than its English equivalent. “It’s a constant challenge,” Padraic says. “We were doing Twitter before Twitter was ever invented. You have to say things to match your flaps. It’s all about timing, hitting the syllables, that’s what it’s all about and you script accordingly.

“If you are doing live action, like Harry Potter [the films are a Telegael project], that’s even more challenging. If Harry finishes in a sentence with an ‘o’ sound or an ‘e’ sound, you have to finish it with that, as well. It has to, obviously, be the same as it is in English, but you have to modify the structure, you might have to shorten or lengthen the sentence.”

If that sounds tricky, then imagine the difficulty of singing the lines. “We are currently doing a series, Elmo the Musical, and there’s 120 songs in it,” Padraic says. “There’s a new one, called Pajaminals, and that’s got 100-plus songs in it, as well, and another [Jim] Henson project, filmed in the North, and it’s absolutely brilliant. We did the Irish version, we just finished the second series and it was very challenging. It takes a good bit of work, because you’ve got to make it rhyme.”

Telegael call on 20 to 30 people for their voices, and Padraic says that some have day jobs in restaurants in Galway. “You are not going to make a living as an Irish language voiceover artist in this country. You have to be involved in other projects,” he says, referring to the contrast between eight- or 10-week recording sessions and similar periods of inactivity. The actor who voices Dora the Explorer is a teacher. Actor availability is a factor, particularly when there’s a burst of recording. “We have been doing [Dora] for the last eight, nine years and with the same Dora, and she’s fabulous, but she’s also working as a teacher. She travels quite a bit and you have to work around that. You can only have one Bert, one Cookie Monster. It depends on the voice — it’s easier to replace Elmo than Dora, because his voice is so up there and tight, whereas Dora is more a character.”

Bríd says the Irish versions hit the screens soon after the original English versions. “TG4 are buying up programmes at the market, for dubbing, as soon as they are complete,” she says. “For example, Tickety Toc, Dinosaur Train, Olly an Veain Bheag Bhán, Puppy in my Pocket, they are all examples of international brands that we dubbed and were broadcasting on TG4 around the very same time as the English language versions are on Nickelodeon, etc. They have to be current, as it’s the brands that children are interested in and they will listen to any language, once it’s the character they like. I’ve tried and tested this with my own children.”

You could subtitle and do away with dubbing, but that’s not a showcase for the Irish language. Some TG4 programming, such as late night movies, are subtitled, but, says Padraic: “my two-year-old child doesn’t watch the films at night, but she does watch the programmes in the morning and she is watching programmes that are helping her, and us, to learn Irish and to learn valuable skills from the point of view of language.”

Irish voiceover artists are unique: truly bilingual, they appreciate the original character’s voice in a way that a Spaniard who has grown up only knowing the Spanish SpongeBob or Homer, cannot. But fame is less likely. Veteran actor, Tonino Accolla, aka the Italian Homer Simpson and a man who dubbed Eddie Murphy and Kenneth Branagh, among others, died last summer, and made headline news. In recent weeks, Irma Lozano, the voice of I Dream Of Genie in her native Mexico, died to tributes from her peers.

The job’s not so high-profile here, but there is sadness in recasting a character. Such sombre moments are balanced by the fact that everyone involved enjoys themselves so much in a job for which they receive limited credit.

Bríd says: “it helps to be a fan and familiar with the character, but it’s not necessary. We audition actors whom we think may be able to voice-match. Some are more versatile than others and its a particular type of talent, so those that can mimic do well here, too, and are always included in the audition process. So, it’s all in the acting, really.”

Abu Media dubs South Park, a TV show that presents a few challenges of its own. “You could never find somebody with a normal day-to-day voice that sounds like Cartman,” Bríd says.

“We strive to keep standards inline with every other country and, in often cases, are way better. Standards are very high in Ireland, by comparison to the other European language versions that I see at the Cannes television markets every year.”

All this talk of getting in character prompts one obvious question, which I ask of Padraic — who would you like to play that you haven’t? “I would tell you what I would love to do,” he says. “I would love to do more English voices. I’d like to see more of our talent base here being used in the States by people there. Give me a cartoon with an Irish character and let’s sell that all over the world. That, or Scooby Doo.”


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