Once, long ago, I talked to a self-confessed movie lover from Germany and the first thing I asked him was what he thought about the ridiculous practice of overdubbing foreign movies with German dialogue, spoken by German voice actors. He thought that subtitles ‘spoiled the imagery’ and my retort – that voice dubbing spoiled the acting – was whisked away with all the arrogance of someone who knows he wouldn’t be able to follow movies in any other language than German: acting wasn’t that important.
Well alright then, try listening to Good Morning Vietnam’s Adrian Cronauer doing his routine of very very very American jokes for the Armed Forces Radio Service in Vietnam – in Italian. You can’t translate that and I should know, because translating is what I do when I am not writing blogs. And so… they don’t translate. They are desperately trying to stuff some of their own jokes into that onslaught of hi-speed comedy Robin Williams reportedly ad-libbed. Most translators are not half as funny as Robin Williams – hell I am not even mildly funny when I quote the man directly. So this is what happens when Cronauer talks about former Vice President Richard Nixon to his antagonist, Lieutenant Hauk, who loves abbreviations like a true Army man:
Excuse me, sir. Seeing as how the VP is such a VIP, shouldn’t we keep the PC on the QT, ’cause if it leaks to the VC he could end up an MIA, and then we’d all be put on KP.
Now that makes perfect sense when you spell out the abbreviations: Seeing as how the Vice President is such a Very Important Person, shouldn’t we keep the Press Conference a secret because if it leaks to the Viet Cong he could end up Missing In Action and we would all be put on Kitchen Patrol (mess-hall duty). The joke only works because it makes sense. Not so in Italian.
S.O.S. Signore. Se l’ex VP ha un tale DNA, non dovremmo tenere la CS fuori TV? Perché senza questo ABC avremmo alla gola l’H2O o peggio il DDT dal KGB.
In English: S.O.S. Sir. If the ex-VP has such DNA, shouldn’t we keep the PC off of TV? Because without that ABC we’d have H2O up to our throats, or worse, DDT from the KGB.
More than something got lost there – I highly doubt if anyone ever laughed at that. Surely, subtitles would be hard to write for this movie as well. Probably harder still, because there’s the added hurdle of peoples’ reading speed to take. But a lot of people do understand at least parts of the original dialogue and they are better off for it. In Germany, in Italy, in France and in a number of other countries however, you’re denied that chance unless you get the DVD.
At age 10 or 11, before I’d ever learned any English, I could quote The Dukes of Hazzard and I was well aware of what I was saying. Granted, I always did have a knack for languages, but I sure wasn’t the only one who could say ‘You got your ears on, little buddy?’ – complete with Southern drawl. (It’s surprising that I later learned how to speak with a fairly British pronunciation, come to think of it.) I really believe that using subtitles instead of voice-overs helps children a lot when learning English. Here in Italy they get English in school right from the get-go at six, but most people wouldn’t know how to buy a loaf of bread in London or New York. It’s improving, but very very slowly. Let’s speed up the process and get rid of voice-overs. Older Italians will hate it, nationalists will cry havoc and, like in France, some will fear Americanization of our culture. But please… DDT from the KGB?