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Darth Vader or Dark Vador? France gives Star Wars a Gallic twist

Fans in Paris are anxious to see 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens.' But their nostalgia is for characters like Dark Vador and Z-6PO, not Darth Vader and C-3PO.

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People dressed in costumes worn by Star Wars characters pose in front of the Grand Rex cinema after viewing "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in Paris today.

Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

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François Debain pulls off his mask. “I’m Dark Vador,” he says – and then realizes he’s speaking to an American. “I’m Darth Vader,” he corrects himself.

For the mechanical engineer, who took the day off to attend today's opening of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," both names roll off the tongue. But for many of the thousands who lined up with him at the Grand Rex theater, Europe’s largest with around 2,700 seats, he is undoubtably Dark Vador – the villain's name in all French-dubbed versions of Star Wars.

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In fact, though Star Wars unites die-hard fans from Boston to Beijing, the world premiere of “The Force Awakens” will reveal subtle differences in character names or locations in all its foreign adaptations. And while cinephiles might dismiss anything but original versions with subtitles, the fans will cherish the familiar voices and names in “Reveil de La Force,” or “El Despertar De La Fuerza.”  The French are drawn to Dark Vador with as much passion and verve as Americans to Darth Vader.

“We discovered the movie in French,” says Patrice Girod, former editor of the French edition of Lucasfilm magazine and co-author of the book "Generations Science Fiction." He adds, “We have a connection with the French version because we saw it at a young age. People in the US don’t understand.”

Darth Vader or Dark Vador?

Starting with the first Star Wars film in 1977, foreign adaptations have used different names for planets and spaceships and central characters. Some of them have stuck, like Dark Vador in France. Others changed as the world – and industry – globalized, with Hollywood originals overtaking the local versions.  

In France, C-3PO used to be Z-6PO, but for the prequel trilogy producers went with the English-version name. That sparked heated debate among French fans, with some bemoaning the lack of continuity and others arguing the French version was a “massacre” of the original.

When asked which is better – the original or the dubbed version – Mathieu Tedeschi, dressed in black robes outside the Rex theater, answers immediately. “C’mon, English!” he says. “It’s more real.”

The name Dark Vador, he says, might sound better to the French-speaker than an accented attempt at Darth Vader, but the original meaning gets lost in translation, he says. And the accents of the heroes and the Imperials in the original version – American and British respectively – are also lost in dubbed versions, leaving viewers to ascertain differences only in manners of speaking.

Mr. Debain agrees that the original version is the authentic one but he easily connects with both versions. In fact, he switches easily between Dark Vador or Darth Vader. “When it’s in French, it’s more nostalgic, when it’s English, it’s truer.”

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But not all are so fortunate. The French are the worst English speakers in the European Union, according to the latest English First global ranking. Fabienne Tedeschi, who brought her son to Paris from the southern city of Toulon to attend the opening and a flurry of Star Wars-inspired events across the French capital, says she’d like to be able to say she enjoys the English version more. “But I’m obligated to read the subtitles, so I can’t watch the film,” she says.

David Victor, wearing a stormtrooper mask like his two buddies, says he also prefers the French version, even though he speaks English now. “We saw it in French when we were kids, when you can’t see a movie in original version,” he says. “We are used to these names.”

'Que la Force soit avec toi'

In fact, preference is generally a matter of habit, whether it’s English or not. When the original trilogy was released in Italy, says Mr. Girod, the opening crawl was in English. So when it was changed into Italian for the prequel trilogy in 1999, he says there was an outcry. “They wanted to see the opening crawl in English because they were used to that in the old movies.”

In France, the most celebrated character has been C-3PO because it was the voice of Roger Carel, a voice actor associated with many title roles in dubbed children’s classics like Winnie the Pooh. “The French voice of this guy means so much for so many generations because it was the voice of so many beloved characters,” Girod says. “He is our Star Wars.”

Today, ten years after the last Star Wars release, most fans say they don’t care what version they are seeing. Tedeschi chose the Grand Rex, whose showing was in French, because it’s the place to see a Star Wars opening – the “French Chinese Theater,” he calls it, referencing the Los Angeles cinema palace. He turns on his blue lightsaber, or “sabre laser.” 

“We have waited a long time for this,” Tedeschi says.