Thursday, April 15, 2010

Subs and Dubs... Foreign Film Watching

SUBTITLES VS. DUBBING: THE GREAT AMERICAN DEBATE

Watching foreign films can always be a tricky thing. Not only getting them here to the U.S., but also the viewing experience itself. Despite some of our best efforts, few of us will ever be fluent in multiple languages. Leaving those of us who still want to watch these works of cinematic art with only a couple of viable options.

First, there's the subtitle. The upside of these are quite obvious. You get the film in its original language, the way the filmmakers intended it to be presented. You might not always realize it, but the way an actor utilizes their voice really develops the character they intend to portray. It'd be hard to imagine a scene, such as the Daniel Plainview church scene in There Will be Blood, through the vocal aspects of someone trying to mimic that emotion.

Let's be honest though, subtitles are not without their downsides. First, and I hate to say this is a downside, but too many, the notion of reading and watching a film just doesn't mix. While I would argue a talent for it comes with repetition, subtitles can at times be distracting. As well you may miss various actor subtleties during high dialogue moments. Not to mention not all synchronization people share the same notion of timing. I've seen some films where multiple lines of subtitles whisk by in a second, while others linger for seemingly ever.

For those who find these variations annoying, there's always voice dubbing. On the plus side you get the vocal English so desperately wanted. It requires no reading, and it allows you to fully concentrate on the events occurring in each scene.

At the same time, I find it's downsides are more noticeable. First, not all voice actors are created equal. If you get one with a flat tone, or lacking range, it can greatly diminish your opinion of a movie. As well there is a more blatant synchronizing problem. Try as they may, there's just no way to make english words line up with every foreign language. With certain languages this can be incredibly obvious (Japanese is without a doubt the most prevalent example). Much like distracting subtitles, badly placed dubs during key scenes can add a comical, or annoyance, factor to a scene that needs very little of it.

Then, of course, there's the fact that no matter which option you go with, there is no such thing as a perfect translation. Translators must take many things into account, and some words carry multiple meanings in other languages (not to mention the words that don't translate at all). It's a tricky thing, and most of the time you're getting a "in the spirit of" translation.

Out of all foreign films, animated probably provide the most even debate. Especially in recent years with seasoned actors lending their talents behind the mic to bring these films to life. They're far from perfect, but still reasonable, and with ever increasing production put in. They're likely to continue getting better.

Ultimately, no matter how you weight these two, it's really a personal choice. In some way, it's basically a risk assessment. Given the downside of each, which do you believe will offer you the greatest opportunity to enjoy a movie. Because that's the single most important factor, regardless of where you stand.

As for me, well I'm sure it'll come as no surprise that I usually, not always, lean towards the use of subtitles.

So, where do you fall on this debate? Do you sub? Or do you dub?

26 better thoughts:

Film Intel said...

I'm sure it's no surprise that I absolutely agree with you here: subtitles are far better than dubbing and, although I'm open to being shot down by someone who's tried, the majority of people who I hear say 'I don't like subtitles' have tried to read them for the opening 15 minutes of a film and then given up.

Personally, because dubbing is a component part of animation anyway, because said dubbing is very rarely perfect anyway and because it is always going to be only really a vocal performance by an actor, I have no problem with foreign animation being re-performed in English. I don't think it detracts from the performance in the same way English dubbing does in live action.

The Mad Hatter said...

I always sub. I find it took a film or two to get the hang of it, but now I don't even notice it anymore. I've heard of one or two titles where the translation in the sub was a little off (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN being the one that sticks out), but by and large I think it's the best way to go.

*FilmAddict* said...

Sub of course...dubbing is just so distracting...and most just makes the words said seem silly.

Klaus said...

I simply refuse to watch anything dubbed, and can't understand why anyone would - which reminds me of a Hungarian friend who is a huge Woody Allen "fan", and suggested that the guy (András Kern) who did Woody's voice in Hungarian was actually funnier than Woody himself!

And apparently a view widely held by his fans according to John Cunningham in "Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex" (2004),pp.32.

jekkvalle said...

I prefer to sub but I saw Ponyo last year in the dubbed version and I thought it was decent. On the other hand, I saw Suspiria and the dubbing made it unintentionally funny at times.

Suspiria is interesting because all the actors came from different parts of the world and they were allowed to speak their own language during filming, then they just dubbed whatever language they needed. Which confused the hell out of me because sometimes the dubbing would fit then another character speaks and they're completely out of sync. But then again, Suspiria is awesome and will remain so no matter what.

Alex said...

Of course subtitles are basically always better, but I became a bit more acclimated to dubbing while I was in Germany and watching tons of dubbed American movies. It's definitely distracting, and often the translation is a bit looser to fit into someone speaking quickly. I sort of got used to it, but would never say it's better. Though I'll admit, after seeing Star Trek several times in German, it was weird to see it in English because I wasn't used to the real voices.

There are a lot of European voice actors who become the voice for specific American actors (like, one guy will always be Robert De Niro) and so they become quite adept at it, and many viewers will find his or her voice better than the original because that's what they're used to.

I think dubbing in anime is ok sometimes- I dig the voicework in a lot of series that I first saw on Cartoon Network, because that's how I was introduced to them (mainly Cowboy Bebop and Trigun). It's less distracting in animation, though still not usually preferable. Plus I like hearing other languages.

Univarn said...

@Intel Yeah, for the most part (especially recent Miyazaki films) animation dubbing has improved. Subs, I find, are generally the way to go.

@Mad yeah, my DVD of Let the Right One In has Theatrical and some other subbing. The theatrical is definitely much butter. Granted I don't speak the language, so I don't really know in depth :)

@FilmAddict I originally mentioned in here, but took it out. Lots of people who do english dubbing sound like they just took a lot of helium too me. Not sure why, but it always sounds stuffy.

@Klaus Interesting. Sometimes I wonder what my favorite films would sound like in foreign languages. Would be entertaining to hear Allen's really personal, worrying, style from another voice/perspective.

@jekkvale Reminds me a bit of the films of Sergio Leone where actors just spoke their native tongue (some spanish, english, italian, etc.) and it was dubbed in post-production. For the most part they did a good job, but not in every case (a few scenes For a Few Dollars more really stood out to me).

Never seen Suspiria, but I may check that out. Dubbing can be dangerous, but if reading subs holds you back from watching a film, some films I'd rather people see Dubbed than not at all.

Univarn said...

@Alex for me, and the reason I posted its picture, Princess Mononoke I saw as a kid in its English dub (and saw it multiple times at that) so I'm used to it that way, and I have to admit I generally watch it that way on my own. So there is definitely a good argument for what people are used too. And I would say the quality of anime voice work in the past few years (as networks have gotten more behind it) has definitely increased. Watching DBZ as a young kid, the voice actors were awful, but I didn't know the difference.

Shubhajit said...

My vote is squarely and overwhelmingly in favour of subtitles.

What you said about voices playing a vital role in character definitions is absolutely correct, and agree completely with you on that. Therefore I just hate it when the voice of the dubbing artist doesn't match with the kind of voice I'd expect the actor/character to have, or for that matter, know he/she has. Yeah, reading subs & watching movies can be distracting for those uninitiated.

But for those still in doubt, trust me, watch a few movies and it'll become as natural as watching movies without subs. In fact nowadays when I watch a foreign language film, I do not need to put in a conscious effort in reading the subs, and I'm sure that would be true for anyone who has watched a few movies.

So there you go, subs for me, and dubbed films, unless there's no other option for me, is a complete no-no.

DEZMOND said...

here in my country we never had dubbing, just subtitles so reading the text while watching the action at the same time, never really was a problem for TV and movie audience here. But watching German, Hungarian, Russian and Spanish TV channels, I was always shocked with how they dub all the American movies. The voices they use are usually hilarious and not at all expressive, so I've always thought of it as a crime against arts.

Simon said...

I prefer subtitles, just because i don't mind reading. I got a dubbed version of Let The Right One In awhile ago, and it was pretty awful.

But then, you could always get a multilingual actor in the original role, and have them dub themselves. Monicca Belucci did that, I think, with Shoot 'Em Up.

Univarn said...

@Shub Thanks for your comment. I think subs wins hands down this one. I kind of wish I had some more mainstream film goers to dive in with their 2 cents.

@Dez A crime, maybe, but yeah there's often a lot of unexpressional voices in dubbings. I guess it's people who don't think it's where they belong... or have no talent to begin with :).

@Simon I've heard of a few actors to do their own dubbing when possible. It's probably as close as dubs are going to get.

MovieNut14 said...

I prefer subtitles over dubbing. Yes, reading the subtitles and watching the movie is a bit of a strain, but I still prefer that method.

flixchatter said...

Great post, Univarn! As someone from a country where they often dub International movies, my vote is for subtitle, hands down! Part of what I enjoy about movies is listening to the actors' talk, in fact, for a lot of them, that's a huge part of the charm! When you dub 'em, I simply can't concentrate on the story or anything else going on because I can't get past the fact that the voice(s) just don't match the character and the emotion they're supposed to convey. Plus, hearing your fave actors talking in your language is just bizarre, in a bad way. I have no problem reading AND watching the movie at the same time, but then again some people are good at multitasking :) I covered a bit about this in FC's Much Ado About Movie Accents post: http://wp.me/pxXPC-S6

Castor said...

Subtitles all the way! You make a great point that reading subtitles might detract a bit from watching the movie and taking all the facial expression and mannerism but this is still better than dubbing where you might hear something and watch something else which is way more annoying.

Castor said...

Ah by the way. The comments are better but the capcha word verification reload is still a downer ;( At least, you have the little scroll bar on the side so you can scroll down. Many sites have some kind of bug where you can't even access the word verification because the windows is cropped lol

Univarn said...

@MovieNut I think we're all in agreement here.

@Flix Accents definitely play a big part. Sometimes when I watch a movie that's been dubbed I find it annoying because I wonder "why do all these Germans sound like they're from a New York pizzeria?" As well some Dubbings dub characters who are multi-lingual into one language, completely removing the point of that scene.

@Castor I kept the annoying verification because if I don't I get spammed (a lot). I wish they had another alternative, or one I knew about.

I think one big problem with dubbing is just the performance quality. Especially in the US where voice acting isn't that big of a necessity with most jobs in TV or only for celebs in movies. You're not getting cream of the crop in dubs.

Marc said...

Most times I am a die hard hard fan for the subtitles. But there are rare exceptions where if I'm only vaguely interested in a film the dub works because, like checking your brain at the door, I turn off the my purist part of my brain:)

Nice write up and idea for a post Univarn!

The Floating Red Couch said...

Here's a question: What about English/Irish/Scottish movies that use subtitles because the accents are so thick? (i.e. The Acid House)

I try not to look, but always do. I had a prof who once said "any good film can be understood when you watch it on mute". I think the same holds for foreign cinema, so I'd prefer to have the dialogue as a guideline spelled out nicely at the bottom of the screen and I can choose whether or not I want to use it.

Univarn said...

@Marc Thanks. Dubs can work, but most of the time I find it too distracting, especially if it's a more dramatic film.

@Couch that is a good question. I had to go english subtitles for Sukiyaki Western Django because despite it being in english their japanese accents were impossible to decipher!

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Joel Burman said...

I totally go for subs but then I am from a country (Sweden) were we only dub kidsmovies.

Would have loved to give you (Univarn) an update on how the translation is on Let the Right one in. Unfortunately I amnot a big fan of it and wont revisit it any time soon. =)

Univarn said...

@Joel Thanks for the comment. I own Let the Right One In and it comes with two subtitles. Theatrical and another version (what they call it escapes me but both are English). The theatrical version is the one I go for as it has the complete sentences as well translated as possible. The other version is more of a simplified abbreviation of things, losing quite a bit of the luster in translation.

Kara said...

subtitles for sure

Joel Burman said...

Univarn: I didn't know it was released in several versions strange also that the subtitling is different between them.

amy said...

Univarn, did you buy the later version? Because if you got LtROi from pre-order, we only got the "bad english" one, which supposedly was included instead of the theatrical version because they didn't want to pay for the rights to use that... but then everyone complained, so they re-issued the dvd.

Anyway, I always go for subs (on DVD), but then again... like Joel said, they only dub kids films - almost all Disney stuff comes only dubbed (one of the reasons I didn't watch Enchanted in theaters).

I think it's just a matter of getting used to. Since everything is American in theaters, people have to read subtitles if they don't speak English. So most people don't find it intruding.

However, with the recent use of 3D, I do find it a bit distracting... and a bit tiring. 3D in itself tires my eyes faster, so having to read I guess would tire you even faster.

I noticed this 3D subtitle distraction with TRON: Legacy because the framing was so dark and beautiful, but we had yellow subtitles that just jumped out so much. I was able to block them out, but they were still yellow on black.

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