On Dubbing and Subtitles

For the past dozen years, I have heard people complaining about dubbing for movies and TV shows on a regular basis and how somebody shouldn’t watch something except in its original language with subtitle if you don’t speak it.
Interestingly, I rarely hear that about videogames. If playing a game in a dubbed version is acceptable, it should be the case for movies and series too.

I have the chance to be French/English bilingual and thus don’t need subtitles for these languages, as well as I can read subtitles in them if watching something in another language altogether. It doesn’t mean that I am against dubbing.
I grew up in France before the DVD, so the technology back then definitely didn’t make it easy for us to be all set on watching things in their original language. Of course, we could sometimes find TV airings and even VHS in the original language with French subtitles, but it wasn’t the norm at all. This means that some of my favorite movies, that I have now seen in English, I still quote them in French because of my childhood.

I am fine with people refusing to watch something in dubbed version but I can’t stand people thinking of themselves as “better” than the ones watching dubbed version. This is something I find inadmissible. And I have seen become more and more of a trend. At first, I thought it was just in cinema school, but then I saw it spread out in my country.

This is disrespectful on two levels.

Caroline Beaune (1959-2014) was Gillian Anderson's French voice in The X-Files, The Fall and Hannibal. Source: Wikipedia.

Caroline Beaune (1959-2014) was Gillian Anderson’s French voice in The X-Files, The Fall and Hannibal.
Source: Wikipedia.

The first is that there are some amazing dubbing actors and actresses out there. They do a job in the industry, so they deserve respect. And bashing dubbing generally speaking isn’t right to them. In the last year, the woman who was Gillian Anderson’s French voice for years (from The X-Files to Hannibal) passed away. This made me sad and I know that I won’t be able to ever see a new movie or show with Anderson in French now, because the voice is as much attached to her as Gillian’s original one is.

Sometimes I can’t watch a dubbed version because I dislike the French voice, because it isn’t a right match or sound without enough emotions. I saw this happen mostly in the last decade, though it seems that we are back to have more invested dubbing actors again, which is great. So, if I have issues with a dubbed version, it is because of specific voice acting, not because it is dubbing.
Sometimes we also have some gems. I was in shock when I found out about the Jar Jar hate in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. I agree that Jar Jar isn’t so fun in English. But in French? He is hilarious and I always laugh whenever watching the movie in its dubbed version.

The second way dubbing bashing is disrespectful is to the audiences. There can be many reasons why someone chooses to watch a dubbed version even when they have access to the original one with subtitles in their language of choice. And none of them deserve to be mocked or scorned. Besides how some people might have a personal preference to it (which is their choice), it may also be easier for them in a significant way. A close relative of mine doesn’t speak English and is a slow reader, so if they want to really enjoy something, watching things in French is better for them, even though they make efforts to watch certain things with subtitles at first watch when a show comes out. Yet, they always rewatch said show in French to have a better picture of it when it airs in France. Some people may have visual difficulty reading subtitles due to the size of the text as well.

As for children media, you can’t expect them to read subtitles until they are fluent enough in their reading capabilities at a certain age. It doesn’t mean that you can’t expose them to other languages even if they don’t understand everything. I had books in English when little, even if I only managed to read a novel in English at age 14. If I ever have children, I hope to raise them bilingual, but this may very well mean they see Star Wars in both English and French for example.

I mostly mentioned French and English languages, but it applies to others. I have no problem watching Japanese anime in French or Japanese (with subtitles) but I prefer my Bollywood movies in original Hindi versions with English subtitles (though I made do with German subtitles once or twice because I really wanted to see the movie). I have seen Battleship in its German dubbing version, besides French and original English.

DVD and Bluray give us easier access to multiple languages in audio and subtitles now, but this doesn’t make up for all our consumption either. In big cities, movie theaters offer films in original version with subtitles, but not everyone – including myself – lives next to them. So, I have no problem going to see a new release in French either, if I want to see a movie on the big screen.
In the end, whether people watch a movie or series in its original version (with or without subtitles) or dubbed in a language they understand shouldn’t be reason for them to be judged and criticized. What matters most is that they enjoy what they are watching.

This post was by Natacha Guyot of Science Fiction, Transmedia & Fandom. Help thank her for her guest post by heading on over and giving her a follow!

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27 responses to “On Dubbing and Subtitles

  1. I can’t help but feel like part of it is due to the long shadow cast by groups like Harmony Gold and Saban on one hand, who would significantly change and rewrite content then lock down the rights while refusing to release original language content, and on the other those groups who simply did bad dub work. While things have significantly improved and, like you said, there are instances when dubs are better than the originals, memories of shows/movies that had blind idiot translations, Macekered translations, or just really bad localisations have led to an ongoing stigmatization even though the industry has changed significantly for the better in the last 15 years.

    Dubs are easier to make work in animation (games included) in general, because of the flexibility of the medium and the already present suspension of disbelief. There are some languages, particularly chinese (at least in their period films), that I’ve found are not as conducive to dubbing simply because of certain linguistic affectations. Watching Red Cliff dubbed was a strange experience because every sentence, no matter how insignificant, was filled with dramatic pregnant pauses in the strangest places in an attempt to match the dialogue with the mouths.

    Nobody ever complains about spaghetti westerns or the old Maciste/Hercules movies…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bad dubbing can be painful, though bad subtitles can equally bring weird moments. Keeping meaning and “tone” of dialogues can be tricky. Translation can be problematic regardless of how it is conveyed via audio or text. Of course the questions of translation rights and export can come into play, as you pointed out.

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  2. I used to be a big sub over dub snob until a friend of mine told me her and her mom would watch Fishugi Yuugi dubbed because her mom had bad eyesight and couldn’t see the letters well. That gave me pause. I still prefer subbed in most situations, and have seen some horrendous dubbig, but there are situations to the contrary. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust was only done in English and it’s ohenimenal,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hit post too soon trying to correct “phenomenal” *sigh* Princess Mononoke is another anime that has fantastic dubbing. I still prefer subtitles, but my elitism over that is fading. As for video games I would absolutely love if they offered an original language with subtitle option. If they ever remake FFVII (my biggest pipe dream) and they did that, I think I’d die. It would be a nice option to have. Anyway I agree the judgment about it needs to be curbed. It’s entirely a personal preference that no one should be shamed for.

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      • I don’t watch a lot of Japanese anime, but tend to watch them in original version. I’m not really sure how this happens, as I generally watch animated movies or TV shows either in original version or dubbed one. It really depends whether I watch it alone or with my family.

        Having video games available in original language would make sense especially since many that include voice acting offer the possibility to have subtitles in gameplay.

        Personal preference is natural (after all certain things like Bollywood movies are not so fun for me to watch in dubbed version for example) but I really hope that the judgement and stigma attached to dubbing fades out.

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        • I still have a twitch of it. The desire to ask, “Why?” when someone says they prefer dubbing. It’s really none of my business! I like to hear things in their original language because I feel it’s more nuanced. I would love for them to start having subtitles in video games. I’m a huge Final Fantasy VII fan so I’ve seen Advent Children multiple times (movie sequel to the game), and I couldn’t imagine watching it dubbed, but as said before I have seen and heard of situations where the dubbing is not only well done, but superior to the subtitles. There are some terrible original and fan suns out there. I also have a good ear for languages; studied French though I’m ashamed of what I can speak now.

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          • I remember watching Advent Children in its original version when I got the DVD (I liked it a lot better than the game, as weird as it may sound. My favorite FF game is FFVIII). I learned bits and pieces of Hindi because of watching and rewatching Bollywood movies, though I’m far from speaking it. French isn’t an easy language and from one country to the other (like in English or even Spanish I guess) the slang can be different. Once or twice, I watched Quebec versions and certain expressions puzzled me. I didn’t mind the voice and they had some good voice acting but I didn’t get certain words.

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  3. I am with you…but then, I am German. We dub everything, and listening to radio plays on tapes was a big thing for a long, long time (still is but not as much as it used to be), so we have a deep respect for voice acting. I think both has it advantages and disadvantages. But there are actually a few movies which I prefer in their dubbed version over the English one. Sleeping Beauty is one example, because the German script does have some additional lines and jokes in it, turning the three fairies more in three bickering old woman than they are in the original (plus, a lot of the early Disney Dubs are just okay…they got better with time.) I don’t have to deal with Eddie Murphy’s voice as Mushu and when I watch Robin Hood, I can enjoy the voice of the great Reinard Mey as Alan a Dale. Cutthroat Island is another movie which is way more enjoyable in German, because the villain has a more sarcastic voice plus the dubbing actually ironed out some of the script problems.
    I guess there is a reason why especially American’s tend to be so snobby about Dubbing. Because their dubbings tend to stink. They really do. Disney is one of the few exceptions, they actually produced good dubbings. But otherwise, a lot of the dubbings you find in English are far below what is considered as “bad” on the German marked.
    Nevertheless, I think people have to understand that both variants have their advantages and disadvantages. Yes, when I read the text I am more aware of the performance of the original actor. But for one subtitles are sometimes full of mistakes, too, and two, the movie is not meant to be read, it is meant to be watched. The text destroys the composition on screen and the time during which I am distracted by reading it, I might miss some important detail. That’s why I tend to try to do both, watch a movie with dubbing and with subtitles, to get as close to the original movie as possible.

    Liked by 4 people

    • The movies I remember seeing in German are Battleship and Star Wars: A New Hope. (I used to travel to Germany every summer for a few years). I’d be curious to see Sleeping Beauty in German. I have actually seen very few Disney in their original versions. Even when new movies come out, where I live it’s difficult to find showings in original versions, so if I want to see a movie on the big screen, I’ll see it in French and watch the original version when the DVD comes out.

      Mistakes happen in both dubbing and subtitles. Neither are perfect, but not all of us speak all languages from the movies/TV shows we watch, so having options to understand is important. Even as bilingual, I can just grab the French dubbing if I’m especially tired, instead of the original English one.

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      • Isn’t the German dubbing on the DVD? Since it is the same region I have the French dubbing on the DVD more often than not (but I have more forgotten about French then I ever learned).

        Liked by 1 person

        • I just checked on my DVD, and it’s English, French and Japanese. I’m also surprised there isn’t German on it. It’s common we get the same DVD as Germany on a regular basis!

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          • If you jump to 8:30 you see a typical change…there are two additional lines add from the off, but if you don’t know the English version, you would never notice. It is quite amusing, though. (Flora and Fauna basically say that it is time for Merryweather to do some work, and that she is “kräftig” (strong)enough to do so – the word has a double meaning in German because “kräftig” is also sometimes used to describe overweight people). And in the scene after that Flora briefly talks about Maleficent as if she is a woman of ill-repute instead of the mistress of all evil.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you for the link!

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          • Well, tell me what you think.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Just tried to play it but it seems unwilling to play in France. I hate when YouTube does this!

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          • Agreed…you know, they are currently discussing if region blocking should be allowed here in Germany. Something about free competition and how to make the Internet a fair market.

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          • Country blocking has increased so much on Youtube in the past few years. And what is annoying is that if you upload something that can be blocked in some countries, the list of said countries isn’t even available.

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  4. I have to rely on subtitles in a lot of cases even when I understand the original language. I have noticed that it changes a lot of my perception of acting, so I don’t see how subtitles are a great advantage over dubbing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Both can have their use, but I think (at least in my experience) the subtitles are considered “better” in how they don’t alter the original dialogues (except that they do if you don’t understand the language because translation in subtitles can also alter but try to tell this to people who hate dubbing out of snobbish ideas and you can find yourself talking to a wall).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I live in America and Anime exists. Most dubs I’ve seen are really bad , so I go with the subs by default.

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  6. Pingback: Recent Guest Posts | Natacha Guyot

  7. I have a complicated relationship with dubs. After the Sailor Moon and “Warriors of the Wind” (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) debacle (English dubs rewrote and cut out material from the originals) and after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger fail (not a good dub at all), I distrust dubs. But that was the 90s, and Iike to think standards have improved.

    My favorite dubs are the English version of Princess Mononoke and the Japanese version of BBC Sherlock. Miyazaki also even said that he likes the French dub of Porco Rosso better than the original Japanese! Jean Reno voices Marco, and even though I don’t speak French at all, I can appreciate the acting.

    Great article! I love the idea of having one voice actor do one actor’s voices (like Gillian Anderson’s) a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In French I find that we had a lot of problems in early 2000s, compared to the 90s and earlier on. Now things are better again, especially for TV shows. Of course, there are still some problematic/bad ones (just like subtitles can make me pull hair out at times).
      Thank you very much for your comment! It is weird because some actors I have no problem hearing when they dub different people but some I associate too much with a certain actor/actress.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great points all around. I will usually prefer subtitled over dubbed because I don’t trust American translators most of the time. Especially for children’s shows from Japan, not only are they edited to be “clean” but they also change cultural things on that basis of children ‘not understanding foreign culture’. A famous example is for the cartoon Sailor Moon, where the characters often make a habit of eating rice balls (onigiri). The dubbers changed it to donuts. Or they changed the relationship of a queer couple to cousins, etc.

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    • This must be annoying with the cultural alterations and also removing of queer couples. I don’t remember such examples in France, but I am far from all knowledgeable when it comes to Japan shows. I know we tend not to export our (good) TV shows abroad because “they would be impossible to translate” or are “too foreign” to others. I tend to joke how a cop show is easy to understand even if not all systems work the same. I mean we do understand the US system with all the American shows airing here!

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