Gleetalians, or Glee’s Italian Promotional Paratexts – Part 1

March 3, 2011
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Whether you’re a gleek or not, there’s no denying that Glee has now become a global phenomenon and that the show’s perception by different target audiences in different countries is highly dependant not only on the content of the text itself but also on the ways in which the show’s text and paratexts are translated/adapted for those different cultures. Specifically, in this post I propose to look at some of the promotional videos used for the Italian launch of the show, which premiered on FOX Italia (a cable channel) on December 25th, 2009. I will look at two examples in which the dubbed Italian version was superimposed on the English original.[1]

First, though, a preliminary note is in order concerning the pervasiveness of the GLEE logo/title and its implications for translation/adaptation. In particular, it is easy to see how the visual elements embedded in the logo, i.e. a thumb and index finger with the palm outward spelling the letter L, play a crucial role in immediately framing the show for its American viewers, in that Glee is indeed, for the most part, about ‘Losers’.[2] I suggest that the fact that the ‘L-Loser’ correspondence is not immediately recognizable for Italian viewers has yielded mixed results in how the show was framed for this particular target audience and perhaps confronted the Italian audiovisual translators and distributors with the challenge of adopting more creative adaptation strategies elsewhere. Humorously enough, the visual and verbal discrepancy in the use of the L-Loser gesture on screen is made abundantly prominent at the end of the first promo I consider here, where we see a close up of Sue Sylvester putting her two, L-shaped fingers on her forehead and clearly mouthing the word ‘losers’ (literally translated in Italian as ‘perdenti’, where the best functional equivalent would instead be ‘sfigati’, more similar to ‘not cool’).

The promo in question, which is available on the FOX Italia website and was aired before the beginning of the first season in January 2010, appears to be a localized version of a similar, longer English-language promotional video. However, the Italian version seems to have made considerable and crucial changes in the way the characters and, therefore, the show as a whole, are being introduced. The most evident of these changes is of course the fact that all the footage presenting actual scenes from the show were cut out of the promo. While in the English version those scenes serve as an ironic counterpart to each of the characters’ own idealized view of what Glee Club represents for them – for example Rachel getting slushed in the face right after saying “Glee makes you special” or Artie crashing his wheelchair against the wall immediately after claiming “Glee gives me a direction” – the Italian version lacks any of the show’s self-mockery in the representation of these characters. Italian prospective viewers, therefore, might not have been aware of one of the show’s distinctive features, i.e. the ironic depiction of a group of high school kids who are all outsiders in one way or another. The choice to leave out Sue’s politically incorrect suggestion that Will might want to look for potential Glee Club recruits among the Special Ed students is also a crucial – albeit not entirely surprising – omission as far as the edgier humor in the show is concerned. Finally, while the English version uses a fast-paced, funky background music, the Italian promo is accompanied by the signature “Don’t stop believing” cast rendition of Journey’s hit song, which, apart from giving away the pilot episode’s musical finale and key self-realization moment, perhaps also contributes to frame the show from the very beginning as slightly more self-assured and idealistic than its original version would suggest.

The second dubbed promo aired before the first season that I’d like to consider provides an almost identical structure in its English and Italian versions. However, a very basic linguistic problem contributes to convey diverging implications in the translated version.

In the English promo we see some of the characters talking directly at the camera and in a rapid succession either disparagingly stating “You’re a geek!” or proudly admitting “I’m a gleek”. This way we learn, before we even watch the show or know their names, that Rachel, Will, Emma, Mercedes, Tina, Kurt and Artie are ‘gleeks’, i.e. members or supporters of Glee Club, and that Puckerman, Quinn, Principal Figgins, Coach Tanaka and Sue Sylvester are convinced – at least at the beginning of the first season – that the others are nothing but geeks. Of course the blend word ‘gleek’ poorly translates into Italian, with the result that the Italian dubbing gives up trying to find a replacement for it altogether. Undeniably due also to lipsynch issues which in this case did not leave much room for manoeuvre, both ‘gleek’ and ‘geek’ are rendered simply as ‘Glee’, as in the following exchange:

ENG:  I’m a gleek/You’re a geek

IT:     Io sono Glee/Tu sei Glee?

[I am Glee/Are you Glee?]

Needless to say, part of the aggressiveness inherent in the use of the word ‘geek’ and the stark contrast it creates between the popular kids and the losers are downplayed in the pragmatically much weaker Italian question ‘Tu sei Glee?’. Also, the ‘geek’ element embedded in the English version is absent from the Italian one, with the result that Italian viewers are missing the important piece of information by which members of Glee Club are also, almost by definition, ‘geeks’. The accompanying music once again plays a crucial role in framing the show, with the English version using – once again ironically – Beethoven’s dramatic Fifth Symphony and the Italian version once again reverting to the safe and recognizable “Don’t stop believing”. The final result seems to invite different audience expectations, with the American, or English-language, viewers perhaps getting a better sense both of some of the typical high school tensions that will be portrayed in the show and of the ironic and playful commentary on these dynamics that is such a distinctive feature of the show.

[1] It is worth noting that unfortunately we don’t know enough about FOX’s distribution strategies abroad, including what kind of promotional material the network makes available to its local counterparts and who is in charge of deciding what footage gets aired. However, I suggest that the cultural impact of these choices, which is visible in the result of this process, is by no means less significant.

[2] See also the cultural significance of Glee Clubs in American High Schools, which does not have an equivalent in the Italian system.


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