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Subtitles or Dubbing
Which is best? Subtitling added to a foreign language film, or overdubbing the dialogue?!


We like to watch movies from around the world and to experience cultural diversity in art, so, to get around the language barrier, foreign language films are translated, with the translation being carried in real-time with the moving picture footage. There are two methods which each have their own advantages: Subtitles, and Dubbing.

With subtitles, the motion picture and sound track continue but with the addition of a translated version of the words in readable text on the screen.

With dubbing, the pictures are unaltered, but the sound track is mostly replaced by stand-in actors speaking the translated lines over the top of the original dialogue.

Having experienced both subtitled films and dubbed films, I can tell you that I consider subtitling to be far better! For almost all situations, subtitles are a far superior system, whereas dubbing is not so good.

For one thing, the original actors on screen are saying a lot more with their expressiveness than simply the words. Even if we don't understand the language they are speaking, we can get a lot of emotional language from the style in which it's being conveyed. Dubbing destroys this, whereas subtitles don't.

Subtitles are far less obtrusive than dubbing. OK, captions on the screen may seem a bit distracting, but nothing like as bad as having people open their mouths and words coming out out-of-sync and in a voice which often doesn't match, either in character or in intonation.

The mystery is then, why do some television channels consider dubbing to be better? I have thought about this and I have a clue, which is related to the next point:

There is one particular application where dubbing is the preferred method. Cartoons for young children. There's a good reason for this: Young children can't read fast enough to understand the subtitles. So, it has to be dubbed. That's fair enough.

So here's why I think the companies think that dubbing (on general purpose viewing) is better: Because they think their audience is uneducated. For "dubbing", read "dumbing". If a TV channel is aimed at an illiterate audience, they have to use dubbing because the people watching the show can't read!

I've seen the translation issue from both sides. My first language is British English, and I'm reasonably well-educated. I've seen some very good foreign-language films on British television with English subtitles. Culturally this is excellent, as I find the original art is almost unaffected by the addition of the subtitles which convey the meaning. Also, I get to learn bits of the foreign language by virtue of the parallel translation. Now I'm in Panama, where the main language is Spanish, I see movies which started out in American English and are translated into Spanish, either by dubbing or subtitling. The subtitles are vastly better! They are helping me to learn Spanish at the same time as enjoying the movies.

To draw an allegory, subtitles are like those stabilisers on a child's bike, where the child learns to ride a bike with a bit of help. Dubbing, in contrast, is like the child being pushed around in a wheelbarrow. They're never going to learn from it. They might as well be a sack o'potatoes!

I've looked around online to see what other people think about the issue of Subtitles versus Dubbing, and how this fits with my own opinion and its shocking contrast with that of the television channels. Most people writing online come out heavily in favour of subtitles. In some votes, 80% of people said that subtitles were better, so that's like 8 out of 10 cats who showed a preference! However, to be fair, it has to be considered that the people who write and express a preference are in the better educated classes, so that will swing the vote a bit.

I'm willing to link to both sides of the argument. Here are a few links:

http://scythe.net/archen/info/anime/sub.html

http://revision3.com/forum/showthread.php?t=360 - note: Avoid Go Daddy! Down with cybersquatters!

www.helium.com/items/814590-which-is-better-for-foreign-language-films-dubbing-or-subtitles

www.mylot.com/w/discussions/1281550.aspx

www.brightlightsfilm.com/29/dubbing1.html

http://digitalspy.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?p=25716596

http://jyte.com/cl/when-watching-a-foreign-movie-i-prefer-subtitles-over-dubbing

http://blog.islaformosa.com/2008/04/subtitle-culture.html

Other points:

* A considerate person can watch TV in silence if there are subtitles, for example to avoid disturbing someone else's sleep.

* Subtitles require that you keep your eyes on the screen, so it is a bit tricky to do work at the same time.

* The dubbing lobby has more say, not because dubbing is better, but because it keeps more people in a job.

* Better than both subtitling and dubbing is: learning the language. Subtitles help you to learn the language. Of course you can't learn all languages, but here are a few helpful language learning resources

* The worst of all options is to remake the film. This is like deciding the Mona Lisa is quite a good painting and so you get someone to sketch a painting a bit like it. The result would tend to lack being so enigmatic! Such classics as RING, in Japanese, deserve a medal, not a meddle.