Spain Opens Its Ears To Other Tongues

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Spaniards rarely speak languages other than their own. One reason: everything on TV or film is shown with audio dubbed in Spanish, a practice that goes back to censorship in the Franco era. But a cultural revolution may be looming.


This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen. When you watch a foreign film on DVD here in the U.S., you often have a choice. Watch with subtitles or a version dubbed in English. In Spain, viewers don't have such options. Just about every movie and TV show is dubbed into Spanish. But some Spaniards think it's time for a change, as Jerome Socolovsky reports.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: In the 1953 film, "Mogambo," the character played by Clark Gable has an affair with a married woman played by Grace Kelly.

(Soundbite of movie "Mogambo")

Ms. GRACE KELLY: (As Linda Nordley) You must forget that, that it ever happened. It was just - well, it was nothing.

SOCOLOVSKY: When the film was dubbed for screening in Spain, Kelly and her husband became brother and sister. The censors were either sloppy or apparently preferred incest to adultery. More seriously, the Franco regime used dubbing as a way of controlling the messages Spaniards got from abroad. Even though the days of that dictatorship are long gone, Hollywood studios still pay to have films and TV programs dubbed into Spanish.

(Soundbite of TV show "Head Cases")

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: "Head Cases," a supposed comedy about psychiatrists and their clients, was hardly the most successful American TV show. But now it's being rerecorded in Spanish at a studio in Madrid. In a soundproof room, the dubbing actors carefully watch their American counterparts and do take after take until they get it right.

(Soundbite of dubbing in Spanish)

SOCOLOVSKY: Luis Martin learned the profession from his father and has dubbed dozens of actors since he was a child. During a cigarette break, he seems defensive about his profession.

Mr. LUIS MARTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: There's a conspiracy of sorts against dubbing, in that stupid way that they've wanted to associate dubbing with Franco, he says. Spanish films are having trouble competing with Hollywood's blockbusters. Some actors and directors say dubbing should disappear so that more people will watch Spanish films.

Spanish educators have noticed that multi-lingualism thrives in non-dubbing European countries like Holland, Portugal, and those in Scandinavia. Among Europeans, Spaniards rank among the worst in knowing languages other than their own. Gloria Nunez, who dubs the character Liz in "Head Cases," says Spaniards should learn other languages.

Ms. GLORIA NUNEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: But they should do it by studying them, not by destroying a format that allows people to see lots of movies, she says.

(Soundbite of foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: In case you didn't recognize that, it's the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Aviator," which was recently shown on Basque television. During the dictatorship, Franco banned the use of the Basque language in an effort to crush the Basque's separate identity. So after he died in 1975, Basque dubbing was promoted as a way to revive the tongue.

Mr. YOSU ECHABURU(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Yosu Echaburu says that as youngster, he would see Cowboys and Indian films and think, hey, that John Wayne sure speaks Basque well. But Echaburu, who works in the regional Education Department, says dubbing is now making it hard for Basque school children to learn other languages.

Mr. ECHABURU: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: It may have been useful at the beginning, but now the policy must be rethought, he says. He pins his hopes on digital television, which already offers a choice of languages for many shows. In Madrid, the local Education Department is sponsoring English language cartoons on a local channel. But the national government is refusing to support calls for an end to dubbing.

It already supports Spanish films by forcing cinemas to show a minimum percentage of the local product. What's more, dubbing Hollywood movies employs thousands of actors and contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the Spanish economy. For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

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