Distortion: The Problem of Dubbing in International Cinema – Part One, From Hollywood with Love

From Hollywood with Love

Read Part One here.

Read Part Two here.

American Queen Elsa might sing, “The snow glows white on the mountain tonight, not a footprint to be seen,” but on the other side of the Atlantic, her French counterpart prefers a less literal image of the scenery. “L’hiver s’installe doucement dans la nuit, la neige est reine à son tour,” she sings, cleverly evoking the larger themes of winter and sovereignty in Frozen. Farther south on the same continent, Elsa continues to make it snow, but her voice is now that of the Spanish singer Gisela, who proclaims either “suéltalo!” (literally “let it go” in Spanish) or, in the Catalan version that Gisela also sings, “vol volar” (a slightly riskier translation meaning “it wants to fly”).

Traveling east, Elsa’s Italian “Io lo so, sì, lo so” perfectly matches “let it go” in rhyme and prosody. Back in the Americas, this phrase gets changed in to “I’m free”: “libre estoy” in Latin American Spanish and “livre estou” in Brazilian Portuguese. Both of these refrains differ from European translations in the same language, since the European Portuguese translation has Elsa declare “já passou” (“it’s happened”) instead. And across the world, in languages I don’t know enough about to comment on in detail, Elsa sings her song in a polyphony of voices, all equally catchy, all trying to say the same thing in different words.

As Rick Dempsey, senior vice president of creative for Disney Character Voices, puts it, “we really want audiences to feel like this film was made for them, in their country, even animated in their country—we want the lip-sync to be that good.” And while there might be something unsettling about the notion that an American movie with Anglo-American-looking characters ought to feel as though it was “made for” Brazilian or Chinese people, Dempsey’s got it right. Dubbing provides a unique opportunity to neutralize foreign media because its main purpose is to make the unfamiliar feel domestic. Unlike other forms of audiovisual translation, dubbing is meant to perpetuate the tenuous illusion that what you’re looking at was meant for you, is about you, when in reality it wasn’t, it isn’t.

Films with sound became mainstream around the same time as the Great Depression. Retrospectively ironic but not so funny at the time, the development of sound films presented a deep financial setback for film companies. Until this point, silent films had been easily exportable; all that was needed to bring a film into another language was a change of title cards (or, as was the case with the early films of the Lumière brothers, nothing at all). However, with the advent of sound, the language in which a film was produced indelibly marked its intended audience, limiting its accessibility outside of its country of origin and thereby the profit it could collect. Film translation would now and forever be inseparable from questions of cash.

The initial response to this problem was byzantine. American companies, leaders in the industry, decided that instead of saving money, they would embark on the hugely expensive project of producing multiple versions of the same movie, all shot in a different language. These movies would feature the identical sets with different actors, reading lines in their language translated from a master script. Sometimes up to 15 distinct versions of the same film were produced. Cinematic Babels, the most famous of which was at Paramount’s studio in Joinville, France, were built exclusively for this purpose. As a French-language article from 1931 describes it, “in this modern studio, everything revolves around sound.” ¹

Predictably, this grossly impractical manner of production didn’t last for long. Film quality suffered, and producers, realizing their error, adopted less grandiose measures. Paramount began to produce films in one language with a focus on a specific community of viewers, such as a series of Spanish-language dramas featuring the slick, crooning Carlos Gardel. Multiple-language films virtually disappeared as other methods of language transmission were perfected. This was how, its ambitions frustrated, the Joinville studio eventually became a dubbing facility. ²

It’s not an exaggeration to say that eighty-five years after Joinville, as American blockbusters are increasingly built for an international audience, good dubbing is more important  to more people than ever. While the American film industry faces resistance in Russia and competition from China, it still controls a gluttonous share of the global market, and overseas consumers regularly provide the bulk of American films’ revenue. A recent article in The New York Times states that the highest-grossing film of 2014 was Disney-Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, bringing in $639.7 million globally, of which domestic sales only accounted for 45%. Moreover, in a cynical attempt to maintain their global dominance, American movies are now being tightly tailored to overseas markets. Frozen is one example. Another is the Chinese version of Iron Man 3, which featured additional scenes involving Chinese characters that weren’t present in the domestic version. Response to these scenes has been characterized as “mixed.”

Thus, in a predictable result of trying to export to as much of the world as possible, the way American films are presented to international audiences has become a marker of cultural difference and a topic of constant contention beyond the borders of the anglophone world. In international cinema, a new Babel has emerged, and it’s populated by aliens, superheroes, and singing snow princesses.

Read Part One here.

Read Part Two here.

By Lucas Quatrecasas ’18


¹My translation. Müller, Fédia. “Le Côté Technique Du Cinéma Parlant: Notes Prises Lors D’une Visite Aux “Studios Paramount” à Joinville Près Paris.” Société Du Bulletin Technique De La Suisse Romande (1931)

²Danan, Martine. “Dubbing as an Expression of Nationalism.” Meta: Journal Des Traducteurs 36.4 (1991): 607-08.

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