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The Translation of Films, 1900-1950$

Carol O'Sullivan and Jean-François Cornu

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266434

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266434.001.0001

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Silence, sound, accents: Early film translation in the Spanish-speaking world

Silence, sound, accents: Early film translation in the Spanish-speaking world

(p.133) 8 Silence, sound, accents: Early film translation in the Spanish-speaking world
The Translation of Films, 1900-1950

Adrián Fuentes-Luque

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

Latin America has played a major role in the history of film translation. Most of the research on film and audiovisual translation to date has focused almost exclusively on Europe, and there is hardly any research on Latin American countries. Apart from the intrinsic interest in and need to expand research to other geographic, linguistic, and cultural contexts, in the case of Latin America there is also a double motive: the magnitude of the Spanish-speaking market; and the fact that, for many years, virtually all the translation into Spanish for audiovisual productions was carried out in specific Latin American countries. This chapter explores the development and implementation of audiovisual translation in the Spanish-speaking context, on both sides of the Atlantic, from intertitles to subtitles, multiple-language versions, and dubbing.

Keywords:   Dubbing, film translation, intertitles, Latin America, multilingual versions, Spain, Spanish-speaking film market, Subtitling, audiovisual translation history

LATIN AMERICA HAS PLAYED a major role in the history of film translation. Research on film and audiovisual translation to date has focused almost exclusively on Europe, and there is hardly any research on Latin American countries. However, it is crucial to explore the historical context in order to understand important later developments in audiovisual translation in Latin America.

Some historical accounts of audiovisual translation in the Spanish-speaking world do exist. There are brief historical reviews of dubbing in two works by Frederic Chaume and detailed descriptions of the history of dubbing—focusing on dubbing companies in Spain—by Natàlia Izard and Alejandro Ávila.1 Ávila takes a general approach to the history of dubbing, from 1926 to 1993, focusing on Spain and concluding that dubbing was eventually established in Spain to prevent the development of regional peninsular languages other than Castilian Spanish. Izard analyses more thoroughly the establishment of the different audiovisual translation modes in the various countries. For her, there were additional reasons for the final establishment of dubbing in Spain, such as the high illiteracy rate in the 1930s, the fact that the Spanish language was one of the most widespread in the world, and the traditionally low English proficiency level among Spaniards. Jorge Díaz Cintas devotes a chapter to a general review of the origin of film translation, the function of intertitles and their translation, finally focusing on the origin of subtitles.2 Apart from these relatively brief accounts, the history of audiovisual (p.134) translation in general (and that of the Spanish-speaking world in particular) is virtually unexplored.

This chapter considers the early years of film translation in the Hispanic world. The case of audiovisual translation in Spanish-speaking Latin America is particularly crucial because of the commercial repercussions this process had for the whole Spanish-speaking market, and also for linguistic reasons, since this process eventually gave birth to a particular linguistic variation labelled ‘neutral Spanish’, which still characterises Latin American Spanish dubbing today. This element is of paramount importance and relevance in the context of Latin America. Rather than a monolingual context, Spanish-speaking Latin America can be seen as a multivariational linguistic context, producing audiovisual texts in different language varieties. These can be considered different languages, drawing on Dirk Delabastita and Rainier Grutman’s definition of multilingualism as including ‘not only the “official” taxonomy of languages, but also the incredible range of subtypes and varieties existing within the various officially recognised languages, and indeed sometimes cutting across and challenging our neat linguistic typologies’.3

As Michael Cronin and Yves Gambier have shown, language is the key element in enabling a given linguistic or cultural community to receive and consume audiovisual products.4 Linguistic and cultural barriers can be overcome only with translation, a key tool for accessibility and intercultural and interlinguistic mediation. Films and audiovisual products do need translation in order to be distributed and received in other linguistic and cultural contexts. In this sense, translation (and audiovisual translation in its different modes in particular) constitutes a crucial gear in the machinery for the dissemination and continuous development of knowledge and culture around the world. This has different implications, from technological innovation to the social and economic consequences of the international trade in audiovisual productions and the work of audiovisual translators.

(p.135) From silent action to silent text

Although commonly known as ‘silent movies’, early films were not completely silent, as they used to be shown accompanied by music. Juan B. Heinink establishes two stages in the transition from silent to sound: a technological adaptation phase, in which music and sound effects are added to the film which still uses intertitles to convey narrative and written dialogue; and a second phase, where titles are eliminated, and dialogue becomes audible, and is pronounced in synchrony with the actors’ actions.5

Jessica Taylor points out that the advent of sound posed a number of challenges, including ‘the question of how this new unification of sound and shadow would be incorporated into the already well-established film culture’ and tensions around ‘some of the underlying ideologies of language current at the time’.6 Tensions around language use raised issues of accent, voice pitch, and linguistic competence, in line with Laura Isabel Serna’s stand that film translation (particularly intertitles and their translation) exposes the political dimensions of the circulation of American films in certain contexts of reception (such as Latin America), thus demonstrating ‘the ways in which filmic texts intersected with other discourses such as those on national ­identity, class, or cultural imperialism’.7 In this vein, Serna, referring to the Latin American context (and Mexico in particular), points out that cultural nationalists ‘perceived sound films in English as untranslatable and thus as potentially powerful instruments of U.S. cultural imperialism’.8 Cultural nationalists protested against the unstoppable advance of spoken American English not only in Mexico, but on both sides of the Atlantic: ‘They joined their voices to those of cultural nationalists in Argentina, France and even Britain who feared that sound films would make them vassals of the United States.’9

In 1926 the Vitaphone sound system was introduced as the invention that would revolutionise the industry and make silent films a thing of the past. It is commonly agreed that the first film with synchronised sound was Warner (p.136) Brothers’ Don Juan (Alan Crosland, 1926), using Warner’s Vitaphone sound-on-disc technology.10 Fierce competition with rival studio Fox would later cause Warner to produce The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927), considered to date to be the first film with synchronised speech. Sources vary as to when the film was first released in Spain. One cinephile website mentions a release date of 13 June 1929, under the titles El ídolo de Broadway (The Idol of Broadway) or El cantor de Jazz.11 According to film historian Román Gubern, the Iberian Spanish release took place in 1931 under the title El ídolo de Broadway.12 In Latin America, the film was apparently first released in Argentina in 1928, as El cantor de Jazz.13 The soundtrack consisted of a few lines of dialogue and several songs. It was not a proper sound movie, but rather a ‘pre-talkie’, a term used by Ávila to refer to a partially dialogued movie.14 In this transition period (1927–31), films were advertised as ‘all dialogue’ (película hablada) or ‘part dialogue’ (película hablada parcialmente).15 Talking films would not fully spread among cinemas in Spain16 and Argentina17 until 1931.

An important link between film and audience during the silent years was the lecturer, or commentator. André Gaudreault stresses that, during the first few years of the 20th century, the commentator became a key figure for audiences in the delivery of silent films.18 In Spain, the commentator or explicador, rather than an artistic resource for the audience, was a business resource. Theatre owners and managers would use them to shout at the entrance of the cinema, in an attempt to attract viewers. The Spanish term explicador had (p.137) other denominations, such as comentarista and intérprete, and lector público, which were also used in certain Latin American countries, such as Mexico. Spanish cinema historian Fernando Méndez Leite provides a vivid account of the origin of commentators in Spain.19 Daniel Sánchez Salas offers a good discussion of how the personality of the Spanish cinema narrator may be defined:20 part actor, part cinema employee, his oral presentations drew on the dominant traditions of contemporary stand-up comedians. The explicador was commonly found in Spanish-speaking cinemas on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly in Spain and Argentina.

In the case of Mexico, designated professional commentators never really existed. Rather, among urban audiences, viewers ‘talked at length to their neighbours: narrating what was happening on the screen, explicating difficult-to-understand bits, and reading intertitles aloud’, while ‘in smaller towns or villages, where the majority of residents were minimally literate or illiterate, certain members of the community assumed the role of commentator’.21 Some of those explicadores achieved considerable acclaim, such as Manolo Vico in Spain, who became a famous theatre actor and presenter, and Federico Mediante Noceda who worked both in Argentina and Spain and would later become a popular writer. In a couple of articles published in the Spanish newspaper ABC,22 film critic and writer Felipe Sassone praised the role of Spanish commentators such as Vico, while commenting on the appalling work of a certain Argentine commentator at a cinema in Buenos Aires:

… his business cards pompously read: ‘Mr. Whatshisname—there’s no point in mentioning his name—, gilder, baritone and cinema commentator.’ No less! And you had to listen to him …! I mean, you had to not listen to him. And I have the feeling that the frequent performances of the gilder and baritone made the Buenos Aires companies finally eliminate forever and ever the figure of the cinema commentator.23

(p.138) Apart from the ‘official’ commentator (whom the exiled Spanish poet and philosopher Bernardo Clariana despised as ‘that gruesome and extravagant character sent by film renting distributors together with the celluloid reels’),24 ‘spontaneous’ explicadores were common around cinemas in the Spanish-speaking world, personified by ‘an allegedly “educated” gentleman, who can be found in every single town and village, and who has the bad habit of reading aloud the film titles to a group of gossiping women sitting around him’.25

I agree with Gaudreault in that commentators coexisted with film titles, and slowly disappeared with the implementation of (translated) intertitles.26 Although this character and his (it was always a man) functions may have been studied in other geographical contexts and periods (France and Quebec’s bonimenteur, Japan’s benshi, sub-Saharan African countries’ later video-jockeys, or VJs, etc.), the role, functions, and polyvalent nature of the commentator in the Spanish-speaking context have not been the subject of much research, with the exception of Laura Isabel Serna’s account of film commentators in Mexico.27

The advent of sound cinema contributed to the disappearance of commentators, who rapidly became obsolete, or turned to other tasks at cinema theatres (such as projectionists, technicians, and ushers, among others). However, commentators continued to work in Latin American cinemas (including Argentina) for some time, due to the relative delay in introducing sound technology, particularly in rural areas.28

Multilingual versions: accents galore

With the coming of sound, the Hollywood majors were faced with the need to produce films adapted to at least the most financially and linguistically relevant markets (French, German, Spanish, and Swedish).29 From 1929 through (p.139) 1931, multiple-language versions were preferred as supposedly the best and definitive solution, although they were actually neither the one nor the other. Ginette Vincendeau summarises the two strategies adopted: ‘importing directors, scriptwriters and actors from each country to Hollywood (the MGM solution) or setting up production centres in Europe (the Paramount method). Both solutions, against the background of the Depression, prove equally costly and are rapidly dropped in favour of dubbing, or (more rarely) subtitling, as we know them today.’30

While multiple-language versions were in general relatively successful in the various European markets, including Spain, the situation in Latin America was rather different, mainly because of two factors. On the one hand there was Hollywood’s excessive standardisation to increase profitability, which left audiences feeling that films did not represent them and that the characters, plots, and stories depicted were a barrier rather than something to identify with. As Vincendeau rightly asserts, ‘MLVs [multiple-language versions] were, on the whole, too standardised to satisfy the cultural diversity of their target audience, but too expensively differentiated to be profitable.’31 A key issue was that when Hollywood studios decided to start making Spanish-language versions, they never even considered the fact that different varieties of Spanish, with different accents, different meanings for the same given words, different systems of reference for cultural terms, were used in each Spanish-speaking country. Colin Gunckel mentions that Gabriel Navarro (writer for the Los Angeles-based Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión) regularly criticised the inadequacy of faithfully translating Hollywood scripts in a way that did not cause linguistic or cultural offence.32 The studios hired US-based Spanish-speaking actors and also imported actors from Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, and Spain, among others, and the language varieties spoken were as diverse as they were confusing for viewers.

Nevertheless, there were some differences in the production system, and while in general ‘Hollywood’s Spanish-language productions were based on English-language originals, with recycled sets and scripts translated into “standard” Castilian Spanish’, other productions, particularly those made in Joinville, such as films starring the Argentinian tango idol Carlos Gardel, ‘were based on original scenarios and featured dialogue spoken in “the Hispano-Argentine language”’.33 Problems with audiovisual translation may (p.140) have been partly the cause of this move towards original scenarios, as Lisa Jarvinen argues:

Ironically, while dubbing and titling are held to have solved the problem of translation that had impelled version filmmaking, for the Spanish-speaking market, audience experience with Spanish versions and controversies such as the ‘war of the accents’ compromised the later implementation of dubbing and titling. Ultimately, this would open space for locally produced Spanish-language films that played to popular audiences.34

The ‘war of the accents’ was, in general terms, a controversy between those in favour of the adoption of theatrical, Castilian Spanish, and those proposing the use of ‘Hispano-American’ accents and vocabulary.35 Specifically, the linguistic controversy focused on the different pronunciation in Latin American and Peninsular Spanish of the consonants ‘c’, ‘z’, and ‘ll’ (the double ‘l’ used to be pronounced as a consonant ‘y’, although Peninsular Spanish speakers no longer make a phonetic difference today). Gunckel also points out that there was some general agreement that the industry should adopt some standards or guidelines regarding the use of Spanish in films.36 A compromise was achieved, through the intervention of the Spanish-American Cultural Association, and the resulting guidelines suggested ‘an adherence to the Spanish customarily used in theatrical productions, but also made provisions to vary accents according to character and setting’.37 This ‘war of the accents’38 even had political and diplomatic repercussions, including a high-level meeting of consuls from 16 Latin American countries, held in San Francisco in 1931, to agree on the use of a unified version of Spanish in Spanish-speaking films.39 This may well have been the first formal attempt at agreeing and regulating neutral Spanish for audiovisual translation purposes. The Mexican consul did not attend the meeting, in protest at the alleged Spanish colonialist connotations of the meeting. Nonetheless, Mexico ultimately sent representatives to the meeting, and would later subscribe to the agreement.40

In 1930, the Spanish Royal Academy for the Spanish Language had issued a statement warning against ‘the dangers of showing films spoken in Castilian (p.141) Spanish by foreigners, who inevitably mistreat both pronunciation and syntax’, urging the Spanish government to take the necessary steps to solve the problem. This may represent one of the first demonstrations of linguistic nationalism and intolerance in Spain, and a serious one. Some prominent members of the Academy, such as the playwright brothers Serafín and Joaquín Álvarez Quintero, said that such films were causing the de-Hispanisation of both children and general public, thanks to ‘an invasion of films from North America … produced in a bad English and a worse Spanish’.41 Such feelings persisted years later, and, in 1945, an article by Clariana in the Spanish-language film journal Cine Mundial called for the urgent establishment of

a public health committee in defence of the Spanish language. Otherwise, dubbing studios in Hollywood or New York will produce a sort of ‘Papiamento’ or Spanish made from a hundred different types of criminal slang, that will little by little be authorised and will end up imposing on us the only impermissible trick: the assassination of the Spanish language.42

Later in 1931, Madrid held the Primer Congreso Hispanoamericano de Cinematografía, which reached the following conclusions:

  • The governments of all participating countries will protect their respective national film industry;

  • Prevent the increase of sound production in Spanish, in foreign studios, especially in Hollywood, from escaping the appropriate censorship and control;

  • Study the most convenient formula for the State to force cinema theatres to include a percentage of national productions in the season’s total film footage.43

New censorship rules, an exchange of productions and a unified tax regime were also discussed at the conference.

(p.142) The leading Spanish film critic and writer Juan Piqueras (who was against all forms of film translation, but especially against the multiple-language versions)44 denounced the linguistic confrontations of ‘Mexicans, Argentinians, Chileans and Cubans; all united against the Spaniards’.45 Interestingly, however, he pointed out that such bickering was not only between Latin Americans and Spaniards, but also between the different Latin American nationalities, which caused huge confusion among the producers at both Joinville and Hollywood as to how to proceed to produce versions:

Films including even a single actor with an Argentinian accent in the cast are not welcome in Chile. In Argentina, people do not want to even hear a Chilean voice. And Cubans and Mexicans are reciprocally hostile to each other’s voices. This has brought enormous strife to film production centres in both Joinville and Hollywood, and even bigger confusion among [Spanish language] version producers who, in fact, did not know what to do about it.46

Piqueras thought that such disputes were rather fruitless and were instigated by selfish interests, and he advocated for the use of ‘pure Castilian’ as the way to reach a peaceful agreement, since ‘it has been proven that pure Castilian Spanish is the only possible language, the only language that audiences in Latin America ask for and tolerate whenever they are offered a “Spanish-spoken” film’.47

Spanish versions were better received in urban working neighbourhoods and rural areas. However, neither the press nor the cultural elite held this important sector of the audience in high esteem, and they rejected this form of film translation vehemently.48 In a poignant article titled ‘¿Por qué fracasan las películas?’ (Why Do Films Fail?), the Spanish newspaper ABC’s correspondent in Hollywood, Miguel de Zárraga, charged Hollywood producers with a total lack of knowledge of the Spanish language and its many accents (both within Spain and in Latin America) and of cultural nuances. He also criticised the poor translations, for which the studios employed anyone, (p.143) however unqualified or unskilled, provided that they were native Spanish speakers.49

Early dubbing in the Spanish-speaking world

The multiple-language versions were followed by the development and widespread implementation of dubbing. The Trilla–La Riva dubbing studios in Barcelona, founded by Pedro Trilla and Adolfo de la Riva, were already up and running in July 1932. Adolfo de la Riva would later flee to Mexico in 1939, during the Spanish Civil War, and he and his brother Jorge de la Riva would introduce dubbing in Mexico.50 Unlike the South American situation, the introduction of sound in Spain during the 1929–31 period seems to have been fast (which in principle would indicate a strong demand) and not too traumatic.51 However, it encountered considerable criticism. In 1932, in spite of the fact that he was opposed to any form of film translation, the film critic Piqueras denounced a campaign in the Spanish film press against the synchronisation of foreign films into Spanish, based on the report that Paramount had decided to stop making Spanish versions of its films, and the unofficial announcement that it intended to dub up to ten films over the following year. As mentioned above, Piqueras was against multiple-language versions, dubbing, and superimposed titles; but, above all, he was particularly adamant and vehement against versions, which he labelled ‘a plague which has fallen on the cinema in the Spanish language’. He considered dubbing a lesser evil. He went as far as to acknowledge that audiences generally preferred the theatrical declamation of the dubbing actors,52 and added that ‘that is why we cannot ask film producers to put an end to versions and dubbings, and significantly reduce the number of superimposed titles’.53 He ended his tirade by condemning the fact that negative press campaigns seemed to be a tradition; in previous years they had focused on multiple-language versions, then at that moment (1932) on dubbing, and the following year probably on subtitling. In (p.144) terms of audience reception and acceptability, he believed that, although ‘unnatural and illogical’, dubbing ‘is the only method capable of conveying good films to the masses and making them understandable for them’.54

Although dubbing was (and remains) much more expensive than subtitling, it was substantially cheaper than producing foreign-language versions. In 1932, when most Hollywood studios decided to seriously embark on dubbing,55 they did not consider that dubbing into Spanish would be profitable enough. Thus, Warner Brothers’ initial dubbing strategy included only French and German, while Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) opted to dub into French, German, and Italian, but not Spanish, and was not planning to send dubbed films to any Latin American country.56

At the point when sound was introduced in film, the Spanish-speaking market was growing fast. In 1930, Variety set the total number of wired film houses in Latin American countries at 250, but ‘the rush to wire abroad is on to such an extent that within a month any statistics compiled become inaccurate’.57 In the same year, there were 2,800 houses wired in Spain.58 In 1931, the number of theatres wired in Latin America—basically Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico—had more than tripled, at 900 cinemas.59 By 1944 the number would reach a total of 3,200 theatres in Spain,60 and 5,095 in Latin America for a market which, in 1938, was estimated at over ‘79 million persons in the nineteen Latin American countries speaking Spanish’.61 Despite the Hollywood majors’ initial lack of interest in Spanish dubbing, by 1933 this had changed. In 1933, Paramount turned its Parisian studios in Joinville from a multiple-language European base into a dubbing hub for several languages, including Spanish.62 This initiative would then be followed by MGM, which in 1933 opened large dubbing studios in Barcelona.63 More than a dozen studios sprouted in Madrid and other Spanish cities, and, by 1935, Spain had (p.145) as many as 13 dubbing studios.64 New opportunities opened up for Joinville’s Spanish actors, as well as for sound engineers and translators, among others.

The traditional explanation for the establishment of dubbing in Spain is an ideological one, based on the Spanish dictator Franco’s decision to impose dubbing by law. However, historical data invites us to challenge this common perception. As more and more cinema theatres were equipped with sound, Spanish audiences, who suffered from high illiteracy levels (particularly in rural areas),65 rapidly embraced dubbing. Some ten years later, in 1941, Franco issued a law making dubbing compulsory in Spain, and prohibiting cinema screenings in any language other than Spanish.66 It is worth noting that, although the date for the enforcement of this law is commonly agreed to be 23 April 1941, law historian Santiago Pozo Arenas mentions an interview with José Antonio Suárez de la Dehesa, a prominent politician during the Franco regime who, together with other law experts such as Vizcaíno Casas, acknowledges that this piece of legislation was probably never actually published.67 I have checked the Boletín Oficial del Estado (the Spanish official gazette) archives, and I was unable to find it.

Although it is common knowledge that the dubbing decree was an idea of Franco and his entourage, Pozo Arenas quotes Suárez de la Dehesa as saying that dubbing was actually made compulsory in Spain thanks to pressure from the four main Spanish cinema producers at that time, who lobbied fiercely because they also happened to own dubbing studios. Suárez refused to give their names, and quickly changed the subject. However, Pozo Arenas hints that these production companies could well be CIFESA, Aureliano Campa, Suevia Films, and Procines, which owned the dubbing studios Acústica, Fono Barcelona, Voz de España, and Parlo Films (all in Barcelona), and Fono España (Madrid).68

The dubbing law also had commercial implications: each Spanish film producer was granted between three and five dubbing licences for every Spanish film produced, a right which producers would then sell to distributors, thus linking film production and import. Many Spanish films were produced with the sole purpose of trading them for dubbing licences for foreign films (mainly from Hollywood),69 whose quota was increasing every year: 28 (p.146) films in 1942, 61 in 1943, 120 in 1944.70 Spanish chronicler Fernando Vizcaíno Casas points out that ‘the compulsory dubbing law was probably a fatal blow to Spanish domestic film production, which deprived the industry of its best weapon against the impossible competition of imported cinema’.71

During the 1929–31 period, in other words a decade before Franco’s compulsory dubbing law, the majors tried to exploit their most renowned films by making Spanish versions to be distributed and screened in the Spanish-speaking markets. However, the most extended mode of film translation during this period was, according to Pablo León Aguinaga, subtitling. In the course of the 1930s, dubbing would gradually replace subtitling as the necessary technical improvements were introduced.72 Subtitling disappeared because of the improvement in the quality of dubbed films, which found fertile ground in Spain, a country with a particularly high illiteracy rate. Between 1932 and 1936, up to nine Spanish companies decided to move from subtitling to dubbing: CEA (1932), Ballesteros (1933), MGM Ibérica (1933), Fono España (1933), Lepanto (1935), Roptence (1935), Cine-Arte (1935), Voz de España (1935), and Acústica S.A. (1935).73

On the other side of the Atlantic, ‘the arrival of the sound films and especially of the talkies paralysed Latin American production’ because local production could not compete with Hollywood product.74 However, by the mid-1930s the Mexican and Argentinian domestic film industries were booming.75 This forced most Hollywood majors to redesign their market strategies for Latin America. In particular, Warner Brothers reacted to the demand from the Spanish-speaking markets of Latin America for more dialogue: by the mid-1930s they began to make ‘X-versions’, films with a mix of intertitles and subtitles used to translate dialogue.76 Later, in the first half of the 1940s, the majors focused on distributing dubbed films, in an effort to offset competition from Argentina and Mexico, which they eventually succeeded in doing. From the mid-1930s to the 1940s, the Hollywood majors hesitated as to which form of film translation to use for the Latin American context: the above-mentioned linguistic frictions between the different Spanish-speaking countries in terms of accents, together with the economic situation in the (p.147) early 1930s, made it difficult to produce a single dubbed version for all the Latin American countries.77

Consequently, Hollywood studios were faced with two problems: on the one hand, an audience used both to listening to the original voices of American actors and to subtitles, since this had been the practice in the early years of sound; and, on the other hand, the continuing issue of finding a form of neutral Spanish that would be acceptable to all. While dubbing had been favourably embraced in Europe, it was proving difficult to sell in Latin America, mainly due to a rejection of Castilian-dubbed films made in Spain with the Spanish audience in mind, and then sold and distributed in Latin American countries. Also, urban and rural Latin American audiences seemed to be split in terms of preferences: while provincial audiences rejected subtitles and strongly preferred films in Spanish, urban viewers still felt at ease with subtitles.78

MGM seemed to be leading the process for the establishment of dubbing, and in the 1940s set to dub films for the South American countries using South American dialogue writers and dubbing actors only.79 The major studios then committed themselves to producing high-quality dubbed versions. As part of this bid, Warner Brothers hired Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel as Spanish dubbing supervisor. Buñuel worked for Warner Brothers for different periods: in 1930 in the post-synchronisation department, in 1934 as dubbing supervisor, and in 1944 as dubbing director.80 MGM recruited Mexican writer Octavio Paz for a similar job.81 Eventually, Hollywood companies managed to establish a balanced distribution strategy of both dubbed and subtitled versions that is still in place today throughout Latin America.

Early dubbing in Latin America: the case of Argentina

The specific case of Argentina is an interesting one. Talking pictures were screened for the first time in Argentina, and in South America as a whole, in 1929.82 In spite of initial fears that Spanish-speaking audiences would not take kindly to English on the screen, ‘the result proved that screen revue and musical comedies are to the taste of people in this part of the world’.83 (p.148) According to Harry E. Goldflam, the first synchronised film exhibited in Argentina was The Divine Lady (Frank Lloyd, 1929), which was released on 12 June 1929,84 reportedly becoming an instant success. The first film with superimposed subtitles was MGM’s The Broadway Melody (Harry Beaumont, 1929), released in Argentina on 29 August 1929.85 The audience reacted favourably, as subtitles allowed them to follow the action without having the film interrupted, in contrast with Fox’s Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 (David Butler, 1929), where the continuity of the film was constantly broken to insert title cards, which caused protests among the audience and the withdrawal of the film.86

In terms of language acceptability, audiences seemed to be rather reluctant to view films with Castilian Spanish speech, which fuelled a lack of confidence among exhibitors in Spanish-dialogue films. Goldflam analyses and depicts the situation as follows:

If producers insist on making pictures with academically-correct dialog, they must run the risk of losing the best part of the Argentine market. In spite of Spain being the mother country Argentina, as a whole, is entirely out of sympathy with her. This market, if it is valuable from a dialog point of view, must be guided by indications from a local source.87

An interesting case in dubbing practices in Argentina is provided by the first Walt Disney feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand, 1937), released in Buenos Aires in 1938.88 Ariel Pérez claimed that its Spanish-dubbed version—Blanca Nieves y los siete enanos—could mark the start of dubbing in Argentina.89 The executives at RKO, which distributed the picture, enthusiastically embraced the ‘almost universal dubbing of “Snow White” [which] has resulted in the picture being regarded as a native product wherever it has been shown abroad’, which revealed the foreign possibilities of the feature cartoon film and the pen-and-ink characters which ‘lose none of the illusions of the human actors when put to dubbed foreign tongues’.90 Pérez’s assertion about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs being the first animated feature to be dubbed in Argentina has, however, been rebutted, as it has recently been discovered that this film was not dubbed in Argentina, but at the (p.149) Disney Studios in Los Angeles, with a multinational cast of Spanish-speaking actors that included Argentinians, Mexicans, Americans, and Spaniards.91

Two possible factors could have led Walt Disney to decide subsequently to commission the Spanish dubbing of his films first to Argentinian dubbing studios (1940–3), then to Mexican studios (mid-1940s onwards). First there was a linguistic/cultural factor, as the mix of diverse Spanish accents which characterised the first dubbings into Spanish was apparently not well accepted by the different audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.92 A case in point is Blanca Nieves y los siete enanos.93 Second, there were financial and political factors: with the closure of the Paramount studios in Paris in 1937, and since Spain was already immersed in a civil war that brought the whole country to a state of collapse, Latin America seemed the natural choice for the relocation of Spanish dubbing activity.94


The development and implementation of audiovisual translation in the Spanish-speaking context on both sides of the Atlantic has gone through different stages from intertitles to subtitles, multiple-language versions, and dubbing. The arrival of sound rekindled cultural nationalisms, particularly in Mexico, but in Argentina and Spain too. Literacy rates and the speed of the implementation of sound technology in the various territories contributed to differences in film translation mode preferences among audiences. But perhaps one of the most significant challenges was (and still is, almost a century later) that of language: the Hollywood majors’ initial idea that a same-language version would work equally in any of the Spanish-speaking countries proved to be wrong. Film companies realised that each country, each market, had its own variation of the Spanish language, and that not only cultural, but also linguistic differences and nuances could (and actually did) hinder the distribution and successful reception of their films. This had important implications for the production, translation, and distribution of (p.150) films in the Spanish-speaking world. One of the most relevant, controversial, and lasting implications is that of the linguistic variation of Spanish used to dub films since dubbing was introduced in Latin America. This linguistic variation, known as ‘neutral Spanish’, has constituted to this day a matter for disagreement throughout Spanish-speaking territories on both sides of the Atlantic. In-depth studies are needed in order to establish the social, economic, linguistic, cultural, translational, and cinematographic repercussions of using or keeping a given Spanish-language variety in translated audiovisual productions.

Other gaps can be identified in research in audiovisual translation in general, and film translation from a historical perspective in particular. Although audiovisual translation studies have seen a dramatic development in the last few years, most research has been devoted to current practices, linguistic and cultural analyses, or professional and technical aspects, among others. However, the study of film translation in history has been very limited so far. Most studies in this area have focused mainly on Europe, and there are hardly any studies on the Spanish-speaking context, and more specifically Latin America. Expanding the study and scope of audiovisual translation to different historical and geographical contexts, particularly those in the Spanish-speaking world, is crucial to understand important later developments in audiovisual translation in Spain and Latin America, such as the establishment of a given audiovisual translation mode (subtitling, dubbing) in each country or territory, and the enactment of protectionist linguistic policies.

Such research is often hampered by the limited access to film and archive resources. The journey of tracing cinema history, particularly when it affects a considerable number of countries which share (at least a large basis of) a common language, proves to be a volatile, drifting, almost paleontological task; but it is also a fascinating and extremely necessary enterprise, as all the countries concerned and Spanish-language speakers demand and deserve a flood of light and information about the not-so-ancient history of film industry and translation in the Spanish-speaking world which will corroborate or challenge existing accounts. I trust that the historical analysis of the early years of film translation in the Hispanic world, and the description of ‘neutral Spanish’ as the language model used in audiovisual translation in the Latin American context, will contribute to better understand the historical factors that led to the implementation of the different film translation modes in the various Spanish-speaking countries.


(1) Frederic Chaume, Cine y traducción (Madrid, Cátedra, 2004); F. Chaume, Audiovisual Translation: Dubbing (Manchester, St Jerome Publishing, 2012); Natàlia Izard, La traducció cinematogràfica (Barcelona, Publicacions de la Generalitat de Catalunya, 1992); Alejandro Ávila, La historia del doblaje cinematográfico (Barcelona, Editorial CIMS 97, 1997).

(2) Jorge Díaz Cintas, La traducción audiovisual: El subtitulado (Salamanca, Ediciones Almar, 2001), pp. 53–62.

(3) Dirk Delabastita and Rainier Grutman, ‘Fictional Representations of Multilingualism and Translation’, Linguistica Antverpiensia, new ser., 4 (2005), 11–34 at 16 (emphasis in original).

(4) See Michael Cronin, Translation Goes to the Movies (New York, Routledge, 2009) and Translation in the Digital Age (London, Routledge, 2013); Yves Gambier, Multimodality and Audiovisual Translation (Mutra 2006—Audiovisual Translation Scenarios: Conference Proceedings), http://euroconferences.info/proceedings/2006_Proceedings/2006_Gambier_Yves.pdf, accessed 6 December 2016; and Y. Gambier, ‘Recent Developments and Challenges in Audiovisual Translation Research’, in D. Chiaro, C. Heiss, and C. Bucaria (eds), Between Text and Image: Updating Research in Screen Translation (Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 2008), pp. 11–33.

(5) Juan B. Heinink, El transcurso del cine mudo al sonoro como motivo generador de contradicción (Alicante, Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, 2002), http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/nd/ark:/59851/bmcjw8c2, accessed 20 February 2016.

(6) Jessica Taylor, ‘“Speaking Shadows”: A History of the Voice in the Transition from Silent to Sound Film in the United States’, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 19.1 (2009), 1–2.

(7) Laura Isabel Serna, ‘Translations and Transportation: Toward a Transnational History of the Intertitle’, in J. M. Bean, A. Kapse, and L. Horak (eds), Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2014), pp. 121–46 at 132.

(11) See the Spanish-speaking Socialtv cinephile website, http://socialstv.com/pelicula/the-jazz-singer, accessed 27 January 2017.

(12) Román Gubern, La traumática transición del cine español del mudo al sonoro (Alicante, Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, 2002), http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/obra-visor/la-traumatica-transicion-del-cine-espanol-del-mudo-al-sonoro--0/html/ff8a9d5e-82b1-11dfacc7-002185ce6064_2.html#inicio, accessed 6 December 2016.

(13) See the Internet Movie Database website (IMDB) entry on El cantor de Jazz, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0018037/releaseinfo?ref_=tt_dt_dt#akas, accessed 2 December 2016.

(14) A. Ávila, Así se crean los doblajes para cine y televisión (Barcelona, Editorial CIMS 97, 2000), p. 22.

(17) J. Finkielman, The Film Industry in Argentina: An Illustrated Cultural History (Jefferson, NC, McFarland & Co., 2004), p. 136.

(18) André Gaudreault, ‘De los gritos del lector público a los susurros de los intertítulos’, Versión. Estudios de Comunicación y Política, 8 (1998), trans. from the French by Alma Tafoya y Ramón Alvarado, 125–42 at 126; originally published in French as ‘Des cris du bonimenteur aux chuchotements des intertitres’, in Francesco Pitassio, Leonardo Quaresima (dir.), Scrittura e immagine: La didascalia nel cinema muto (Udine, Università degli Studi di Udine, 1998), pp. 53–69.

(19) Fernando Méndez Leite, Cuarenta y cinco años de cine español (Madrid, Bailly-Bailliere, 1941), p. 27.

(20) Daniel Sánchez Salas, ‘El explicador español, a través de su reflejo cultural’, Archivos de la Filmoteca, 48 (2004), 40–60.

(21) Serna, ‘Translations and Transportation: Toward a Transnational History of the Intertitle’, pp. 139, 140.

(22) Felipe Sassone, ‘¡Queremos ver … y nada más!’, ABC (14 June 1933), 14; F. Sassone, ‘El pelmazo del cine’, ABC (23 August 1933), 14.

(23) Sassone, ‘¡Queremos ver … y nada más!’ (‘… sus tarjetas rezaban pomposamente así: “Fulano de Tal—¿a qué copiar el nombre? —, dorador, barítono y orador cinematográfico”. ¡Nada menos! ¡Y había que oírle, y tengo para mí que las frecuentes actuaciones del barítono y dorador decidieron a las Empresas bonaerenses a suprimir para siempre el orador cinematográfico.’). Unless stated otherwise, all translations from the Spanish are mine.

(24) Bernardo Clariana, ‘Bromas y Veras del Doblaje’, Cine Mundial, 30.6 (1945), 290, 306 at 290 (‘aquel otro truculento y exagerado que mandaban las casas alquiladoras con los rollos de celuloide’).

(25) Clariana, ‘Bromas y Veras del Doblaje’, 290 (‘un señor muy “leído” que existe en todos los pueblos y que tiene la mala costumbre de leer en alta voz los letreros a un grupo de comadres sentadas a su alrededor.’).

(28) Lisa Jarvinen, The Rise of Spanish-language Filmmaking: Out from Hollywood’s Shadow, 1929– 1939 (Piscataway, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 2012) p. 113.

(29) Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Hollywood Babel: The Coming of Sound and the Multiple Language Version’, in S. Neale (ed.), The Classical Hollywood Reader (New York, Routledge, 2012), pp. 137–46 at 137.

(32) Colin Gunckel, ‘The War of the Accents: Spanish Language Hollywood Films in Mexican Los Angeles’, Film History: An International Journal, 20.3 (2008), 325–43 at 336.

(33) Rielle Navitski, ‘The Tango on Broadway: Carlos Gardel’s International Stardom and the Transition to Sound in Argentina’, Cinema Journal, 51.1 (2011), 26–49 at 40.

(38) Although Colin Gunckel and Lisa Jarvinen use the expression ‘war of the accents’, one of the first to have referred to such a situation seems to be the Spanish film expert and promoter Juan Piqueras in ‘Panorama del cine hispánico’, Nuestro cinema, 6 (1932), 176.

(40) Arte y cinematografía, 358 (February 1931), 3.

(41) ‘Acuerdo de la Real Academia Española sobre las películas habladas’, ABC (7 February 1930), 10.

(42) Clariana, ‘Bromas y Veras del Doblaje’, p. 306 (‘… hay que crear, y bien de prisa, un comité de salud pública en defensa del idioma español. De lo contrario, de los estudios de doblaje de Hollywood o de Nueva York va a salirnos una especie de “papiamento” o español de cien germanías, que poco a poco se irá autorizando a imponiéndonos el único truco impermisible: el asesinato del idioma.’ (my emphasis)).

(43) Quoted in Santiago Pozo Arenas, La industria del cine en España (Barcelona, Edicions Universitat de Barcelona, 1984), p. 31 (‘Protección de los Gobiernos de cada país a la industria nacional cinematográfica respectiva. Impedir el crecimiento de la producción sonora en español, en estudios extranjeros, preferentemente en Hollywood, por estar fuera del control y censura que conviene. Estudiar la fórmula conveniente para que el Estado obligue a los cines a incluir en el metraje total de la temporada un tanto por ciento de producción nacional.’).

(44) Juan Piqueras, ‘Campañas a destiempo: Versiones, sincronizaciones, subtítulos’, Nuestro Cinema, 1 (1932), 8.

(45) Juan Piqueras, ‘Panorama del cine hispánico’, Nuestro Cinema, 6 (1932), 175–9 at 176.

(46) Piqueras, ‘Panorama del cine hispánico’, 176 (‘En Chile no quieren las películas en donde hay un solo actor con acento argentino. En Argentina no quieren ni oír a los chilenos. Y entre Cuba y México existe una reciprocidad hostil de este carácter. Esto ha traído grandes discordias a los centros productores de Joinville y de Hollywood y mayores desorientaciones a los fabricantes de versiones que, en realidad, no sabían a qué atenerse.’).

(47) Piqueras, ‘Panorama del cine hispánico’, 176 (‘Se ha demostrado que es el castellano puro el idioma, el idioma que pide y tolera el público hispanoamericano cuando se le ofrece un film “hablado en español”.’).

(49) Miguel de Zárraga, ‘¿Por qué fracasan las películas?’, ABC (18 March 1931), 15.

(51) Pablo León Aguinaga, Sospechosos habituales: El cine norteamericano, Estados Unidos y la España franquista, 1939–1960 (Madrid, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2010), p. 56.

(52) Piqueras, ‘Campañas a destiempo: Versiones, sincronizaciones, subtítulos’, 8 (‘Indudablemente, preferiríamos que se hablase menos y mejor en las películas, y que ese poco, se tradujese en unos títulos certeros y expresivos. El público … todavía se emociona ante los párrafos declamatorios y teatrales.’).

(53) Piqueras, ‘Campañas a destiempo: Versiones, sincronizaciones, subtítulos’, 7–8 (‘Por eso no podemos exigir a las empresas comerciales la anulación de las versiones y los “dobles” y la reducción en el número de títulos superpuestos.’).

(54) Piqueras, ‘Campañas a destiempo: Versiones, sincronizaciones, subtítulos’, 9 (‘[el doblaje] aunque desposeído de naturalidad y de lógica, es el único capaz de llevar a las masas populares la comprensión de los buenos films’).

(57) ‘2,200 Foreign Houses Wired at the End of ’29’, Variety (5 February 1930), 7.

(58) ‘2,800 Film Houses in Spain’s Provinces’, Variety (19 November 1930), 6.

(59) C. J. North and N. D. Golden, ‘The Latin American Audience Viewpoint on American Films’, Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, 17.1 (1931), 18–25.

(61) C. Light, ‘Hollywood’s Opportunity and the South American Market’, Motion Picture Herald (12 November 1938), 52.

(62) See Harry Waldman, Paramount in Paris: 300 Films Produced at the Joinville Studios, 1930– 1933, with Credits and Biographies (Lanham, MD, and London, Scarecrow Press, 1998), p. xii; and Ávila, La historia del doblaje cinematográfico, p. 68.

(63) R. Gubern, El cine sonoro en la II República (1929–1936) (Barcelona, Editorial Lumen, 1977), p. 43.

(65) Narciso de Gabriel, ‘Alfabetización y escolarización en España (1887–1950)’, Revista de Educación, 314, (1997), 217–43.

(69) Marta Fuertes, ‘La coproducción cinematográfica entre España y Argentina 1990–2000’, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (Salamanca, Universidad de Salamanca, 2002), 46.

(70) M. Fuertes, ‘Exhibición y diversidad cinematográfica en la década de los cuarenta: El caso de Salamanca, España’, Global Media Journal Mexico, 13.25 (2016), 96–121 at 100.

(71) Fernando Vizcaíno Casas, Historia y anécdota del cine español (Madrid, Adra, 1976), p. 86.

(74) Gaizka S. de Usabel, The High Noon of American Films in Latin America (Ann Arbor, MI, UMI Research Press, 1982), p. 81.

(79) ‘Películas Americanas Dobladas en Español’, Cine Mundial, 29.7 (1944), 343.

(80) See the Centenario del nacimiento de Luis Buñuel website, http://www.luisbunuel.org/BIOGRA/biograf.html, accessed 28 January 2017.

(82) Harry E. Goldflam, ‘Argentine’, Variety (5 February 1930), 7.

(88) Luis Alberto Iglesias Gómez, ‘Los doblajes en español de los clásicos Disney’, Ph.D. dissertation (Salamanca, Universidad de Salamanca, 2009), 45.

(89) Ariel Pérez, ‘Mira quién habla’, Diario Clarín (Buenos Aires, 21 January 2007), http://edant.clarin.com/diario/2007/01/21/sociedad/s-01348673.htm, accessed 10 January 2016.

(90) ‘4 Millions, 8,000 Dates, “Snow White”’38 Record’, Motion Picture Herald (24 December 1938), 17.

(91) R. Corretgé and M. Navarro, ‘Blanca Nieves y los siete enanos’, DoblajeDisney.com. La base de datos de los doblajes Disney (2009), http://www.doblajedisney.com/pelicula/?id=1, accessed 4 May 2016.

(93) While this film was first released more or less at the same time in different Latin American countries (Argentina, January 1938; Uruguay, June 1938; Mexico, July 1938), the film was not released in Spain until a few years later (October 1941), and was not released in El Salvador until several decades later (January 1967). See the IMDb, Release Info for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029583/releaseinfo?ref_=tt_dt_dt, accessed December 2016.