Summer 2012

Glossed in Translation

– The Wilson Quarterly

Mussolini banned all foreign words in pop culture — a practice that continued well after his reign ended.

After Benito Mussolini’s execution in 1945, his people, brutalized and bankrupted by five years of war, might have been more united in hatred for the Italian dictator than in patriotic pride. One of Il Duce’s nationalistic mandates, however, would have unlikely staying power. Determined to rid his country of outside influences, the dictator had banned all foreign words written or spoken, including those uttered in the new talking movies that arrived in the 1930s. The art of dubbing that grew to fill the hush, writes Italian screenwriter Chiara Barzini, has since given Italians Doppiaggese (“Translationese”), a language stripped of regional dialect and peppered with new words and phrases.

American movie studios tested several workarounds after Mussolini’s ban. Intertitles left Italian viewers, many illiterate, to watch in gloomy silence, so the studios devised technology that played speech over pictures. When, in 1933, Mussolini prohibited even foreign films that had been dubbed into Italian outside Italy, his compatriots developed a voiceover industry, producing “stunningly literal translations” of foreign words, even names. The practice continued long after the ban expired. Louis Armstrong became Luigi Braccioforte, for instance, and an Italian curse word was truncated to sync with the lips uttering its Anglo-Saxon equivalent.

“By the ’80s, a whole segment of Italy’s pop culture existed in Doppiaggese,” Barzini remembers. “As children, my friends and I took pleasure in calling one another the absurd phrases Italian dialogue adapters had invented. We became pollastrelle (‘chicks’), exclaiming ‘Grande Giove!’ (‘Great Scott!’) like Doc from Back to the Future.” Voice actors, who passed down their trade to their children, polished the craft to such an extent that their diction was considered “true” Italian. They were often called to lend their voices even to native speakers such as Sophia Loren, whose regional dialect did not, it was thought, measure up to her sophisticated looks.

If dubbing was a homogenizer, it was just as often a tool for creation. Legendary director Federico Fellini used it extensively during editing, changing or adding dialogue in postproduction. Barzini quotes one voice actor who says that people in his trade “like to feel that we add something to the original actors.” Italians still dub foreign films, and audiences have become so accustomed to certain actors being paired with certain voices that hearing a different one for, say, Paul Newman or Sean Connery is unthinkable. The death in 2009 of the actor who had long dubbed Woody Allen induced a “state of panic” among moviegoers. “He did an incredible job making me into a better actor than I am, a funnier person than I am,” Allen said in eulogy. “I was fortunate enough after many years to get a chance to meet him, and I was very, very taken with the fact that he looked like me, and how attractive he was.”

The Source: “Read My Lips” by Chiara Barzini. Harper’s Magazine, May 2012.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons