The Academy Awards and those who watch them from a booth.

February 24, 2014 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are just a few days away from that very American ceremony that the world has made its own turning it into an international event: The Academy Awards, or as it is better known: The Oscar.

There are very few broadcasts that depend more on the services of an interpreter than the Oscar ceremony. It is a fact that people will be watching, again, all over the world.  Although most of them do not speak a word of English they will have people over for food and drinks, perhaps will dress up for the occasion, and will tune in for the broadcast that will be simultaneously interpreted into their native language by a team of very skilled interpreters from a booth in Hollywood or from a TV studio somewhere else in the world. Because dear colleagues, not all interpreters will be lucky enough to be working from California; many of them will do their job from a small TV studio somewhere in their own countries where they will pick up the American feed and “pretend” that they are broadcasting from the site of the event.    The Oscar is also an important event to the interpreter community at large because let’s face it; in many countries we are part of that very small group of people who watch what Americans refer to as foreign language films (for the rest of the world: movies that are not in English) If you add the fact that a film in your own language, or even from your country, may be nominated for this coveted award, then you will have a most memorable night. But, what is the Oscar? Where did it get its nickname?

The Academy Award statuette was designed by an MGM art director named Cedric Gibbons and a sculptor named George Stanley in 1928.  At that time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences referred to it as the Academy Award of Merit. That was its original name.  It was in the 1930s that the trophy got its nickname: Oscar.  There are several tales on how the statuette came to be called Oscar.  The Academy endorses the following: A librarian who worked for the Academy in the 1930s named Margaret Herrick thought that the statuette had a physical resemblance to an uncle of hers. The uncle’s name was Oscar.  Columnist Sidney Skolsky was present when she made the remark, and he seized the name in his famous byline: “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar’.”  (Levy, Emanuel [2003].  All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards. Burns & Oates. ISBN 978-0-8264-1452-6) others claim that it was Bette Davis who named the statuette Oscar after her first husband, band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson.  One of the earliest recorded mentions of the term Oscar goes back to a Time Magazine article about the 1934 Academy Awards ceremony.  Even Walt Disney is quoted in 1932 as thanking the Academy for his Oscar.  Others claim that it may have been named after Irish playwright Oscar Wilde.  Whatever the origin of its now world-famous name, the trophy was officially referred to as the “Oscar” in 1939 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Regardless of the language combination, the Oscar ceremony presents two interesting problems for the interpreters working the event: (1) the sometimes local expressions and politically incorrect speeches by the recipients of the award, which incidentally might not be suitable for some audiences depending on each country’s censorship legislation. Although much of this has been taken care of by the broadcast delay rule that exists in all live broadcasts originating from the United States (motivated by the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunctioning during a Super Bowl halftime show); and (2) The title, different from its original, that a film gets depending on the country and language where it will be shown.

Regarding the recipient’s speech I had one of these situations during the Golden Globes, not the Oscars, when Meryl Streep uttered a bad word. Fortunately for me, because of the delay policy, I did not have to worry about that rendition as the exclamation was edited out. But it was not always like that, and I can just imagine what our colleagues went through in the past when many actors used the Academy Awards as a channel to protest and criticize governments, policies, and philosophies; not to mention Jack Palance’s push-ups routine when he got the Oscar for his performance of “Curly” in “City Slickers.” The issue of different titles is tough, really tough. It was more difficult in the past before globalization because at that time many interpreters had not even watched the movies as they had not opened in their home countries yet, so they could not even “guess” the movie.  Titles like “The Sound of Music” that was renamed: “La novicia rebelde” in Mexico, or “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which was named: “Atrapados sin salida” had to be tough to interpret when you had no idea what the movie was about. At least naming “Jaws” “Tiburón” was easier to figure out.  Now I invite you to share with all of us your personal experiences interpreting the Academy Awards, or to bring up other movie titles that were tough to translate. Finally, I would like to end this piece with a big thank you to all the interpreters who through the years have made it possible, and many times under very tough conditions, for the entire world to sit down in front of the TV set and for one evening every year root for their favorites based solely on one criteria: how they acted, directed, produced, or in any other category contributed their talents to the greatness of a film.

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