Just when you thought Disney might be running low on “princess stories” to adapt, along came “Frozen.” Inspired by the old fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” “Frozen” quickly became one of the most successful Disney movies ever. In fact, it is number five on the list of the highest-grossing films of all time.
No matter what part of the world you live in or how old you are, “Frozen” is unavoidable. It’s been translated into 41 different languages. However, if you are one of the world’s 290 million native Arabic speakers, Disney’s translation might leave you a little cold.
Arabic is what’s called a diglossic language, which means there is a formal standardized version that almost everyone in the Arabic world learns in school (Modern Standard Arabic), and there are the localized dialects used in everyday life.
Previous Disney Arabic translations used the Egyptian Arabic dialect, which has the most speakers and is widely understood in other countries thanks to Egypt’s movie industry. For “Frozen,” they decided to go with Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). While this might seem like a good way to maximize their Arabic audience, using MSA changes the casual, modern language of the English original into something much more biblical, as Elias Muhanna writes in the New Yorker:
The Arabic lyrics to “Let It Go” are as forbidding as Elsa’s ice palace. The Egyptian singer Nesma Mahgoub, in the song’s chorus, sings, “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment!” and “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…” From one song to the next, there isn’t a declensional ending dropped or an antique expression avoided, whether it is sung by a dancing snowman or a choir of forest trolls. The Arabic of “Frozen” is frozen in time, as “localized” to contemporary Middle Eastern youth culture as Latin quatrains in French rap.
“The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me?” Awkward! There’s a more accessible translation from a fan on YouTube here, but even so the lyrics come across as awkward and stilted. Reaction in the Arabic world has understandably mixed- some people love it and some people hate it. So why not make multiple Arabic translations for a few of the more widely spoken dialects? Disney obviously has the resources, and they’re willing to put forth the effort for European languages like Spanish and Portuguese.
Muhanna proposes one possible reason for the shift in an interview with NPR:
I think that it has something to do with the fact that last year, Al Jazeera inked a big deal with Disney to basically buy all of its distribution rights for its children’s programming. And if you go on to the website of Al Jazeera’s Children’s Channel, you will find a policy document there that states very clearly that all of its content will be in what they call Classical Arabic.
Do you think Disney dropped the ball with its Arabic Arabic translation of “Frozen?” Let us know in the comments!