Multilingual Disney and the Challenges of Dubbing

This piece is an expansion on an article by Professor Elias Muhanna which was featured in The New Yorker.

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight, not a footprint to be seen/une royaume de solitude, ma place est là pour toujours/der Wind er heult so wie der Sturm ganz tief in mir…

So begins one of the most popular Disney videos on YouTube: Let It Go sung in 25 languages by different voice actresses and singers from around the world. It’s a truly impressive video that shows the global reach of Disney or, if you’re a bit more cynical, that parents from Budapest to Brasilia must endure this ear-worm of a song. Here’s the video if you want to take a listen:

Besides showcasing Disney’s international success and influence (as well as the singers’ lovely voices), the video also illustrates the tricky business of dubbing. When Disney dubs a film into a foreign language, it must convey what the characters are saying or singing in the same amount of time and lip-flaps allotted for English (you’ll notice that a lot of musical numbers in animated films don’t have too many close-ups of the characters’ faces), stay within the meter of the songs, and appeal to the cultural quirks and humor of the target audience. No easy task for one language; try doing it 25 times or more.

In Elias Muhanna’s piece, he highlights one particular challenge: which variety of a language to use for a dub. As you see in the video, Disney recorded two versions of Portuguese (Brazilian and European), French (Quebecois and European), and Spanish (Latin American and Castilian). I know they also recorded two versions of Mandarin (Taiwanese and Mainland). However, for Arabic, Disney chose to use just one variety: Modern Standard. Per Muhanna, this makes the song sound very archaic — more like Shakespearean verse than pithy ear-worm lyrics by the composers of The Book of Mormon. I agree with Muhanna’s argument that Disney should consider dubbing its films in multiple varieties of Arabic; if we can acknowledge that kids in Madrid and Mexico City speak (and sing) differently from each other, why can’t we acknowledge the same for kids in Damascus and Doha?

But the challenges don’t stop there. How do you translate culturally-specific elements, like accents, jokes, and cultural mores? In The Little Mermaid, Sebastian the Crab (who speaks with a West Indian accent) is tormented by a chef whose French accent wouldn’t sound out of place on a parapet ready to launch a cow at a witless King Arthur. How do you convey this in French? Simple, make the chef’s over-the-top accent Italian. In Aladdin, translators had to grapple with how to translate Robin Williams’ mile-a-minute, pop culture-heavy humor (which was accompanied by visual gags — a further constraint for the translators). In a non-singing example, the makers of the Pixar film Inside Out created different animations of one scene — in which the emotion Disgust prevents the main human character, Riley, from eating broccoli — to accommodate different cultures’ ideas of yucky vegetables. Japanese kids love broccoli (cue a thousand American parents asking little Johnny why he can’t be more like the kids in Japan), so in the Japanese dub of Inside Out, Riley turns up her nose at bell peppers.

You also have cultural mores that are trickier to navigate than childhood vegetable preferences. The 1996 Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame deals fairly directly with religious themes, disability, racism, and other quite controversial topics. The Arabic dub (incidentally, it’s in Egyptian Arabic, not Modern Standard) of the villain’s song, Hellfire, substitutes “ya-raby” (my lord/my God) for “Maria” so as to avoid potential insensitivity towards stricter interpretations of monotheism. In Japan, the title of the film was changed to The Bells of Notre Dame due to the taboo nature of the word “hunchback” in Japanese.

Although a writer dubbing an animated film has a lot of restrictions to work with, there’s still room for a lot of creativity and ingenuity. One of my favorite examples also comes from a dub of The Hunchback of Notre Dame; in the French version (linked below), Quasimodo sings,

A mon tour, faire un tour, alentour de ma tour…rien qu’un jour, un jour, en bas!

Direct English translation: To take my turn, to take a tour, around my tower, just one day, one day, down below!

Original English lyrics: Won’t resent, won’t despair, old and bent, I won’t care…I’ll have spent one day out there!

I think both versions’ lyrics are great, but the French dub gets extra points for working in a clever 3-way wordplay that still conveys the same emotion and character motivation as the original English.

Many language teachers will tell you that watching movies and listening to music in your target language is a great way to learn and practice, and get a feel for the culture; what better way to do that than by watching a Disney movie in your target language? As you can tell from all the challenges of dubbing, not only will you be able to improve your listening (especially because the plots are generally easy to follow and you’ll already have some idea of what’s going on), but you can learn a lot about the popular and traditional cultures associated with your target language. Give it a try! Go on YouTube and look up your favorite Disney song in a language you study, want to study, might study at some point, or just admire.

Out There (Rien Qu’un Jour/Just One Day) in French:

And just as a bonus to show how hard it is to translate Robin Williams into other languages — Friend Like Me (No Hay un Genio tan Genial/There’s No Genie as Great) in Spanish:

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