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CASTE OF CHARACTERS

By Jonathan Kay

Saturday Night Magzine

Sept. 9, 2000

France dubs The Simpsons into French. So does Quebec.
But that's where the similarities end

The French have always been zealots about language, though the nature of the obsession differs on either side of the Atlantic. In France, traditionalists still take their cue from L'Académie Française, established 365 years ago under Louis XIII with the object of making French "pure and comprehensible by all." In Quebec, where the approach to language is more heterodox, francophones obsess less about the gradual corruption of French than about the threat of an English onslaught. So instead of the Académie, there's the English-sniffing Office de la langue Française, created somewhat more recently by René Lévesque.

The difference between the two mindsets is played out every day in the American town of Springfield, home to that cartoon staple of anglo pop culture, Homer Simpson. In Quebec, The Simpsons is one of a handful of shows dubbed in the province. (Others include North of 60, King of the Hill, and Ally McBeal.) The French - from France, I mean - enjoy The Simpsons too, and, true to form, they make their own set of dubbings as well. The French Parliament passed a law in 1949 prohibiting the showing of foreign films dubbed outside of France; in 1984, French television networks, in an agreement with the actors' unions, ensured that dubbed TV programs would remain similarly pure.

And so the Simpson clan lives in two parallel francophone universes. Where American Homer visits the Kwik-E-Mart, French Homère goes to the supermarché and Quebec Homère shops at the dépanneur du coin. Where American Homer describes his shrewish sisters-in-law as the "gruesome twosome," French Homère labels them les sorcières Siamoises (the Siamese witches), in Quebec, they're called deux airs de boeuf (the two grouches). And then there is the question of English usage. The French are confident enough to let an anglicism or two slip into the dub. In Quebec, apparently, the fear is that if you give the English an inch, they'll swamp your whole language. So Homer's doughnuts remain les donuts in France, but in Quebec become les beignes.

But it is not so much Homer's choice of words as his manner of speaking them that is instructive. Though Homer is dumb in any language, France's dub community decided the star of the show shouldn't speak in anything less than standard French. "There is a levelling effect," says Éric Plourde, a French-Canadian linguist who wrote his master's thesis on the translation of The Simpsons. "The French brought the pronunciation of almost all the characters to more or less the same plane." The uniform quality of the language, he argues, "reflects a belief in the uniqueness and irreducible character of the French identity" - in other words, the French are secure enough to insist that even a dolt can, and should, speak proper French. This approach, Plourde says, betrays an "imperialist" attitude towards language animated by the nation's colony-holding past.

To support his theory, Plourde notes that the only two Simpsons characters who were not assigned standard French accents are both dark-skinned: Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the immigrant Kwik-E-Mart clerk, and Homer's black co-worker, Carl. Though Apu hails, according to plot, from India, he has been given a quasi-Arabic accent by the French. "A lot of corner shops are owned by people from North Africa or Lebanon," Plourde asserts. "There is even a slur in French, 'On va chez l'Arabe,' meaning, 'We're going to the corner shop.' " As for Carl, his voice has been pidginized - though not in any easily identifiable way.

The darker-hued pair gets special treatment in Quebec as well, but there, Apu's accent sounds more like Haitian Creole spoken à la Québécoise. And Carl's voice, hardly what one might call ebonical in the English original, becomes, as Plourde describes it, "the Québécois stereotype of the black immigrant 'nèg.'"

Unlike the French dubbings, however, Quebec's Simpsons also features a wide range of linguistic diversity among the white characters. While the intelligentsia of Springfield - Principal Skinner, Reverend Lovejoy, Doctor Hibbert, Sideshow Bob, news anchor Kent Brockman - speak "international" French, less educated citizens such as Homer, Chief Wiggum, Lenny, Krusty, and Moe speak in the non-standard Québécois style, sometimes dipping into the coarse, highly idiomatic vernacular called joual.

The distinction, Plourde believes, is significant, reflecting a cultural schizophrenia on the part of the province's elite. On one hand, they give public lip service to the unique nature of Québécois French. They have to: for Quebec's sovereignists see themselves as a true peuple, and what kind of peuple does not speak a language uniquely its own - and one equal in status to the world's other tongues? On the other hand, most educated Quebecers know in their hearts that they must learn standard French to attain respectability in the larger francophone world. Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard, Bernard Landry - even Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal president Guy Bouthillier - great believers in the Quebec peuple all, would never be caught dead slipping into joual.

"We have learned to despise our language," says Plourde. "It is a great disappointment to see that prejudice seep through in translation." Well, maybe "despise" is overly harsh. But it does seem that there's something to be learned in the translation. Whatever Quebec's intelligentsia may think of the province's common tongue, the local dub of The Simpsons suggests they at least appreciate it as a funny, expressive vernacular for jokes, taunts, and boasts. Those that have lived on either side of the Atlantic agree that Homer can never be quite as funny in "standard" French as in joual. Quebecers should remember what the anglophone world has known for years: you don't get far in life worrying what the French think of you.