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Arrivederci, Signor De Niro

Italians hate subtitles. So in Italy, the dubber is king. Anne Hanley reports
Italians, as a rule, are not big readers. Especially when the pesky text interferes with less demanding visual and aural pleasures. So, when the nation's 1,000-odd dubbers, responsible for translating 95 per cent of foreign films and almost all imported TV shows, went on strike for two months this summer, audiences feared that those pleasures were under threat.

As the strike dragged on, cans containing original-language copies of the autumn's blockbusters gathered dust on distributors' shelves. Stocks of dubbed versions of the nation's favourite soaps were dwindling fast. During the couple of days in September when dubbed instalments of TV favourites ran out, there was a curiosity-fuelled surge in viewing figures for undubbed soap operas. But no one was under any illusion that the fad would last.

In the event, viewer loyalty wasn't put to the test. No sooner had the stockpile been exhausted than the dubber army called off its strike and began recording crucial voice-overs at double-quick time. The Bold and the Beautiful resumed in bold and beautiful middle-Italian diction; Baywatch lifeguards took to the surf in the same. Meanwhile, in cinemas, the problem was solved by simply postponing opening dates to allow time to work through the backlog.

It would be an exaggeration to say that no Italian can stand subtitles. But not much. In France, sophisticated urban audiences would never dream of opting for the dubbed copies showing in the sticks. In Italy, versione originale is shunned by intellectual and bumpkin alike. The explanation is partly sociological (Italians favour the spoken over the written) and partly historical, with a dose of market forces.

Before the Second World War, the Fascist regime ensured that the few foreign films which made it across the border were dubbed, in order to exclude subversive sentiments. When US productions began to trickle into the country after 1945, it was by means of an alliance between captains of Italian merchant ships and out-of-work actors. US distributors tried to counter the semi-illicit spread of their products; but the results, hastily dubbed by Italian-Americans, were laughed out of cinemas by audiences.

Over the last 50 years, the visceral hatred of subtitles has created a $50m-a-year dubbing industry, staffed by professionals who view their trade as a mission: a re-interpretation of the Holy Word, maintaining - if not surpassing - the standard of the original. Luca Ward dubs Samuel L Jackson's film personae into Italian, and proudly recalled his first meeting with the American actor: "He said to me, 'I've seen my movies in Italian, and it certainly wasn't you who dubbed them. No way was that a white voice I heard.' "

"Our aim," explained Ward, "is to produce something that the directors and the actors whose voices we replace would be proud of. We are very specialised actors in our own right." It was to defend their unique expertise, he claimed, that Italy's voices fell silent over the summer, striking to obtain guarantees that the dubbing industry and distributors would not respond to an influx of foreign productions by demanding quicker, cheaper dubbing.

That, at least, is the dubber's side of the story. "Excellence?" said one exasperated spokesperson from an Italian distributor. "All they wanted was more money on top of the ridiculous fees they charge already." But, according to the voices, the cost of dubbing is nothing when you take into account the viewer loyalty which hinges on their work.

Luca Ward's grandfather was the voice of Jerry Lewis for a generation of Italians who would shudder at the real actor's squeaky tones. Robert De Niro is synonymous with dubber Ferruccio Amendola, as is Woody Allen with actor Oreste Lionello. Ward is also recognisable as both Pierce Brosnan and Hugh Grant. He is worried that, with tougher competition in the dubbing world, his roles may slip from his grasp, with dire consequences for audiences.

"The distributors simply don't pay enough to allow dubbing companies to worry overmuch about their choice of voice any more," he complained. "And this inevitably damages the relationship not only between audiences and us, but also between audiences and the actor whose voice we are dubbing."

The summer's strike brought a promise from dubbing companies and distributors to hammer out the first ever category-wide contract. The strike may also, however, have had the undesired side-effect of making audiences feel that a haphazardly dubbed copy, no matter whose voices it features, is a small price to pay to avoid the dreaded subtitle.