We’ve all seen (and affectionately mocked) those badly dubbed martial arts films. You know the ones; incredible stunts, brilliantly elaborate plot lines and sharp dialogue… all dubbed over by American voice actors. Yet, for some people, the charm of these films lies in the out of sync dubbing and cringe-worthy voiceovers. It’s all part of the experience of watching a foreign film.
Subtitles or dubbing? It’s one of the most divisive arguments in film history. In 2010, the British Film Council sought to settle the score once and for all with a study to determine audience preferences. The BFC polled audience members of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the original, Swedish version) and the results were rather enlightening. As well as learning more about audience’s preferences in general, the study also revealed how format affects overall enjoyment. It seems that those who watched the subtitled film enjoyed it more with 45% of viewers rating it ‘excellent’ compared to just 26% for the dubbed version.
The skill of the voice actor can make or break a dubbed film. When recording in an empty studio, the voice actor doesn’t have the same emotional connection to the story and characters. This can result in dry delivery which just doesn’t do justice to the original script. In addition, character traits like sense of humour, vulnerability or little quirks and tics are lost in translation when the original dialogue is dubbed over.
Then of course comes the issue of syncing dubbed dialogue with the movement of the actor’s mouth. The variable nature of language means a short phrase in French could be two long sentences in English. Poorly synced dubbing is funny and charming in its own way, but essentially distracts from the film (which we are sure was not the director’s intention!).
Subtitles allow the film to be enjoyed in all its glory. The audience can hear the actor’s voices and feel the emotion of each scene all while getting an accurate but concise translation of the dialogue. Of course, subtitles aren’t without fault. They can be difficult to follow, confusing or simply too concise, and yet in many ways they remain superior to dubbing.
When translating a film for an entirely new audience the most important decision is format. Do you dub or sub? During the course of this article we’ve fought the case for subtitles but this doesn’t necessarily make them the best option for you.
There are many variables to consider, such as audience, genre and visuals. For example, if the film is for young children, subtitles may be unpractical due to reading ability and attention span. On the other hand, slow-paced productions, like Nordic TV show The Killing, benefit from the languorous nature of subtitles.
Translating is a complex art and doing justice to the original work can feel like Mission Impossible. The most important thing is to think about your audience and choose the format that works for you both. Whether you dub or sub, make sure your production is An Affair to Remember.