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Spains film dubbing: ghost of a fascist past must be laid to rest

Failure to use original sound in movies is bad for cinema fans and their language skills.

Most ex-patriots living and working in Spain will be all too aware of the Spanish penchant for dubbing foreign-language films. Whether Spanish-speaking or not, this is enormously irritating, particularly for those of us not living in more cosmopolitan cities like Madrid or Barcelona, with more cinemas showing films in original version.

The nearest big city to me is San Sebastin, which hosts an annual international film festival famed for its predilection for the avant-garde. Throughout the festival, all showings are in original version and San Sebastin is extremely proud of its cinematic culture. Yet after almost 60 years of hosting the event, there is still only one small, two-screen cinema in the whole city which shows all its films in original version.

There is a valid reason why dubbing is so popular in Spain of which more later. It is also fair to say that dubbing is something at which the Spanish now excel. As Beatriz Maldivia points out in the blog Reflexiones de Cine: In Spain the quality of cinema is very low, as are our musicals and televisual productions… but our dubbing actors and actresses are pretty good.

Dubbing actors and actresses in Spain are frequently trained or experienced actors and not simply voice synchronizing artists. Certainly Spanish dubbing actors have a delivery and timbre that is often better than the actor they are doubling for.

As Maldivia also points out, however, the quality of the translation is another matter entirely and is often very poor. This is particularly noticeable in dialogue-heavy films and those which contain frequent jokes and plays on words.

In some cases they get it right. I’m told the dubbing actor who doubled for Brad Pitt in Snatch was superb. But that was thanks to a decision to portray Pitt’s pikey as an Andalusian gitano, a shrewd move that also factored in an important cultural interpretation, essential to Spanish viewers’ understanding of the character.

There is currently within certain Spanish circles an increasing demand for films in their original language. Most digital television systems now give you the option to choose whether to watch in dubbed or original version, and many of my contemporaries in Spain are keen to watch in English as long as Spanish subtitles are available.

Any reticence until now about watching films in their original version went hand-in-hand with a shamefully poor level of English. Shameful because it is something of which many Spaniards clearly feel embarrassed. The image of former Prime Minister Zapatero sitting apart from his European counterparts, a reflection of his inability to speak English, quite probably drew more comments from the Spanish themselves than any other nation.

One nation, one tongue

This inferiority complex when it comes to speaking foreign languages particularly English is due in no small part to Franco’s legacy. Franco policy was designed to keep Spain as uni-lingual as possible, essentially to eradicate the country’s three other main languages Basque, Catalan and Galego though ultimately to the detriment of all.

It was that same legacy that put Spaniards in a linguistic and cultural void when it came to the cinematic arts and what Iaki Gauna in Notas de Cine describes as the deep rooted and culturally perverse custom of dubbing films.

The practice of dubbing dates back to an order issued by the Caudillo on April 24 1941: It is forbidden to project films in any language that is not Spanish. In some cases this led to script changes most famously to one line in Casablanca: In 1936 he fought for the Republicans in Spain in essence turning dubbing into a tool for censorship.

Despite its fascist beginnings, however, the tendency among Spaniards to watch dubbed versions of films has become a hard habit to break. To some extent it has played a positive role. In part, because dubbing in Spain is now an art in its own right. But also because it makes potentially ‘cult’ films accessible to all audiences, something sadly not the case in English-speaking countries.

As anglophones we can hardly claim to be more cultured because of our snobbery towards dubbing. How much of the general British, Australian or Irish public can claim to watch foreign-language films on a regular basis? And why should they, when sooner or later Hollywood produces a remake in English? Films like Amelie are simply the exception that prove the rule.

Furthermore, foreign films with subtitles are completely inaccessible to a significant minority. Namely those with insufficient sight to read them.

Thatcher in Spanish

There are some films, however, that simply should not be viewed in any other than their original version. Walking past my local cinema the other day I noticed they were currently showing The Iron Lady – or rather ‘La dama de hierro’.

There is little doubt that Thatcher’s most famous characteristic, aside from her hairdo, was her voice. This is something even most Spaniards can appreciate, and for those who don’t, a loyal portrayal of the character which Meryl Streep’s is said to be will soon put that right.

So a dubbed version of a film about the former British PM is surely rather senseless. As is watching The King’s Speech a film devoted to the subject of speaking in any other but its original version. And the very existence of a dubbed version of a film that is multi-lingual by design i.e. Inglourious Basterds beggars belief.

Younger generations of Spaniards now have a better level of English than their predecessors. But full immersion in the language or exposure to any language that is not Spanish can only be achieved through a complete break with the past and a fascist legacy that paved the way for what is tantamount to a dependency on dubbed cinema.

The time has come for contemporary Spanish governments to take the bull by the horns. Just as Franco’s legislation of 70 years ago put the country in a linguistic quagmire, new legislation must now help to put the country on a cultural and linguist par with other European nations.

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