Can’t See What’s Said

When I lived in Italy I watched a lot of T.V. My favorite morning news show opened each day with the music of the Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony. I can’t hear that song without thinking of my little kitchen with the T.V. on the counter (on the counter! I loved that- I literally never left the kitchen). Then I would watch L’Occhio lo Spese (If I remember the title correctly, something like: eye on shopping) which was a strange show that, I think, was geared towards housewives, cooking and food in general. I remember one show that discussed broccoli for the entire hour. And it was fascinating – there are a lot of varieties. I also learned to store parsley (prezzemoli: I love saying that word) wrapped in tin foil to preserve it longer (it works). In the afternoon they would show American tv shows (some of which I’d never even heard of), but I began to really appreciate dubbing for the first time in my life. Films that are dubbed into English are generally horrendous, but this was an entirely different level. I became convinced and truly awestruck of the craft when I happened to see an episode of Law and Order that a friend of ours was guest starring in. They had him down. I mean – he was in a little danger of sounding better dubbed…it was surreal to see him speaking perfect Italian (especially as I was straining to follow along). From Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet (I enjoyed it much more than I ever did in English) to American soap operas: it was my method of learning the language.

I quickly became fascinated with the dubbing. As a foreigner I felt almost like I was deaf, I would catch myself focusing with rude intensity at people’s mouths as they spoke, lip-reading, to assist my comprehension. When dubbed,the odd sensation of seeing English but hearing Italian can perplex.

I’m finally making a little headway with the backlog of magazines I have not read and there, in a recent issue of Harper’s, was an article on the history and artistry of dubbing in Italy (Reading My Lips by Chiara Barzini). I had just assumed I was being weird, going off on a tangent, but no. It is actually true. They are damn good at it. Many Italians don’t even want to hear the actual actor’s voices, they prefer the dubbers. It is a generational career that we have Mussolini’s nationalistic fervor to thank for (he didn’t want any other language spoken). The Doppiaggese (as the translators are called) actually had to come up with all sorts of weird translations to avoid the use of such quintessential English words like “cocktails” (they no longer do this as evidenced by words like “lo shopping” that they use to describe that American leisure sport where one goes out all day to stores but doesn’t buy anything essential like -food: that would be covered under fare la spese). The translators inadvertently added to and changed the language;  fanculo is a Doppiaggese bastardization of vafanculo (fuck you), shortened so that it would match the actors lips more accurately.

Purists argue against dubbing, and I agree with the arguments (if you want to to see the film, you want to see it as it was made and intended), but…reading subtitles does take away as well. Either way something is lost. When I was forced to stop reading subtitles and stop reading lips, well,I just had to listen to the language, watch the story unfold and relinquish my mania for complete comprehension. In other words: Sit back. Relax. And enjoy the show.


7 responses to “Can’t See What’s Said

  1. whichever way they do it, something is always lost. I still prefer subtitles as you get 2 languages at the same time. Watching Das Boot really brought home now suited German is for barking out orders and for being in a panic. Italians always sound like they’re fighting, the Dutch sound like they are disgusted, and the French,…. well, they just sound French.

  2. true. Each language does something more than just transmit words…

  3. is “vafonculo” actually italian, or from the English curse?

    • I can not say for sure, but culo is a slang for ass and va means go, so there is enough there for a proper insult…I’m not sure which came first. I’m sure there must some etymology of curse words in every language somewhere!

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