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main index © Jeff Matthews entry May 2003
I was watching a skit with Neapolitan comic Massimo Troisi the other night on TV. Although I should know better, I was upset that I didn't understand the uncompromisingly authentic Neapolitan dialect. There were, however, subtitles to make the dialect intelligible to viewers from elsewhere in Italy who might be watching. For a long time, I had assumed that foreigners were the only ones who had such troubles. Not so. Italian dialects can vary considerably from standard Italian, so it is common to see such films with subtitles.
[Also see: The Neapolitan Language]
Interestingly, that is about the only time in Italy that you see subtitles in films. Foreign films—unlike Italian dialect films—are always dubbed into Italian. Films are dubbed so well and so consistently in Italy, that it is common for a single dubber to shadow the career of a foreign actor for years. For example, with your back turned to the screen, even if the film is in Italian, you know that Woody Allen is speaking, because his dubber is always Italian comic Oreste Lionello. If Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Paul Newman all sound the same in Italian, it's because the same dubber, Giuseppe Rinaldi, does all three of the voices. Emilio Cigoli does both John Wayne and Clark Gable, so you may actually have to turn around and look at the screen to find out if you're watching Stagecoach or Gone With the Wind.
Dubbing a film is much more expensive than simply slapping subtitles at the bottom of the screen. Dubbing involves a sound studio, hiring voices for each character and doing take after take in an attempt to get the original inflections into a voice, and then making sure that the new language synchronizes as well as possible with the lip movements on the screen. Nothing is worse than bad dubbing, where the emotions of the voice don't fit the action, and where the synchronization is so out of whack that half the time the actors look like poor souls on street corners making silent fish-like mouth movements to themselves.
The biggest reason why Italians choose to dub films rather than subtitle them goes back to when "talkies" started in the late 1920s. In a nation dealing with drastic differences in dialects, dubbing was a way to help create a sense of a single national language. Thus, even Italian actors with easily identifiable regional accents have been dubbed into more "standard" Italian. (At the beginning of her career, Sophia Loren was dubbed, apparently because of her regional accent from Pozzuoli, near Naples.) Interestingly, after two decades of good dubbing, Italians were so used to standard Italian in films that when the wave of post-WW II Italian films known as "Neo-Realism" came in, with their dialogues recorded live in Sicilian, Neapolitan and Roman dialects, it came as a shock to many Italians to realize that they didn't really understand many of their own countrymen. ("Precisely the point," said more than one Neo-Realist director.)
Italian dubbing is generally so consistent that mimics regularly "do" foreign actors who have characteristic vocal styles—say, John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart. Such attention is paid to quality dubbing that Greta Garbo, for example, upon hearing herself in Italian for the first time, sat down and wrote a fan letter to her Italian voice, owned by actress Tina Latenzi. And some dubbing, of course, requires the same unusual verbal dexterity as the original voice—witness the tongue-twisting pyrotechnics of Stefano Sibaldi, the Italian voice of Danny Kaye.
Perhaps the strangest sidelight in this whole matter is that dubbed voices can become part and parcel of another culture, evoking allusions and inside jokes just as do the original voices in their own culture. The Italian voices of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are the best example of this. When talkies came in, Laurel and Hardy had already achieved world-wide fame on the basis of their short silent movies. There was such a new demand for them speaking, however, that for a time they actually reshot their scenes hurriedly in other languages, pronouncing their lines from scripts written in phonetic English. These scenes would then be sent abroad to be spliced into the rest of the film, which had been remade in the target language using local actors. That soon proved impractical, especially for longer feature films. Consequently, for the Italian market the decision was made to dub the films of Laurel and Hardy in American studios using Italian-American actors, who, presumably, thought they were speaking standard Italian. Their own Italian, however, had been maimed by at least one generation of nasal semi-vowels, unrolled r's and Wrigley's Spearmint.
When the studios in Rome reviewed the first dubbed-in-America Laurel & Hardy film to see what they had, the American English accented voices were so hilarious, that someone came up with the idea of redubbing everyone else into normal Italian, but leaving Stan and Ollie with accents. There followed a nation-wide contest to find the voices of Laurel and Hardy in Italian. One winner was the now famous Italian comic, Alberto Sordi, whose career started as the voice of Oliver Hardy. His anglicized Italian as 'Ollie' has become so much a part of Italian popular culture that an Italian, today, can do Oliver Hardy by saying, with a broad English language accent, 'stuPIdo' (accenting the second, instead of the first, syllable, in imitation of Sordi's version of Oliver Hardy) and have it recognized as instantly as an English-speaker would recognize, "Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into!" Indeed, Italian mimics still regularly pay tribute to Laurel and Hardy, imitating the dubbed voices. (The Italian voice of Stan Laurel was Mauro Zambuto, who, after WW II, moved to the United States and became a professor of Electrical Engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.)
So, without taking anything away from the universal nature of the humor of Laurel and Hardy, it is fair to say that in Italy, much of their popularity was—and still is—due to the spectacularly successful way they are dubbed. There is no Italian comic (not even the great Totò) who, by voice alone, is as recognizable as are Laurel and Hardy in Italian. The only competition in recognizability might be the Italian voice of Donald Duck! Most of the voices in those cartoons are, indeed, dubbed into relatively normal Italian—except for Donald. He still quacks, but his Italian dubber is none other than Clarence Nash, the original English voice of Donald Duck for the Disney studios and who dubbed himself into many foreign languages—including Japanese. Apparently, Nash was one of the few persons to have truly mastered the difficult trick of compressing air in the cheek cavity and producing articulate quacks. (Phoneticians call this the "buccal voice". To the rest of us, it's known as "duckspeak".)
Anyway, gotta run. I hear
the sultry, breathless tones of Rosetta Calavetta on
the tube. Marilyn Monroe, to you.