I want to explore what method of translating a film is better. There are two main ways to translate a film: dubbing or subtitling. Dubbing is when the actor’s original voice is replaced by another actor’s voice in the audience’s language. Subtitling is translated text on the screen in the language of the audience.
I am grew up in Southern California, the heart of Hollywood. I was accustomed to watching TV shows and movies in their original form–English. If I were to watch a foreign film, which I did often, I would naturally watch it in the original narration with English subtitles. I loved the feeling of being taken to a different culture, a different language. My whole perception of what television was changed when I was a 19-year-old living in Spain. Surprising to some, but this was the first time I realized that my language–American English–was the dominant language in TV and film. Most of the shows and movies that Spaniards watch are from my neighborhood! Even Homer Simpson speaks Spanish in Spain. Since it is an animated TV show, “The Simpsons” is kind of cute in Spanish. But then, when I watched “Mission Impossible” and I heard Tom Cruise with a Spanish actor’s voice, I couldn’t stand the idea of dubbing.
The Origins of Dubbing is History: Case of Spain, Germany, and Italy
Spain, like Germany, Italy, and France, prefer to dub American films and TV shows rather than subtitle them. This was a decision made by their governments back in the 1920s and early 1930s when overseas production was first being imported. Think about this: These four countries are some of the largest in Europe, therefore they had a larger audience that would make the high cost of dubbing potentially worth it. Dubbing is much more costly than subtitling and takes more time and resources. Voice dubbing was also chosen by Spain, Italy, and Germany as a form of censorship back in the 1930s. At this time, these three countries were run by dictators–Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler–who did not want foreign influence being brought into their countries. Also, in Spain’s example, Franco wanted to “encourage” speakers of Basque, Catalan, and Galician to learn Spanish, the national language. To this day, films in these local languages are dubbed in Spanish, not subtitled when shown in other parts of Spain. Presently, dubbing in these countries remains the norm, but the use of subtitling is growing rapidly. This is mainly due to lower costs and faster turnaround times, but also because the younger generation has better literacy skills as well as more global knowledge and desire. More and more young people understand English and would like to see the English programming in its original language with subtitles in their native language.
The Subtitling Standard
Here is a list of the main countries who subtitle programming as their general standard (source: http://www.wikipedia.org): Albania, Arabic countries (In Lebanon both Arabic and French are shown simultaneously), Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, Cuba, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Israel, Ireland, Japan, Macedonia, Malaysia, Montenegro, The Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Uruguay.
Dubbing vs. “Subbing”
A good thing that I can think of about dubbing is that it allows the viewer to be more relaxed while watching the program, because they do not have to rapidly read the subtitles. If you are exhausted from a long day, reading subtitles may not be relaxing. Also, it must be used for children’s programming as they may not have the literacy skills needed for reading subtitles. On the other hand, dubbed programming is generally distracting, unless you are accustomed to it, because often the audio does not match the movement of the mouths perfectly. Although, I have to admit that in Spain, they often do an excellent job matching the new audio to the original video. Generally, the acting is worse than the original and oftentimes seems downright different. You do not get the same feel for the film as you would in the original language. I am telling you this from my experience watching the same film in two languages in which I am fluent. I could come up with many examples to demonstrate this, but a recent example is the film I just watched, “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” For those of you who haven’t seen the film, there are two Americans and two Spaniards as the main characters in the film. In the dubbed version, all four of them speak Spanish. In the original version the two Spanish actors speak to the Americans in English with a Spanish accent. Also, the Americans act confused when the two Spaniards argue in Spanish. This DOES NOT get portrayed at all in the Spanish dubbed version. Not to mention the two Spanish actors in the film, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem DO NOT do their own dubbing in the Spanish version. For the Spanish audience this is really awkward since they know the real voices of these two actors. On the contrary, subtitled versions allow for the viewer to hear the real actors voices and hear the original AND best soundtrack. If the viewer has some knowledge of the original language, they can also learn more and pick up more by hearing one language and reading another.
So, come on already, should I dub or sub?
There is really no cut and dry answer for this. If you are a producer, that has a low budget, definitely subtitle your project. You can get excellent quality for the fraction of the cost of a poor dubbed project. If you choose to dub, you must be willing to pay the top dubbing agency to hire excellent actors to get a quality dubbed program. If they are inexpensive, be weary, as good actors charge high prices. Ask them if you can view a recent project they did before you contract with them. Either way, if you are distributing in Spain, Germany, Italy, or France you will get a more satisfied audience and potentially more viewership if you dub. All in all, know your audience, know your budget, and either way, make sure you get the translation of your film done well.