20 Questions with Norman Dawood

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Tell us a little bit about yourself, where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?

I grew up in London. My parents were immigrants who placed a high value on the best possible education, despite their limited means. I attended St Paul’s School, which had an international outlook and from there I developed a fascination with the world beyond the UK. As a teenager, I lived near one of the few cinemas that screened art-house movies, and I was soon seduced by foreign cinema, in particular French and Italian productions which at that time only reached a niche audience.

You actually studied engineering, what did you originally think you’d do for a career?

I had ideas of getting into automotive design. It is still an interest of mine, but I realised it was not the right career path. After graduation from Imperial College, I started a degree in languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, which pivoted me further towards my eventual career. Nevertheless, my engineering studies were not wasted as my grounding in technology certainly helped me during the growth of VSI.

How did your career in translation start?

After working for the British Council in Cairo as an English teacher, I started translating into English and doing some interpreting. I also produced graphics in non-Latin languages, both by hand, and by using the groundbreaking DTP capabilities of the latest Apple Macs at the time.

My passion for foreign-language movies and my early experiences sitting in on recording sessions drew me to media localisation and so VSI was born. I started alone, and the company grew gradually. Back then, we worked mainly on localising TV commercials, corporate productions and what was known as home video, VHS followed by DVD, voice-over or subtitling. In the early days, we all multitasked. The personal hands-on experience - managing projects, translating, subtitling, video editing, directing recordings, etc, proved invaluable to me in developing VSI.

When major US broadcasters such as Viacom, Turner and Discovery sought to extend their reach internationally, we were in the right place at the right time since they chose to base their European operations in London. Our performance and our readiness to the follow them into new territories helped accelerate our growth internationally. Most of our EMEA studios were built in response to pressing client demand as we strove to offer a consistent, high-quality solution, rather than pursuing a sub-contracting model, which we considered less reliable.

Lots of people probably don’t know your father was a famous translator and linguistics scholar, tell us about him?

He was born in Iraq and won a scholarship to London University to study English Literature. Despite English not being his native language, he was a Shakespeare specialist, and one of the few translators I have come across that could translate between English and Arabic in both directions with equal ease and exceptional eloquence. He made the first translation of the Koran into modern, flowing English, published by Penguin. All previous translations of this challenging text had used archaic language or were overly literal to the point of being unintelligible. Among other works, he also produced the first modern translation of 1001 Nights, following the original source texts, which are somewhat different to the children’s stories we are all familiar with. He spent his career as a translator and voice talent, which provided me with an introduction into the localisation industry, which was then in its infancy, and not even known by that name. As a child, my father would often take me to his voice-over recording sessions, usually for TV commercials, so I felt at home in recording studios from way back then.

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What hobbies do you have outside of work?

I am still crazy about foreign-language cinema and TV, which gives us a unique window into other cultures and which can be as vividly immersive as physical travel. I have to thank our OTT clients, not only for their trust in VSI, but also for making foreign-language content mainstream and easily accessible for the first time to enthusiasts like me.

I feel lucky that my work allows me to travel frequently, including to many places that are not classic vacation destinations.

What mentors have you had in your career?

My father advised me to some extent after I started VSI. However, there was minimal media localisation industry in the UK at that time so there was no alternative but to work by instinct, doing what looked and sounded right. On the business side, I just had to learn from my mistakes.

Along the way, I have had the privilege of collaborating with countless inspirational colleagues and creative talents, to whom I am grateful for their insights and advice.

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How have you selected your local studios or chosen the next territory to start an operation?

We built most of our VSI studios from scratch in response to client demand for a consistent high-quality offering. We started with challenging territories and regions, for example the Middle East, as it was hard to find a source for Arabic that met international standards back then. In each new territory, we built our facility around an existing team. When it came to acquisitions, these were always with a long-term tried and trusted partner that had already in practice become part of the VSI family. The company has grown organically by building or selecting the strongest possible studios and teams in-territory, especially in all the media hotspots such as the FIGS territories and Latin America. Our studios and teams all share the same set of values and approach to the product we create to form a homogenous company and network, producing the best possible product across all territories.

You’re known as someone who travels quite a bit across your facilities, why do you think it’s important to spend so much time on the road?

Much has been discussed lately questioning the necessity for business travel, now that it has essentially been superseded by video conferencing.  I don’t expect to be jumping on planes as frequently as I did, but I have no doubt that face-to-face interaction, whether with colleagues or clients, is far more effective in building lasting relationships and promoting mutual understanding. Also, there is no substitute for an in-person studio visit to accurately gauge its standards and capabilities.

Where is a place you’ve never been and would like to go?

Siberia (in the summer) – it would be a natural next step following my extensive travels throughout Central Asia.

Do you speak any other languages and if so, how did you learn them?

I can get by in several languages, but the fluency of my colleagues who are translation professionals has always eluded me. I studied languages at university, but picked up the others through travel, friendships and self-tuition, not to mention through my work at VSI and having to navigate my way through countless multilingual meetings.

VSI has a reputation for focusing on quality first and foremost, how has that served you in terms of building affinity with your clients?

Our clients know how we operate and that we have great teams, tools and workflows in place. They know they can place their most complex projects with us and rely on a very consistent, high-quality output. Quality is a word that is often over-used, but in a complex production like in dubbing, where creative, linguistic and technical elements blend together and depend on one another, it cannot be emphasised enough. All of these elements have the same weight and importance.

Our clients know that even under high time pressure, we don’t simply put together an easily available creative team for a dubbing production but try everything we can to put together the most fitting contributors and creative talent for that specific genre or production. Our highly-skilled production management teams and the best technical and acoustic infrastructure in all our facilities around the world support that creative process. Since every dub and every subtitle undergoes a stringent quality control process, we guarantee consistent quality, both technically and editorially. This does not go unnoticed by our clients, with whom we can look back on long and loyal relationships, and they regard us as a true partner, an extension to their internal departments.

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Some would say that it’s the Golden Age of content localisation because of the global streaming platforms, do you agree and why or why not?

Thanks to the growing number of VOD platforms, there was a true industry shift which enhanced the value and profile of localisation at a time when it was unfortunately sometimes becoming commoditised. It also brought large volumes of work and encouraged positive growth, as well as making localisation more attractive to new talent.

Initiatives by all content owners and new content pipelines in multiple language directions create an interesting environment for localisation companies like ours, one in which we can fully exploit our wide-ranging capabilities and global footprint. Content is easily accessible now on all devices, and these new consumer habits and the presence of multiple platforms create a demand in content which then has to be localised.

In your opinion, how important is localisation to media and entertainment companies and why?

I think localisation was considered by the TV industry as something of an afterthought until a few years ago. Many important shows, particularly from the US, were not even available with a separate M&E track. That long period was followed by a gradual realisation that content could only be fully exploited by making it available internationally. Now of course, localisation is an integral part of the post-production process for almost any content provider. 

Where would you like to see our industry in five years?

We would hope that in 5 years’ time there will still be a diverse client landscape. I personally hope that people will still enjoy the cinema. We hope that many more amazing stories will be told to audiences, and VSI will help tell these stories around the globe.

We aim for technology to further assist processes even further to enable our skilled teams to focus on creative, linguistic and editorial issues and nuances.

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In the 30+ years you’ve been in this business, what are the major trends you’ve observed?

There have been many. An ongoing trend has been that for expanding channels; new languages were continuously added to the bouquet of “traditional” target languages. This sometimes meant developing a dubbing industry virtually from scratch in certain territories – something VSI has done many times!

One of the big shifts was certainly the asset and workflow digitisation. Talking of Digi Betas….

One huge shift was the change to day-and-date global releases for non-theatrical. This went hand in hand with heavily reduced production windows, leading the need to start working on preliminary material and deal with edit version changes. It used to be that this was the case on theatrical projects, but not on episodic content, especially in the current era of binge-watching when all episodes have to be available to the audience simultaneously. 

Other major trends were the change from productions in one language pair to true multi-lingual, global and parallel productions in up to 30 languages at the same time, driven of course by the global streaming platforms and consolidated multi-lingual clusters of broadcast channels.

A recent trend is the change of direction in which content travels. Historically, the majority of new content was in English. Now, we see content travelling from all source languages around the globe. There are more and more original productions being dubbed from German, Italian, Hebrew, and Turkish, for example into English and any other language. This certainly makes our work more interesting and professionally satisfying in terms of language and culture transfer.

Is remote dubbing a disaster recovery tool or the future of dubbing and why?

This depends on the territory and scenario.

Dubbing is a highly collaborative process which needs the right team, technical framework and acoustic setting to reach a high quality level. Having all contributors present in the same location undoubtedly benefits the creative process and enables the most efficient and fast production pace and workflows.

Remote dubbing has been used by all established studios long before Covid in specific situations as a fallback solution such as an actor being unable to travel to the studio.

As a certain highly-respected industry professional once told me – remote dubbing is like the space-saver spare wheel that some cars carry. It’s great for getting you home in an emergency, but you wouldn’t choose to drive around in it all day.

If there is a technical need for such a backup solution, or in the context of a pandemic, it is certainly very helpful. Please note that despite Covid, in many of our studios in the big dubbing countries, actors, directors and engineers have preferred to work in the studio setting although it would have been possible to record remotely. In Berlin, for example, the studios were prepared to switch to a remote workflow if needed, however, it was not necessary in all these months apart from in a few isolated cases. All talent wanted to work on-site. We concentrated on making the studios Covid-proof, and creating an environment for people to work safely.

In other locations, such as Latin America, remote recording has become a routine necessity, but we expect to return to primarily in-studio recording in those locations as the Covid situation improves.

VSI is one of, if not the only, large multinational localisation companies in entertainment that has not taken PE money or been sold. What’s been good about that in terms of your business...also, has that hurt you at times?

Until a few years ago, it was by no means obvious that having owned-and-operated studios in multiple locations worldwide was a winning formula. Before the OTT platforms emerged, there was much less demand for multi-language projects, which is why so few companies went down what was then a risky path. It was our good fortune that when demand for such capabilities suddenly exploded, we had everything that was needed already in place.

We look back on a track record of stability, growth, continuity in our business and in senior management, a clear focus on the product, independent decision-making and the ability to invest in our infrastructure and our production processes as we saw fit. We have kept a focus on quality and deliver a product we’re proud of, taking a long-term view.

Arguably, the downside of having no external funding has been to have to constantly to re-invest in the business from cashflow as we build and acquire new facilities. Fortunately, we have always been profitable, so this has been well within our reach.

Saying that, now that entertainment localisation has risen to prominence and is no longer considered an obscure niche of the translation industry, and in view of the many recent consolidations in the market, we may in the future consider partnering with another complimentary business or external investor to further accelerate our growth and take full advantage of many new opportunities.

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There continues to be a lot of consolidation in the entertainment industry. Are the mergers of these media companies good, bad or unimportant to the localisation industry?

We foresee more consolidation in our industry in the coming years. There continues to be a huge volume of content to be localised and ultimately consumed by viewers, and most importantly, localisation providers need to provide scale, quality and expertise in a vast range of languages to content creators in the market. 

Who are some other figures in studio operations you admire and why?

There are several individuals that have stood out among our clients over the years, not just inspirational leaders in senior management roles, but also many others at more junior levels who show a deep passion for localisation and understanding of the creative challenges involved. I prefer not to mention any names, as I would certainly make inadvertent omissions.

What’s something you can’t wait to do once the pandemic is over?

Visiting my colleagues and business partners overseas after such a long time. Seeing actors interact in all our studios again. Attending personal meetings where you can see peoples’ faces and smiles again.