Star Trek: La Prossima Generazione

The other day, an Italian friend of mine and I got in a fight because he called Geordi LaForge “most obnoxious.” LaForge being my favorite (non-android) character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, I felt obliged to stick up for him. In fact, I could hardly imagine how anyone could find this likable guy to be anything but a stand-up guy. It was like we were talking about different characters entirely.

Well in a way, I soon discovered, we were. In my haste to jump Geordi’s defense, it hadn’t occurred to me that my friend had actually grown up watching a version of the show that looks like this:*

I apologize, of course, that I couldn’t find a clip that featured Geordi prominently, but you get the picture. In another language, the voices can affect the characterizations differently, and of course, since the lines are spoken by different actors, they simply won’t be able to create the exact same effect. I think this is really fascinating, and if it’s true that Geordi’s Italian voice is so different that the character seems a lot less approachable, than it says a lot about how important the actors in a TV show are to the development of the character. After all, my friend would have seen Geordi in all the same situations, making all the same jokes, and developing all the same relationships. But something about the way he simply spoke as he did those things made the end result entirely different.

If you’re curious (and have a good internet connection) you can stream some Italian-dubbed episodes of the show here. At this point I’ve only been able to watch enough to learn that I really have trouble telling people’s voices apart when they’re speaking a different language (even if it’s one that I know!) but for what it’s worth, my Italian pal says that when he compares the two versions these days, he feels like in the Italian version, “La Forge is much more professional and less informal, Picard is still authoritative but smoother without the scratchy qualities of his british accent, Riker is a bit annoying, (and) Troy is the same (whiner) as ever.” As for myself I think, Data’s voice sounds even more “androidal” in the Italian, because it still lacks a great deal of vocal inflection but everyone else’s speech is much more emotive. It’s also interesting that Worf’s voice is no longer appreciably deeper than the rest of the crews, which boggles my mind.

UPDATE:

Here’s a youtube video showing the same 90 seconds of the show in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Interesting stuff, if you have the time. In particular, notice how nicely the German accent fits with the Borg. And is it my imagination, or do some of the crew members have an Austrian accent while others sound more like proper German? I don’t know enough about German cultural stereotypes to know how this might affect the characters, but I can imagine the effect might be even larger in the Italian dubbings, since the regional diversity in the language there is so great.

UPDATE II:  My Italian friend tells me that in the 90s, when, in his words, “the dubbing was still very high quality,” it was considered improper to dub with anything other than a “classical” Italian accent, so there wouldn’t be any regional characterizations. I’ve also discovered that they change the names of the episodes for the Italian DVDs, and often it seems to me to be a serious detriment. The cleverly titled “Best Of Both Worlds” episode, for example, is called in Italian simply “Attack of the Borg.”

 

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*If you’re curious, in the clip Picard has just returned from having faked his own death, and Riker from having essentially defected in order to go try and find the captain. Picard tells Riker to meet him on the bridge in the morning, and Riker tells him that since he’s technically still listed as “Dead,” he can’t give orders, which causes Data to point out that Riker is technically facing twelve court-martials, and can’t be giving any orders either. Picard says that as long as he’s dead he’s going to go get some rest and jokingly tells Data to take Riker to the brig, but of course, our humorless android takes him seriously. The seen ends with Riker trying to convince him it was just a joke.

By the way, I was thrown off for quite some time by the fact that they call Data “Dah-tah,” which is the same as the pronounciation of the word for “date.” I don’t know why, but I was expecting to hear the word “dati,” which would literally mean “data,” but of course they’re not going to translate a name, even if it means something in the original language. Yet another subtle way the characterization can change!

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

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