Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Leticia El Halli Obeid is an Argentinian artist and filmmaker who has made a series of shorts exploring the role of language and media in Latin America’s history of colonization and resistance.
The first short she screened was titled Dictations. It was commissioned in 2010 for the 200th anniversary of Argentina’s independence from Spain. In it, Obeid rides the train from central Cordoba to the city’s outskirts while reading La carta de Jamaica, a letter by the revolution’s most famous leader, Simon Bolivar. This short compares Bolivar’s aspirations to the reality of Latin America’s current situation, calling into question the bicentennial situation.
Obeid’s preoccupation with translation – which comes to a head in her subsequent films – is already apparent in Dictations. La carta de Jamaica has a storied relationship to language. It was written in 1815 in the middle of Bolivar’s campaigns to liberate the northern part of South America. He was defeated and exiled to Jamaica, where he wrote the letter to convince the English to help him. It was written in Spanish but translated for publication in English in a Jamaican newspaper. However, the original Spanish was lost and it had to be re-translated into Spanish at a later date. The English translation used in the film is a modern translation from the translated Spanish. The English-speaking viewer is thus receiving the text through four layers of cultural telephone.
On this fascination, Obeid said: “Translation between images and sound, or images in text. Maybe it’s this more biographical thing since for me as a child it was so difficult for me to write my last name or have it pronounced. It might have something to do with having an Arabic name in a Spanish speaking country.”
She went on to discuss her next project, Dobles: “I was invited to collaborate on a project during my residency. We were assigned to work with oral narration. I decided to find some of the people who dubbed cartoons that I had seen as a child. Everything that is consumed in Spanish in Latin American has been for many years dubbed in Spanish. It’s important to note that Spanish is not the same in every country. Mexican Spanish somehow became the default dialect sometime between the 50s and the 90s.”
Dobles consists of a series of interviews with Mexican voice actors who worked to dub foreign cartoons into Spanish. Dubbing is a post-production process in filmmaking wherein alternate sound tracks are recorded and added to the original production. This is often done to replace the original vocal performances in a work with those of different performers speaking another language. This process requires a lot of interpretation: dialogue needs to be rewritten while still matching the lip flaps, and cultural context needs to be made intelligible for a foreign audience. Obeid interviewed Jorge “Tata” Arvizu, who is the voice of Agent 86 in Get Smart, Francisco Colmenero, the voice of Mickey Mouse, Marina Huerta, the voice of Bart and Marge Simpson, and Humberto Velez, the voice of Homer Simpson. These industry veterans shared their perspectives on imported media, the Spanish language, and sound in film.
In the post-film discussion, Obeid outlines the development of the Mexican dubbing industry during the 20th century: “The Golden Era of Mexican dubbing was around the 60s, 70s, and 80s. They were very good actors, even theater actors. Right now, because there is so much more production, it’s more like an industry, like a factory, and sometimes the people who work in that aren’t very good. So the quality has gone down. It’s no longer focused on Mexico, but the funny thing is, they imitate the Mexican because it’s the one that people are used to. It’s so-called “neutral Spanish” – a Spanish that nobody speaks, but we all understand. A unidirectional monster.” Rather than using a version of Spanish that is spoken by only one group of people, a Spanish spoken by nobody has developed. This “unidirectional monster” multiplies by being heard, and could serve to homogenize.
The third film, Media/Mediums, pares down the subject matter of Dobles to the performances themselves. It consists of about ten minutes of edited-together clips of programs voiced over in either Spanish or English. Beginning with that famous part of Singing in the Rain where filmmakers encounter voiceover for the first time, but dubbed over in Spanish, it immediately emphasizes the artificiality of any sound superimposed over an image. The legitimacy of one language as the “original” over another is unanchored, and the illusion is revealed.
“The memories of these voices are an oral history that all Latin Americans share,” Obeid said.
Featured image courtesy of museografo.com.