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My Voice Is a Chinese Star
A French journalist's dubbing experience in China
By Rachel Richez  ·  2019-01-27  ·   Source: NO. 5 JANUARY 31, 2019

Rachel Richez works at a dubbing studio in Beijing (COURTESY PHOTO)

I was once a Chinese TV star. Actually, I'm neither Chinese nor a star, but for two seasons, I was the French voice of one of the major characters in a famous Chinese soap opera. So of course, no one recognized me on the streets of Beijing and the paparazzi never followed me around, but whenever people found out the name of my Chinese alter ego, they always got overexcited.

China has put a lot of effort into sharing its culture with the world. As part of this effort, Chinese movies and TV shows have been dubbed into various languages in order to share these cultural products with the rest of the world. As a result, many companies have tried to enter this growing market and the ads offering dubbing jobs in Beijing have multiplied over the years.

I landed my first dubbing job without having any previous experience, something that would be impossible in France. Knowing this might be my only chance to ever try this kind of work, I abandoned the comfort of the Second Ring Road and went the farthest I have ever been in Beijing to the Fifth Ring Road! Following the directions of a person I had never met, it was dark when I arrived for the auditions. As I walked into an empty room, I followed the French voices I could hear at the end of a corridor, leaving behind the horror movie scenario my brain was so unnecessarily imagining. I met an incredible group of people that called themselves "actors." They gave me tips as I waited my turn and told me about the numerous roles they had played.

As I entered the tiny recording studio, I felt more than ever like a fraud. How could I compete against these real actors? The producer gave me the script and the technician played the scene I was to dub. As I watched the five-minute clip, something alarming dawned on me. I didn't speak Chinese, how was I supposed to know when a sentence ended? I panicked and of course lied when the producer asked if I was ready. I managed to control my shaking hands, and tried my best to match the French text with the Chinese lips. I could hear the producer and technician talking, but at least they weren't laughing, I told myself. Finally, they asked me to try again, with more emotion this time. And so I did, I imagined myself as angry as my character was, and yelled angrily at her boyfriend. To my surprise, I secured my first role.

Once I was in the database, I got offered roles every now and then. I really started enjoying the Chinese soap operas. The storylines were very different from Western shows and the characters' reactions were always very surprising to me. As the shows helped me to better understand the Chinese family hierarchy and the relationships between young people in China, I realized I was able to have deeper conversations with my Chinese friends. The roles had allowed me to enter the private lives of the Chinese people in a way I could never have hoped to as an expat.

The roles I played also allowed me to confront unique situations. After a few very emotional breakups and fights, the day arrived when one of my characters had to get married. It wasn't me, of course, but I had to imagine I was getting married in order to convey the right emotion. And so there I was, looking at my soon-to-be, on-screen husband, telling him all the reasons why I loved him, before finally saying for the first time in my life, "I do."

After many small roles, I finally landed a major role in a very famous TV show. I knew it was a big role because it was the first time all my Chinese friends knew the character I was dubbing, and they all had strong opinions about her, she was either loved or hated. I once met a girl that asked me to keep talking to her in French, as if she was actually talking to the character. The opposite also happened to me when a girl stopped talking to me when she heard who my Chinese alter ego was.

And so I discovered that dubbing is not a job that stays in the office, it becomes part of you. Not only because of what other people think, but because of what you share with the character, the challenges you face together. I laughed and cried with her, had doubts and created friendships. When my character once believed her mother had killed herself, I couldn't control my genuine tears. I left the studio and immediately called my mom, and I believe that was the nicest call I ever made to her. This might sound silly, I know, but I will miss "her." Our one-way relationship was as fictional as she was, but the emotions were real.

Rachel Richez is a French journalist based in Beijing

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

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