Jerry Lee Lewis or Claudio Villa?

Textual Pragmatics and the Translation of Python Humour

By Massimiliano Morini (University of Udine)

Abstract & Keywords

Monty Python’s parodic, quotational, linguistically multi-layered humour represents as big a challenge for translation as any high modernist poem. The forty-five episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as well as the feature films produced by the group (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life), display a seemingly unlimited potential for cultural and linguistic inclusion: the schemata and languages of literary and cinematic genres, tv programmes, arts and sciences, and most kinds of human interaction are grist to the mill of Python’s subverting, at times reversing machine. Before performing his/her task, the translator of Python must ask him/herself a number of preliminary questions about the interrelation of sketches and scenes with the contexts they refer to. The Italian translator, in particular, will have to ask him/herself how meaningful the original contexts will be to an Italian audience, and to what extent they can be recreated in the language or languages of Italy. The existing Italian dubbed versions of Python sketches and films witness to a ‘domesticating’ anxiety which prompts such intercultural adaptations as ‘Atalanta’ for ‘Coventry City’, and above all, the use of Italian regional dialects (and/or accents) to render the social/regional varieties of English employed by the comic group. While such substitutions can be quite successful for certain kinds of humour, it is my conviction that in the case of Python, interlinguistic domestication often ends up blurring the point of a sketch or alienating the ‘natural’ audience of the comic group. By drawing on my recently outlined ‘pragmatic’ theory of translation (‘A New Linguistic Theory of Translation’, forthcoming), I aim to show how an understanding of interlinguistic ‘textual pragmatics’ can help the translator make informed, contextually-minded choices. Once the original ‘textual act’ (what the text does) is understood in its locative and interpersonal dimensions, that act and those dimensions can be knowingly reproduced or recreated.

Keywords: pragmatics, interpersonal function, humour, monty python, audiovisual translation

©inTRAlinea & Massimiliano Morini (2009).
"Jerry Lee Lewis or Claudio Villa?"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: The Translation of Dialects in Multimedia
Edited by: M. Giorgio Marrano, G. Nadiani & C. Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/1712

1. Introduction

Monty Python’s parodic, quotational, linguistically multi-layered humour represents as big a challenge for translation as any high modernist poem. The forty-five episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as well as the feature films produced by the group (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life), display a seemingly unlimited potential for cultural and linguistic inclusion: the schemata and languages of literary and cinematic genres, tv programmes, arts and sciences, and most kinds of human interaction are grist to the mill of Python’s subverting, at times reversing machine. Before performing his/her task, the translator of Python must ask him/herself a number of preliminary questions about the interrelation of sketches and scenes with the contexts they refer to. The Italian translator, in particular, will have to ask him/herself how meaningful the original contexts will be to an Italian audience, and to what extent they can be recreated in the language or languages of Italy. The existing Italian dubbed versions of Python sketches and films bear witness to a “domesticating” anxiety which prompts such intercultural adaptations as “Avellino” for “Coventry City”, and above all, the use of Italian regional dialects (and/or accents) to render the social/regional varieties of English employed by the comic group. While such substitutions can be quite successful for certain kinds of humour, it is my conviction that in the case of Python, interlinguistic domestication often ends up blurring the point of a sketch or alienating the “natural” audience of the comic group. By drawing on my recently outlined “pragmatic” theory of translation , I aim to show how an understanding of interlinguistic “textual pragmatics” can help the translator make informed, contextually-minded choices. Once the original “text act” (what the text does) is understood in its locative and interpersonal dimensions, that act and those dimensions can be knowingly reproduced or recreated.

La comicità dei Monty Python – parodica, citazionista, stratificata sul piano linguistico – pone al traduttore una sfida difficile quanto quella del più arduo dei poemi modernisti. I quarantacinque episodi del Circo volante dei Monty Python, nonché i film prodotti dal gruppo comico (I Monty Python e il Sacro Graal, Brian di Nazareth, Il senso della vita), mostrano una capacità quasi illimitata di inclusione culturale e linguistica: gli schemi e i linguaggi dei generi letterari e cinematografici, dei programmi televisivi, delle arti e delle scienze, e in definitiva di quasi tutte le forme di interazione umana, portano acqua al mulino di questa macchina comica che produce sovversioni e ribaltamenti. Prima di dedicarsi al loro compito, i traduttori che si misurino con i Monty Python devono porsi alcuni interrogativi preliminari sul rapporto che intercorre fra sketch e scene cinematografiche da una parte, e dall’altra i contesti a cui fanno riferimento. I traduttori italiani, in particolare, dovranno chiedersi quanto siano comprensibili i contesti originali per il pubblico italiano, e in quale misura si possano ricreare in lingua italiana o nelle lingue d’Italia. Le versioni doppiate esistenti dei film e degli sketch dei Monty Python testimoniano di un’ansia di “addomesticamento” che produce adattamenti culturali come “Avellino” per “Coventry City” e, soprattutto, l’uso dei dialetti regionali italiani (o dei loro accenti) per riprodurre l’effetto comico delle varietà linguistiche dell’inglese usate dal gruppo comico. Se è vero che queste trasformazioni possono funzionare per certi tipi di comicità, nel caso dei Monty Python l’addomesticamento interlinguistico finisce spesso per rendere meno chiari o divertenti gli sketch, allontanando il pubblico naturale del gruppo comico. Basandomi sulla mia teoria “pragmatica” della traduzione (formulata di recente in un articolo intitolato “A New Linguistic Theory of Translation”, in corso di pubblicazione), intendo dimostrare che una buona conoscenza della “pragmatica testuale” interlinguistica può aiutare i traduttori a operare scelte informate e appropriate al contesto. Una volta che l’ “atto testuale” (ciò che il testo fa) è stato compreso nelle sue dimensioni locativa e interpersonale, quell’atto e quelle dimensioni si possono riprodurre o ricreare in modo consapevole (Morini forthcoming).

According to a popular prejudice adhering to an extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, every text is untranslatable, for “every language hath it’s Genius and inseparable forme; without Pythagoras his Metempsychosis it can not rightly be translated” – as the ineffable John Florio wrote four centuries ago (Florio 1603: preface to the reader). However, this popular prejudice paradoxically allows for a number of degrees: if all texts are untranslatable, some texts are more untranslatable than others. Poetry is surely a case in point (cf. Morini 2007: 157-72); humour is another. “Jokes” as Delia Chiaro writes, “travel badly” (Chiaro 1996: 77) – and as Chiaro herself goes on to demonstrate, it is only in the absence of code-tied puns and culture-bound references that humour passes easily from language to language (the banana-skin situation). If this is self-evidently true of every kind of translation, it is also self-evident that while other types of discourse can be appreciated with the aid of prefaces and footnotes, humour cannot. The process whereby a joke rapidly self-destructs when someone demands an explanation is well-known. The contextual information needed to understand humour cannot be retrieved after the joke is told, because the effectiveness of the joke is based on its immediate contextual “click”.

In audiovisual translation, jokes are held to travel even more badly, and are consequently made to change their clothes en route (a Renaissance stock metaphor that Florio would have understood). Humour-dubbing, in particular, seems to require a kind of domesticating translation that makes the audience’s decoding work as simple and immediate as possible[1]. Fluently recreated in the target language by invisible translators and invisible dialogists, dubbed comic films and shows masquerade as originals with a thoroughness no literary translator would dream of applying to his/her material (cf. Venuti 1995).

In what follows, I will try to show that while the idea that (most) humour must be recreated in order to function in the target text is normally (i.e., statistically, but also “normatively” – cf. Toury 1995, 1998)[2] valid, it is not universally so. Even apart from banana-skin humour, there are occasions in which it may be advisable to recreate as little as possible – not because foreignising is good and domesticating is bad, as Venuti assumes throughout, but because some kinds of audience might want to do some of the decoding labour themselves, as Schleiermacher would say. Monty Python humour may be a case in point – the comic group tending to presuppose and create an audience whose enjoyment mainly depends on their ability to grasp all the allusions and references contained in each sketch or film[3].

In my analysis of a few Monty Python sketches and of the feature film Monty Python and the Holy Grail – and of their respective dubbed versions – I will take my bearings from my own “pragmatic theory of translation” (Morini forthcoming). In trying to account for all the ways in which “bi-texts” (Harris 1988) act in and upon the world, this theory posits three main functions: performative, interpersonal, and locative. Looking at the performative function of bi-texts means analyzing their illocutionary force and perlocutionary effects, what they are supposed to do in the world and what they actually do. At the interpersonal level, bi-texts describe, contain and establish relationships with readers and non-readers (Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses have reached great numbers of people who have certainly not read them). Finally, the locative function is defined by the geographical, chronological and intertextual dimensions in which bi-texts are created or placed.

In the dubbing of humour, the need to preserve the performative aim of the source audiovisual material – to make people laugh, roughly – leads translators and dialogists to modify their audiovisual texts radically, above all on the locative plane – because, as has been said, jokes travel badly. If a variety of the source language is used for comical purposes, a variety of the target language will be employed in the dubbed versions with similar aims in mind; if reference is made to an element in the source culture, the allusion will be substituted with one which is pertinent to the target context. Secondary texts on dubbing abound with case studies of successful or botched attempts at substituting one (variety of) language and one culture with another (cf. Bovinelli and Gallini 1994; Di Giovanni, Diodati and Franchini 1994; Chiaro Nocella 1996; Bollettieri Bosinelli 2002).

However, the interpersonal function of certain kinds of humour may not allow for such tampering on the locative plane. And while most viewers remain unperturbed before the spectacle of two Afro-American men speaking in the Neapolitan dialect (this happens in Airplane! / L’aereo più pazzo del mondo, 1980), there is evidence that the same attitude does not always apply. In the terms of my pragmatic theory, if the locative function of the source audiovisual text is modified without taking its interpersonal function into proper consideration, its performative function also changes. In simpler terms, the process whereby a comic text is translated can itself be a kind of crude joke: and if a crude joke is told to a refined audience (or vice versa), only an embarrassing silence is heard as a result.

2. Locative adaptation, medium-sized: Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl

Locative adaptation can be cultural or linguistic. When the translator is faced with references to elements of the source culture which are not universally known to the target audience, he/she will have to decide whether to keep the references intact or to transform them so as to make them more immediately retrievable. When non-standard varieties of the source language (accents, sociolects, geographical dialects) are used in the source text, the translator can choose to render or ignore the distance between standard and non-standard language: if he/she attempts a reproduction of that distance, various options are available to him/her which involve different locative “shifts” (translating geographical dialect by geographical dialect means shifting the setting to a different place; producing a variety of the target language which recreates some – phonetic, lexical – characteristics of the source language means creating a new, partly imaginary setting)[4].

To a certain extent, of course, locative adaptation is advisable in dubbing all kinds of humour – especially if comic effects, as often happens, are obtained by locative means (culture-bound references, regional dialects and accents, etc.). Creating a totally “foreignising” locative version of an audiovisual comic film or show means estranging the audience, and/or shifting the source product into a different target genre slot (a British comic show will become a sort of documentary on producing a British comic show). However, various degrees of locative adaptation are feasible, and locative adaptation may or may not be done with an eye to reproducing in the target language/culture certain characteristics of the source. The degree of adaptation will inevitably depend on a series of considerations on the prospective target audience – on how much they know, and on the brand of humour they enjoy and understand.

A moderate “domesticating” attitude is reflected in the Italian version of Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982), a live show which was released in Italy as a dubbed VHS cassette in 1992[5].

The show is conceived as a best-of selection of sketches from the three series of the BBC’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus – and it is interesting to note that some of these sketches are recreated by the Monty Python themselves in simplified, or Americanized, form[6].

Nonetheless, even in this new guise, the show contains a number of difficult references to British culture[7]; and, as is the rule with Python humour, the gist of a joke is often contained in the linguistic oppositions it sets up (British vs. Australian English, RP vs. cockney accent, educated vs. uneducated varieties of English).

The Italian dubbing of the following “Communist Quiz” sketch provides an example of locative adaptation on the cultural plane. In the original, the humour resides in the juxtaposition of two different television programmes: what appears to be a political debate, impossibly hosting Che Guevara, Karl Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse-tung, soon turns into a quiz when the presenter starts asking questions about English football and American rock music. In the dubbed version, the questions are about Italian popular culture:

PRESENTER: And the first question is for you, Karl Marx. The Hammers. The Hammers is the nickname of what English football team? [...] No? Well, bad luck Karl, it is in fact West Ham United.
Now, Che Guevara. Che. Coventry City last won the English Football Cup in what year? [...]
[to Lenin] Jerry Lee Lewis has had over seventeen major solid gold hits in the U.S. of A. What’s the name of the biggest?

PRESENTATORE: E la prima domanda è per lei, Karl Marx. Bomber. Bomber è il soprannome di un calciatore. Vuole dirmi chi è? [...] Ahi ahi ahi, Karl, il Bomber è… Roberto Pruzzo.
Adesso Che Guevara. Che, l’Avellino in che anno ha vinto l’ultimo scudetto, Che Guevara? [...]
[a Lenin] Claudio Villa ha ottenuto più di diciassette dischi d’oro in Italia e a Trastevere. Come si intitola il più famoso?

The following transcription[8] of an excerpt from the “Albatross” sketch and its Italian translation illustrates the functioning of “linguistic” locative adaptation. In this case, the comic effect is created through the contrast between the uneducated and impolite albatross vendor and the highly educated and pointlessly inquisitive customer (the idea of albatross-vending, of course, is itself rather absurd). The disparity of accents of the source text is reproduced in Italian by giving the vendor a Roman accent:

ALBATROSS VENDOR: Albatross! Albatross! Albatross! You’re not supposed to be smoking that. Albatross! [...] Seagull ’sicle! Pelican bonbon! Albatross!
CUSTOMER: Ah, could I have – could I have two ice-creams please?
VENDOR: I haven’t got any ice-creams. I just got this albatross. Albatross!
CUSTOMER: Ah. Er – what flavour is it?
VENDOR: It’s an albatross, innit… it’s not any bloody flavour. Albatross!
CUSTOMER: It’s got to be some flavour. I mean, everything has a flavour.
VENDOR: Alright. Alright. It’s bloody albatross flavour. Bleedin’ seabird bleedin’ flavour. Albatross!
CUSTOMER: Do you get wafers with it?
VENDOR: ‘Course you don’t get fucking wafers with it, yer cunt. It’s a fucking albatross, innit?

VENDITORE: Arbatross! Arbatross! Arbatross! Ma che cazzo te fumi, ’na canna? Arbatross! [...] Leccalecca de gabbiano. Bonbon de pellicano. Arbatross!
CLIENTE: Ehm, mi perdoni. Potrei avere due gelati, per favore.
VENDITORE: Ma che sei cecato? C’ho solo st’arbatross. Arbatross!
CLIENTE: E che sapore ha?
VENDITORE: Questo è un arbatross, nun lo vedi? Che cacchio di sapore dovrebbe avere?
CLIENTE: Deve avere un sapore. Tutte le cose hanno un sapore.
VENDITORE: Vabbè, Vabbè. C’ha il sapore d’un pezzo d’arbatross. Un pezzo d’uccello marino, con un sapore der cazzo. Arbatross!
CLIENTE: Con quell’uccello ci sono anche le cialde?
VENDITORE: Come cazzo ce lo metti l’uccello in mezzo le cialde, a imbecille. È solo un pezzo d’arbatross, nun lo vedi?

Both adaptations are occasioned – and made necessary, to a certain extent – by the presence of locative features which create comic effects in the source. However, they probably reflect two different sets of assumptions: in the first case, the translator/dialogist implicitly makes a guess about the contexts which the sketch is likely to activate in an Italian audience; in the second, a well-known Italian prejudice on the connection between humour and regional dialects probably motivates the rather estranging grafting of Italy’s most fictionalized dialect onto John Cleese’s very British stiff upper lip.

3. Locative adaptation: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The Italian version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) represents, in its entirety, an extreme version of locative adaptation, on both the cultural and the linguistic planes (indeed, the adaptation is so capillary and heavy-handed that it soon becomes hard to distinguish between the two). The small mysteries enfolding Monty Python e il Sacro Graal (1974; no indication is given in the VHS and DVD versions as to who is organizationally and materially responsible for the dubbing) would almost seem to point to a voluntary invisibility on the translators’/dialogists’ part, but are more probably due to the freer philological habits of 1970s cinema. Some of the actors, however, are very easy to identify by their voices; and the fact that these voices belong to a number of very well-known Italian comic actors specializing in a rather vulgar, scurrilous brand of humour tells us something about the nature of the transposition[9].

Monty Python e il Sacro Graal is, in actual fact, so different a film from its source that it can be assigned to a different genre: while the English version is a parody of the Arthurian cycle, exploiting the potential absurdity of its model without explicitly comparing it with the here and now of twentieth-century England (if the final dis-suspension of disbelief be excepted), the target film exploits the Arthurian myth for its own purposes (creating regional caricatures and alluding to contemporary Italian matters).

The most evident transposition effected by the Italian translators/dialogists/dubbers is linguistic. Monty Python and the Holy Grail uses a limited number of (mostly phonetic) varieties of language to create certain marginal characters: A Scottish enchanter named Tim exhibits an exaggerated, Macbeth-like accent (one is reminded of Orson Welles’ 1948 film); the lower classes are cockney; a French soldier uses a strange gallicized version of English; Arthur and most of his knights, on the other hand, speak standard, quasi-RP English. In Italian, everybody has a perceptible accent: Arthur is Tuscan, his companions Veneti or Emiliani; lowly characters are from all regions of the peninsula; the French soldier absurdly speaks with a marked Sicilian accent, and even more absurdly presents himself as Austrian.

The performative idea of humour (what is it that makes Italians laugh?) lying behind these linguistic adaptations also prompts a less evident, but no less general, alteration: most of the jokes in the source film are either simplified or made to refer to contemporary Italy. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a giant hollow rabbit is introduced within the walls of the French castle with no British warriors inside; when the siege obviously fails, and the rabbit is thrown off the castle ramparts, one of Arthur’s knights proposes an alternative: “Look, if we were to build a large wooden badger…”. In the Italian version, a horse is substituted for the badger – as if there was any danger of an Italian viewer failing to spot the allusion. Towards the end of the film, when Arthur and his knights encounter a mysterious soothsayer whose task it is to ask three questions to all those who want to walk across the “Bridge of Death”, his Italian counterpart speaks in a regional voice and asks the question in the manner of Italian TV Quiz presenter Mike Bongiorno.

The kinds of locative adaptation effected in Monty Python e il Sacro Graal are best illustrated by quotation, though the global nature of the transformation can only be appreciated by looking at the audiovisual bi-text as a whole. Here is a transcription of the encounter between Tim the Enchanter and the Knights of the Round Table[10]

[Arthur’s knights meet an enchanter who is doing various fire-tricks with his magic staff]
1 ARTHUR What manner of man are you, that can summon up fire without fire or tinder?
2 TIM [Scottish accent] I am an enchanter
3 ARTHUR By what name are you known?
4 TIM There are some who call me… Tim?
5 ARTHUR Greetings, Tim the Enchanter!
6 TIM Greetings, King Arthur!
7 ARTHUR You know my name?
8 TIM I do. [A fire trick] You seek the Holy Grail.
9 ARTHUR That is our quest. You know much that is hidden, O Tim.
10 TIM Quite [Another fire trick; the knights applaud]
11 ARTHUR Yes, we’re – we’re looking for the Holy Grail. [Clears throat] Our quest is to find the Holy Grail.
12 KNIGHTS Yes, it is, yeah, yeah.
13 ARTHUR And so we’re we’re we’re looking for it.
14 KNIGHTS Yes, we are
15 BEDEVERE We have been for some time.
16 ROBIN Ages.
17 ARTHUR Ah, so… Anything you could do to… to help would be… very… helpful.

[As the knights approach, the enchanter shouts; he has a Neapolitan accent]
<TIM Ricchezza mobile… Imposta utili… Tassa sui redditi… Acconti e ratei… Accertamenti… Complementare… Maggiorazione>
1 ARTHUR Chi sei tu, che illumini col fuoco i tuoi termini oscuri?
2 TIM Se qualcuno li capisse, per me sarebbe finita.
3 ARTHUR Quale arte magica eserciti?
4 Mi preparo a fare il
<ARTHUR E che vuol dire?
TIM Boh? [“Boh?” corresponding with “Tim?”, end of line 4]>
5 ARTHUR Salute a te!
6 TIM Hai fatto la dichiarazione?
7 ARTHUR Che dichiarazione?
8 TIM Dei redditi. È un modo di dare denari allo Stato.
9 ARTHUR Beh, non credo che mi tocchi. Siccome sono Re, lo Stato sono io.
10 TIM Nessuno. [As the knights applaud, someone says: ]
11 ARTHUR Noi veramente si va per queste montagne per acquistarci il Graal.
12 KNIGHTS Eh sì, eh, è vero.
<TIM Genere di lusso. Iva…>
13 ARTHUR A prezzo delle nostre vite!
14 KNIGHTS Eh sì, già.
15 BEDEVERE Siamo in tanti, quindi…
16 ROBIN Anche a rate!
<TIM E Iva!>
17 ARTHUR Senti, noi non siamo tanto preparati su questo argomento, e se tu… ci indicassi… come procurarci…

A Scottish enchanter is transformed into a Neapolitan tax consultant, just as a British kind of humour is turned into a very Italian brand of comedy. If any doubts should arise as to the voluntary nature of the operation, one must only look at the way in which all pauses are cancelled by filling the actors’ visible or invisible mouths with as many extra words as possible – the kind of comedy that Monty Python e il Sacro Graal belongs to typically displaying its horror vacui of the seconds-long pauses its English counterpart occasionally indulges in.

4. Reactions: is the interpersonal function altered?

Though the veil of personal taste may occasionally cloud the clarity of analytical investigation, this article is animated by no wish to suggest that locative adaptation is a (necessary) evil, or that a linguistically or culturally adapted target text is (necessarily) worse than its source. Locative adaptation is to a certain extent inevitable, particularly in the translation of genres which rely on immediacy to be appreciated by their audience. As seen above, the audiovisual translation of humour often poses problems in this department: when a sketch is based on some kind of cultural or linguistic gap (between characters, between characters and [implied, ideal, prospective] audience), that gap must be reproduced or recreated if the comic mechanism is to work. That the gap is most often recreated by grafting it onto a completely different situation testifies to the immediacy and simplicity of human reasoning.

It must be admitted that this grafting is usually effective as well as simple (or simplistic). Many cases of dubbing may be quoted to demonstrate that the substitution of Italian dialects for varieties of English, or of Italian cultural references for allusions to contemporary Britain (or Australia, or the U.S.), does not often trouble the viewer’s mind: in the Italian version of The Simpsons, a Scottish janitor/gardener with kilt and red hair is successfully (and plausibly – perhaps owing to certain surprising prosodic isoglosses) made to speak with a Sardinian accent; the Italian dubbing of The Aristocats has been praised for its substitution of an Irish for a Roman tomcat. Examples of this sort are legion (even the above-quoted case from Airplane! has raised no eyebrows as far as I know), and would seem to demonstrate that this is the right way to transfer locative elements from the source to the target language.

However, some exceptions can be observed which demonstrate that the interpersonal function must be taken into account when locative elements are translated. Even though it is risky to make generalizations on real or implied audiences – and perhaps a statistical study would be needed to validate these intuitions – it seems safe enough to say that most viewers of Airplane! or The Aristocats will not tend to keep in mind that an original exists while they watch a dubbed version; and while The Simpsons may be a different proposition (they have a very wide and varied audience, with fringes of hard-core fans – and hard-core fans are very informed), we must remind ourselves that the above-quoted “Scottish gardener” case is the only example of locative “shift” in the serial (Indian or Afro-American characters do not speak with Italian regional accents). On the other hand, there are various indications that the Monty Python attract the kind of audience that will tend to frown on all attempts at shifting the context of situation from a British to an Italian setting. And while not all Monty Python sketches are based on British situations or British linguistic varieties (Life of Brian / Brian di Nazareth allows for greater locative liberties), the group employs comic structures traceable to a British tradition (The Goon Show, amongst many other influences) which has no parallels in Italy, and which Monty Python audiences expect to find when they watch Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl or Monty Python e il Sacro Graal.

A small unscientific survey appears to confirm these impressions – though the danger of epistemic circularity is inherent in small unscientific surveys as well as larger statistical inquiries. I showed the Italian versions of the “Communist Quiz” and “Albatross” sketches separately to ten viewers (education average to high; no clue of my real purpose) who had enjoyed other Monty Python Materials (Life of Brian, the Flying Circus show as televised in Italy): while the appearance of John Cleese as an albatross-vendor was universally judged to be funny, and eight people laughed or smiled at the metamorphosis of a political meeting into a Quiz, the cultural and linguistic adaptations analyzed above elicited perplexity (six viewers), indignation (three viewers), and, in one case, indifference. As regards Monty Python and the Holy Grail, viewers’ reactions can be judged on a slightly larger scale, because the DVD which made this article possible was released in 2005, and its appearance elicited a trail of buyers’ short reviews on various commercial websites. An analysis of the thirty-two comments I have been able to collect reveals that annoyance, not perplexity, is the most frequent reaction to the Italian version: only one viewer speaks of the dubbing as “chicca trash” (trash treat), while all the other use adjectives ranging from “discutibile” (open to question) to, most often, “orribile” (dreadful) and “atroce” (heinous).

5. Conclusions

Just as I have no wish to suggest that moderate locative adaptation is good and extreme locative adaptation is bad (another version of Venuti’s domestication vs. foreignisation case), I have no intention of giving an ethical slant to my observation of two particular locative adaptations; and if I do think that recreating Monty Python and the Holy Grail as an Italian B-movie is a mistake, my point of view is neither ethical nor stylistic, but pragmatic – even practical. Such a film as Monty Python e il Sacro Graal was perhaps appropriate for 1974, when the Monty Python were unknown in Italy and their brand of humour might have gone unappreciated: but it is fairly evident that in today’s DVD market, the choice of leaving the original dubbing untouched runs the risk of alienating the comic group’s natural public.

To end with my beginning: in order to keep the performative function intact (people have to laugh), the translator may have to change the locative function; but if as a consequence the interpersonal function is changed beyond recognition (the wrong sort of viewer/buyer is addressed), laughter turns into annoyance or perplexity. The target audiovisual text does not perform as it should – not because the message is wrong, but because it has been sent to the wrong receiver.

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Notes

[1]Many commentators have noted that a nation’s choice of dubbing as a privileged form of audiovisual translation testifies to a general domesticating tendency, because “On the one hand, it [...] entails resistance to dominance by hegemonic cultures and languages, which are envisaged as a potential threat to the target culture’s identity; on the other [...] it constitutes a hegemonic appropriation of ‘the other’” (Ulrych 2000: 132). As Maria Pavesi reminds us, however, the (labial, visual) “otherness” of the source remains to counter the “natural” domesticating effects of dubbing (Pavesi 2005: 26-7).

[2]A re-interpretation of ‘translation norms’ in an audiovisual context is provided by Karamitroglou 2000.

[3]Cf. Denton (2000: 146): “Expected low mass audience comprehension of cultural diversity has often been posited as the explanation for consistent reductionist translational strategies, in the Italian context, for example, in an attempt to widen the appeal of ‘art’ films in the target culture, so as to meet market requirements”.

[4]Cf. Morini 2005, where the same problems are analyzed in a literary context.

[5]Though various references to Italian popular culture appear to point to the early or mid-eighties.

[6]The question on Jerry Lee Lewis quoted below, for instance, had been a very British reference to a pair of obscure Eurofestival singers (Teddy Johnson and Pearl Carr) in the original Flying Circus sketch.

[7]It can be noted in passing that some of these references are perhaps less generally obscure now than when the show was dubbed. British football, for instance, has ceased to be an unknown quantity for Italian football fans.

[8]My transcriptions are not scientific, and they do not employ the (various) notational methods of Conversation Analysis. A rough transcription, representing only certain features of pronunciation, is enough for the purposes of this article.

[9]The following information has been obtained by collating various paper and electronic sources. “P.A.C.” appears to be the dubbing company’s name. The actors are Duilio del Prete, Romano Malaspina, Oreste Lionello, Giampiero Albertini, Claudio Capone, Bombolo, Pippo Franco, Pino Caruso and Silvio Spaccesi.

[10] The passages included within these symbols (<>) find no acoustic correspondence in the source, and are added by the translators/dialogists/actors. The lines are numbered for the sake of clarity.

 

About the author(s)

Massimiliano Morini is Associate Professor of English Linguistics and Translation at the University of Udine. His research interests include stylistics, translation history (Tudor Translation in Theory and Practice, Ashgate 2006), theory (La traduzione. Teorie/Strumenti/Pratiche, Sironi 2007) and practice (Manuale di traduzioni dall’inglese, Bruno Mondadori 2002, co-edited with Romana Zacchi). As a literary translator, he published Italian versions of books by Liz Lochhead, R.S. Thomas, Les Murray, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, William Boyd, Claire Keegan and others.

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©inTRAlinea & Massimiliano Morini (2009).
"Jerry Lee Lewis or Claudio Villa?"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: The Translation of Dialects in Multimedia
Edited by: M. Giorgio Marrano, G. Nadiani & C. Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/1712

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