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May 01 2015

Lost in Translation: Dubbing Movies Into Foreign Languages

Sebastianhere with a heartfelt criticism of dubbing movies for foreign markets.

Lake Bell in "In a World…,"which isn't about dubbing,but it's a great movie and I needed a picture here.

This Monday I took a four hour train ride to see a movie.

I've done crazier things in the name of cinephilia.A few years ago I coerced my friends to take a day trip to Strasbourg just so I could see Steve McQueen'sShamethree months before it opened here in Germany.But this time it was't about some small independent film.This time I went to all this trouble to watch a movie calledAvengers: Age of Ultron.Maybe you've heard of it?

The superhero sequel had already been playing in German cinemas for a week and it's even playing in my small town.So why go elsewhere?

Because all the theaters near me are only showing the German-dubbed version.And that's not the movie I want to see.

The Guardian published an experiment of sorts recently on "how films survive the dubbing process,"where Fred Wagner,a "non-German-speaking film lover living in Germany,"saw four films (Inherent Vice,Chappie,Selma,andA Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) that had been dubbed into German,as the vast majority of foreign films playing in this country are.His conclusions about the "universality of the language of cinema"can be reproduced by anyone with a "mute"-button on their remote.Yes,a good film knows how to tell a story,how to inform the viewer about characters' traits and motivations through the image alone.Add score,source music,and sound work to create atmosphere and evoke emotions without the need to to hear (or be able to understand) a single line of dialogue.

But the assertion that a film can be successful without dialogue should not imply that an existing film does not suffer from removing its dialogue or having it replaced by words in another language...

Growing up in Germany meant,for virtually any media-consuming generation up until the most recent one,watching things dubbed.On TV,in theaters,on home video.From John Wayne to James Bond to Jason Bourne,from Captain Kirk to Columbo to Carrie Bradshaw,everybody's speaking German.

In my youth I began to discover a handful of ways to experience "Originalversionen."A friend's globetrotting big sister was commissioned to bring back VHS tapes ofThe X-FilesandThe Simpsonsfrom the UK.I'd scan the TV guide up and down looking for that rare instance a film would be shown in "Zweikanalton,"where the stereo channel was split into two tracks,one of the German dubbing,one of the original audio.But on a broad scale,it wasn't until the advent of the DVD around the turn of the century that dubbing was demoted from "mandate"to mere "option."

Dubbing is a compromise made to make media produced in one language accessible in another.It is not the only way to achieve this (subtitles are one alternative,learning the language another),but anybody choosing to watch a film dubbed is certainly free to do so.Those audiences need to be aware,though,that the version they are watching is,to put it mildly,incomplete.

It's not just about words getting replaced.The actors' voices,their intonations,breathing,choice of inflection or dialect or volume.None of it survives the dubbing process.And actors aren't the only ones whose work is lost or altered.Screenwriters,casting directors,editors,sound mixers,they all shape the final product.Film is the ultimate collaborative medium;to take the finished work,released to domestic audiences in (or as close as possible to) the form intended and approved by the filmmakers and just take out and replace the dialogue is akin to artistic lobotomy.

I am not alone in my strict stance against dubbing,yet the majority of German viewers still prefers the practice.DVDs and blu-rays come with original as well as dubbed audio tracks,and cinemas that occasionally show films in their native language are no longer limited to the biggest cities.But it's an esoteric tendency,and one that can cause quite the friction: I've witnessed more than one couple having an actual,full-fledged fight because one partner refused to watch a movie dubbed,the other to watch it anything but.

Personally,I've been lucky (or careful) enough to have never had my convictions in this regard tested by a loved one or close friend,but I had to defend(!) my preference numerous times,and listen to the same old arguments,again and again:

  • "But not everybody understands English as well as you do!"
  • "Reading subtitles is hard and distracts from watching the movie!"
  • "Sometimes the dubbed version is actually better/funnier than the original!"

To which I say:

  • I wasn't born speaking English.Or German.Humans are capable of learning languages.That's one of our defining traits as a species.In fact,watching movies in a foreign language is one way of becoming more familiar with it.Also: yes,my English's pretty good,but that leaves hundreds of other languages that I don't know.Yet I'm not watching French,or Spanish,or Russian,or movies inany other languagedubbed,either.That's what subtitles are for.
  • Yes,reading subtitles can take some getting used to.But what's so great about things that take some getting used to is that youcanactually get used to them.It's right there in the name.And I honestly don't understand how some text on the bottom of the screen could possibly be more distracting than watching one person talk while the dislocated voice of a completely different person is played over them.It'sobjectivelyweird.

As to that last point: there are a handful of oft-cited examples of dubbing studios taking it on themselves to drastically alter the tone of a work (liketurning the dry dialogue of TV'sThe Persuadersinto a barrage of slang and tongue-in-cheek one-liners),or replacing certain references they deem too obscure for German audiences with - in their estimate - more familiar ones.

My "favorite"example of this is an episode ofThe Simpsonswhere the name "Steve Guttenberg"wasreplacedwith "Michael Jackson"even while a cartoon version of Guttenberg is shown on screen.

It is also common to hear German viewers say that some actors' overdubbed voices "just sound better"than their actual ones,which,in my experience,is more a matter of familiarity than anything else.When you've grown up with a certain voice to go with an actor's face,it can be quite alienating to hear them speak in their native language for the first time.

I grant that in some cases a dubbed film or TV show can be subjectively "better"than the original.This does not persuade me,however,of the practice's merits.When I am watching something,I want to see and hear it the way the filmmakers made it,warts and all.I don't care if some things can be made "better"or "funnier"or more accessible by changing them,and I don't care for a group of people that was hired to translate deciding it's their right to alter the product in such a way.

Do films "survive the dubbing process,"as The Guardian put it?I'm not sure.But they certainly don't come out unharmed.

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  • Response
    an amazing concept.The good thing is it enables people from all over the world to watch the movie and it gets more popular.On the other hand,This dubbing thing not only destroys the passions of actors but also disintigerates the sum up master piece of movie crew into some ...

Reader Comments (21)

Great perspective and insights.Thanks.

May 1,2015 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

I've always been really glad that they don't dub TV & movies where I live,except for children's/family films in the last decade or so (mostly Pixar/Disney/Dreamworks).I wanted to go see Paddington a couple of months ago,but the theaters only showed the dubbed version.I will consider watching,let alone paying for,a dubbed movie only if it's animated *and* originally in a language I don't understand,though I'd still definitely prefer to see the original version with subtitles.

May 1,2015 | Unregistered CommenterJan

Fine article!Dubbing is the worst as everything is lost in translation.I make a point to never watch a dubbed version,but funny enough,when streaming,I some times "forget"to turn on subtitles.I watched a whole episode of Denmark's "Rita"on Netflix before I realized what was going on.

I thought it was only millions of Americans who hated to read subtitles,but apparently there are millions of others in the world--hence the need for dubbing.

My sister,who has lived various places in the world,told me it's really bad when you see a film from one place (e.g.,U.S.A),dubbed in a nearby language (e.g.,Russian) with subtitles in the local language (e.g.,Serbian).Yikes.

May 1,2015 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I remember seeing ET in Portugal when it was first released.It was shown in English w Portuguese subtitles.Which didn't mean a lot until I realized we (the Yanks) were laughing at a different time from the natives.I also remember watching Ridicule,in French with English subs,and realizing that the subs were far inferior to the original script.

May 1,2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

We asked the staff at the casino where we were working,if this was normal and they said yes.That they almost never got foreign films dubbed.

May 1,2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Sebastian,I love this post and I have a million thoughts on this,as a native English speaker who lived/lives in Germany (which has the best dubbing studios in the world) and who has been creating and editing subtitles for films and TV for 15 years (including several seasons ofThe Simpsons- on several DVDs you will notice that the dubbed version and the subtitled version are not identical because my company only created the subs and we went for translation accuracy).

I refuse to see dubbed American films when I'm there,although I did rewatchThe Dark Knightdubbed with two German friends of mine and was totally impressed with the voice performer who dubbed Heath Ledger.Something similar happened years ago,when I happened to catch an episode ofDynasty ("Denver Clan")and was shocked (and delighted) to hear that the Alexis voice sounded like Joan Collins speaking German!Another weird example: the CBS daytime soapThe Bold and the Beautiful ("Reich und schön"/"Amour,Gloire et Beauté")was broadcast on French and German networks and I watched some episodes dubbed in both languages: it was incredibly sexy in French and very sophisticated in German,but when I finally saw an episode in English,I was stunned (not surprised) by how badly acted and ridiculous it was.

On the other hand,when I watch English-subtitled films where the original is in a language that I'm familiar with,I'm often distracted by translations that are either incomplete or just plain incorrect...maybe it's just my competitive nature,but it can be hard to find that balance between making viewers "read a movie"(bad) and giving them the essence and flavor of the original dialogue in two lines or less,with as few characters as possible (good).

May 1,2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

It's been a while but I remember cinemas overseas containing two of my most hated things: dubbing and being trapped a room with people smoking.

May 1,2015 | Unregistered Commentermoe

i once saw akira kurosawa's dreams in Japanese with Norwegian subtitles and it was really cool because Kurosawa is such a visual director and plot isn't that movie's strong suit anyway.

i despise dubbing though i'll admit i find it fun with animated movies when it's less noticeable and if you're trying to learn a different language movies for children are actually more at you're not quite fluent level anyway.

May 1,2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Seeing hollywood films speaking in japanese was very weird,but seeing in spanish (neutral) was ok.

But still,even with subtitles can be lost in translation if you're not familiar with the languaje.

May 2,2015 | Unregistered Commenterchatan

I prefer subtitled but that is also selfish because English is the only language I understand well enough to follow a movie plot.
Sometimes in another country I like to go to a movie while filling in time before a late night flight.I have wondered why some countries dub and some subtitle.Small countries with a local language subtitle because it is less expensive but that doesn't explain all.Japanese usually subtitle.It has been a long time since I was in South America,but I did wonder about how they preferred using original voice track with subtitles rather than a dubbed version from Spain.
These days,technology should be able to provide audience choice of subtitles or audio.

May 2,2015 | Unregistered CommenterVaus

"And that's not the movie I want to see."

As far as I'm concerned,it's already disturbing enough that anyone wants to see a Marvel movie,regardless of the version.

"take out and replace the dialogue is akin to artistic lobotomy"

It's kinda interesting to learn that for some people "translating"automatically,um,translates to "taking out"and "replacing".Not to mention that the detractors of the medium will always say that cinema is principally "akin to artistic lobotomy"(which is certainly true as far as Julie Andrews movies go).

"Humans are capable of learning languages."

Hm,a few months ago I was stupid enough to watch another film by Yasujirô Ozu whose movies I despise.Now,since I don't plan to visit or live in and don't even have a keen interest in Japan,I find the suggestion that I could learn the entire language only because I occasionally watch a movie from said country somewhat inappropriate.

"watching one person talk while the dislocated voice of a completely different person is played over them.It's objectively weird"

Let's hope that Mercedes McCambridge and Michael Collins were aware of this when doing their voice work for Linda Blair and Gert Fröbe.
With a view to nonsense arguments like that,I wonder why you fail to mention that it's also "objectively"weird that people in front of a camera pretend to be someone else.

"It is also common to hear German viewers say that some actors' overdubbed voices "just sound better"than their actual ones,which,in my experience,is more a matter of familiarity than anything else."

If you'd have ever seen a movie with Elizabeth Taylor,you'd know that this isn't the case.You just cannot become familiar with a voice that makes Lina Lamont sound as mellifluous as Ronald Colman by comparison.

"When I am watching something,I want to see and hear it the way the filmmakers made it"

Yeah,hence your plea for ...subtitles.

"they certainly don't come out unharmed"

As if any harm at all could be done at the current state of cinema.Whenever I force myself to listen to the collected works of people like Joss Whedon or David Koepp,I'm desperately longing for something else,cause any change can only be an improvement here.Not to mention that your beloved subtitles are - as Paulie has already pointed out - often incomplete or even incorrect.

May 2,2015 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

While subtitles may not be perfect,I totally understand your preference for hearing the voice of the actors with their tones and inflections intact.Watching french films with english sub-titles really helped me become more fluent in french.I find dubbing more distracting,especially if you are familiar with an actors voice.
Even though I do not like dubbing there are exceptions,for example Kristin Scott Thomas does all her own dubbing for english films requiring the french translation.That is the true
ideal,multi-lingual actors willing to do their own dubbing.

May 2,2015 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Thank you everyone for your thoughts and comments!

I want to make clear that I am not saying that there is no value in dubbing or that it can never be of good quality.I know full well that there is an enormous value in making foreign media available to a mass audience,and I don't doubt that dubbing studios can produce high quality output in terms of voice work and writing and everything else that goes into the process.

But it's not for me,and my reason I hope to have laid out here is that of all the compromises (which include subtitles),dubbing is the one that alters and falsifies the original source the most.

To use a metaphor: I'm not saying that the Mona Lisa wouldn't look good if she was blond.It's very possible that if someone were to take a copy of the painting and paint over it to make her hair blond,the result could be,to many observers,"better"than the original.

All I'm saying is that it needs to be clear to everyone thatregardless of quality or aesthetic values,the blonde Mona Lisa is an altered version,and one that is not true to the artist's original vision.

The crucial thing here is that everyone can freely (and without going to great lengths) choose which version they want to experience at any given moment.When it comes to dubbing,in Germany and other places as well,this is simply not the case.

May 2,2015 | Registered CommenterSebastian Nebel

"my reason I hope to have laid out here is that of all the compromises (which include subtitles),dubbing is the one that alters and falsifies the original source the most"

You have laid it out and it's the main flaw of your argumentation.What you claim can,but does not necessarily have to be case,since the subtitles you champion - even the better ones - can alter and falsify a whole lot more than dubbing.

First of all,subtitles distract from the image compositions and the performances.Secondly,the filmmakers did not make their movies with the intention to have their framings spoiled by explanatory notes.To take up your methaphor: If you'd present the Mona Lisa with a text in the lower part of the painting,then I'm sure that Leonardo would object to this altered version that's not true to the artist's original vision.And thirdly,subtitles have to be human-readable,but due to the speed of the dialogues they can be forced to merely condense what was said and therefore significantly alter and falsify the original source as well.

May 2,2015 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

"have to be case"

Oops.Have to be THE case.

May 2,2015 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

I agree with Paul.I am from Puerto Rico and here ususally the movies are subtittled (funnilly enough,even the Spanish speaking movies have subtitles in English,even though our main language is Spanish).But I find that the subtitles are mostly lacking.Hence,you really do not get the full meaning and nuances of the script through the translated subtitles.

May 2,2015 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Fuck you man!

Great piece of shit!

May 2,2015 | Unregistered CommenterTomasl

I read somewhere that the Netherlands are one of the most subtitled places.They import a lot of TV shows,which are subtitled in Dutch.

The result (apparently) is that the Dutch are some of the fastest readers on the world,being used to "reading"their TV.This seems like such an easy and straightforward way of keeping a populace literate.

May 2,2015 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Great piece.Never understood dubbing but fair play to those that prefer it.I do find it interesting that it seems to be more popular in Europe then America.

I remember once getting Run Lola Run out on DVD,and it turned out to be dubbed,and with Australian dubbers.Unwatchable.Thankfully there was a subtitled version on the DVD too.

I also used to watch Simpsons and Sister Act 2 with spanish dubbing when I was trying to learn the language.It is definitly less distracting in animated shows though the Simpsons is weird as those voices are so familiar to me.

Subtitles aren't perfect,much I much prefer them

May 2,2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrooooke

I just got back from traveling in Spain and Portugal.In Spain,everything is dubbed and you have to actively seek out movies in "versión original."In Portugal,as Henry said,they're all in English with subtitles.In fact,numerous people in both countries told me that this is why they think that the Portuguese speak English much better than the Spanish-- they're more used to hearing it.

May 3,2015 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Dubbing sure does make it easy for people to understand foreign film,but you are right on one thing: it eliminates the natural pattern of speech that the true character is doing,which is why dubbed movies seem so unnatural.Subtitles are definitely better as it can help promote language learning and even aid in improving one's listening ability and reading comprehension at the same time.

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