Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Rub: To Sub or to Dub?

Professor Abe Mark Nornes of the University of Michigan has recently published a book that examines the confounding dynamics of film translation, called "Cinema Babel: Translating Foreign Cinema". Donald Richie's review of the book opens the door for some productive questions. For example, are audiences best served by translations that follow the rules of the original language (and all of its cultural implications) or should a translator's aim be to make a film accessible to his target audience by employing the rules of their language? 

My question is, how much is lost when one chooses one method of translation over another? I frequently encounter translations that do not do the original film justice. Many times the problems of translating are closely tied to the culture associated with the target language. I have a very specific example in mind from the "Shrek" movie.  I have watched this film in the original English and in two versions of Spanish: Spain-Spanish and Mexican-Spanish.  In the original there is a scene where Donkey is excitedly rambling on to Shrek about having a sleep-over, he says, "...and in the morning, we'll make waffles!" In the Mexican-Spanish version there is a bizzare translation, that makes any native speaker laugh: "...y por la mañana, haremos tamales!" For those of you that do not know, tamales are corn cakes that are usually filled with meat and cooked while wrapped in either corn or plantain leaves. I assure you that they have nothing to do with waffles. I don't think that they are usually a breakfast item either. Why that particular translator chose "tamales" I will never know, but it does add a significant layer of comedy in Spanish, that previously did not exist. The Spain-Spanish version is much more faithful to the original idea: "y por la mañana, haremos gofres". Gofres are definitely waffles, but I assure you that they are never a breakfast item in Spain, as they are usually sold in the street covered in chocolate syrup and whipped cream. Had I to translate for Spain, I would have said churros, which are basically crunchy fried donut sticks that you dip in coffee, and are universally loved by all in the early hours of the morning. 

I am an avid watcher of foreign cinema, and I must say that, personally, I prefer subtitles to dubbing. I feel that subtitles are less intrusive, and afford you the singular opportunity of experiencing a film in the richness of its original language. It's not everyday that I can hear a sustained conversation in Farsi, or Finnish, and I relish those opportunities (especially if I can get an inkling of what is being said through some well-placed subtitles). I recently had a conversation with a Spanish friend about dubbing. For a very long time, dubbing has been the order of the day with foreign films and TV programs in Spain, though, happily, that is now changing. She felt really cheated of the opportunity to learn English through TV, like so many of her friends had in other European nations that do not commonly dub. 

Really, so much is lost when things are dubbed, from the opportunity to know a specific actor's voice and intonation, to the experience of hearing the cadences of a language that is not your own. 

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