ill Gates is a picture of Globalization. Microsoft’s latest ad campaign recommends you “Start Something.” Central Rome is filled with “start something” posters. But do Italians get it? Do they get the water-cooler colloquialism, the relentlessly American jargon-mongering? Probably not.
Idioms move more slowly than the cultures that make them. If only we didn’t insist.
In 2000, Sandra Bullock made an innocuous movie called “Miss Congeniality.” The hero is a woman undercover cop who “infiltrates” a beauty pageant. Anyone who knows American folklore knows Miss Congeniality is the prize given to sweetly imperfect contestants. Since Bullock is a messy cop-turned-pretty woman the title is an ironic double-entendre.
But irony dries up away from home. Execs here called “Miss Congeniality” “Miss FBI.”
The sequel got even less love. “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous” was “Miss FBI: infiltrata speciale.”
What does “Armed and fabulous,” unabashed cliché based on “armed and dangerous,” say to bella figura Italians? Nothing, except that hackneyed phrases irk more than amuse.
Then there’s Italy imitating its beloved U.S.A.
A TV ad for a major Internet company features a sexy woman inviting viewers to sample “the power of the network.” She speaks bedroom English in an accented voice that sounds like Bella Lugosi’s niece.
It gets worse. “Will & Grace” character Jack MacFarland is dubbed into Italian singing Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Silly doesn’t capture it: The inflection is that of a castrated seagull. Not fun.
English-to-Italian offers no relief.
Telecom giant Vodaphone hired voluptuous Australian model Megan Gale to purr its pitch, “Il mondo — tutto intorno a te.” She sounds, well, like a voluptuous Australian model speaking Italian, which means you rather wish she’d stop immediately (unless you’re an Italian male trained to adore bad inflection and revere Commonwealth breasts).
Even translating anger can go south.
Ages ago, Italians did their best with “Network,” called ““Quinto Potere” (Fifth Estate) in Italy. Fair enough. But Peter Finch’s knockout line “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” came out as the oddly-pitched “Sono incazzato nero e tutto questo non lo sopporto più.”
Tutto questo? What exactly is the “all this”?
Finch’s rant is literal. He’s the eloquent idiot savant. But paranoia rules anti-state Italy: tutto questo is the world as managed by “Loro,” the planet’s veiled puppet-masters. You don’t accuse here; instead, you loathe the “all this” to which you’re compelled to submit. It’s a society of professional victims. Finch’s outburst is active, Italy’s dubbing passive.
For English-speakers and Italian-lovers, linguistic vicissitudes stomp on cultural archetypes and rupture tympanic membranes. They make you want to start something. Or they make you want to go home, or move.
And just when you think it can’t get any worse (“serial killer” like cereal, Bill Gates as Beel, a sweater called a POOL) the infamous STAR WERS shows up.
The “Star Wars” series gave the dubbing industry a dilemma called Darth Vader.
Ma chi é? More to the point, Che cosa é?
George Lucas’ space villain masquerading as a Middle Ages black knight, a Photon Torpedo Hun, didn’t transliterate in Italy — someone with the phonetic name of D’Arte Vai-der (or close) sounded less like a ominous galactic bastard than a prissy Dutch porn star.
So Darth Vader got a name-lift.
First, he was elevated to bad-boy gentry heaven. He was made a Lord, as suitable place as any to begin the slide from entitlement to evil.
The Lord gave him the kind of educated, class-system power Italians associate with dark side villains, or did in 1977. Bad guys look meanly upon their lowly minions.
But Lord wasn’t enough. The Lord required phonemes: Thus “Dart Fener” (“Lord” Dart Fener to you).
So much for Miss Congeniality.
Elsewhere, Han Solo became Ian Solo, not surprising given the Italian language’s dislike for words beginning in “h” (though Harrison Ford doesn’t look anything like an “Ian.”) Princess Leia was modified to a more comprehensible Leila and Luke Skywalker left alone to become an elongated “L”-word with intermittent “ooooooo” sounds.
But the Lord still got the most attention.
James Earl Jones’ baritone menace (with David Prowse acting the part) was assigned to the eclectic Massimo Foschi, who ironically dubbed William Holden in “Network”/”Quinto Potere” (and has been, on different occasions, Gregory Peck, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Laurence Olivier, Jack Palance and… Fritz Weaver.)
Sure, he’s theoretically possible. Imagine “Dart,” call him 6-foot-2, maybe a surfer; you dated him until he dumped you for an exotic dancer called Mimi Maybe.
But evil? Dart? Dart Simpson? And FENER?
Benicio Del Toro played “Fenster” in “The Usual Suspects,” but DART FENER… LORD DART FENER?
Sure, Sir Lord Baltimore produced pre-heavy metal in the late 1960s, but that was just mischievous Louis and Joey, guitar-playing brothers out of Brooklyn who didn’t understand volume control. They weren’t out to conquer the universe.
I suppose you could also toss also in Tamás Féner, a Hungarian photographer involved with the never-to-be-movie-blockbuster “Bohóc a falon” in 1967. But Cold War Féner wasn’t the aristocratic type.
When a studio finally got around to releasing “Bohóc” in the West, its English title was Lord Feneresque. It was called “Clowns on the Wall.”