The Linguist

The Linguist 55,2

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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22 The Linguist Vol/55 No/2 2016 FEATURES Marta Mateo looks at how best to tackle the complicated task of translating songs for musicals T he musical film has not occupied the place it deserves in the study of mainstream cinema. Generally it is overlooked by cinema critics and researchers who, according to analysts, "have dismissed its artistic or sociocultural value" 1 and labelled it a frivolous and insignificant genre. 2 However, musical cinema has enjoyed enormous popularity from its beginnings, both within the USA and abroad. Translation has served an essential function in this respect, yet translation scholars have only recently started to pay attention to musicals, in parallel with a growing interest in music translation. According to Joan Munsó Cabús, 3 musical cinema rests on four essential elements – comedy, music, dancing and painting – but in essence the genre is defined by the presence of song and music. The songs function as a narrative element, contributing to plot development and characterisation, which makes their lyrics meaningful. All in all, the genre aims at a total spectacle in which fantasy, beauty, emotion and humour take complex and seductive forms. The basic component of the film is undoubtedly the musical number. When these contain verbal elements they are clearly relevant to translation research and practice. When there are no lyrics, they are less directly connected to translation proper, yet according to Elena Di Giovanni, the verbal texts (songs or dialogues) can hardly be isolated from the non-verbal components. 4 Music, singing voice and dancing extend the range of possibilities transmitted through both visual and aural channels. This has inevitable consequences for the translation of musicals, which must be approached by considering both verbal texts (sung and spoken) and the non-verbal signs with which the verbal elements interact. Text choices for sung musical numbers will be ruled by factors including the fact that the meaning derives from the interplay of music, performance and verbal text; how the approach taken will affect the general dialogue-song texture of the musical; the constraints of phonetic elements such as sound quality, vowel length, stress and prosody; and the technical constraints related to the two common translation modalities for film products (i.e. subtitling and dubbing). Peter Low has proposed a Pentathlon Principle for the study of sung translation in general, 5 which can certainly be applied to the dubbing of the song episodes in film musicals and, to a lesser degree, also to their subtitling. The principle establishes a balance of five criteria, with the translator aiming for "the best aggregate": singability, sense, naturalness, rhythm and rhyme. Singability Since singing rests on vowels, the translator will have to be careful with the sounds they choose to give the singers for each note, considering that "the shape of the oral cavity required for pitch production limits what vowels and consonants the singer can produce". 6 Johan Franzon sees singability from a functional point of view, "as a practical term to sum up everything that makes words and music function together in song". 7 Textual choices will be limited further by the fact that neither the performance nor the music can be altered. Therefore the translator must ensure that the sung translation will synchronise with the actors' lip movements. A good example of a singable target text is the Spanish version of Mary Poppins' 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious'. Supercalifragilisticoespialidoso is a perfectly singable and performable version, which has become part of Spain's cultural canon. This must be related to the translation strategy chosen for the dialogue-song texture, whereby all the dialogues are dubbed and Hitting the right note IMAGES: © SHUTTERSTOCK

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