Disney Translates 'Frozen' Into A More Formal Arabic

Disney movies are typically dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, but the movie Frozen has been dubbed into Modern Standard Arabic. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Elias Muhanna of Brown University about why.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And what about the drug he's on right now to help him kick his addiction to Vicodin? I asked him how long he thinks he'll have to take that. Three months, he says. Maybe a year, maybe more. And that's OK with him. >>MARTIN: If you can't get the lyrics to Disney's megahit musical, "Frozen," out of your head, you are definitely not alone. Disney has dubbed the musical into 41 languages.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT GO")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in foreign language).

MARTIN: But for the first time Disney, chose to dub the movie into Modern Standard Arabic. In the past, movies, like "Pocahontas" and "Snow White," were translated into Egyptian Arabic. It's the dialect with the most number of speakers in the region. And Disney's decision to use the much more traditional form of Arabic has stirred up a linguistic debate. For more on this, we are joined by Elias Muhanna. He is a comparative literature professor at Brown University. And he wrote about this whole controversy in the New Yorker. Welcome to the program.

ELIAS MUHANNA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Can you explain the difference between the Egyptian dialect and what is known as Modern Standard Arabic?

MUHANNA: Sure. Arabic is a diglossic language. What that means is that while everybody can - or most people can understand and use Modern Standard Arabic, the language that they use on a daily basis, when they are speaking to their kids or their neighbor or just about anybody, is a different language. It's Moroccan Arabic, or it's Tunisian Arabic. And they're very different from Modern Standard Arabic. And they're quite different from each other, too.

MARTIN: Let's play a couple of lines from the translated version of the song, "Let It Go." This is translated into Modern Standard Arabic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT GO")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in Arabic).

MARTIN: So, Elias, can you translate what we just heard?

MUHANNA: Sure. The words in English obviously are let it go, let it go and so on. What she's actually singing there is release your secret, which is fine. The problem isn't so much the translation, it's the language that is being translated into. It's much more formal. It is composed of words and expressions that you just wouldn't hear on a daily basis, unless you were listening to a newscast or something of that nature.

MARTIN: What are the repercussions of that? I mean, is it intended to reach a broader audience?

MUHANNA: It's an interesting question. Disney's decision to switch to Modern Standard Arabic now is a very kind of puzzling phenomenon. And I think that it has something to do with the fact that last year, Al Jazeera inked a big deal with Disney to basically buy all of its distribution rights for its children's programming. And if you go on to the website of Al Jazeera's Children's Channel, you will find a policy document there that states very clearly that all of its content will be in what they call Classical Arabic. So that seems to be part of the reason we are now seeing this shift.

MARTIN: Is there any way to gauge how Arabic speakers are responding to this new kind of translation?

MUHANNA: You know, anecdotally, I've found that the response has been pretty mixed. Some people really like the Modern Standard Arabic. They felt alienated by the Egyptian Arabic of the earlier programming. The Middle East that we live in today is not unipolar when it comes to media, when it comes to cultural production, in the way that it was, you know, 30 or 40 years ago. And so it may be the case that people just aren't as familiar with Egyptian as they used to be, and that's what's driving this shift to using the cosmopolitan language.

MARTIN: How many times have you seen this movie, "Frozen"?

MUHANNA: I have seen it one time.

MARTIN: Only once.

MUHANNA: But I have watched the clips on YouTube of the various songs an uncountable number of times.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT GO")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in Arabic).

MARTIN: Elisa Muhanna is a comparative literature professor at Brown University. Thanks so much for talking with us, Elia.

MUHANNA: Thanks for having me.

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