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Since When Is Fran Drescher Jewish?

Since When Is Fran Drescher Jewish?
Dubbing Stereotypes in The Nanny, The Simpsons, and The Sopranos
Foreword by Joseph Straubhaar

This colorful examination of “translated” television characters in Italy looks at the implications for transnational intersections of commerce and culture.

January 2011
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175 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 map, 2 tables |

"Since when is Fran Drescher Jewish?" This was Chiara Francesca Ferrari's reaction when she learned that Drescher's character on the television sitcom The Nanny was meant to be a portrayal of a stereotypical Jewish-American princess. Ferrari had only seen the Italian version of the show, in which the protagonist was dubbed into an exotic, eccentric Italian-American nanny. Since When Is Fran Drescher Jewish? explores this "ventriloquism" as not only a textual and cultural transfer between languages but also as an industrial practice that helps the media industry foster identification among varying audiences around the globe.

At the heart of this study is an in-depth exploration of three shows that moved from global to local, mapping stereotypes from both sides of the Atlantic in the process. Presented in Italy, for example, Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons is no longer a belligerent, alcoholic Scotsman but instead easily becomes a primitive figure from Sardinia. Ironically, The Sopranos—a show built around Italian-Americans—was carefully re-positioned by Italian TV executives, who erased the word "mafia" and all regional references to Sicily. The result of Ferrari's three case studies is evidence that "otherness" transcends translation, as the stereotypes produced by the American entertainment industry are simply replaced by other stereotypes in foreign markets. As American television studios continue to attempt to increase earnings by licensing their shows abroad, Since When Is Fran Drescher Jewish? illuminates the significant issues of identity raised by this ever-growing marketplace, along with the intriguing messages that lie in the larger realm of audiovisual cultural exchange.

  • Foreword by Joseph Straubhaar
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Since When Is Fran Drescher Jewish?
  • Chapter One. Nation in Translation: The (Im)Possibility of the Local?
  • Chapter Two. Indigenizing Texts: Television Translation as Cultural Ventriloquism
  • Chapter Three. Dubbing Yiddish, Hidden Rabbi: The Nanny in Translation
  • Chapter Four. Dubbing The Simpsons: Or How Groundskeeper Willie Lost His Kilt in Sardinia
  • Chapter Five. The Sopranos in Italy: Or "Why Should We Care? We Have the Real Mafia Here!"
  • Conclusion. Translating Stereotypes: The Cultural Politics of Reformatting
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Chiara Francesca Ferrari is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Design at California State University, Chico.


The nation fills the void left in the uprooting of communities and kin, and turns that loss into the language of metaphor. Metaphor, as the etymology of the word suggests, transfers the meaning of home and belonging across the "middle passage" . . . across those distances, and cultural differences, that span the imagined community of the nation-people . . .

There must also be a tribe of interpreters of such metaphors—the translators of the dissemination of texts and discourses across cultures.

Homi Bhabha, Nation and Narration

Since When Is Fran Drescher Jewish?

As an international media scholar in the United States, I can say with confidence that I was exposed to "American culture" long before actually moving to America. Clearly, and similar to many other immigrants to the United States, my perception of this country was shaped by endless American movies and television shows that were (and still are) flooding foreign media markets, including my native Italy. What I did not realize at the time was the idea that my perception was strongly influenced by the national environment—and certainly by the national media industry—where I was receiving and consuming these products. I did not question why television, in particular, seemed to offer stories of and about the United States that resonated with my own perception of life, culture, and society. I was pleased to realize that American writers would often choose Italian names for their characters, or mention aspects of Italian history and culture in their plots, or represent aspects of life among Italian immigrants in the United States.

Although Italians generally lack a strong sense of nationalism (with the notable exception of the "soccer craze" during each World Cup), watching "American" television in Italy created in me a feeling of national pride, because I genuinely (or perhaps naïvely) believed that American authors were indeed writing about Italians. At the time lacking any critical eye, I cared little if the characters were portrayed in a stereotypical fashion. Somehow, I thought it was a privilege (and certainly a curious coincidence) that among all ethnicities and nationalities in the United States, American writers would opt to represent and recount stories of Italians. One such show was Fran Drescher's The Nanny, in which an exotic and eccentric "Italian American" nanny—or so I thought—revolutionized the life of a British widower and Broadway producer.

It would take me a few years and a few thousand miles to realize (in a classroom, not on TV) that the origins of my favorite nanny had nothing to do with Italy. While discussing ethnic representations on American television with my (American) classmates and professor in graduate school, someone mentioned and criticized Drescher's overly stereotypical portrayal of the Jewish American Princess in The Nanny. All of a sudden I was lost: "Since when is Fran Drescher Jewish?" I asked.

That was the day I understood how different the "American" television I had watched in Italy was from the "original" television people were watching in the United States. More important, though, that was the day I discovered the complexities embedded in the process of audiovisual translation. All the references to Italian names, culture, and history, in fact, were created and added in translation by writers and dubbing practitioners looking for ways to domesticate American television for Italian audiences. In the case of The Nanny, for example, the original Jewish American characters—and their highly caricatured traits—were "erased" and turned into Italian American characters that resonated more easily with Italian humor and Italian audiences.

Since When Is Fran Drescher Jewish? examines the range of negotiations undertaken when foreign countries import globally distributed television programs and adapt them for new national audiences, and reframes the dialogue about relations between the global and the local from a new perspective. This study reexamines the widely accepted (but also increasingly criticized) concept of globalization as a primarily homogenizing force, by analyzing the processes and implications of the translation and dubbing of contemporary American television series for Italian audiences. In doing so, this study moves away from the more traditional—and still dominant—point of view of media "flows" from the exporting countries in order to analyze the processes of "indigenization" at play in the importing countries. In this respect, the research addresses television translation as an industrial and creative narrative practice closely related to issues of national and cultural identity.

Since When Is Fran Drescher Jewish? analyzes, in particular, the formation of national televisual communities through dubbed TV series, and the consequent indigenization processes performed on these texts in their new national context. Specifically, the case studies focus on the changes made to three American TV series—The Nanny, The Simpsons, and The Sopranos—imported to Italian television, and examines the reasons why these modifications were considered necessary. In this regard, I examine dubbing both as an industrial imperative and as a form of cultural ventriloquism. To do this, I consider audiovisual translation as entailing a complex cross-cultural institutional and creative process, making translation something fully implicated in the creation of "new" and "indigenized" texts. The concepts of indigenization, localization, and domestication used in the book refer to those specific industrial and cultural practices aimed at repurposing television texts for new audiences. This study, in fact, focuses on the efforts made by dubbing practitioners in Italy to rewrite—and therefore recreate—television texts in translation, on the basis of accepted stereotypical notions of what is "indigenous," "local," and "domestic." Specifically, what is at play here is a form of re-localization, by which (foreign) cultural depictions of ethnic groups are translated, adapted, and modified to fit a new set of (domestic) cultural stereotypes.

This study provides the field with a twofold argument. First, the book explores the idea that TV translation, and dubbing in particular, should be examined not only as textual and cultural transfers from one language to another, but as industrial practices that facilitate the localization of imported programs. Second, by analyzing the recreation of stereotypical representations of identity in translation, the book scrutinizes the original tendency of American television to reduce every representation of "Otherness" to the level of stereotype. The ideological implications in this kind of transfer lie in the idea that these representations are translatable precisely because they never cease to be clichés; they are merely reconfigured and transferred from one set of American stereotypes to a new set of stereotypes in the importing country.

At this point, it is worth spending a few words to define the characteristics attached to the specific notions of stereotype I consider in this analysis, given that the term "stereotype" offers a wide variety of interpretations and attributes, depending both on the context in which it is used and the field of study that examines it.

Charles Stangor and Mark Schaller describe the cultural analysis of stereotyping as an approach that:

emphasizes that stereotypes are learned, maintained, and potentially changed through the language and communication of a culture. Language transcends the individual and offers a means of storing stereotypic beliefs at a collective, consensual level.

Stangor and Schaller suggest that every cultural discussion concerning stereotypes should be accompanied by an analysis of the way language functions both as a vehicle for the transmission of such stereotypes and as a means to make stereotypes collective. In this respect, Anne Maas and Luciano Arcuri discuss in more detail the importance given to language in the analysis of stereotypes and stereotype formation:

Although stereotypes may take very different—verbal and nonverbal—forms, language is probably the dominant means by which they are defined, communicated, and assessed. Some authors have even proposed an intrinsic link between stereotypes and language such that there are no alinguistic stereotypes.

Further, they argue:

embedded in the lexicon of any language at any given moment in history are social beliefs about groups that are automatically "absorbed" during language acquisition.

The above definitions, which include both cultural and linguistic aspects of stereotype formation and transmission, help clarify the key factors in the book's analysis of stereotype translation. If it is true, in fact, that "language is probably the dominant means by which [stereotypes] are defined, communicated, and assessed," once television texts are transferred from one language to another, the stereotypes portrayed in such texts inevitably undergo a similar process of transfer and translation. Starting from this premise, my study examines the linguistic as well cultural characteristics of stereotyping; and, considering that the realm of such an analysis is television, the discussion must include issues of representation, which add an inevitable ideological twist to the definitions quoted above.

In the specific case of Italy, such stereotypes mirror the strong regionalism of the country and, more problematically, the allegedly irreconcilable division between the northern, more affluent areas and the rural southern provinces. Through dubbing, then, many of the characters in The Nanny, The Simpsons, and The Sopranos are culturally and linguistically—but also ideologically—remapped within a new Italian geography based on formulaic myths of the nation.

While not restricting my methodology to the traditional parameters of cultural and reception studies, the book acknowledges the fundamental role of active audiences in the process of transnational decoding of media product, and examines the cultural transfer of television texts from one national and industrial context (the United States) to another (Italy). This research directly reflects my own cross-cultural viewing experience as an Italian in the United States; and, while not strictly autobiographical, this book is certainly inspired and enriched by the many personal "textual discoveries" made while watching the same programs on Italian and American television. However, even if the present study only examines a specific binational scenario, the analysis takes into consideration different industrial and marketing strategies in diverse environments, and therefore aims at making larger claims about audiovisual translations and media flows at an international level.

To accomplish this, the study that follows employs an interdisciplinary methodology that integrates four approaches: theoretical discussions about "domestication" developed in translation studies, close comparative textual analysis of imported programs, interviews and fieldwork with media practitioners, and economic and industrial analysis from media studies. Such an approach allows one to contextualize the specific cultural changes made to television programs within the broader discussion of repurposing and reformatting media content for international distribution. The study also cites evidence for dubbing as a creative process of cross-cultural textual indigenization performed by television executives, writers, and dubbing practitioners, both in the United States and in Italy, between 2004 and 2007. The interviewees consistently agree that for a program to be successful in a new national context, network executives need to take into consideration the new audience they are addressing and market the products accordingly. Thus, accepting as valid the premise that the bottom-line goal of this "targeted translation" is economic profit, the book also discusses how media, and in particular television, have learned to manage, exploit, transform, and adapt cultural specificity as a fundamental industrial practice and proven business strategy in the era of global media commerce.

Case Studies: Translating the Nation

Film scholar Antje Ascheid clarifies the concept of translation as cultural ventriloquism by comparing subtitling and dubbing, and the respective possibilities they offer in the construction of "new texts":

Subtitling, as a dominant practice, serves to constantly remind film and television consumers in the target culture of the cultural and economic supremacy of another, confirming their own lack of cultural expression and independent cultural identity. Dubbing, on the other hand, mostly succeeds in effacing the fact of the film text's foreign origin; or, rather, it gives its new audience the chance to disavow what they really know, hence opening an avenue for cultural ventriloquism through voice post-synchronization.

What is most interesting in Ascheid's discussion is the reference to subtitling as a dominant practice—an unusual definition for this method of translation given that, traditionally, dubbing has been considered, at least in film translation, the tool for censorship and ideological manipulation. The quote, in fact, introduces an important aspect of dubbing—inclusion. If dubbing indeed erases elements of the original version, at the same time it provides new readings for the new audience, and does not necessarily or exclusively entail censorship. While embracing and applying Ascheid's idea of dubbing as a tool for "inclusion," this book argues that this "avenue for cultural ventriloquism" is not automatically constructed as a disavowal of what the audience really knows, but on the contrary may well be an embrace of the traditional stereotypes of the nation, which are used to substitute for the stereotypes in the original narrative.

This analysis of dubbing and translation is relevant to the discussion of global and local media, particularly in relation to the linguistic jokes and language itself in "use"—that is, as a code that becomes meaningful in a specific social and cultural context. In terms of linguistic and cultural transfer, then, the recreation of the original meaning usually does not simply lie in a literal translation. A good translator, in fact, should not be particularly concerned about giving an exact paraphrase of the original version. He or she should focus instead on the recreation of those linguistic relations, or "jokes," that will ultimately produce certain reactions in the new audience. The final goal should be to provide spectators with an understanding and a reading of the new version that comes closest to the original one. Most often, and ironically, this achievement presupposes significant changes from the original version, and also justifies use of the term adaptation over translation. In fact, since modifications are necessary and no direct correspondence can ever be assured, it is paramount to clarify, as Ella Shohat and Robert Stam claim, that "no absolute transparency is possible" since "there remains always a core of mutual incommensurability" between an original text and its translated version. Focus, then, should not be placed "on the 'loss' of an original purity . . . but rather on a dynamic process of cultural recoding, a change in the form of linguistic energy rather than a fall from Edenic purity."

As Yuri Lotman contends, translation—in all its forms—is "a primary mechanism of consciousness," because "to express something in another language is a way of understanding it" and, as I contend, a way to domesticate it and make it familiar. This understanding takes place because the original concept/text is transferred to a new cultural, linguistic, and national framework, which resonates better with the new audiences, and therefore allows a closer reading of the original foreign text. Such a transfer in television happens on many levels. Since When Is Fran Drescher Jewish?, however, focuses on those changes embedded in the translation of ethnic stereotypes from one national setting to another. In this respect, the book poses several questions concerning the specific modifications made to the programs: (1) What kind of changes are made? (2) What are the reasons for and the ultimate goals of such changes? (3) Is the translation effective in recreating the success the series had in the United States? (4) Is the translation problematic in dealing with and reconfirming stereotypes from one national setting to another? (5) What does the translation of ethnic stereotypes into a new context say about the original tendency of American television to often represent "ethnic" characters as caricatures? (6) What is the involvement of the network distributing the series in Italy in the decisions about translation? (7) Are the original U.S. producers and distributors aware of these changes, and what is their involvement in the adaptation for foreign markets? (8) What is the creative and professional role of translators and dialogue writers in indigenizing texts for new audiences? (9) Is the erasure of certain elements of the text a form of artistic freedom or a form of censorship?

As these questions anticipate, translation is examined in its broader sense, which includes issues of marketing, programming, and reformatting, in addition to its more common function of the transfer of a text from one language to another.

Chapter Descriptions

The book opens with two broad chapters about television and globalization, and about dubbing and translation respectively, to set the theoretical, historical, and industrial groundwork for the case studies. The three chapters that follow analyze the three specific TV series already mentioned, The Nanny, The Simpsons, and The Sopranos, providing evidence for the overall argument that television translation challenges cultural homogenization within globally distributed programs.

Chapter 1, "Nation in Translation: The (Im)Possibility of the Local?" explores the negotiations between the local and the global to understand various factors (economic, cultural, and industrial, among others) that play into the practices of media import and export. In particular, the chapter establishes the argument about the "possibility of the local" within globally distributed television programs, and examines the ways in which audiovisual translation is nothing but an additional example of content reformatting. The chapter also provides a brief overview of certain aspects of Italian geography, history, and culture (including Italian television) to contextualize the specific national environment in which the three series are imported and dubbed.

Chapter 2, "Indigenizing Texts: Television Translation as Cultural Ventriloquism," examines the practices of dubbing television texts, and discusses issues of authorship, adaptation, and cultural translation, both from a theoretical perspective and from the point of view of practitioners in the field. This chapter fills some of the gaps between the (thus far) separate discussions of localization/globalization and those of television translation—ultimately showing how the process of "indigenizing" global texts into local cultures can be achieved through dubbing, considered as a form of "cultural ventriloquism" able to create an illusionary and invisible translation for the new audience that promotes and helps constitute the "imagined communities" of the nation.8 The chapter also discusses the historical role of dubbing in Italy, since the practice has been a traditional and fundamental characteristic of the Italian film and television industry since the Fascist regime in the late 1920s, and therefore originated on the basis of ideological and political factors. Since I aim to make broader claims about television translations and the import/export of media texts internationally, the chapter also looks at the economic implications of audiovisual translations, and argues that Hollywood has traditionally been strongly dependent on the translation of its films and television programs abroad in order to reach foreign markets.

Chapter 3, "Dubbing Yiddish, Hidden Rabbi: The Nanny in Translation," analyzes the first case study, the translation and dubbing of The Nanny in Italy, considering the changes made to the series and the reasons behind them. Given the drastic modifications to the overall plot and to some of the major characteristics of the series (e.g., Fran Drescher is transformed from a Jewish New Yorker to an Italian American New Yorker), The Nanny is a perfect example to illustrate the processes of indigenizing texts. This series, in particular, shows how a popular U.S. TV program can be made "local," culturally specific, and more appealing in the new national context into which it is imported, by changing major elements of the show. One of the strategies used to make the ethnic modification from Jewish to Italian American more effective is the employment of a recurrent U.S. stereotype, the "Jewish mother," which ultimately corresponds to the stereotypical idea of the "Italian mother" in the new national context.

Chapter 4, "Dubbing The Simpsons: Or How Groundskeeper Willie Lost His Kilt in Sardinia," analyzes the translation of The Simpsons in the process of "indigenization" of the text, in particular through the use of dubbed accents and regional expressions to identify and re-territorialize the secondary characters within the Italian context. The multiplicity of characters and types in The Simpsons, whose original depiction is strongly based on cultural U.S. stereotypes, favors and facilitates its translation and adaptation in the Italian framework, especially given the marked differences among regions within the Italian borders. By employing precise national and regional characteristics, specifically those linguistic elements immediately recognizable by the Italian audiences, the translation recreates the ironies and the stereotypical portrayals of the original characters, remapping them in a new (but corresponding) context. A television series as successful as The Simpsons is imported in a foreign country and made popular in the new context by "indigenizing" the text and localizing its humor through the use of familiar accents that correspond to local stereotypical cultural types.

Chapter 5, "The Sopranos in Italy: Or 'Why Should We Care? We Have the Real Mafia Here!'" examines the translation and reception of The Sopranos in Italy, and attempts to understand the reasons for the series' initial relegation to a late-night time slot, despite its widespread popularity in the Unites States. Comparing and contrasting The Sopranos with La Piovra, an Italian-produced TV series about the Mafia in Sicily, this chapter analyzes the dynamics and the problems of importing foreign programs, especially when such programs discuss themes that might be controversial in the new context. The chapter argues that in the case of The Sopranos, several elements concerning organized crime have been domesticated and adapted to the stereotypical idea of southern Italy. However, other elements specifically related to the idea of the Mafia were considered too controversial and problematic for the Italian context, and therefore were either made "foreign" or erased in toto through the translation and dubbing of the series. This case study ultimately shows how the localization of an internationally popular series for a specific national audience does not rely exclusively on domestication—as is the case with The Nanny and The Simpsons—but also on foreignization: the erasure of those elements that might be, somehow, too domestic (and, perhaps, problematic and offensive).

The final chapter draws some conclusions from the analyses of the three case studies, and uses the evidence discussed to provide a final definition of dubbing as a form of content reformatting in international media flows. The conclusive remarks reexamine the initial hypotheses about television's ultimate goal in the process of "indigenization" of texts, and consider such goals not only from a cultural perspective but also in economic terms. I close the book raising questions about the dynamics of the industrial practices of media import and television translation, arguing that the bottom-line goal of making texts "localized" is based more on profit than on the "noble interest" of preserving cultural and national specificity. To conclude, I argue that it is fundamental to acknowledge how, in this type of linguistic analysis of television across languages, nations, and cultures, the only effective methodological approach is an interdisciplinary study that must take into consideration both media and translation studies. This combination offers the tools to examine the idea of cultural ventriloquism in truly comprehensive ways: on the one hand, considering the industrial and economic aspects of television in the import and export of media texts; and on the other, applying the theoretical foundation of both media and translation studies to the definition of dubbing as a cultural and ideological practice fully implicated in the creation of new texts and new meanings.


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