Lost in translation: when Disney lyrics turn Italian

Frozen, Aladdin and The Lion King take on a slightly different feel when their lyrics move from English to Italian...

Sometimes life can be depressing. Sometimes life can be distressing. Sometimes life can be an upsetting lot of hard struggle and you feel helpless, lost and lonely. We need an escape from the pain and heartache. We need something that provides solace, hope and uplifting brightness. We need a remedy that’ll make us smile again.

What we need is a Walt Disney Animated Studios movie and we need to hear (and sing-along to) those timeless tunes that raise our spirits and make us feel alright again. Actually, they make us feel awesome and able to overcome all the villains and trials in our way. Play one and it’ll do magic, believe it or not (erm, “bibidi-bobidi-boo!”).

They are the simple bare necessities that help you forget about your worries and your strife. They are the motivational “Hi Ho!” calls when you’re a bit pitiful and have work to push on with. For children and grown-up children alike, those timeless numbers can act as a melodious touchstone to good times, childhood, positivity and/or the true human values that underpin our existence.

But what if you suddenly found that the songs you know and love (and possibly need as an emergency fixer-upper) were altered in some way? What if you found yourself watching a Disney flick but the familiar lyrics were unexpectedly unfamiliar and alienating? How would you feel about such a topsy turvy state of affairs, and could you cope?

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To provide some context and explanation, I have recently experienced this myself. Earlier this year I jaunted off to Italy to teach English to school children and visit some friends. (I’ve been over there to work as an English teacher numerous times and consequently have made friends with several families who keep on inviting me back because they are lovely people from a lovely country.)

Unsurprisingly, Disney movies are really popular with Italian families just as they are popular with families all around the globe. One evening when I was staying with one such lovely Italian family it came time to stick on a DVD. I agreed with the 5-year-old of the family that The Lion King (a.k.a. Il Re Leone) was a good choice and it was also agreed that the language setting would be Italian with English subtitles. This would turn out to be very important.

We settled down together and the ’94 vintage masterpiece (it’s Disney’s Hamlet, y’know) began with the shot of a hazy savannah sunrise and the sound of a man howling “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba! Sithi uhm ingonyama.” (In Zulu, that means “Here comes a lion, father. Oh yes, it’s a lion.”)

The creatures of the Pride Lands all wake, rise up towards the dawn light and commence their journey towards Pride Rock in what is a majestic opening salvo. They are travelling to behold the newborn prince Simba, and as they move the traditional African chants fade into the background and the ‘song proper’ starts.

Of course, this being an Italian dub the voice was different and the words weren’t the same. I speak some Italian and, though it’s not great, I know enough to get by and not die, make conversation and identify when something is afoot (or a-paw). Likewise, vice-versa for the mother in this household, and as we gradually realised that the sung Italian and the English in the subtitles were not corresponding exactly we turned to face each other, frowning.

“É completamente diverso!” I cried, and that means “It’s completely different!” And it was. The lyrics that Tim Rice wrote to accompany Elton John’s music were altered, quite significantly. Take the soaring chorus, for instance – “It’s the Circle of Life” translated to “It’s a carousel that goes, this life”. In my mind and soul, the ‘Circle of Life’ image is a highly spiritual and holistic one. Say ‘carousel’ though, and I think of Mary Poppins and Bert on a jolly jape in the Chalk Painting Dimension, the dystopian euthanasia ritual in Logan’s Run or an awful Rogers & Hammerstein musical about clambakes and domestic abuse.

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The Lion King (erm, Il Re Leone) rolled on and I became evermore perturbed – perhaps unreasonably – at the fact that it wasn’t an exact, literal translation from English. Inevitably, in the shift from the original language I missed some classic vocal performances (no James Earl Jones or Jeremy Irons!) and the witty wordplay was, likewise, lost to oblivion.

When I Just Can’t Wait to be King came around I mourned the absence of the pun-derful line “I’m gonna be the mane event” – its Italian equivalent, “I’ll be the scoop of the century”. With so much meaning, nuance and creative style not crossing over, I came to feel that foreign audiences are getting a duller picture than English-speaking viewers and this is probably the case for the majority of films in the majority of languages.

I didn’t make it to the end of The Lion King because I was tired and opted for an early night. I bowed out before the trauma of Mustafa’s death scene, hoping that sleep would ease all the confusion and cognitive dissonance that was addling my surprised brain.

Peace wouldn’t come though, for the next evening the extended family came around and we all had pizza. (That’s the nice part. You can stop reading now and pretend that everyone ate pizza and lived happily ever if you want. In fact, to make it a perfect Disney ending, I married the Princess and we all sang a song and it was not distorted or oddly re-arranged in any way.)

After pizza the children stuck on Frozen (a.k.a. Frozen – Il Regno di Ghiaccio or The Kingdom of Ice) for what was probably the thousandth time. When I eventually entered the lounge – I’d been socialising with the adults and avoiding more dub-disharmony – I stumbled in on “Let It Go.” Even though there were no English subtitles this time, I could tell that this was a similar scenario to The Lion King the night before.

Instead of “Let it go! Let it go!” I heard “Io lo so! Sí lo so!” which means “I know! Yes I know!” I ran away from the situation but vowed to investigate further at a later date when I was back in Britain – a land where foreign films are most often subtitled as opposed to dubbed.

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I really like subtitles – for both foreign-language and English-language movies, as a matter of fact – and don’t dig dubbing. I’m willing to make an exception if a Studio Ghibli film has been re-recorded with care and it’s true that dubbing is part of the charm of retro chopsocky and spaghetti westerns. Otherwise, the practice leaves me cold but I know that’s not the case for most people in territories where English isn’t the mother tongue.

Accepting that then, I’m left to try and reconcile myself to the fact that great original screenwriting may get a bit mauled and mutilated in translation, but it’s the music that leaves me really blue. For the sake of making rhymes, I fear the lyrical genius – so many moving metaphors, fantastical figures of speech, touching turns of phrase, wondrous bits of wit – may be sacrificed. In the magical and sacred realm of the Disney musicals, this thought is even more disconcerting.

As I say, I sought to delve into these dubbed mysteries to see just how different Disney classics end up when translated into Italian. The same undoubtedly occurs in all languages, from Arabic to Zulu, but I figured that I’d stick with a tongue and culture I’m familiar with for this brief unacademic study. (I’m using amateur uploads to YouTube and Google Translate for assistance.)

Here are three sample cases studies – infamous and much-loved Disney tunes of relatively recent vintage (well, my lifetime) – to illustrate just how unusual things can become when the words and voices you know and love are substituted for something that sounds strangely foreign…

Aladdin – A Whole New World becomes Il Mondo è mio (The World is Mine)

Possibly Disney’s finest romantic duet and the vital narrative turning point in the studio’s own Arabian Nights tale, “A Whole New World” is something very special. Truly, Alan Menken’s music conjures up the sensations and “indescribable feeling” of a magic carpet ride that’s “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling through an endless diamond sky”. It’s Tim Rice’s lyrical genius, however, that makes it really fly and rightly earned it the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Still, awards don’t mean much but feelings mean everything, and A Whole New World is beautiful because it expresses the pure, blissful realisation of love better than any Disney song (so this writer believes). Aladdin (in disguise as Prince Ali) may try to charm Princess Jasmine with his charisma and his supernatural rug but in this moment it’s his passionate, giving spirit that wins her over. The ‘Whole New World’ of the title is both the entire planet beyond the gilded cage of the palace and the state of being in love. It’s a song about many things – listening to and following your heart; sharing a wondrous adventure with someone else; the experience of opening up to love and embracing the sensation. Truly, it’s a poetic and profound masterpiece.

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In the Italian dub, it’s abysmal. For a start, a lot of the new lines fit awkwardly and are too long for easy synchronisation with Menken’s music. The words that so wonderfully evoke the adventure – both the sensual experience of the magic carpet ride and the soulful experience of falling in love – are substituted for leaden lexis that doesn’t really mean much. As for the overall meaning, where the original English version is experiential and awestruck, the Italian translation is all about possession. Basically, Aladdin sings “the World is yours” and Jasmine comes to respond with “the World is mine”, which sounds pretty arrogant and self-entitled coming from the mouth of a privileged Princess.

She makes a concession at the end as the pair sing “the World is ours” but the damage is already done. Jasmine’s delight is superficial, Aladdin’s gestures aren’t backed up with deep sentiment and the song says very little whereas the original version says everything and stirs up indescribable feelings with such stylish and moving aplomb. I’m utterly appalled and am now using the despoiled magic carpet to dry my tears.

Hercules – Go the Distance becomes Ce la posso fare (I Can Do It)

It twists Greek mythology all out of shape and makes it child-friendly, but Hercules is a winner thanks to its humour and irresistible music. “Go the Distance” is one of Disney’s great anthems/motivational mantras for all aspiring athletes and deities. Written by lyricist David Zippel and that man Menken again, the song and its reprise together function as empowering plot-propellers in the film.

Our scrawny adolescent hero puts out a heartfelt plea to the Gods, has a chat with his daddy (the Statue of Zeus coming to jovial life) and receives his mission. No Twelve Labours for you, son! All that Hercules has to do to claim his divine status is become a “true hero” and from there he’s on his way, Roger Bart the vocalist belting out the upbeat aphorisms with courage and determined conviction.

Lyrically this ‘I want song’ speaks first of loneliness and the young outcast’s desire to fit in (“I’d go almost anywhere to find where I belong”). Post pow-wow with Zeus, the words take on an additional dimension and the ‘distance’ refers to trials and achievements as well as an emotional and physical distance. It’s a touching musical tribute to the archetypal hero’s journey, operating on a number of levels and different audiences can relate to its thematic depth in myriad ways.

Meanwhile in the Italian dub, Hercules is singing of the same things throughout though it feels more direct and less lyrical, as it were. The impression I’m left with is that the translated Herc is more like an earnestly ambitious kid with a limited vocabulary. For example, at the end of it all he literally comes around to say “I will fight everyone and everything and return to Olympus as a God.” That’s a bit of a bad translation but otherwise Ce la posso fare (I can do it!) does an okay job of expressing the determined desire to find a home, become a hero and fly (figuratively and literally on the back of Pegasus) in more simplistic terms.

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Furthermore, as bonus pop pickings, once you’ve finished with Alex Baroni’s Italian (his voice is a little shaky, but perhaps suited to the material) you may wish to get out your Zippo lighter and wave it along to Ricky Martin’s Spanish version or Michael Bolton’s English-language cover for the movie’s closing credits. Both are resolutely dull and diminish all the inherent epic-ness of the original.

Frozen – Let it Go becomes All’alba sorgerò (Dawn Will Rise)

This is the big one – the song that is the crux of the phenomenon; the song that has invaded all the kids’ birthday parties and driven the parents crazy; the song that Adele Dazeem performed at last year’s Oscars ceremony. Let It Go is the bittersweet powerhouse that is both a triumphant celebration of liberating self-acceptance and a saddening resignation to an alienated state of isolation.

Consider, for instance, the sharp double-edged meaning of the line “the cold never bothered me anyway” – Elsa is, in casting off personal shame and embracing the powers she has sought to repress (that’s good!) while simultaneously adopting a cold attitude and shunning the world around her (that’s bad! Especially bad when you are the Queen of Arendelle – a kingdom now iced over thanks to your frosty freak-outs).

Composed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the story goes that upon first hearing the future hit the filmmakers realised they’d have to rewrite the movie to make Elsa less of a villain. It is thus, paradoxically, both the frozen heart and the heart of the film and Idina Menzel sells it to us in supreme fashion while her on-screen equivalent builds an astounding crystalline Fortress of Solitude.

Over to the Italian take, and Serena Autieri’s version sounds wonderful because Italian is a beautiful language. In terms of content and meaning, it expresses Elsa’s change moment effectively but, as with Hercules, it’s expressed more plainly. Whereas the English lyrics relate to Elsa’s backstory and play with snow-related imagery the Italian dub is vaguer. I feel, once again, that the meaningful magic is lost in translation a little. Still, the fact that it doesn’t have a chorus refrain phrase (“Let It Gooooooo!”) is interesting, Elsa singing a different word that ends in ‘o’ each time.

So there you have it, and of course there are many more and they run the spectrum of ‘pretty accurate adaptation of the original English language’ to ‘Huh? What the Cruella De Vil happened here?’ It’s true that the translations into English might be crude and clunky and may not capture what in Italian is actually felt to be poetic – especially when it fits with the melodies and rhymes so well.

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Still, knowing the original lyrics it just doesn’t seem ‘right’ to my mind but there’s nothing I or you or any other English mother tongue Disney fan can do about this Babelfish botching. All we can do is let it go (though that’s not how it goes when translated into Italian).