Names like Jan Suzin, Lucjan Szołajski or Tomasz Knapik are well known to the Polish TV audience, even though it has never seen their faces. For decades films on Polish TV have been translated by one (male) person from beginning to the end, referred to as “lector.” Each of them has his specialty and temperament. Suzin has a name for westerns, Szołajski a reputation for thrillers and Knapik is a living legend whose filmography includes such hits as “Jaws” or “Star Wars.”
And however absurd this concept may sound to the non-Polish audiences, there are some solid arguments in its favor.
Such hidden stars do not exist in countries like Germany, France or Italy, where professional speakers assigned to individual actors dub films. There is “Angelina Jolie’s dubber,” “Tom Hardy’s dubber” etc. Sometimes the same reader is “in charge” of more than one actor.
It is a standard method in both cinemas and TV stations in most of the western countries. In Poland, it exists only in children films. Theaters screen all other movies in original version with subtitles.
Referred to as “whispering” in the industry jargon, lector can be heard a second’s split after the original line, which is also perceptible to the audience but lowered. We can still easily understand the authentic language- the idea is not to disrupt, but to help understand.
To discover the origin of this peculiar art, we need to go back in time to the Soviet Union. All countries of the former Eastern Block have embraced it, although sometimes in a modified version. In the model developed in Russia women’s voices are read by a female and men’s voices by a male lector. This so-called “Gawrilow’s translation” has been adopted for example in Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia or Lithuania.
One of the reasons for maintaining the lector- formula is economical. While dubbing requires paying actors, renting a studio and translating individual lines in perfect synchronization with the movements of the actors’ mouth, one- voice narration is much less expensive. The most proficient speakers manage to produce a full version of a film with as little as one reading. Also technically it’s less demanding. A single line has to fit in the time-frame of a take but does not have to cover the exact length of the spoken words.
Another thing is tradition, or rather audience’s habit. According to the statistics, it is the most preferred film translation alternative, with the lowest sympathy for subtitles. They are regarded as distracting, forcing to take the sight off the action. Dubbing, in turn, is unnatural for the watchers- hearing Tom Hanks speaking Polish just wouldn’t convince most of his fans.
Consequently, the viewers are satisfied with a translation of the spoken text’s essence, undeterred by the loss of some (often inherent) nuances and complete absence of acting skills. Problems may appear when more characters are speaking at the same time- their lines get shortened and simplified so that the whole translation fits in the frame. It can make the dialogues fractional and deprive them of valuable information. In such case, the original version in the background can help capture the right emotion.
One of the most distinctive voices belongs to Tomasz Knapik. His rough timbre is known to every single TV spectator in Poland. Besides the titles mentioned earlier, he also read „Pulp Fiction,” where his respectful articulation of film’s obscene language certainly caused a smile or two. He admits himself that „freeze !” is what he does better than „ I love you.” Another notable speaker of the Polish small-screen is Krystyna Czubówna- the real queen in the men’s world. Her specialty are documentaries about nature. Gifted with a calm, soft voice, she can remarkably narrate the bloodiest catfights on African desserts as well as tales from the empire of the ants. For ten years she was also presenting the evening news “Panorama” in the second public channel, which made her a widely recognizable person.
It’s worth to mention that other than in feature films, in documentaries, one voice narration is often more of a commentary than a translation (can be both though), and it relates to the picture rather than transcribing the original dialogues.
Although the majority of audience prefers lectors, and those paying for TV translations have no reason to protest, the question about their future raises. While Mrs. Czubówna can rest assured – in the documentary world they are known on the whole planet and don’t seem to be endangered, as to feature films, and notably series, new market players will have a say. For example Netflix or Amazon. For now, Netflix offers only 10 percent of its content with a Polish lector. Amazon is also reluctant towards narrators, providing its films and series with subtitles. But perhaps they will soon fall for the economic format as well, to the joy of the Polish users.
The viewers’ preference is the decisive factor when it comes to content delivered to their screens. Lectors’ longtime presence in people’s homes gave them a strong position and a considerable sentimental value. Even though the Polish audiences become more and more educated and could perhaps understand a great deal without the language assistance, they might never stop watching their annual “Home Alone” accompanied by the mellow voice of Janusz Szydłowski.