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Lost in translation: the fallacy of dubbing and subtitling

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Why there's more to the language barrier than meets the ear...

Bob Hoskins not necessarily getting his message across in 'The Long Good Friday' (1981)

I was wondering recently, as someone unable to speak French, what differences I might find in the works of my beloved Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, were I ever able to actually learn the language. I was amazed to find in my mid-thirties, when I finally decided that my literary interests had been too restricted to my native Britain, that the French classic writers seemed to have a far better comic adroitness than anything I had seen from British output of the last three or so centuries - with the possible exception of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Here, in the various translations of the French classics, I found a resigned and uniquely black sense of humour that tallied with my understanding of European fatalism, based on the years I lived in Italy. Here in great abundance was the dark humorous absurdity for which the British comic sensibility has always been far better known - here, in short, were the French, beating the British by a huge margin, at our own game.

And yet I wondered - the translations I had read were all by British or American-born writers. Were they the mere vassals of the original authors, trying in a strictly academic methodology to transliterate such treasures as only made complete sense in their native tongue? Or did that filter of translation make the source material richer in the process? Was I wrong to believe that the French classic authors were funnier than English contemporaries when they were being, in effect, re-voiced into a British comic tradition?

In Alexandre Dumas' 'The Three Musketeers', there is one almost-literally delicious passage where Porthos, in the course of one of his numerous romantic adventures, is presented with a poor repast of chicken...

'Faith!' thought Porthos, 'this is but a melancholy prospect; I respect old age; but I do not much relish it, either boiled or roasted.'

It is not enough that I learn French in order to understand whether the original text of 'The Three Musketeers' is quite as piquant and humorous as the above popular translation makes it. I know, from the long period it took for me to even begin to understand the Italian consciousness, that context is everything in humour. And I know, from how poorly humour generally travels even from the UK to the US (never mind between languages), that only the broadest strokes of the lingua franca of laughs will ever arrive intact.

TotóThus it is that the ex-pat in Italy was, at one time, far more called upon to discuss Mr. Bean than Monty Python. Thus too do the Italians love the sweeping and very visual comic stylings of 'Stanlio e Olio' (I think you can probably guess who they might be in the place of cinematic comedy), whilst the far more verbal but immensely rich comedy of Antonio Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno De Curtis di Bisanzio Gagliardi (more popularly known as Totò) can never leave the confines of Italy, for all that my poor understanding of the language has allowed me to enjoy the dozens of films that this Italian comic legend contributed to movie history.

The one factor, above all others, that has made me understand the nature of the uncrossable divide between languages in movies, is found in the occasions where I switch to the Italian soundtrack of a movie in order to try and not get too rusty with the language.

For example, switching between languages on Howard Hawks' classic 1932 Scarface, one finds that the crimes for which Tony Camonte is wanted at one point in the movie include rape - something that the Hayes Office had strictly vetoed from the American version, and which is not included in the American soundtrack. Whether a movie's central character is a rapist or not is a fairly significant factor in how the viewer is likely to respond to his character, so this difference in the respective soundtracks is very significant.

Scarface (1932)It's not enough, in this case, even to understand the general Italian character in order to understand the difference - one has to consider the period in which the dubbing was done, and the context of the movie. Scarface, whilst revelling in the machismo-driven miasma of gangster chic most commonly associated with Italian-American immigrants of the period, has one scene between an official and various community representatives, including a voice from the 'establishment' Italian-American community which disassociates itself from the 'shame' that Scarface brings upon the people of his nation. This much is a transparent sop to the sensibility of a particular viewer-demographic for gangster films at the time of release, but it does indicate the official Italian stance on 'gangster movies' during this era, and the acutely sensitive way in which Italians felt they were beginning to be portrayed in the world media, still decades away from the cinematic 'Italian chic' of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

And then, shall we consider that the Italian dubbers were casting an even darker eye on Tony Camonte than Howard Hawks was, in making him a rapist? Or do we then have to consider what the Italian view on rape is, before we can understand if the difference in soundtracks makes any real difference to Scarface (IT) in general? In the latter case - probably. Because in general, the Italians take this crime both more and less seriously than either the US or UK. On the one hand, they have a long and still pretty-recent tradition of vigilante action regarding the crime...and on the other hand, there is a certain stoical mindset about it as 'part of life' that is linked in with European fatality, and which would quite scandalise British or American sensibilities. Either point of view could be called 'pragmatic', as Italy can so often be, yet both are inimical to general English-speaking audiences.

Very often one can watch the subtitle track of an Italian movie and find that even worse canonical errors are being committed. In certain cases, the plot itself is re-written through translations that are either lazily or determinedly inaccurate, changing facets of the movie which, if the viewer were aware, might greatly change their perception of the characters or of the movie itself.

Bob Hoskins in 'The Long Good Friday' (1981)The effort that goes into a translation is critical to how well the movie moves into a new language. At one point Raidue (one of Italy's core TV channels) apparently brought a 'many showings as you like' version of another gangster movie, Britain's acclaimed The Long Good Friday (1981), from an English-based distributor, and for about eight weeks the movie was shown several times a night.

You really haven't experienced Bob Hoskins until you have heard his unique cockney idiosyncracies dubbed into Italian. One would have hoped, in this particular case, that the dubbers involved might try for a paradigm of the London cockney gangland dialect on display in the film, and transliterate the movie into something akin to either a coarse Milanese or Neapolitan dialect, which would be an appropriate cultural equivalent. In fact Our Bob is translated in this instance into bog-standard Florentine Italian, sacrificing mood for clarity, and in that sense is utterly indistingushable from how, for instance, Alan Rickman might have been translated in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991).

This considered, it's reasonable to assume that any Italian who has only seen the Italian version of The Long Good Friday can't in any substantial sense be accepted to have really 'seen' or understood the film at all in the sense which the film-makers intended. And one wonders if anything less than being genuinely bi-lingual and having extensive first-hand knowledge of British culture - both present and historical - could really make a difference.

If this makes you uncomfortable as regards any of your favourite foreign-language movies (assuming you rely on subtitles or dubbing to comprehend them), perhaps it should. The general understanding of linguistic barriers as 'penetrable' in some way, at least in regards to movies, seems to be a complete fallacy, based on the years I have spent comparing English and Italian versions of films (films that were either US/UK efforts or Italian in origin). Only where the project of dubbing or subtitling requires a dedicated and unique effort on the part of the transliterators (for instance, in the Italian version of My Fair Lady, which is almost entirely concerned with the fine points of the English language) does such an effort ever seem to be made. In other cases fidelity seems a secondary consideration to marketability - a predictable outcome in the general historical climate of movie distribution.

See also:

In Praise of Watching Movies Dubbed into Spanish

10 actors who got dubbed out of their movies


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