February 26


The Art of Doppiaggio

By Rick

February 26, 2015

art of doppiaggio

Last week, Italy’s Milena Canonero took home her fourth Oscar for Best Costume Design for her work on The Grand Budapest Hotel. But after winning the prize for Best Foreign Language Film last year with Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), this year Italy didn’t even have an entry in that category. Disappointing.

Not that there weren’t some notable Italian films released in 2014. In fact, it’s a bit surprising that the critically acclaimed Il capital umano (Human Capital) didn’t make it to the final round of Oscar voting. Back in June, it won top prize at the David di Donatello Awards, beating out The Great Beauty. And it features several of Italy’s “A-list” talent such as Valeria Golino (Respiro) and Luigi Lo Cascio (La meglio gioventù).

Maybe it’s not that surprising after all. Allow me to make a related observation: Italian films don’t really seem all that popular among Italians. Browsing the marquees at any given cinema in Rome, you often find more American movies than Italians ones.

This also gives us a little peak into a subtle cultural idiosyncrasy that one repeatedly encounters in Italy. There’s an underlying sentiment that “everything foreign is better” (with the exception of food, of course). When something embarrassing happens in a public way—like the appointment of one of Berlusconi’s mistresses to Parliament—you hear outcries in the street, such as, “Only in Italy! This would never happen in England/Switzerland/Germany/America!” (Although, after the recent vandalism incident at The Spanish Steps involving Dutch soccer fans, you won’t hear Holland included in that list anytime soon. They made Rome’s home-grown vandals look like mere amateurs.)

Anyway, newly expatriated Americans arriving in Rome might be thrilled to initially discover that they can still watch recently released Hollywood films right in the center of the Eternal City. Well, sort of. Yes, the same films are shown—but fully dubbed into Italian. That’s right, no subtitles, but 100% dubbed. So if you don’t speak fluent Italian, don’t bother going to see the latest superhero sequel at the theater.

By the way, this goes for the imported television shows, too, and there are many. All dubbed, no subtitles.

The Art of Doppiaggio

You might ask, “Why do they dub all the films and TV shows in the first place? Wouldn’t it be better—not to mention easier—to just include subtitles?

Nowadays, yes. But when film starting becoming a popular medium in post-war Italy, the standard Italian language wasn’t as widely dispersed as it is today. Many people still only spoke their local dialect, and within the older generations, illiteracy was high. So subtitles would have been a fairly difficult chore to demand from the audience. Dubbing made more sense.

Leggio_dOro_premio_doppiaggioThen even as the standard language spread and literacy improved dramatically, the habit just sort of stuck around. In fact, dubbing became its own art form, and many of the “doppiatori” were as famous as the foreign actors that they spoke for. Even today, certain foreign actors have dedicated doppiatore who are under contract be their exclusive Italian voice.

For example, Francesco Pezzulli is the Italian voice of Leonardo DiCaprio, winning the 2013 prize for “Best Actor” from the Leggio d’Oro, the dubbing version of an Oscar, for his interpretation of DiCaprio’s character in Django Unchained.

Best “Actor?” Is dubbing someone else’s voice really acting? No doubt it takes talent, but I’m not sure it’s the same thing.

I wonder if Francesco and Leonardo hang out together and share acting tips. Or advice on dating Brazilian swimsuit models. But I digress…

The fact is, these actors are quite talented. I admit that my Italian isn’t perfect, but I usually have a hard time seeing a discrepancy between the mouth movements of the foreign actor, and the sounds produced by the Italian dubber. Really, it looks seamless to me.

Not sure my American friends will get the joke here.

In recent years, the one concession has been to leave only the title of the film in the original language. I guess it’s a start. But I hope that the trend changes sooner or later. Not only does it better preserve the art, but some have suggested that dubbing has contributed to the Italian population’s poor English skills, lagging far behind countries like Germany, Holland, and Norway—all countries that do NOT dub foreign movies or television shows. Coincidence?

Recently I’ve heard a rumor that there’s an Italian actor who is looking for an American man to dub his movies into English for distribution in the United States. I’m thinking about auditioning. I don’t know if my “doppiaggio” skills are up to the task, but you must admit that there’s a striking physical resemblance.

*One final note* Even though I won’t be eligible for the Leggio d’Oro award this year, I AM nominated for “The Best Overall Blog for Lovers of Italy” by Italy Magazine. If you have a minute. please click here to cast a vote for Rick’s Rome. Grazie!!

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

    • Ciao! I liked your article very much! And I would share it with my audience if, alas, it was “dubbed.” 🙂

      But one observation: you talk about the “trilogy of the dollar, by Sergio Leone.” In this case, I can certainly see why the dubbed version would be better since it was made primarily for an Italian audience using American actors. But that’s really the exception, not the rule. As you said, “too bad the Americans can’t appreciate these films in Italian.” Well, that’s the same thing that I would say about American films that are dubbed into Italian. And in this case, it would make even more sense, since many Italians understand at least some English, while very few Americans speak Italian.
      Still, your points are well taken. And in the end, if a person enjoys the film, I guess it’s not really that important how they enjoy it (subtitles or dubbed) or in which language.

  • Oh well, don’t be so self centered culture prone.
    There are not only “american english” movies.
    Thanks to dubbing in Italy we had and still have access to entire worldwide cinema movie production, Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Korean, Russian, Turkish, Brazilian, Israeli, Arab and African too…

    Subtitles are only an hassle.

    Subtitles too much often occupies large portions of the screen, when various characters speak at the same time making scene completely mangled (once I saw english subititles occupying more than 3/4 of the screen.
    This is insane for people watching at the action, and outragous for film makers as their movies best scenes aspect look mangled by all those lines of blabbling characters)

    And as definitve no-no it occurs that too much often subtitles had bad timing.
    They are shown too much slow in order to follow all people talking in the scene… Even if the scene has just passed by…
    Or worst the subtitles appear as a blinking flash when action is very fast, leaving the audience in the theatre asking themselves “What the hell did they just saying? Subs were too fast to read”.

    So then I will always prefer dubbing over any original soundtrack movie complete of subtitles.

  • Wow, lots of discussion on this post. I have to say that, as a native English speaker, I just wish there were more options (even one show a week) for films in the original language. We live near Milan, and have had a very difficult time finding CURRENT movies in English. If we want to watch one from the mid-90’s or early 80’s, there are some options, but nothing current. I think students of English and expatriates would be consistent customers at theaters if these films were made available, even once a week.
    Interesting points about the subtleties of the language that comes through in doppiaggio but not in subtitles. I guess I never think I am missing much when I watch a foreign film with subtitles, but maybe I am!

    • I guess it comes down to preference. I prefer original language with subtitles. I even like watching Italian films with Italian subtitles to help me improve my comprehension. But either, whether dubbing or subtitles, I think you ALWAYS lose something in translation. Grazie, Chiara!!

  • I love Italian doppiatori. I watched also several American movies with a French doppiaggio (since I live in France) and their doppiatori are not as good as Italian ones.
    Just two points to defend the doppiaggio:
    – when there are subtitles, I never watch the film, I spend my time reading. I do it even with Italian film and subtitles in another language. It’s a distracting element
    – watching a film is a pleasure for me, it shouldn’t become a “job” to improve my English. And I like watching TV series with my mother, who studied French instead of English when she went to school (at that time a lot of people did it). Why should I renounce to a family evening on the sofa?

    • Good points, Pindy. The only thing I’ll say–as a native English speaker–is that reading the subtitles is only a distraction for the first 5 minutes or so. After that, my brain adjusts to watching and reading at the same time, and I don’t feel like I miss anything. On your second point, sure, I guess it depends on your motivation of the moment. Sometimes I want to just enjoy the film, but other times, yes, I’m trying to learn something. So for me, it depends on the moment.
      Thanks so much for you great input….ciao!!

  • Fascinating article Rick, I am really happy that you touched on this. I am 100% pro-original language BUT I also can say that it is easy to say when you are an English-speaker. As you know US movies are so popular here and having to read subtitles on each one could be cumbersome for all (even if it is what they should do – look at their Northern European counterparts).

  • Hi Rick, The prevalence of dubbing in Italian films is an historic consequence of the paucity of distribution outlets for Italian language films and the financial necessity of exporting the films to non-Italian speaking countries (the home market was not large enough to support feature film production). It was quite common to shoot films without sound (which is less expensive) and then dub the Italian dialogue in during post production, since one needed to dub in the French, German, English, etc. anyway. Fellini often didn’t even bother writing dialogue, simply telling his actors to count to seven and then turn and look at an off-camera light-stand as if they couldn’t live without it. He would decide later what they should be saying. Also, in order to cross market Italian films, producers cast foreign actors with minimal or non-existence Italian fluency to star in their productions. All of this lead to the development of a robust and talented dubbing capability, which became integral to the film industry.

    • Wow, yeah, that’s an important part of the discussion, and honestly I had forgotten about that. Thanks for filling in the huge gap in my discussion. 🙂 Spaghetti Westerns! You mean, Clint Eastwood doesn’t speak Italian???

  • “some have suggested that dubbing has contributed to the Italian population’s poor English skills, lagging far behind countries like Germany, Holland, and Norway”

    As a critic of Italian adaptation of English-spoken movies (probably the only one in this peculiar field) and bilingual, I can say that it is a common misconception to assume that poor English skills are linked to the presence of dubbed movies.
    In Germany in fact they do dub all movies, so do all other main European countries. Language skills depend on many other cultural factors, different grammar structures and the effort of public school.

    Also, the fame of Italian dubbers amongst Italians might have been a bit overrated in this article. Yes, there are many fans and appreciators of dubbing here in Italy (me being one of them), however the average Joe would have no idea whose voice is behind the microphone most of the times.
    Also yes, there are some awards for dubbers but there are in no way as famous as the Oscars, or even the Venice film festival. It’s more of a comic-con side event with little relevance outside the world of dubbing affecionados.

    • Hi Evit, and thanks for your comments…you obviously have a lot more knowledge than I do. My comments were made on personal observations, and not large population studies. But it has been my experience that whenever I meet someone from Holland or Germany or Norway who speaks near-perfect English, I’m always impressed, so of course I ask them “How?” 99% of the time, their answer is “I watched American movies/TV growing up.”

      My comment was only that this practice of dubbing contributes to the language problem. In no way was I suggesting that it’s the only factor–or even the most important one. In any case, it certainly doesn’t help.

      • I was trying to reply but kept getting an error… I’ll be much shorter.
        I completely agree with the rest of your article, you really nailed it when you described Italians and their way of thinking.

        I just wanted to debunk the famous myth about learning a language only through watching movies.
        Yes, watching movies in English is a big help if you are already learning the language at school. Otherwise you’ll be reading subtitles all your life without ever getting to know how to order a Coke in London.

        The argument of “no dubbing=people are better at speaking English” is often used amidst haters of Italian dubbing but it is unfounded. I could watch Japanese movies subtitled all my life and still learn nothing more then a bunch of individual words.

  • I am the minority, but I think, while it’s better to watch in the original language, dubbing serves a purpose. Italians dub, and there are films from all over the world in all their mainstream theaters. They dub, and the world is opened up to them. We don’t dub, and since most of us are too lazy to read subtitles we don’t show foreign films at local cineplexes. We have to go to art house theaters, and many towns don’t have them, to see anything foreign. We stubbornly insist on something that nobody supports. I love being in Italy and going to the movies – I can see films from all over whenever I want.

    • Thanks, Cheri, that’s another good point. And I think it’s in line with the original spirit of why films were dubbed in the first place. But wouldn’t the same movies still be available with subtitles instead of dubbing? Or are you saying that nobody would go watch them if they weren’t dubbed?

      • I really can’t say; I just know that that’s the way it is. I can only speak from an American’s perspective. Foreign films rarely come to my cineplex. In Italy, the dubbing makes them more accessible.

  • As I am bilingual, I obviously prefer watching an English-speaking film in the original. But the Italian in me has been used to foreign films being dubbed and I find the subtitles very distracting. Half the time the translation is not even particularly ‘correct’ … because it is literally ‘literal’ … and sometimes a literal translation means next to nothing ! This anomaly has made for amusing film watching but, repeat, I find it very distracting. Viva il doppiaggio italiano !

    • That’s a great point, and good to hear the other side of the argument. Yes, I’ve also noticed that with the subtitles, they very rarely catch the subtleties of the dialogue.

  • Ciao Rick, I can easily give an explanation for WHY american/english movies are dubbed in Italian, nowadays, that illiteracy doesn’t exist anymore: the reason – and I say it with great discouragement, is that quite a few people (not to say A LOT), young Italian schooled people, do not even speak a decent english. That’s it. And it’s a shame, really, in 2015.

    • Yes, it’s holding them back from competing on the international market. Did you see the article by Beppe Severgnini in the New York Times this week? He said the same thing…purtroppo.

  • Good post and I do see quite the resemblance…should I look for you in potato chip commercials some time soon?!

    • Ha, ha…thanks! Don’t know if you got the whole joke, but that guy (Rocco) is Italy’s best known “adult” actor. So no, I won’t be dubbing his work any time soon!!

  • Ugh I can not bear dubbing! Version Originale forever! I was just in Paris and A. there is a movie theater on what felt like every block and B. there were original language films at every single one.

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