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The 41 Languages of Frozen

Aug 2014

Language ,

Since Frozen was released last November, it has gone on to become the fifth-highest grossing film of all time. It also took the top spot for highest-grossing animated film of all time, won two Oscars, five Annies and reduced millions around the world to tears

In short, it’s been pretty successful.

Of the $1.2 billion (£717 million) Frozen grossed around the world, a sizeable slice came from English-speaking parts of North America, the UK and Australia. However, more than half came from localised (translated) versions of the hit musical.

Frozen has been translated and dubbed into French, German, Dutch, Danish, Italian, Catalan, Cantonese, Thai, Bahasa Malaysia, Russian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Canadian French and, astoundingly, another 28 languages.

The film studio’s challenge was three fold: keep the original meaning, keep the original rhythm and find singers who could match Idina Menzel’s warm vocal tone and three-octave range. It was a mammoth challenge.

Frozen’s plot follows two sisters who grew up in a remote Scandinavian citadel. However, listening to them speak is much more New Jersey than Norrköping and that’s where one translation problem begins.

For example, at the prospect of meeting a handsome stranger at a party, Princess Anna confesses that she has to “stuff some chocolate in my face.” Translating is tricky. Translating vernacular harder. Accurately translating vernacular into 41 languages is almost impossible.

Frozen isn’t just translated though, it’s dubbed. Translators have to translate the meaning of the original line into a line of the same length. If the dub keeps playing two seconds after a character’s lips have stopped moving, it’s going to look ridiculous.

“When we did the show Avenue Q in Sweden we asked what was the Swedish word for ‘purpose’ — a word in almost every scene,” says co-creator of ‘Let It Go’, Robert Lopez. “The translator said a 16-syllable Swedish word. I just said, ‘OK, forget this, just do what you want to do.'”

Sometimes a direct translation simply won’t fit. Lopez explains it’s about stepping back and letting translators work out how to convey the underlying message of the original, if not the specific language.

The time restrictions are even tighter when you consider the songs of the musical. With dialogue there’s sometimes convenient empty acoustic space you can overflow into. With music that simply isn’t the case. One bar leads straight into the next. Thus one line has to finish before the next starts. There’s no breathing room and no room for error. A 16-syllable word is even less of an option here.

Finally, if that all doesn’t sound hard enough, Disney set themselves the challenge of doing it 41 times.

So proud of the result are Disney, that they recently released a polylingual version of ‘Let It Be.’ The linguistic mash-up boasts 25 languages, each leading the song for around five seconds.

And don’t think that this is a four minute clip show. As the song moves from language to language, there are no harsh lines. There’s no jarring auditory border between Catalan and Russian, no awkward transition from Dutch to Danish, and no linguistic crevice between Thai and Japanese.

The four minute song is frankly amazing. It’s a tribute to everyone who has worked on it, from songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to the army of translators and the troops of musicians to the 42 lead vocalists.

“We were trying to make the story work wherever audiences were,” says Lopez. ‘Let It Be’ is a triumph of language and Lopez can hold his head high knowing that they clearly they succeeded.

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