Almost all movies broadcast in German or Austrian TV are dubbed into German.

Honorifics, however, are kept in the original language:

  • "Good morning, Mister Anderson" is translated as "Guten Morgen, Mister Anderson" instead of "Guten Morgen, Herr Anderson".
  • "Bonjour, Monsieur Claude" in a French movie is translated as "Guten Morgen, Monsieur Claude" instead of "Guten Morgen, Herr Claude".

I also noticed this when "foreign" people talk in American movies, e.g. the evil guy saying "Let me introduce you to your torturer Herr Überwald..." (which sounds really strange to someone fluent in both languages, nobody would do that in real life), so it seems to be a deliberate stylistic choice.

Why aren't honorifics translated?

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    Another example would be how Japanese characters in English-language works often use the "-san" honorific (and only that honorific, not the various other ones the Japanese language has).
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 8:35
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    I would think "Herr Überwaldt" sounds quite evil in that context. Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 3:28
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    Side thought - perhaps the lip movements don't synch up that well with the ideal translation, and compromise is required.
    – Criggie
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 0:56
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    "Nobody would do that": nope. When I was a kid in Argentina, all English teachers were Miss/Mrs/Mr XX; all French teachers were Mme/M. XX; my parents German teachers were Herr XX. These days in Canada, my kids go to French immersion school, and when they address their teachers in English they use Mme/M. XX. Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 8:08

4 Answers 4


Well, first of all, that's not always the case. But for this discussion we can ignore that and just focus on movies that do use original honorifics.

Dubbing gets complicated when characters with different cultural backgrounds appear in a film and the translators think it's important for the viewer to recognize that. Let's assume we have an original in 2 languages, like English and French (with the original having probably subtitles for the French parts). The dubbed version will be all in German, that means both English and French are translated to the same language. Now it is quite hard to detect the cultural background of the characters.

One solution is to convey this by using original honorifics, this means despite everyone speaking German in the dubbed film, we still can make out the English and French person because they have different honorifics.

This also explains why for Japanese characters "-san" can be heared, as remarked in the question's comments section. The average German speaking person does not know Japanese except for a few words and most are unaware of most of the Japanese honorifics. It's enough to use -san to make them understand that the character is Japanese. They wouldn't know about -chan, -kun, -sama and alike anyway.

If there is a vast majority of characters in the film who speak the same language and just a few speaking a different one, then usually only the honorifics of the minority are kept original and the majority honorifics are translated into German.

This is just one of the many compromises that you have to make when producing a dubbed film/series. Puns or cultural references are usually a nightmare to translate and in the majority of cases it will be left out or replaced with something else more or less fitting.

The use of original honorifics in English films, like your example of Herr Überwald, has the same goal: to signal to the viewer that the character is of German origin and in this instance it's probably done to convey a certain stereotype.

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    just to add to the japanese part, Viz Media's English dub for Naruto has the honorifics like "sensei" but (as i've been told) the 4Kids one translated "sensei" to "teacher". you see a similar sort of thing with subs where it's the translator's opinion on if the sub translation is more "authentic" by keeping, translating or flat out removing honorifics (in the cases of -chan, -san, -sama they get dropped or in cases like -senpai and -sensei get changed to the character name).
    – Memor-X
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 9:23
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    As a writer, I'd add that familiarity with the honorific plays a role as well. I can have confidence that if I refer to a character as Señor Gómez, my reader will know what I mean. On the other hand, I'm going to write Mr Rosický rathern than Pan Rosický because few readers will be familiar with the Czech title. Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 15:29
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    In a similar vein, movies in English often use foreign honorifics to capture the foreign culture; e.g Francophones like Poirot often use Monsieur or Madame even though speaking in English or in the Sound of Music characters are referred to as Herr, Frau, Fraulein.
    – eques
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 19:00
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    @DonaldHosek which is an understandable decision, but also why readers remain sadly ignorant of the Czech titles. (And don't get me started on the localization industry--which sometimes seems like its entire organizing principle is keeping English-speaking audiences safe from any evidence of a work as a foreign cultural artifact, or even of the existence of a world beyond their borders at all...)
    – Tiercelet
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 19:09
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    @Memor-X I think the honorifics 'sensei' was kept to indicate that a character (for e.x Kakashi) is a teacher and most importantly, a respected man. Honorifics do indicate a person's status and this was probably the equivalent of 'Kakashi sir' in English. Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 15:21

Matt has a good answer, but there's another aspect of things here.

There may be no direct translation for the honorific, causing it's meaning to change into something unintended.

By changing the honorific, you risk changing the meaning not only during that translation, but also on any other subsequent translations dependent on a translation. It's bad practice to base a translation on another translation, but it happens, even in scientific studies.

From what I understand, the German "Herr" means something similar to the English "mister", but there's probably more to each word than each convey on their own. In English movies, "Herr" isn't usually translated even when spoken. The same goes for for "Frau" or "Fräulein".

For example, Germans would say "Herr Doktor" as meaning "the doctor", but if we take a literal translation into English, we would end up with "mister doctor", which not only doesn't sound like anything a native speaker would say (except for small children), but it could also be mistaken as an insult by some people. The same would happen for "Fräulein Doktor", as there's no need for a masculine or feminine designation in English. Even saying "the lady doctor" or "the gentleman doctor" is considered very formal by many English speakers.

"Herr" can also mean "lord", so to use one of your examples, "Good morning, Mister Anderson" is translated as "Guten Morgen, Herr Anderson" and mistakenly translated back into "Good morning, Lord Anderson". This definitely changes the meaning, where it could be in the relationship that the speaker has towards Anderson or changes the honorific to a position of Anderson of power.

As Matt also brings up, the Japanese language includes many name post-fixes that really don't matter in other languages. Does the audience really need to understand that my mom might call me computercarguy-chan because I'm her child (even though I'm not young anymore), but my sister's kids would call me computercarguy-ojisan? We got through how many "Karate Kids" without really having "-san" (as in Daniel-san) described as much more than "mister" or "sensei" as much more than "teacher"? Both mean much more than that and the use can change depending on who is speaking.

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    To add to your last point: I watched a Japanese TV show a while back where the subtitles handled the relative-age-related honorifics very poorly. For someone unfamiliar with the Japanese language, it made it hard to keep the characters straight. You definitely don't want a wonky translation to turn people away from your show, so sometimes the path of least confusion is to leave them as they are. The viewer will often figure out what they mean based on context, or can at least tell that they're a title of some sort that isn't critical to understanding the sentence.
    – bta
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 2:45
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    Not to distract from your overall excellent answer, but Fräulein Doktor is nonsensical, and wouldn't have been used that way even in the past. Fräulein used to designate an unmarried young woman, similar to the English Miss or the French Mademoiselle, and would only be used with the last (or, rarely, first) name, or sometimes just by itself (you might have called a waitress to your table that way). Today, Fräulein is frowned upon in nearly all contexts as it implies that a female human does not become a full woman until she is married. Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 9:14
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    @KevinKeane I guess it might have been used for an unmarried female doctor though. Grammatically it sounds right to me. In reality of course there were rarely any female doctors in those times, and "Frau Doktor" is only common because it can also mean the women was married to a doctor instead of being one herself.
    – Nobody
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 13:58
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    Re: mister doctor. It's Strange -- but who am I to judge? Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 15:09
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    Surely "Herr Doktor" doesn't mean "the doctor" in German, though. That's just the only way to translate it to English. But that's not the intent in German... When a German speaker uses this phrase, they intend it as a form of respect or honorific since "Doktor" is not a standalone honorific in German (like it is in English). English speakers have "Doctor Brown". That's an honorific. German speakers have "Herr Doktor Braun". That's an honorific. It doesn't mean "The doctor Braun".
    – user91988
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 15:21

In real life I will usually give a person's honorific in his native language, if I'm confident that I know it correctly and if I think the other persons in the room will recognize it.

For example when introducing the Frenchman M. Albert (who speaks English) to the American Mr. Smith, I would say, "Mister Smith, this is Monsieur Albert. Monsieur Albert, Mister Smith."

In the same circumstance I would expect a Francophone to say something like, "Mister Smith, je vous présente Monsieur Albert. Monsieur Albert, voici Mister Smith."

In neither case is Mr. Smith called "Monsieur", and M. Albert is never called "Mister". The general rule in such cases is that the honorific is treated as part of a person's name, and is not translated.

So in an American movie in English, featuring both American and German characters, the Americans would most naturally be addressed as "Mister"1 and the Germans as "Herr"2. Likewise, in the same movie made in Germany in German, the Americans would still be addressed as "Mister" and the Germans as "Herr".

It is most natural, when translating a dramatization from language A to B, to avoid a formal or word-for-word conversion, but to consider what the original speaker said in A, and put into the new speaker's mouth what a B speaker would say under that circumstance to mean the same thing.

The dubbing that you hear on German or Austrian TV is an attempt to get close to what the movie would sound like if it had been made in German originally. The characters would still have called Frenchmen "Monsieur" and Americans "Mister".

1, 2. Yes, I know that some people are called "Miss", "Mistress", "Mademoiselle", "Madame", "Fraulein", "Frau", etc. but this answer is already quite wordy enough don't you think.

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    Just for context, which languages do you speak at a high level? Do you know of areas where this is done in real life, like say television covering politics or something? This sounds like a plausible explanation if true, but I would just never do that and as it stands this answer talks about you exclusively. Who else talks like that?
    – Nobody
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 14:07
  • Who else talks like that? Well, for example, the translators who dub foreign movies into German for broadcast in Germany and Austria. Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 7:36
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    That's a circular argument, you are giving the thing as evidence which you are supposed to show.
    – Nobody
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 12:29
  • I serve as a Portuguese/English interpreter for my church congregation. While interpretting, I will typically translate the honorifics, but in conversation I will typically use a Portuguese honorific for members of the congregation and English honorifics for English-speaking guests, regardless of the language I am speaking.
    – Kyle A
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 16:00
  • @Nobody: It's not a circular argument because I am not trying to prove that the translators do indeed not translate honorifics -- but you probably are correct to object to it as amplifying evidence, since it is already part of the discussion. Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 16:47

Other answers have covered cultural reasons for preserving the original honorifics, but there is also a technical difficulty in dubbing. Many dubbed films will try (at least a little) to synchronize the dubbing to the original lip movements. This often results in less accurate translations being used. When I watch American films in Spanish or Portuguese, the dubbing translation is usually less accurate than the subtitles. This is especially obvious when a short phrase translates into a much longer phrase.

If you are trying to match lip movements, then a well understood honorific might not be translated. The mouth movements for "Herr" and "Mister" are very different and speakers in both languages generally understand both, so by leaving that word you can match the lips a little more easily.

This trick doesn't always work due to grammar and is only a very minor factor, but it is a factor that translators consider. One example where it does not work would be "It was Mister Smith's blue car" translates to "Foi o carro azul do [Mister/Senhor] Smith" (Portuguese). Putting "Mister Smith" near the beginning of that sentence in Portuguese just doesn't work.

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