GOODBYE, PALOMA CHAMORRO AND THANK YOU SO MUCH: GRIEVING FOR A LOST TV MODEL

Last Sunday Paloma Chamorro died, aged only 68, after a long silence. I read in the many obituaries that she will be remembered as the public image of the 1980s Movida Madrileña, the musical and artistic movement which sought to sweep away the cobwebs of the dusty Spanish life inherited from Franco’s regime (1939-75). I think, however, that this limits Paloma’s influence to a specific geographic territory, whereas she managed to be a symbol far beyond that–for the whole generation born in Spain in the 1960s.

I’ll summarize the biographical details which anyone can read in her Wikipedia entry. Born in Madrid, she earned a BA degree in Philosophy and was subsequently employed by public Spanish TV in the early 1970s. She was always involved in programmes that dealt with the arts: Galería (1973-1974), Cultura 2 (1975), Encuentros con las artes y las letras (1976-1977), Trazos (1977) or Imágenes (1978-1981), first as presenter and later as director.

Her fame among us, those who were young in the 1980s, is due to her unique series, La edad de oro (1983-1985), a weekly show to which she invited an impressive selection of national and international indie music stars, some rookies others fully established, to perform live. Everyone recalls the interviews with Alaska y Dinarama, Kaka de Luxe, Los Rebeldes, Loquillo, Danza Invisible or Almodóvar & McNamara, and the performances by Lou Reed or The Smiths. I recall, rather, the smaller international acts, artists like Aztec Camera or John Foxx (see the almost complete list here https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_edad_de_oro_(programa_de_televisi%C3%B3n).

Very cowardly, Televisión Española gave yesterday the news of her death without mentioning what caused La edad de oro to be cancelled and Chamorro to abandon public television eventually. An image in a video by the British band Moon Child seen in one of its episodes (October 1984), showed a crucifix impaled in a pig’s head. Even though Chamorro’s superiors in TVE saw no objection to broadcasting the video, she was later processed for blasphemy, following a major scandal and accusations from an offended spectator which the State’s prosecutor accepted. Paloma had to wait until 1990 to be exonerated; the case was finally closed by the Tribunal Supremo in 1993. In the meantime, she directed and presented the far less known arts programmes La Estación de Perpiñán (1987, 1988) and La realidad invertida (1988-89). From 1990 onwards she only worked sporadically on television, mainly in arts documentaries, keeping a low profile for the last fifteen years. You’ll find very little about Paloma Chamorro on the internet.

Chamorro’s La edad de oro was broadcast on TVE’s second channel (now La2) in reaction against music programmes such as Aplauso (1978-1983), devoted to the blatantly commercial music then flooding Spain’s post-Saturday Night Fever new discos. Aplauso’s most popular segment was ‘La juventud baila’ (‘Youth dances’), a spectacle that could not be farther from La edad de oro. There were other music programmes on TV that tried to steer away from crass commercialism, like Popgrama (1977-83), Chamorro’s main predecessor. Yet, the novelty in her case was that La edad de oro wanted very much to be avant-garde television, placing pop and rock against the much wider background of the arts. As a spectator I was always amazed to hear in her singular interviews musicians commenting on books, films, comics, etc. Chamorro had a distinctive didactic vocation, which is why she could never be called a simple presenter. She was a popularizer, a teacher, a mentor.

Chamorro was always an inconformist. It is difficult today to realize how hard life under Franco’s censorship must have been for persons like her and how long his oppressing regime lasted beyond his death (her 1990 trial is proof of that). If she could launch La edad de oro this was only because the new Socialist Government headed by Felipe González, elected in 1982, appointed José María Calviño as TVE’s director (until 1986). Calviño’s mandate was extremely controversial (he was responsible for the cancellation of José Luis Balbín’s intellectual debate programme La Clave) but he gave unusual freedom to a number of young personalities, including Chamorro. They used national public TV to bring audiences all over Spain closer to the energies that were renewing the Spanish artistic panorama in all in fronts. Spanish society was possibly not ready yet, but we, its young people were more than ready, almost desperate.

All generations are cursed by the impossibility of narrating their youth without sounding ridiculously nostalgic. There is also the implicit claim that only the time when one is young is really memorable. I need, however, to pay homage to Chamorro from a much more personal angle than the obituaries and in reference to my own memories. I don’t know whether I watched all the shows in La edad de oro and, funnily, I haven’t even seen the DVD collection in my possession, issued in 2006, with the best moments of the Spanish artists’ performances. Nostalgia has never led me either to the section in TVE’s Videos a la Carta, offering highlights from Chamorro’s programme (http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/la-edad-de-oro/). Watching years later what impressed you as a young person can even be embarrassing, which is why I avoid it. I don’t want, either, to invite younger people to see La edad de oro. Rather, I’d like to explain what we had then as a society back in the 1980s and what we have lost.

The irony is that while Paloma fought with all her might to widen our mental horizons with her programmes, risking much personal comfort, today she would not have a place in contemporary television. When La edad de oro was broadcast there were only two TV channels, both state-owned. This limited offer may seem a disadvantage but has turned out to be an advantage because at the time, before the entry in 1990 of private TV in Spain, national TV did have a clear public service vocation. Of which she is undeniable proof.

At the time Chamorro launched her show, 17 May de 1983, I was 16, almost 17. Although I was in the hands of excellent teachers in my secondary school, there are whole areas of culture one must learn by herself–popular music is one. My working-class family knew nothing about the arts, whether these were painting or comics, again territories outside my formal education. Paloma Chamorro became my teacher, and because I watched her show alone at home and did not comment on it with my schoolmates, I believed she was my personal mentor. It is hard to imagine something like this in our times, marked by the massive use of social networks but, yes, there was a period when individuals sharing the same deep experiences did not communicate with each other. We are only discovering now as a generation what happened to us collectively then.

I have read recently an excellent article about how the newly released Trainspotting 2 can never have the effect that the original 1996 Trainspotting had. Precisely–this is why I am anti-nostalgic. What the article also argued, and I would subscribe here, is that each generation must have its iconic texts, whether they are a book, a film, or in the case that occupies me, a TV show. Now, for this to happen there must also exist someone with a full understanding of what is needed, someone who can act as a catalyst of the aspirations and/or grievances which others feel. Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle did that for Scottish youth in the 1990s. And because we were about to forget her, I need to proclaim that Paloma Chamorro was our collective catalyst in the 1980s. With her spidery, bushy hairdo, her thickly lipsticked mouth, her very personal dress code, she taught us in addition that a person could be truly interested in culture and still be very cool.

Two last thoughts: I’m sure that only a minority of those born in the 1960s in Spain are now mourning Paloma Chamorro, as she was by no means to everyone’s taste–yet, those of us mourning her are doing so with true emotion. It is an irony of our celebrity-addled times that the most important persons are not necessarily those best known. Second: I may be blind to what is going on in the life of the younger generations but I wish they are as lucky as we were and have cause to celebrate many decades later the life of someone in their time who changed their lives for good. Someone who expanded their mind, as Chamorro expanded mine–not for money, or fame, just because she believed it was her mission, her task as a public figure.

Thank you, Paloma Chamorro. May you be long remembered.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

READING DRAMA (AND CONSIDERING DIALOGUE IN FICTION)

Today I begin from ignorance so profound that I have started by learning a concept I didn’t know: the ‘dialogue novel’. This should be familiar to me, as I read as a young girl in secondary school its main Spanish incarnation: Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina (1499), a tragic story entirely told through dialogue. I never heard my marvellous teacher at the time, droll Ana Oltra, call it a ‘dialogue novel’, just a very odd novel. I do recall, however, brainy critical discussions later in university about whether La Celestina was, despite its extension, some kind of closet play, that is, drama never intended to be performed–like John Milton’s unmanageable (for me) Samson Agonistes or Goethe’s Faustus (though this was later performed). The ‘dialogue novel’, by the way, is alive and kicking, judging from the article you may find here (http://therumpus.net/2014/08/the-dialogue-novel/), with examples such as Dave Eggers’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live For Ever?. It takes all kinds!

‘Dialogue novel’ is a label I have come across for the first time while doing a basic MLA search about novels and dialogue, hoping to find academic work examining the dramatic foundation of novels. I have found 65 items with recent titles such as “The Evolution of Dialogues: A Quantitative Study of Russian Novels (1830–1900)” or “Metaphors and Marriage Plots: Jane Eyre, The Egoist, and Metaphoric Dialogue in the Victorian Novel”. I have had to go much further back in time, however, to find the kind of analysis I was looking for. This is the focus of a 1995 PhD dissertation, Speaking Volumes: The Scene of Dialogue in the Novel, and even much further back, a 1971 article called “Some Considerations on Authorial Intrusion and Dialogue in Fielding’s Plays and Novels”. Also, a totally ancient piece of academic work, the 1962 monograph, Jane Austen’s Novels: The Fabric of Dialogue.

What am I looking for? Evidence of the links between dialogue in plays and in fiction. I recall reading as an undergrad student that whereas Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela (1740) set the foundations for the psychological exploration of character in fiction, Henry Fielding’s novels are responsible for the later habitual use of dialogue as a narrative tool which is also fundamental in characterization. I assume that this is what “Some Considerations on Authorial Intrusion and Dialogue in Fielding’s Plays and Novels” deals with. Fielding, a judge by profession, was a playwright in his youth, before the 1737 censorship act made it too hard for his satirical stage work to continue. He took then to practicing law and writing novels, precisely because he was mightily annoyed by Richardson’s pious Pamela (he responded with something very naughty and witty called Shamela in 1741). Today, Fielding is mainly recalled for having published Tom Jones (1749) and for being a major influence on Jane Austen–she of the vivid dialogue.

I’m not doing any research on this topic but I’ve been mulling about the links between dramatic action in plays and novels since the very successful bilingual Catalan novelist Care Santos (now a Premi Nadal winner) told me over lunch that she had recently taken a course on play writing to improve her novels. This intrigues me. Also, I’m tutoring an MA dissertation on English playwright Martin Crimp and I’ve read this weekend a volume with half a dozen of his plays, including the one my student has chosen, the excellent In the Republic of Happiness. And, so, I’m going back to a question I asked myself as an undergrad and for which I seem to find no answers: how do we hear the voices when we read dialogue (both in drama and in fiction)?

The abstract of Susan Ferguson’s Speaking Volumes: The Scene of Dialogue in the Novel claims that her kind of research was not popular then, the mid-1990s, even though she makes a point of calling it necessary. Her third chapter “considers the issue of reception–most often hearing in the scene of dialogue–and looks at how representations of reception within the fictional world and within the narrative scene suggest different acts of reading”. Sadly, I have no time to read now about all this for I am pursuing very different lines of research. There are moments, however, when I miss all the empiricist research that was done before post-structuralist theory swept us off our feet as literary critics, perhaps off our better sense.

I hope to meet Care soon and will certainly take the chance to interrogate her about how a novelist approaches the writing of scenes, for we tend to forget that novels are very often structured around scenes and dramatic action. In the meantime I am still processing the impact of Crimp’s plays and trying to understand the force with which he makes dialogue clearly audible in my head. Although I love drama and try to teach contemporary British theatre now and then, I am by no means a specialist. Not even a frequent reader of plays, for which I’m really sorry as I always have a great time activating my mental theatre.

In the Republic of Happiness has three acts. The first one is, shall we say?, more conventional, since it presents a middle-class family on the brink of impending dissolution. Crimp’s dialogue in tense and terse, as befits an heir of the late Harold Pinter, the playwright who turned the claim that language is useless for communication into an amazingly productive stage and screen career (he was a Nobel Prize winner). Pinteresque is the adjective that defines his personal dramatic brand, just as Beckettian defines Samuel Beckett’s no less personal absurdist brand, another major influence on Crimp. He does not have yet his own adjective (Crimpian?) but he could very well soon generate it, seeing how he remains a major name of English stage since his successful Attempts on her Life (1997).

Anyway, the point I am trying to reach is the second act of Republic, which is articulated as post-dramatic theatre. In this act, eight voices, which are most emphatically not characters and that can be embodied by any of the actors in the play, present Crimp’s collection of very negative judgements on the harsh individualism of present-day life. As any one interested in contemporary theatre knows, post-dramatic theatre authors leave in the hands of directors many necessary decisions about how to stage their texts. This is a huge challenge, which grows even larger for readers as hearing disembodied voices is very, very difficult. My student tried to find on YouTube images to help him understand how Crimp’s play had been staged but found nothing. Theatre companies appear to be so jealous of their work that they live in practice in a pre-21st century neverland, set apart from social networks and, indeed, YouTube.

Crimp’s post-dramatic voices sounded loud and clear in my head but, to be completely honest, I have no idea why. I am also puzzled about what exactly my student has heard in his own reading, considering that he has a high command of English but is not an English Studies specialist. Believe me, I am really puzzled by the whole experience, even though in the two elective courses on British drama I have taught we already did go through the perplexing process of reading post-drama (Tim Crouch’s The Author was very hard to tackle, also great fun).

What is bothering me most this time with Crimp is that it is the first time I feel a gap between fictional and stage dialogue. Silly me, since the first crack in this gap was most likely opened with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot sixty-odd years ago. Still, there you have recognizable characters in the quirky Vladimir and Estragon, whereas in Crimp and the rest of post-dramatic authors you only have, I insist, disembodied voices. This is quite an oxymoron when you think that plays are texts written for performance by a necessarily embodied actor. Perhaps my complaint about the progressive disappearance of description from characterization in fiction is announcing also a post-dramatic turn in novels. Or perhaps I’m simply not familiar with the novels by Beckett which, most likely, are all like that… But, then, just as I tend to supply the missing descriptions in fiction with the bodies and faces of actors, I’m beginning to think that readers of post-dramatic theatre possibly supply the lack of bodies, and of directions about casting, with voices recalled from other plays, films, TV and even novels. We cannot simply read dialogue as a mute assembly of signs on paper, can we?

So, here’s the question: if I say that I enjoy Crimp’s plays, do I really mean that I love not his own voices but the voices I perform in my own head, prompted by his dialogue? Some question… In comparison, dialogue in novels seems quite functional and uncomplicated…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

THE BOOMERANG EFFECT: WHY MARKING IS SO EXHAUSTING

I’m writing this after a serious bout of marking post-grad essays today, lasting for about seven hours (with email messages in between). This means that I’m going probably to sound quite incoherent, as I’m exhausted. At the same time, I feel like letting off some steam by writing and, besides, this post is a bit overdue. So here we go.

April is not the cruellest month, as the poet claimed. The cruellest months are January and June, the time when piles of exercises to mark and grade replace classroom teaching. My workload is relatively small but even so it takes up long stretches of these two months because I’m the kind of teacher that corrects everything that can be possibly wrong, down to the last comma. I blame this on some kind of uncontrolled compulsion or TOC. Also, on my habit of marking all I can on the computer, as I hate carrying home printed work. Handwritten exams are also a complete nightmare to me, with all that undecipherable text and my increasing inability to write a legible hand myself…

Computer marking, as I was saying, is preferable to me but, then, I tend to pepper students’ exercises not only with corrections and revisions but also with lots of notes. I can’t help it… I’ve never been the kind of teacher that takes a quick look and emits a verdict for, among other things, I believe that notes and corrections help me very much when students request a review. Nothing more embarrassing than not knowing at first sight why you have failed someone… Oops!

Although it might seem that marking exercises is a repetitive exercise with no great novelties from one semester to the next one, I find that each semester is coloured by a particular note. Or notes. So let me share with you what’s on my mind, and see if we’re perceiving the same peculiarities and problems. I’m marking work by undergrad and postgrad students and this will help me to cover a lot of ground at once.

First my undergrad class, Victorian Literature, a second-year course. This semester the pattern for the final marks is as follows: a very small number of both A and D students, and a large number of C and C+ students. Hardly any Bs, much less B+. This is the same in our three groups.

Now let me add that the main task in this course is the writing of a basic academic paper, the first ever produced by our students. This amounts to 50% of the final mark (10% the proposal, 40% the paper itself). Since students are performing better in the exams, many more than we wished for have managed to pass the subject despite failing the paper. In my class, 30% of students have failed the paper, which means that they have not acquired fundamental skills despite passing. Raising the value of the paper to 60% seems extreme, but perhaps we should consider this…

Both in the case of the exams and of the paper, most students could have earned a B or B+ grade, if only they had planned their semester better and had paid attention to exercise instructions. And here’s the keynote for this semester: although I am convinced that all my/our students are bright enough they often trip themselves up by failing to check and/or understand what is required of them.

In the case of the first exam (which they were allowed to take home and prepare in advance) 25% failed to see that the questions referred to an article they were supposed to take into account. They failed simply because they didn’t even mention the article – I wonder why, as this was the whole point of allowing them to prepare the exam with plenty of time.

The case of the paper is even more severe… We have developed so far the following documentation:
a) a guide to writing abstracts
b) a guide to writing basic academic papers
c) a template to submit the paper proposal
d) a template to submit the paper itself
e) a sample paper
I’m possibly forgetting some item. To my horror and consternation, the student delegate for the second year complained in our last Department meeting that students do not receive enough information about what they need to do. I’m really baffled…

Among the errors due to this constant lack of attention to instructions, we found that even though we provide templates for the paper proposal and for the paper to ease edition, students systematically alter the templates or neglect the instructions. I have no idea how and why page numbers have disappeared, Times New Roman has become Calibri, nor why abstracts are missing the narrower lateral margins.

Even worse: my students claim to know, of course, that book and journal titles should be in italics – why then do I waste so much time correcting this? Worse even: we had to grade with a 0 paper proposals which neglected to include passages from the primary and the secondary sources, although that was clearly indicated in the template. The instruction to use at least quotations from three secondary sources in the paper is also a source of constant wrangling with my students: for mysterious reasons, many use only two. Or forget altogether to include any, even though this is one of the major skills the exercise teaches.

There are moments when I feel that there is some kind of secret tug-of-war going on: you say tomato, I say potato… something of that sort. Believe me: after adding italics to 45 papers, any teacher would be out of sorts. Hence my Harry Potter-style howlers, as I call the notes I write in capital letters (BOOK TITLES MUST BE IN ITALICS –THIS IS BASIC!!!)

Postrad exercises present their own challenges and can be even more frustrating. After all, poor things, my second-year students are new to argumentative academic papers. Yet, what is the excuse of the postgrad students to make very similar mistakes? This year, I have started using templates with them, to no avail – the italics are missing, the abstract awry, the bibliography incorrectly edited… And a classic: the quotations are thrown into the text with no connective tissue linking them to the main text, whether this is a colon or a phrase (‘As Smith claims…’).

What is exhausting in the case of the MA is not so much marking the papers but getting them under way. I never allow students to hand in a paper without a previous proposal, consisting of provisional title, abstract and bibliography, and this is where many postgrad students still face many difficulties. If they come from our Department, at least we can argue that, for shame, they know how to write an abstract since… Victorian Literature. But if they come from other Departments or even schools, that might not always be the case. This means that I find myself teaching in the MA academic techniques I’m also teaching to undergrads…

The main problem in all cases, whether under- or postgrad, which conditions in its turn the success of the paper is the student’s difficulties to formulate a thesis statement. In the Spanish tradition, the argumentative essay is a rarity and academic works tends to be rather descriptive, often covering all possible ground in relation to a text, rather than focus on a central idea. This means that my students are often perplexed by my insistence that they must have a thesis.

Here’s an interesting example: a student who wishes to write her paper about Walter White, the villain in Breaking Bad, submitted recently an abstract beset by the typical problem: it announced her intention to study this TV series but not her thesis. She came for a tutorial and, as it often happens, the moment she answered my question (why are you interested in White?), the complete abstract, thesis included, materialized. Much to her surprise. In contrast, the papers I have failed today suffered from this central problem: they lacked a thesis, and without a main argument you cannot write an argumentative essay.

So, why is marking so exhausting and grading so frustrating? Easy: this is when you realize that students are not paying enough attention to your instructions. If this because they don’t understand them, then the question that comes to my mind is ‘why didn’t you check with me?’. If this because they don’t care, then the question is ‘why are you wasting my precious time?’ Sharp and sour.

When you throw a boomerang with the right skill, it comes back to you. I feel that teaching is like throwing a boomerang. In the best cases, it returns to you loaded with wonderful gifts (I awarded a girl student a 10 because I found myself in dialogue with her paper, not just marking it). In the worst cases, the returned boomerang hits you smack in the face–yes, it feels like an insult, like being shouted “I don’t care and you won’t make me care!”

In the end the message to students who will not follow instructions because they do not care is that they only hurt themselves. I will never understand why, given the chance to do well for your own benefit, people choose to underperform willingly. A complete mystery to me…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

HEARING VOICES (IN ROGUE ONE): WHY DUBBING SHOULD BE ABANDONED

The debate on the need to maintain dubbing for audiovisual media in Spain is old and tiresome. I’m probably preaching to the converted here but I’d like to contribute (or stress) arguments which are not often considered. Funnily, the inspiration for both lines of thought comes from recent articles on Rogue One, the exciting prequel to Stars Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (or plain Star Wars, as it was once called).

One of the film’s stars, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, declared in a recent interview that he doesn’t much relish hearing himself dubbed. After joking that perhaps the diverse dubbing actors may have improved his performance, he stated that he’d rather films were not dubbed (see in Spanish, http://metropoli.elmundo.es/cine/2016/12/15/58526f8ae5fdeab0528b458c.html).

As far as I can recall, whenever Spanish journalists asks foreign actors how they feel about dubbing, they expect said actors to answer politely that they respect very much the work of dubbing actors. Mikkelsen’s discordant answer, though still polite, suggests that it is about time we hear actors express an opinion. Although Mikkelsen did not expand on his, it follows that actors, who use their voices as much as their bodies to act, must profoundly dislike having that crucial part of their performance erased. Try to imagine for a second what it would be like to keep the original voice and replace the bodily appearance and you’ll get an idea of how gross what we do using dubbing is.

Another Rogue One star, Mexican Diego Luna, recently declared in his Twitter account that he felt “emotional” when reading a certain Tumblr post (which quickly went viral). In this post an American girl using the nick ‘riveralwaysknew’ narrated her experience of taking her Mexican immigrant father to see Rogue One (see the complete post at, for instance, http://nextshark.com/star-wars-fan-riveraalwaysknew-expresses-how-diego-lunas-character-in-rogue-one-impacted-her-mexican-father/).

“I wanted”, she wrote “my Mexican father, with his thick Mexican accent, to experience what it was like to see a hero in a blockbuster film, speak the way he does.” The father was, like many other spectators including myself, much surprised by Luna’s “heavy accent”. The daughter explained to her puzzled dad that indeed, Rogue One is extremely popular, and that Luna refuses to alter his accent because he’s proud of it. After mulling this over, the father declared himself very happy: “As we drove home he started telling me about other Mexican actors that he thinks should be in movies in America. Representation matters.” Now, in the version dubbed into Spanish for release in Spain, Luna has no Mexican accent–just the standard Castilian accent generally used in dubbing, with few exceptions. So much for representation.

Here, then, are my two main points against dubbing: 1) it is disrespectful of the actors’ work, 2) it erases accent, which is essential in performance.

Before I continue let me present briefly the situation in Spain (you might like to take a peak at my article ““Major Films and Minor Languages: Catalan Speakers and the War over Dubbing Hollywood Films”, available also in Spanish from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/136984). Dubbing was originally introduced by Hollywood studios (specifically Paramount) in 1929 as a strategy to end the cumbersome use of subtitles (useless for illiterate audiences) and the expensive practice of shooting different versions of the same film, one for each language. In Spain dubbing was introduced in Republican times (1931-6), precisely because most Spaniards were illiterate; also to ease the censor’s role.

A legal order of 1945 made dubbing into Spanish Castilian compulsory for all foreign films, forbidding in addition subtitling and dubbing into any other Spanish language (Catalan, Basque, Galician). Subtitling would only return in the 1950s for art-house films. Spanish TV, inaugurated in 1956, simply copied the practice habitual in cinemas, extending it to TV series. The 1945 decree, issued by Dictator Francisco Franco, went, then, much further than the Republic’s timid application of censorship to foreign films, turning dubbing into an instrument of nationalist linguistic cohesion (in imitation of the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany).

Ironically, in the same period the Portuguese Dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (1932-68, though his regime lasted until 1974), decided to do the opposite: forbid dubbing, hoping thus that the illiterate Portuguese spectators would shun foreign films, then only accessible through subtitles. Dubbing is still limited today in Portugal to films for children as, logically, they have difficulties to follow subtitles. In Finland, where they follow the same practice, they assume that by the age of 7 children are already literate enough to read subtitles.

For here’s the question: in Spain we are very reluctant to abandoning dubbing simply because most people are very poor readers and have serious difficulties to keep up with the pace of subtitles. Incidentally, if the demand for subtitles were bigger, I assume the quality of translation (often questionable) would also improve.

Whenever dubbing is discussed in Spain, however, the problem of literacy is set aside. Instead, we usually the issue of how little English we command, as if dubbing only affects films originally in that language. Thus, many who prefer dubbing claim that a) you don’t learn languages by seeing films in original version (see how much Japanese you can learn this way…), b) our dubbing actors are wonderful and so is our dubbing technique (I agree), c) cinemas’ revenue would fall even further if dubbing was suppressed, d) technology already allows most consumers to choose the version they prefer (which is true for TV or DVD but not for cinema).

I find dubbing simply barbaric, akin to smearing another layer of colour on another person’s paintings or chipping off bits of sculpture that one doesn’t like. Translation of print texts is bad enough but a sort of inevitable evil. In audiovisual products, however, translation can be easily pushed to the margins with the use of subtitles, respecting in this way the integrity of the actors’ work. I see all films and series in their original version, regardless of the language, and putting all my trust into the persons who translate subtitles. I may not understand a single word of Japanese beyond ‘arigato’ and ‘hai’ but I’d much rather hear the original voices.

These foreign voices come enshrouded in linguistic fog which, of course, fades away the better you know the language. A film in German, French or Italian is less opaque than one in Japanese, whereas a film in English is far more accessible. Not always, of course–we all have the experience of using subtitles to follow English-language products. The accent of Baltimore gangsters in The Wire is hard even for persons with PhDs in English Literature, and so is the working-class Leith brogue used in Trainspotting. We tend to forget about Spanish itself: I needed subtitles to follow the Argentinean film Nueve reinas, and I have abandoned recently a couple of films from Venezuela which I simply could not follow (they had no subtitles).

To sum up: the point of suppressing dubbing is not learning other languages (this is an extra bonus) but respecting the actors’ work. To get a glimpse of how hard they struggle with accent, see the video in which dialogue coach Erik Singer generously reviews an impressive collection of accented film performances: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvDvESEXcgE

Whenever one mentions accent in films outside a university Department, eyebrows are quickly raised. Just picture your average Spaniard and you’ll see him/her struggling with the concept of accent in foreign films. You cannot give an approximate rendition of accent in dubbed versions, as this sounds ridiculous and, so, accent simply does not exist for the average Spanish film goer (even film lover). There is also the matter of voices: as everyone knows, often the same Spanish actor dubs several foreign actors – Ramón Langa lends his voice to both Bruce Willis and Kevin Costner, among many, many others (see http://www.eldoblaje.com/datos/Fichaactordoblaje.asp?Id=127). This means that dubbing also results in a ridiculously homogeneous panorama, with a few voices replacing the multiplicity that makes international cinema so rich.

Let me get back to Mikkelsen and Luna (and Rogue One). You can hear Mikkelsen express himself in his native Danish language in the disturbing Jagten (The Hunt, 2012) or play an American character in Hannibal (2013-15). In this second case, although we here in Spain missed the issue completely, he was criticized by American audiences for playing Lecter with a thick non-American accent (some spectators claimed that this was fine, as Lecter is originally a Lithuanian). This is an interesting conflict which even extends to English native speakers (was the American accent of British actor Hugh Laurie in House good enough?).

I’d say that Mikkelsen’s Galen Erso in Rogue One also speaks English with a Danish accent. Actually, very few American voices are heard in that English-language film, though I have not come across any negative comments from American audiences–rather, praise for the film’s international casting choices. I’m sure that in Denmark they feel happy to see Mikkelsen play in such a big film (and such a heroic role!) but his presence is not as heavily loaded with representation issues as Luna’s. Mexican actress Selma Hayek was seemingly told that she could not play the main role in Mexican director’s Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity because nobody in the audience would believe in a Mexican astronaut. Instead, producers chose bland all-American star Sandra Bullock (yes, I know that Hayek is also from America–the continent). Rogue One’s multi-accented cast may have been selected to please a wide-ranging international audience but the case is that Luna’s heavy Mexican accent is a breath of fresh air… in the galaxy.

Except in Spain, where dubbing sounds a bit like the echo of Darth Vader’s Empire… or just Franco’s regime. Now, come join the rebellion…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

SEEKING NEW READING PROJECTS: A NEW YEAR’S ANTI-RESOLUTION

Both public media and private persons engage these days in the twin exercises of celebrating the best books published last year and of announcing novelties, wishes and resolutions for the new reading year. Both exercises are quite tedious.

Each year, when December comes and I read the endless lists of all I have missed in the previous twelve months, I despair. I will never ever catch up. I feel condemned to always staying behind (with the only comfort of thus saving myself many overhyped books). Perhaps I should attribute this to my wilfully ignoring the lists of novelties, already abundant for 2017, as they make me feel somehow manipulated by interested parties that want me to read this but not that.

As for the wishes and resolutions, it’s always the same: when I go through the list of all I have read in the just defunct year, I always promise myself to read a) books from a bigger variety of languages (German novels, anyone??), b) books from a bigger variety of genres (where’s the poetry??!! why so many novels??!!). I have indeed started 2017 with a French novel, Submission by Michel Houellebecq. I’m sorry to say, though, that I have already abandoned it half-way through, sick and tired of the main character’s monstrous selfishness and chauvinism… My new year’s resolution, then, is to avoid forming any resolution as to my reading. I’m thinking, rather, of finding reading experiences that might enrich my life.

My brother-in-law has suggested a definitely enticing reading experience which he himself has gone through in the last 18 months: reading the 46 volumes of the Episodios nacionales by Benito Pérez Galdós. I certainly look forward to doing that after using a great deal of my time this past 2016 to the wonderful reading experience of devouring the 20 volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (a bit spoiled by the disappointing last two volumes). My other project, by the way, was reading more books by Manuel de Pedrolo: I finally managed 9, and I don’t think this is over. Pedrolo has an 11-volume-series, Temps obert, a beacon sending distress calls for new readers to find it, if I have seen one.

A ‘reading experience’, then, is not at all like a new year’s resolution but, rather, a project to enhance and brighten your reading life. It is not about filling in gaps (I should have read many more Russian novels by now), or about unfulfilled obligations (I should read all those other plays by Shakespeare). Above all, a ‘reading project’ (or experience) is about freeing oneself from the weight of novelty, which is flooding us with a stream of books without teaching us how to navigate our way into the books of the past. And I don’t mean by this the classics, which are always available, but the books I’ll label ‘how-come-I-have-never-heard-of-this-beauty?’.

Also, contradicting myself, a reading project/experience is not something one may recommend to another person but something a reader chooses. If I end up reading the Episodios nacionales, as I think I will, this is because I am already interested and not because my brother-in-law has brought Galdós to my attention. Actually, I had already downloaded the first 10 books… Now is the time.

Most likely, if you’re serious about your reading, your whole life constitutes a reading project. I am not distinguishing here between readers who prefer the classics and the most literary genres and varieties of fiction but, rather, between self-aware and casual readers.

The self-aware reader is, like the god Janus, two-faced for s/he looks forward to a future of constant novelty but also backwards in case s/he’s missed something of (personal) interest. This is the kind that, if they enjoy a particular genre, will learn all about it, whether this is science fiction or 19th century romance. Self-aware readers keep reading lists, sheepishly notice glaring gaps in them, and see their whole life in terms of what they have already read and what they might read until the day they die. I know, I’m one of these obsessive weirdos. Casual readers, in contrast, are just pleased to read whatever is fashionable. They make little effort to remember titles and authors’ names, or to give their reading any kind of coherence, even when they really like particular authors and/or genres. They do not obsess and would not put themselves through the trouble of devising reading projects.

By coherence I don’t mean that a reader should contemplate reading as a study course for life. No. You might want to do that, naturally, but I will insist that there is a marked difference between setting yourself the task of reading the most representative Restoration comedies of the late 17th century and engaging in the project of reading them just because you fancy the experience: study is one thing, reading for pleasure is another (though, needless to say, studying can be a pleasure). The whole idea behind the ‘reading project’ is basic reading pleasure, if, that is, pleasure can be said to be an idea.

I don’t know what happens to students as readers once they leave our university classrooms but I would like to think that they become self-aware readers perpetually involved in attractive reading projects and experiences. Of any kind, from the single-volume (so, finally I have time to read Ulysses…) to the multi-volume adventure (and now I’ll read all the James Bond novels). For, and here is the question, a reading project/experience needs not be a gigantic undertaking but one of those long-delayed wishes that finally finds gratification. What I found when finally reading War and Peace or, if you want a much shorter text, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

I am gradually realising that a reading project is possibly connected with something you have already heard of. At least, many of my reading projects seem to have been around for decades, some from the time I was an undergrad student, 30 years ago. Very naïvely, I started at 18 a reading ‘wish list’ which, very wisely, I eventually abandoned. Even though I am the kind of person who is constantly making lists of things to see and do (and shop), reading lists are no use–ironically, they seem to inspire in me an urge to read totally at random and be as anarchic as a punk. What I do in these cases, is visit a library or bookshop and see what falls into my hands, often with amazingly serendipitous results.

I am beginning to think, as I write, whether an academic career is nothing but a massive reading project. Thinking back to when I was an undergrad, my reading project was all of English Literature, beginning with the canon. As a postgrad student, genre fiction because my dominant reading project, first gothic, then (still) science fiction. I confess that while reading the Aubrey-Maturin series, I felt a bit uneasy about whether I was somehow stepping out of my chosen project to read as much SF as possible until a) I decided to write something on the series, b) I found out that many other SF readers love O’Brian (what’s a spaceship, after all, but a ship in space?). Funnily, the series is the result of O’Brian’s own reading project, focused on the English Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

Obsessive readers seemingly go well with obsessive writers… And what are academics if not readers that have made an obsession into a professional career? The obnoxious protagonist of the novel by Houellebecq that I have abandoned, a French Literature lecturer, claims that the teaching of Literature at university level has no use whatsoever except train other teachers at a failure rate of 95%. He’s wrong. Teaching Literature is what we, compulsive readers, have invented to vent our obsession with our personal reading projects. Elective subjects are the clearest expression of this, an alibi to obsess before an audience.

And, so, what reading experience are you looking forward for the immediate future? (No… it’s not a new year’s resolution. It’s an anti-resolution).

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.