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In Defense of Dubbing


If you are anything like me then you prefer your foreign films subtitled. With the advent of DVDs and the ability to turn on and off subtitles and dubbed tracks, the question of which is better doesn’t seem to come up anymore. No more multiple versions, no more feeling stupid for renting the wrong one.

I’d wager that the majority of film lovers prefer subtitles. I think it is for two reasons. First, people just like to hear the original voices, the original sounds, they don’t how dubbed tracks always sound slightly distant from the images on the screen. Second, myself included, I think people just trust written words more. There is a fidelity associated with something printed. Subtitles seem in a sense, more accurate.

I’ve watched quite a few English language movies with Japanese subtitles. Sometimes they are good, but most of the time I find myself leaning over to whomever I’m watching the movie with and whispering what was really said. It’s not that the translations are bad, there just isn’t enough time to fit it all into two lines. If you’ve ever watched subtitles made by a non-professional, sometimes you’ll notice that they are way too long and way to fast to read. These are probably more accurate, but just don’t work very well. You’ll often find yourself rewinding.

I was watching the Woody Allen film Interiors about a year ago. I was watching in with Japanese subtitles. It was an incredibly frustrating process. I kept wondering why they didn’t just write exactly what was being said. Many of the nuances of the dialogue were completely lost. It got so frustrating, after finishing the movie I went back and started watching it again, this time with a dubbed language track in Japanese. First, I was surprised at how good it was. Lip-syncing is a difficult thing to do and requires its own compromises, but when done well can really make you forget that the actors on screen are actually speaking a different language. Second, I noticed how different the subtitles and the dubbed scripts were. Completely different in many sections. Because you can fit more spoken dialogue into a given time block than you can written dialogue, many of the nuances lost in the subtitles were right there in the dub.

I ended up watching the whole film again, this time dubbed, all the while wondering, telling myself that dubbed track are the way to go.

The funny thing is, that no matter how much I liked that dubbing, no matter how much I thought it was superior in all ways to the subtitled version, I haven’t watched a single dubbed film since then.

The most recent foreign film I watched was Fellini’s 8 1/2, one of my favorite films. I’ve seen it so many times that despite the fact that I don’t speak Italian, I’ve memorized some of the lines. Each phrase is engrained in my memory and I wait in expectation to hear the sounds and tones that I know. The funny thing is, even the Italian version of 8 1/2 is dubbed. It was made in an era in Italian film making when dubbing was standard. I’m told that practice carries over today as 99% of all foreign films released into theaters in Italy are dubbed.

I can’t really suggest anyone to give up subtitles in favor or dubbed soundtracks. But I can say this. If you have a movie you’ve seen once subtitled, and you think you want to watch it again, check you the dubbed track, chances are you’ll find it’s better than you think.

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