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Dubbing Italy: Thoughts on dubbing’s two-fold domestication

by Carla Mereu Keating (PhD, University of Reading)

It is well-known that in the mid-1930s the fascist government regulated the practice of dubbing in Italy. Since October 1933, films originally spoken in another language had to be dubbed into Italian, in Italy, and by Italian personnel. Little known perhaps is the fact that the Italian government was not being original in imposing 100% Italian dubbing on national screens, as other West European countries such as Germany and France had, more than a year earlier (respectively on 1 and 29 July 1932), already regulated and localised the dubbing practice with the same aim of counteracting Hollywood’s hegemony in their own domestic market.[1] Indeed this was a protectionist strategy, both political and economic, with considerable cultural and semiotic implications. But rather than limiting, it consolidated Hollywood’s presence in Western European screens.  Despite the fact that eminent voices of dissent have been heard in Italy since dubbing’s appearance on the national commercial circuit (perhaps many will remember Luigi Chiarini’s, Michelangelo Antonioni’s, and Umberto Barbaro’s early critical stance against dubbing), seldom have Italians questioned openly dubbing’s hegemonic position in domestic (big and small) screens or discussed its ambivalent cultural force. Instead, Italians’ preference for dubbing has generally been taken for granted, and even mocked by the non-dubbing world. More importantly, Italians’ preference for dubbing has rarely been the object of evidence-based critical discussion. In scholarship, a lack of critical interest can perhaps be due to the fact that audiovisual translation (AVT) practices have only recently been considered worthy of academic attention.

In Italy, the importance of dubbing is not only evident in its predominant use in foreign film distribution, but the re-voicing procedure has also become – from the mid-1930s onwards – common practice in assembling the dialogue track of Italian films. The re-voicing phase is also popularly known with the expressions ‘lip-synching’ and ‘post-synchronisation’. The practice of dubbing, intended as an inter-lingual translation practice, consists of a preliminary stage of written translation and adaptation, followed by a voice re-acting/re-voicing phase in a recording studio, when a new dialogue-track is created to replace the original. Suffice it to say here that dubbing privileges the aural/vocal/performative components of a film and guarantees a very accessible audio-translation of a foreign product, which could consequently be consumed by everyone in the audience more easily than, say, written subtitles. That being said, we are not interested here in discussing whether or not we regard dubbing (or subtitling, voice-over dubbing, etc.) as the best way to translate and watch a foreign film. Rather, we shall pause to think about the way dubbing communicates to us the very qualities of the foreign text it sets out to translate.

So if we look at dubbing a bit closer, we can see, in the process of translating and re-voicing an audiovisual work, a two-fold domesticating force in act, namely, a textual and a modal domesticating filter. But first I should briefly clarify the concept of domestication. Generally speaking domestication designates that type of translation in which a transparent, fluent style is adopted to minimize the strangeness of the foreign text for target language readers (or viewers in the present case).[2] If we apply this concept to AVT, textual domestication in the process of translating an audiovisual work implies that, for example, domestic, popularly known concepts are preferred to foreign or exotic references, which are perhaps too complicated to decipher for the public in a short space of time, such as that occupied, for example, by a shot/reverse-shot dialogue scene. Translations for dubbing then often tend to tone down the source text’s diversity and foreignness, rendering it as rapidly comprehensible as possible, and acceptable to the intended viewers. The visual text keeps its original characteristics almost intact. I say almost intact because, when looking through the dubbing operation, we can see that moving images have been ‘corrupted’ to a certain degree by the juxtaposition of a new fixed aural component. This last point brings us to dubbing as a domesticating mode of film translation.

In 1930s Italy, early sound films with subtitles were not much appreciated by the general public because subtitles demanded a greater visual attention and a more developed reading competence than diverse Italian audiences possessed (a good percentage of the population was in fact still actively illiterate or semi-illiterate in standard Italian). Early subtitles were also dismissed because of their reductionist characteristics, e.g., not every dialogue was translated and printed on the screen, and the public was eager to understand every single part of the film without having to stop and read. Dubbed films were preferred instead because they permitted the public to both hear and watch at the same time the latest fashionable cinematic technology, i.e., ‘the talking film’ coming from Hollywood. Moreover, subtitled films were soon to be ostracised by the fascist government because they rendered ‘foreignness’ evident – and, more specifically, because they rendered foreignness audible. It has been documented that in 1931 early sound foreign films were required to be muted and their dialogues substituted with Italian intertitles by the government’s film censorship office. The public now had more titles to read. After a few industrial hesitations (e.g., technological conversion to sound, failure of protectionist quota laws, etc.), dubbing was finally endorsed by the government because it permitted the audible foreignness of the spoken text to be completely domesticated, i.e., replaced to match target standards (both in linguistic form and content). The fascist state had intervened to reinforce a sort of ‘mass cultural’ inclination towards dubbing, a much more fluent translation mode, one linguistically-standardised and subject to film censorship control. Supported by other financially interested parties (e.g., film distributors and exhibitors), national cinemas did not switch to the use of subtitles in the aftermath of the fall of the regime and during the post-war period.

Coming back to looking through the dubbing operation, we can also see that the very foreignness that dubbing attempts to tone down becomes, paradoxically, more influential. It does so because dubbing permits a larger part of the public to identify with – and recognise as familiar – foreign faces, customs, places. This process of identification with the foreign is amplified by the fact that foreign characters and foreign concepts, customs etc. are given Italian voices and easy-to-follow domestic explanations. Yet the public experiences this sort of identification with the foreign as filtered, ‘masked’, by dubbing’s two-fold domesticating force.

Eighty years after its formal imposition, dubbing still remains the mainstream, habitual way to translate and consume foreign cinema (and television products) in Italy. Having had for a long time only the option of dubbing, the public has learned or got used to receiving and understanding the Foreign in the public’s ‘own cultural terms’. As a consequence of the ‘dubbing glass’[3] installed between the public and the film, dubbing has created a dual linguistic and semantic barrier between Us and the Other. It may also have limited spectators’ ability to register linguistic and cultural differences, as well as having compromised their intercultural understanding and appreciation of otherness


[1]   See Kristin Thompson Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market, 1907-34 (BFI: London, 1985), 211-12.

[2] Refer to Lawrence Venuti, The translator’s invisibility: a history of translation (Routledge: London, 1995), 20, and to the scholar’s subsequent work in translation theory. Venuti’s hermeneutic dichotomy ‘domestication vs. foreignisation’ has often been criticised, raising large debate in translation scholarship all over the world, while also promoting fruitful research in translation history, theory and practice.

[3] The expression was used first by Candace Whitman-Linsen in 1992 in her ground-breaking Through the Dubbing Glass: Synchronization of American Motion Pictures into German, French and Spanish, Peter Lang, Frankfurt.

Carla Mereu Keating has completed her PhD in Italian Studies at the University of Reading with a thesis entitled ‘The Dub Debate: Film Censorship and State Intervention in the Translation of Foreign Cinema in Italy (1923-1963)’. Her research interests include film history, distribution and reception, film translation history, theory and practice, media censorship, popular culture and Italian American literary writing. She is currently working as a translator specialising in subtitling, legal and literary translation and teaching Italian language courses, cinema and twentieth-century culture.

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This entry was posted on January 28, 2014 by in Voices.
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