Jesus Will Speak in 100 Tongues, Thanks to the Man Who Helped Elsa Belt ‘Let It Go’ in 41

In 2014, Disney released a video of Elsa singing her hit “Let It Go” in 25 languages. If you didn’t know any better, you might have assumed that Idina Menzel, who sang perhaps the most popular Disney ballad in history, had performed each version.

Significant credit for this House of Mouse magic belongs to Rick Dempsey, who then served as senior vice president of creative for Disney Character Voices International. Dempsey’s team held auditions all over the world, ultimately finding 41 singers who brought the music of Frozen alive in their languages.

The goal was “to ensure there is character consistency” and that “the voices are all very similar around the world,” Dempsey said in 2014. “The good news is that we were able to find talent that were able to pull it off.”

This impressive consistency, or “character integrity,” is a concept and practice that The Walt Disney Company embraced and expanded nearly to the point of perfection, thanks to Dempsey’s work. Today, he brings this expertise to The Chosen, the most-translated TV show in history.

CT recently spoke with Dempsey about his transition from Disney, the arduous process of translation and localization, and how God is using The Chosen to bring an authentic portrayal of Jesus to the world, even to unreached people groups and places where sharing the gospel can cost your life.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Tell us about your 35-year-long career at Disney.

I started with Disney in 1988 and led character voices for the whole company. My job was to protect character integrity, which means that when the movie characters are adapted to connect with local audiences, they remain consistent across the languages. I think it is a unique responsibility to have in a secular company like Disney, because as believers, that’s similar to what we’re called to do with our own lives, that is, to maintain our Christian integrity wherever we go.

As the company grew internationally, Disney began to translate its work and sought to guarantee consistency and integrity with character voices in theme parks and consumer products, as well as our films, around the world. For the last 20 years of my career there, I led this and was also in charge of running the entire international localization for Disney, including Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and, as I was leaving, the Fox brand as well. I had a great run there.

You mentioned that you are in charge of localization, but not everyone knows what that means. Could you elaborate?

A lot of people would refer to that as translation, but we call it localization because there’s so much more to it than just translating a script. Localization means trying to get the nuances of the dialogue—it’s an idiomatic adaptation of the original content, meaning we are trying to get the local idioms and phrases and colloquialisms of a language into the dialogue, just like we have done in the original language.

How did you connect with The Chosen?

By the time we came back from the pandemic, I realized that my time had run out. Disney, as we all know, has taken a different turn in terms of family entertainment. I realized that my time was up there, so I retired from the company and kind of jumped off without a parachute.

Literally, right after I decided to retire, Come and See (the nonprofit that manages The Chosen’sfunding) was trying to figure out how to get the show out around the world, and someone in a meeting said, “I think I know a guy.” So they texted me and said, “Would you be interested in working on The Chosen and taking it out around the world, as you’ve done with all of Disney’s content?” I said, “Absolutely.” It didn’t take a lot of thought. Soon after, I started my own production company and began consulting on The Chosen.

Lately, numerous media companies have been pushing for more AI-assisted translations. From doing predominantly literal word-for-word translations, AI has come a long way producing more natural translations. Do you think AI will ever be able to do the job of localization?

Right now, for many languages, we are at what I call an 80-20 model that is 80 percent AI, 20 percent human. I think we will get to a point where AI will get a pretty good idea of how to do translation, but we will always need to tweak it with some human touches.

I’m sure someone can churn out an AI script for a film. But it’s gonna be very sterile. There’s something about the human emotion that we will never get from AI—you have to have that human touch to make it resonate and to make it real.

In The Chosen, there are colloquialisms and certain key terms and phrases that AI doesn’t necessarily understand. Because of the scale—we are translating into 600 languages—we will need to implement some type of AI to help along the way. However, there are many underserved markets where we don’t have a lot of data or information on that language within the AI world, so everything there will have to be human effort.

Are there elements or characteristics of The Chosen that make it particularly hard to localize?

Definitely. Every colloquial phrase or idiom used in English is a challenge to ensure a good translation. We also have to figure out how to communicate biblical and Jewish phrases. Even some of the Roman government titles are difficult to translate at times.

Additionally, the casting of the actors who voice Jesus has proven to be quite difficult in some markets. Jonathan Roumie’s voice has a very pure, full tone, with very little texture, yet it is not deep or resonant. The voice needs to be authoritative and commanding while still being compassionate and loving. He doesn’t sound young, and yet he doesn’t sound too old—strong early 30s. Finding all those attributes in one actor is extremely difficult, and we’ve found it can take several rounds of auditions before we can find someone close enough to play this central character.

Gaius is another difficult character. The English actor Kirk Woller has a very textured, mid-to-higher range voice. He is somewhat gentle in his approach to the character and yet he has governmental authority. Most countries start out by making him sound real gruff and forceful. It will often take several auditions to find someone who understands the gentle side of the character.

We understand that the end goal of The Chosen is to share the gospel, and that’s a task Jesus entrusted to human beings, his followers. To what extent have you been intentional in trying to find Christian people to do the localization process?

We are working with people who have a heart to get the story of Jesus out around the world in a really significant way. We have countries where the gospel is not allowed, but believers there are passionate to get The Chosen into their country.

We had an instance where someone who loves the show reached out from a country that is religiously oppressed. She would be imprisoned if caught even discussing the show. But now we are working with her to create subtitles in that language. She literally has to leave the country to make any kind of communication with us. This is another tremendous story of someone taking incredible risk to try and use The Chosen as a gospel opportunity to reach an entire people group who have not been exposed to the story of Jesus.

We make sure our translators are Christian believers, but that’s not a requirement for voice actors. And specifically in Muslim communities, we’ve had actors walk out on us once they understand the material and the subject of the show. Dubbing has been a real challenge in parts of the world where they’re very anti-Christian.

But God is in control. In one of those countries, one of our subject matter experts is a converted Muslim who now holds a doctorate degree in Hebrew and Judaic studies. He’s an incredible resource for us.

You mentioned the current goal is to have The Chosen available in 600 languages, and that’s truly a massive challenge. Some languages have hundreds of millions of speakers across entire continents, some far fewer and concentrated in a small region. How are you addressing these differences?

Well, yes. We estimate around 100 will be dubbed and subtitled, and another 500 will only be subtitled.

We are dealing with languages in regions like France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, Latin America, Russia, Eastern Europe, where they have well-structured dubbing communities: translators, voice actors, recording studios. But we’re just now getting to those languages where we are starting to deal with underserved markets, and it’s proving to be a real challenge.

We’re getting into territory where people have never heard a dub in their own language. Some of those will just be subtitled languages because they just don’t have the infrastructure to put something the size of the media project that is The Chosen into their local language.

And it’s important to say we are doing all the translations and dubbing in the market itself, in the region where the language is spoken. That’s the only way it can be done, in my opinion. That’s the way we did it at Disney, because I believe working locally is the only way it will resonate with local audiences. You need the idioms and colloquialisms of the people of that market.

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