Dubbing and Subtitling


Silent films presented few problems for language transfer, though they still entailed translation for international audiences. While silent films were well suited to consumption in a variety of cultural contexts, this was due less to their status as a universal language of images than to their intertitles and the flexibility they provided. Intertitles were not simply translated from source to target languages but creatively adapted to cater to diverse national and language groups: the names of characters, settings and plot developments, and other cultural references were altered as necessary in order to make the films internationally understandable for different national audiences. By 1927, the intertitles of Hollywood films were routinely translated into as many as thirty-six languages.

With the sound film, it was no longer possible simply to replace intertitles. Subtitling and dubbing have been in use since 1929, but when the first American sound films reached Europe they did not immediately become the preferred solutions to the new problem of sound film translation. Instead, multilingual productions or multiple language versions (MLVs) experienced a period of ascendency and decline from 1929 to 1933. During this time, American film studios either brought foreign directors, scriptwriters, and actors to Hollywood or set up film production studios in Europe. Warner Bros. was the first American producer to engage in MLV production, with some European producers and all of the major Hollywood studios following suit. Paramount invested the most, building a huge studio in early 1930, at Joinville in the suburbs of Paris, that was soon producing films in as many as fourteen different languages. Films that were shot simultaneously in two or three languages usually had just one director, but for a higher number of MLVs each could have a different director. Polyglot actors might perform in more than one language version, but the norm was different casts for different versions. Sets and costumes were reused, which meant shooting versions in shifts according to a twenty-four-hour schedule. Production time was short, often less than two weeks per feature. At its peak, between March 1930 and March 1931, Joinville turned out an astonishing one hundred features and fifty shorts.

Despite such rationing of production time, MLVs meant an enormous increase in costs, and their standardized plots worked against satisfying the cultural diversity of their target audiences. Their lack of profitability, inability to meet generic requirements across cultures, and the perception that they were purely commercial products led to a precipitous decline in MLVs, with Hollywood ceasing multilingual production entirely in 1933 and Germany and France soon thereafter. Although many established and promising young directors made MLVs, few of their works are considered to be of lasting artistic value. An exception is Josef von Sternberg's Der Blaue Engel ( The Blue Angel , 1930), shot in English and German versions for Ufa (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft) and Paramount. The Blue Angel was a substantial international hit and features the same actors (Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich) voicing their lines in both versions.

While the MLVs are generally considered to be a failed experiment of the early sound period, multilingual versions continued to be made sporadically in Europe. Jean Renoir's Le carrosse d'or ( The Golden Coach , 1953), for example, was shot at Cinecittà with a largely Italian cast, most of whom, including the star, Anna Magnani (1908–1973), played and spoke all three languages in separately shot English, Italian, and French versions. Werner Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht ( Nosferatu the Vampyre , 1979) was double shot, with the same cast performing separate German and English versions.

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