If you are ever around children, chances are you have heard of the Disney musical Frozen. As the film has broken practically every record out there, it has been translated into a great deal of languages, including Arabic. However, Disney decided to dub the film into formal Arabic instead of a dialectal version. Was this a wise decision?
Elias Muhanna knows the soundtrack of the Disney film Frozen by heart: as he tells his readers in his article on The New Yorker, his children absolutely adore the film, which means he has to listen to them singing the songs from the film every single day.
And once you hear them, it’s hard to get them out of your system – Muhanna thinks the infectiousness of the songs has helped the film become the fifth highest-grossing film of all time.
The love for the Frozen soundtrack by Muhanna’s children did not end at the English songs. In fact, after his children discovered versions of the song “Let it Go” in 25 and even 41 different languages, Muhanna’s house sounds like an international airport’s business lounge. “Snatches of German and Cantonese waft downstairs from the second-grader’s bedroom, mingling with Danish and Russian phrases murmured by the preschooler making Play-Doh cookies on the kitchen floor,” he says.
Muhanna believes cinematic translation is very difficult. He believes the best literary translations are created when periphrasis and poetic license can be used, and when a footnote here and there can be added.
The limited timeframe of films, however, means these tools are not available in film translation. Moreover, he says, translators must also take the musical setting and body language of the character into account, and pay attention to rhyme, jokes and cultural references.
According to Muhanna, Frozen is Disney’s most widely translated musical. Moreover, he believes it is also the film company’s most “American” film as it is filled with vernacular speech from the US.
For the Arabic world, the film was dubbed in Modern Standard Arabic. This is different from previous Disney films, Muhanna says, which all used Egyptian Arabic. This dialect was previously used because it the most speakers in the Middle Eastern region.
Modern Standard Arabic is a lot like Classical Arabic and in today’s world, Muhanna states, it is mostly used in high culture, news broadcasting, sermons and the like.TV shows, advertising etc. are often in colloquial Arabic.
In recent times, dialectal Arabic has been on the rise in areas in which the literary language used to prevail. Arabic children’s literature, however, holds firmly to Classical Arabic. Muhanna says that the reason behind this is that parents want to teach their children the “real” Arabic language by reading it to them. Muhanna frowns upon this: it is unclear what “real” Arabic is, he says, and he thinks it children should be presented with books in a language they can relate to.
Even though Muhanna admits it is difficult to explain the difference between formal and colloquial Arabic to people who don’t speak the language, he states the two differ even more form each other than the English of the King James Bible and that of a sports presenter. The Arabic translation of Frozen thus does not sound very contemporary when translated into English: “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…” Clearly, Muhanna says, the musical lacks any localization to modern Arabic times.
Disney’s reasons for switching from Egyptian Arabic to Modern Standard Arabic are unclear and puzzling to Muhanna.
He says the decision has met mixed reactions. Some Frozen fans have decided to create their own versions of the song, for example, and a petition has been created that asks Disney to dub its next film in dialect Arabic again.
Muhanna asks himself why Disney has its films translated in different Spanish versions – for example Latin American Spanish and Castillian Spanish – while they are presenting all Arabic speakers with the same version. He rejects the suggestion that the dialects are only spoken by a few people: after all, Scandinavia has five different translations for Frozen, while the entire region is inhabited by less than a third of all people living in Egypt.
Muhanna believes the lack of a constituency for cultural products in Arabic dialects have prompted Disney to make their decision. Of course, he says, it is not up to Disney to create such a constituency. It simply shows the power of linguistic purists in the Middle Eastern region.
Muhanna states that when it comes to culture, the Arab world is no longer unipolar as most films and music might come from Egypt, but soap operas come are made in Syria and North Africa produces many films as well. Moreover, Arabic dialects are on the rise written communication because of the internet.
In conclusion, Muhanna believes the presence of dialectal Arabic cannot be overlooked. Now, all that needs to be done is tell this to the Disney bigwigs!