When Hollywood Speaks "International French:" the Sociopolitics of Dubbing for Francophone Quebec

Article excerpt


Translation of a particular sort provokes regular political uproars and scandals in Quebec. It is the stuff of parliamentary debates, laws and regulations (and their amendments), countless letters to the editors, and numerous websites and blogs. Given the fact that almost 99% of the audiovisual product screened in Quebec is originally in English, and from Hollywood (SODEC 2008), translation issues are very public. A recent scandal illustrates the powerful emotional and sociopolitical debates set off in Quebec by ... film dubbing. In June 2007, controversies erupted around the dubbed-in-France version of Shrek the Third, the third in a series of animated Hollywood children's movies constructed around a green ogre who sets out with a noisy donkey at his side to free his swamp of various fairytale creatures and meets love in the process. Due to the policies of Dreamworks/ Paramount studios, this series is dubbed only in France and then distributed in Quebec. The dubbing raised the ire of local Quebec politician Mario Dumont (Action democratique du Quebec) to such an extent that be sought to address the problem with legislative solutions. (2) He claimed that his and many other Quebec children could not understand the Franco-French put in the mouths of the Hollywood creatures, and argued that this was a political matter that needed to be addressed by the provincial government.

While Dumont objected in particular to the French slang used by the Shrek characters, many other aspects of Franco-French dubbing tend to irritate Quebec audiences: regional French expressions, French syntax, French pronunciation, and the pitch of the actors' voices which is much higher and more "pointu," more hectic. (3) Dumont's bill did not go far in the Assemblee nationale in Quebec City, since it did not have the support of the Minister of Culture, who instead sent a representative to Hollywood to try to broker a deal with the major studios that would see more movies dubbed especially for and in Quebec. Yet, the controversy served, once again, to stir up opinions on this translation issue, revealing its importance to Quebec Francophones.

The controversies are not restricted to Hollywood films dubbed-in-France, however. They can be even more virulent when American audiovisual products are made to speak Quebecois. A case in point is the 1999 American television series, Ally McBeal. Bought by Quebec's TVA, dubbed into Quebecois, and scheduled to run in prime rime, it failed because of the outcry around the language it used. It was quickly taken off the air, to be replaced a few years later by the version dubbed-in-France. Indeed, the tolerance level for Quebec French from the mouths of international actors is low since audiences seem to want it reserved for local productions, to provide a credible reflection of local identity in that very specific space of television series or feature films set in Quebec. (4) It is also used exceptionally to dub certain types of cartoons for children and for certain characters in Les Simpson.

In what follows, I briefly describe the translation processes used to synchronize film in Quebec as well as some of the challenges facing the industry. (5) In a second section, I provide an overview of the discourses around film dubbing as they have appeared in various public documents since the late 1960s when the industry developed in Quebec; and I trace the three main discursive threads: cultural, economic, and pedagogical. Lastly, I discuss a number of examples of excerpts from recent Hollywood feature films dubbed in Quebec in order to examine the question of language quality that so vexed M. Dumont.

Questions about the quality and type of language used for dubbing in Quebec are pressing and recurrent. They pertain in many other societies that dub Hollywood film and false sensitive issues related to aesthetics and culture, the control of language, and identity. I address these issues in regard to Quebec first of all. …