This paper examines the commercial and cultural reasons the dubbing of American films and television programs, common throughout much of the world, remains non-existent in the Arab World. Despite a marked surge in the number of Arabic-language television stations in the last ten years, and much need for quality programs, dubbing into Arabic remains limited to a few Latin American soaps, children’s cartoons and, more recently, Iranian films.
Dubbing , the replacing of the original language or voice by another, is a practice almost as old as the talkies themselves. Following the introduction of synchronized sound and dialogue by Warner Brothers in their 1926 production of The Jazz Singer, the cinema industry was radically and rapidly transformed so that within a few years, the feature film with a full soundtrack became the norm, and dialogue—with its potential for complexity of script and cultural expression—became an integral part of Hollywood production. In the early years of the talkies, producers occasionally resorted to dubbing, from English to English, when the intonation, dialect or accent of the great stars of the silent era conflicted with their popular image. However, it would not be long before most of these stars were superceded by new talents, more in harmony with the new talking movies.(1)
Outside the United States, in Latin America and Europe, where Hollywood productions started to make serious inroads as early as the late 1910s, the fact of sound and dialogue forced distributors to consider ways to reach out to non-English speaking audiences. Dubbing and the less expensive practice of subtitling American films were the options adopted by film producers in response to these technological developments. By 1931, the art and technique of dubbing had been refined enough to be used adequately and convincingly.(2) The stimulus for the more expensive practice came, on one hand, from nationalists and governments who believed that dubbing would defend the national language against the Hollywood onslaught(3) and, on the other, from distributors whose concern were reaching a wider audience.
Thus in 1941, Spain, which had virtually no cinema industry, ordered that all foreign films be dubbed into Spanish before they could be shown locally.(4) The decree was well-received, and soon American, British or French stars, on the large and, later, on the small screen, were all speaking Spanish. A similar law came into effect in France in 1947. Again, the main incentive was the belief that dubbing would preserve the local language, and through it, the national culture. In the two largest South American countries, Brazil and Argentina, the dubbing of foreign films also has been compulsory since the late 1940s.(5) However, even before it was mandated by law, dubbing already was the favored option of distributors when the movie held promises of success at the box office.
In Mexico alone, where there was a relatively strong cinema industry, dubbing met with opposition. There, the concern was commercial. The Mexican Film Law of 1949 prohibited the dubbing or distribution of all films except those classified as educational. While local television stations and production houses have been dubbing American productions into Spanish for decades, Mexican studios successfully prevented Hollywood from dubbing their films into the local language until the year 2000, when lawyers representing American interests—alleging that the Mexican prohibition discriminated against 20 million illiterate Mexicans, as well as the elderly and those with poor eyesight— were successful in overturning the law.(6) In India, also a major film producer, the dubbing of foreign films was made legal only in 1992.(7)
With the advent of television, dubbing of TV programs also became popular, so that by the late 1970s, most major European and Latin American markets were watching television and cinema productions made in Hollywood in their local languages. Today, in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey—and increasingly in the major East European nations—audiences see Hollywood productions in their local languages, rather than subtitles, as a result of concern for audience size and linguistic purity.(8) Ironically, Hollywood commercial interests have as allies cultural purists concerned with safeguarding the local language against the American cultural invasion. The concern that dubbing, by bringing characters and plots closer to the audience, may act as a cultural Trojan Horse, allowing for the intrusion of a foreign culture through the local language, does not seem to have been a major consideration.
In the Arab world, dubbing of feature films or TV productions has been slow in coming, despite a large market and a high index of illiteracy, estimated at higher than 40 percent of the 280 million population,(9) and which should, at least theoretically, favor dubbing over subtitling. The mushrooming of competing Pan Arab stations, numbering about 280 in 2005, has also failed to trigger an increased interest in the practice, except for children’s cartoons.(10)
Possibly the first, production houses to dub media programs into Arabic was the Beirut-based independent Al Ittihhad al Fanni, originally developed as a radio production house by the late Ghanem Dajjani, Sobhi Abou Loghd and Abed El Majid Abou Laban in 1963. Their first experiment, commissioned by Radio Liban, was a voiceover adaptation of a BBC radio episode of Jane Eyre. Dajjani remembered it as a “very modest” success.(11) The pioneer of video dubbing into Arabic is Nicolas Abou Samah, whose company Filmali dubbed the children’s cartoon Sindbad in 1974. The success of this production was such that it was followed by the dubbing of Zena Wa Nakhoul in 1975 and later by a slew of other children's cartoons. The Lebanese civil war forced the company to move its operations to Cyprus. From there, in 1991, Filmali dubbed the first of a series of Mexican soaps into Standard Arabic to be broadcast at the privately-run Lebanese Broadcast Corporation (LBC), a station that gained immediate popularity when it was launched in 1985 during the country's civil war. The success of that Mexican series, with the translated title of Anta Aw La Ahad, literally “You or No One,” was such that 11 Mexican and Brazilian soaps were translated into Standard Arabic within a period of eight years. The practice continues, although it has tapered off in recent years. George Abou Salbeh, then with Filmali, recollects that the primary motive behind LBC's decision to commission the dubbing of the Mexican telenovela was a desire to increase their Arab programming at little expense. The cost of the dubbed telenovela was significantly below that of a locally produced program of comparative quality. No one anticipated the huge success of this stopgap measure.(12)
In 1999, what was probably the first dubbed long feature film, Police Academy, was shown on Beirut's Murr TV, known locally as MTV. The dubbing in Educated Spoken Arabic (ESA) was not well received and the station discontinued what it had originally programmed as a weekly showing of a long US feature film. The reasons for the success of the Mexican soap and the failure of the otherwise very popular Police Academy film series to attract a wide audience in Arabic were, in the opinion of Abou Samah, cultural. The plots and dialogues of the former, originating in relatively conservative Latin societies, were culturally acceptable by Arab audiences as plausible Arab stories with Arab actors while the latter were seen as a contrived translation of plots and dialogues that had no bearing on Arab reality. Latin American soaps require “a minimal amount of editing to make them acceptable to Arab audiences and at no sacrifice to the storyline,” he says. This was not only true of the dialogue, but also of the actors’ deliveries. On the other hand, the cultural leap required to accept Hollywood storylines and their actors, with all their idiosyncrasies, as speakers of Arabic was seen as too great, and unacceptable to Arab audiences. “Arab heroes do not use curse words,” says Abou Samah, “they don’t jump on a moving train, slide down a window and machinegun 10 criminals.” Arab audiences, believes Abou Samah, are accustomed to hear Hollywood actors speak English and prefer to read subtitles.(13)
More recently, in time for Ramadan 2005, the Arab satellite television network MBC introduced a dubbed version of the U.S. cartoon The Simpsons, or Al Shamshoon. MBC has committed to dubbing all 17 seasons of the program if this first one proves to be a success. However, according to Yasmine El-Rashid, writing in The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 14, 2005), the program is getting “few laughs.” She suggests that one main reason is the inability to of the dubbing to translate the very iconoclastic character and language of the program. Omar Shamshoon, in contrast to Homer Simpson, does not drink beer, eats no bacon, and does not hang out at “seedy bars with bums and lowlifes.” Many Arab fans of the English-speaking Homer, writes El-Rashid, are incensed over the Arabized version.
Subtitles however carry none of the pretenses of dubbing. Rather, they act as constant reminders that the film or television program being watched is foreign. Viewers are not required to identify with the actors, or to believe that the storyline applies to their own cultural environment. The objective of any good dubbing is precisely for viewers to fail to notice, or at least to forget, or indeed to suppress the fact that they are viewing a translation of the original production.
[S]ubtitling creates a double text out of an originally single text, it draws attention to its own mode of production, ruptures the ease with which character identification normally proceeds, and makes room for intellectual evaluation and analysis. At the same time it destroys the usual unity between the spectator and the cinematic world she or he experiences. This results in the perception of “difference” rather than in the confirmation of “sameness” and identity…(14)
However, the cultural explanation may not in itself be enough to explain why dubbing has failed to make the inroads in the Arab world that it did elsewhere. Cultural differences also are significant between the US and Italy, or between the US and Turkey, or, indeed, India, where the practice, although selective, is nevertheless common. Indians shy away from dubbing dialogue-oriented films, but will dub action-oriented productions. The movie Kramer vs. Kramer, rather than being dubbed or subtitled, was remade in Hindi and released in 1995 as Akele Hum Akele Tum (I Am Alone You Are Alone) with Aamir Khan and Manisha Koirala stepping in for Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. However, Jurassic Park and Anaconda are two examples of movies that were dubbed and well received.(15) The practice of dubbing locally made Hindi films into Tamil or other Indian languages is not uncommon.
Non-Cultural Impediments to Dubbing
Movie theaters. In Europe, Asia and Latin America, the initial impetus for dubbing was the cinema, or long feature films. In the Arab world, outside of Egypt, viewing audiences for foreign movies were not substantial before the 1960s, when Arab countries started to develop what were essentially state-owned or -controlled TV stations. In most of the Arabic-speaking countries, there were few movie theaters. In Algeria and other countries under French rule, although the number of theaters was large, cinema was a colonial activity until independence. Where movie theaters were common, such as in Egypt, local productions fared well against foreign films. It was often profitable to replicate American movies with local talents and adapted scripts and settings, than simply to dub the language. Egyptians did a good job of that and a number of their more successful films, including musicals, cop and robbers, whodunits, and love stories were local versions of Hollywood films.(16) In the richer Gulf countries, movie theaters were either slow to develop or, as in Saudi Arabia, remain nonexistent.
Dialect. Which vernacular Arabic should be used? Arabs do not all use the same dialect in everyday speech and, in some cases, the differences are such that the vernacular is almost incomprehensible or significantly alien to people from different Arab countries. While the Egyptian dialect is the more widely understood form of colloquial Arabic, precisely because of the diffusion of film and popular lyrics from that country, the fact that Egypt was not dubbing Hollywood productions meant that the dialect was not being used for that purpose. The language Arabs have in common is Standard Arabic, a high or classical form of the language. That language is normally reserved for literature, formal occasions, or, in the context of television, news broadcasts. The medium of everyday discourse is the vernacular. Some media will use a form of Arabic known as Educated Spoken Arabic (ESA) that intermixes between Standard Arabic and acceptable intrusions from the colloquial.(17) Despite the popularity of Mexican and Brazilian soaps or telenovelas, their use of Standard Arabic in the dialogue is seen as stilted and remains the butt of popular jokes. Arabs simply do not use their “common language” in everyday speech. The relative proliferation of dubbed children’s cartoons into Standard Arabic is explainable partly on educational grounds in order to introduce children at an early age to the “higher” form of the language.
Politics. At the ideological and political level, there were essentially two factors that discouraged dubbing, and indeed, even the broadcast of Western and particularly US programs. The first was the concern that traditional values, political assumptions and social structures would be questioned. These concerns militated against any significant import of Western programming, even in their original languages.(18) The second had to do with the lack of interest shown by state-controlled television stations for market forces that, since the 1960s, have been the main propellants of dubbing in Latin America and Europe. In the Arab World, these forces were only to come into play in the latter part of the 1990s, with the proliferation of satellite television stations vying for viewership.(19) As long as local populations had no choice other than state-controlled stations, programming was mostly dictated by official, rather than market considerations. The concern for television audience size that encouraged the practice of dubbing in Europe and Latin America simply did not exist in the Arab world.
Costs. This point only underlines the importance of the other three: the mechanics and the costs of dubbing are considerably more significant than those of subtitling, and riskier. Developing a market for dubbed films, particularly where no clear choice of dialect exists and where cultural differences between film and audiences are very significant, requires long-term commitment. Conditioning audiences to dubbed programs requires time and money. This is especially problematic when local production is strong and successful. To dub a film adequately involves casting, rewriting the script in language that can be roughly timed to the lip movements of the screen actors, directing and long editing hours— “everything,” in the language of dubbing companies, “but the visuals.” Nevertheless, as the Indian market has shown, even if a film has to be dubbed into three or four languages—in the case of India typically Hindi, Tamil and Telegu—the practice may be worthwhile if the right movies are chosen.(20) The success of telenovelas should underscore that point. The dubbing of The Simpsons by MBC for Ramadan 2005 should provide an interesting test case.
The cost of dubbing in the Arab world, although higher than subtitling, is in other words, not necessarily the only factor that deters TV stations from opting for the practice. The concern is how the dubbing will be received. In Lebanon, where the dubbing industry is relatively significant, unknown or inexperienced actors charge around $100 for a day’s work, while experienced actors may charge more than $500. Acting crews can on occasions number in the tens. Dubbing, according to Walid Hashem of Arabian Media Production a subsidiary of MBC, also is technically complicated when compared to subtitling, and on average requires 24 hours of studio work for one hour of programming.(21) Nasser Akhdar, director of programming at Al Manar television, says the dubbing of a one-hour long television program costs his station about $2,500 to $3,500. Subtitling the same program will cost, he estimates, about 10 to 15 percent of the amount. Unless the program is a great success, says Akhdar, dubbing is not a profitable venture. Al Manar recently put an end to its dubbing of long feature films -- all of them Iranian productions, which Akhdar believes are culturally in harmony with Arab values and Al Manar’s mostly Shiite audience.(22)
Nicholas Abou Samah of Filmali, whose company, together with Disney, was among the first to start dubbing cartoons into Arabic in the mid 1970s, estimates the cheapest TV dubbing production to cost about $3,000 per episode. For the most part, these prices only became affordable once the audiences became large, as they have with the advent of satellite stations. Dubbing for TV is now, roughly, a $10 million industry, estimates Abou Samah, a “small sum compared to its potential.”(23)
Even in the money-strapped world of Arab TV, $3,000 is not a prohibitive sum if the demand for dubbed programs can be exploited correctly. As long as the success of dubbing remains limited to Latin American soaps, the full potential of that practice, which has totally transformed programming in Europe and Latin America, will remain minimal in the Arab World.
Will It Catch On?
With the development of satellite television in the region in the mid-1990s and the increased competition for audiences, will the demand for dubbed programs increase? If developments in other parts of the world are any indication, then the answer should be in the affirmative. However, as long as some of the obstacles referred to above remain, the potential for dubbing into Arabic may remain untapped.
Of all the obstacles currently facing the dubbing of Western programs in the Arab World, cultural clash may be the most serious, particularly as the industry becomes more market-oriented and more competitive. While the choice of appropriate dialect is likely to remain an issue, local productions in Egyptian, Syrian or Lebanese dialects—as well as in Standard Arabic—all have been able to make significant inroads in the Pan-Arab media. Theoretically, the dubbing of Hollywood productions into any one of these dialects is an alternative. However, neither programmers nor distributors seem to believe that Arab audiences will be willing to accept situations and dialogue that are too foreign to their culture, expressed in Arabic. Mazen Rifka, vice president for Sham International, a Damascus-based production and dubbing house, says his clients are initially reluctant to include dubbed telenovelas into their programming, deeming even these innocuous productions too culturally incongruent for their audiences. Audiences, they argue, have no problem viewing and enjoying the same programs in their original languages, and accessing them through subtitles, where there is no pretense that the protagonists are Arab speakers and where rapport is relegated to a non-ideological level.(24) Arab audiences, by this logic, are seen as capable of responding to the general message of a subtitled video or film production without considering themselves part of the producing culture and without internalizing its principles. All that is required is that they appreciate, at some level, the film’s semiotics, or the structure under which it is produced. This argument helps explain why culturally divergent audiences feel comfortable with, and even empathetic towards, Hollywood productions without committing themselves to their messages, as long as the TV or film production they are watching follows standard production templates to which they have been accustomed and educated to respond. They can do so without identifying with the protagonists. (25)
However, the different levels of signification or appreciation of a cinema or television production are neither static nor always distinct. Culture and meanings change and adapt, and audiences may move from one level of appreciation to another, depending on how significant the influence of the medium and how much of an encroachment the producing culture has on the receiving culture. In today’s world, satellite television and technology in general have freed mankind from the constrictions of social relations and cultural values defined and shaped strictly by geographical space, local community, or face-to-face interaction. Wide and diversified sets of influences, emanating from different parts of the globe, constantly encroach into our daily lives, enjoining us to accept them as part of everyday experience. This development is an aspect of what some have referred to as “deterritorialization,”(26) a result of the globalization of communication that affects us wherever we may be. There is no need to leave home to gain access to this cosmopolitan, potentially globalizing influence. One may say, with Tomlison “that for most people, most of the time the impact of globalization is felt not in travel but in staying at home.”27 This globalizing influence is present in our daily lives. The telephone, television, Internet, cinema and global newspapers, as well as chain stores, fast-food outlets, and universal consumer goods, coexist with our traditional ways of communication, local entertainment, norms and values. While these influences do not cancel out more immediate factors, they help transform them. Giddens (1991) has articulated the process:
In conditions of late modernity we live ‘in the world’ in a different sense from previous eras of history. Everyone still continues to live a local life, and the constraints of the body ensure that all individuals, at every moment, are contextually situated in time and space. Yet the transformations of place, and the intrusion of distance into local activities, combined with the centrality of mediated experience, radically change what the world is”(27)
Although we live "locally," writes Giddens, our lives have become a mixture of the local and the global. The extent to which this transformation results in a disfiguration of our traditional values is dependent on many factors, including the extent of global "encroachment", local reaction to the process and the disparity between local and non-local messages. Much has been written about this issue by Giddens, Tomlison and others. It is not the purpose of this paper to develop this argument further, but rather simply to underline the fact that culture and identity are today being shaped by a variety of factors, including those intruding through the global media and that this is true in the Arab World as elsewhere.
In much of the Arab world, the level of 'encroachment'—and particularly through television—on the local culture is significant, affecting individuals and society at large and the ensuing tensions are considerable. Even in a closed society such as Saudi Arabia, where media control is among the most severe in the region, media encroachment has occurred via such instruments as the radio or the VCR, and more recently via satellite television. As early as 1986, 75 percent of Saudi homes owned VCRs and the Saudi kingdom ranked ninth in the world in terms of VCR per capita ownership.28 Albeit circumscribed, terrestrial television helped do its share of encroachment, sharpening the distinctions between Arab and Western culture and spurring widespread concern over the invasion of foreign values. It is a commonplace that in the Third World, the amount of imported television programming is significant. A study by Dupagne and Waterman argues that even in developed countries, the import of programming tends to be inversely proportional to GNP. The study also indicates that private stations tend to import more programs and, in the absence of local productions, tend to cater to those with greater English proficiency, even if subtitled.(29)
While the broadcast of English-language programming may reach a limited audience, it also serves to increase the gap between the local and the global, or the “deterritorialized,” accentuating the tensions between them and those who want to defend Arabic and Islamic culture against the threat coming from the West via the television. What will be the place of dubbing in these developments? If the cultural clash assumption of programmers is true, any surge of dubbing of Hollywood productions would require a cultural shift among Arab audiences, and any future success of the practice may be used as a yardstick for the level of American "encroachment" on Arab culture. Recently, Heya TV, a Pan-Arab station vying for the female audience—“heya” in Arabic means “she”—headed by Filmali’s Abou-Samah, has started to dub American soaps into Standard Arabic. The lack of an adequate rating system in the Arab w orld makes it difficult to judge the extent of the success of this breakthrough. At a minimum, the experiment is there for researchers to consider.