Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dubbing Or Subtitling?

Say you want to watch a film in a foreign language. If you speak the language then you don't have a problem. If you don't, then what is the best way to make sure that the film doesn't lose anything when its viewers don't speak the language?

There are three options to ensure that the viewer can understand the film. The first is to learn the language (we previously gave you 10 reasons to do this), but most people can't do this for just one film. Our second option is to replace the audio from the dialogue with rerecorded dialogue in the target language, known as dubbing. The third option is to have all dialogue translated and show the transcript at the same time as the original audio, known as subtitling. We're going to ignore the first option to focus on the latter two: dubbing and subtitling.


What are the drawbacks of dubbing? Older kung fu films are famous for their bad dubbing. Is it really bad dubbing, though? Given the vast differences between English and Mandarin Chinese it's always going to be difficult for sentences to sound natural and take the same length of time to execute in either language. This means that characters will either appear to be talking when they're not or viewers will hear characters talking even though their mouths aren't moving.

The work of the original cast loses something as well. We're hardly experts on drama but we're fairly certain that an actor's performance includes both their dialogue and their movements. If you mix dialogue from one actor with the movements of another there will always be something lost.

Maybe the largest issue we have with dubbing is the language. When a film is dubbed there will be little to no evidence of the original language. We'd like to think occasionally scriptwriters think of phonaesthetics (the inherent beauty of certain words and phrases) when they write a scene. This also disappears when a film is dubbed.


One of the most common reasons we hear for not watching a foreign film is that people are generally annoyed by subtitles. Reading and watching a film are two different things, and certain people believe that the two should never meet.

Subtitling forces the viewer to read throughout the whole film and a lot of people hate this. Subtitles have to take up part of the screen and if there is not space above or below the film, as in letterbox formats, the subtitles have to take up space amongst the visuals of a film. This either will cover certain visual aspects of the film or make the viewer look away from a certain area of the screen.

A map of world film translation standards.
Dark blue is dubbing for children only, otherwise subtitling.
Purple is dubbing in all cases except non-children's films. Red is all dubbing. 

Neither solution is ideal and where dubbing can be preferential in certain films, such as animated films where the movements of a character's mouth are not as distinct as that of a real human, we believe that subtitling wins out overall. Subtitling, though distracting from the visuals, leaves the foreign language to be heard and as we love languages, is preferential to us.

The foreign language skills in countries where subtitling is favoured over dubbing seem to far surpass that of countries where the opposite is true. If subtitling can help people become familiar with a foreign language and learn then it will always be our preferred method.

1 comment:

  1. I'd choose for sure subtitling. You learn at the same time you enjoy the film and you don't "kill" the original actor interpretation.

    I'm from Spain and our "great" dubbing tradition has prevented many people from learning languages or at least to be familiarized with them (apart from being a tool used by dictatorship censorship to change original dialogues).

    Besides there are only a few dubbing actors here so you keep hearing the same voices for different actor which make it really weird...

    Nice entry! Xx