Dubbing and Subtitling


Many introductory film textbooks discuss a debate regarding subtitled versus dubbed prints of foreign films viewed by Anglo-American film studies students, and all state a preference for subtitling. The case against dubbing includes imperfect synchronicity between lip and audio or voice and body, flatness of performances and acoustics, and alteration or elimination of the original film's sound track and design. The quality of the acting is frequently noted as suffering in dubbed films, as the vocal qualities, tones, and rhythms of specific languages, combined with the gestures and facial expressions that mark national characters and acting styles, become literally lost in translation. While subtitling is acknowledged to have drawbacks as well—it is distracting and impedes concentration on the visuals and often leaves portions of the dialogue untranslated—it is seen to alter the source text the least and to enable the target audience to experience the authentic "foreignness" of the film.

But this position often does not acknowledge the selected acceptance of dubbing in subtitling countries or cases where dubbing makes more sense than subtitling. Foreign films and television programs aimed at children are dubbed in target countries that tend otherwise to subtitle because their viewers have not yet learned to read or cannot read quickly enough for subtitles to be effective. While serious moviegoers demand that art films be subtitled, they rarely complain that foreign films in lower, more commercial genres such as the "spaghetti western," giallo , martial arts, comedies, and anime are usually released in dubbed versions. For Italian cinema, popular or art, the authenticity argument does not hold: almost all Italian films are shot silent and then dubbed after filming has been completed, so there is no original sound track to speak of. The postwar era saw increased levels of co-production among nations, with the casts of co-produced films often coming from different countries and not speaking the same languages; their parts were thus dubbed by voice actors of the country in which the film was shot, and the international nature of what is in fact a polyglot film was erased. Federico Fellini's La strada ( The Road , 1954) features two lead performers from the United States speaking English (Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart) and one from Italy speaking Italian (Giulietta Masina). In terms of screen time and verbal utterances, the two American actors predominate; the Italian lead's lines are negligible. In spite of this, Anglo-American purists invariably judge the dubbed-in-Italian, subtitled-in-English version to be the more authentic even though the lips of two of the three main characters are clearly out of synch with their voices and the film was shot without sound.

The claim that subtitling involves the least interference with the original film is also arguable. Subtitles obstruct the integrity of composition and mise-en-scène by leading the viewers' eyes to the bottom of the frame. They focus audience attention on the translated words and the actors speaking them to the exclusion of peripheral or background dialogue, sound, or characters. They do not provide as full a translation as dubbing, and audiences of subtitled films do not experience the words and the expressions of the performers simultaneously. Subtitling may thus be regarded as undoing the synergy of performance and script, elevating selectively translated dialogue and downgrading the impact and importance of visual expression.

Although neither subtitling nor dubbing is an ideal form of audiovisual translation, recent technological developments have widened their application and reception. The number of individual sound tracks used in feature film sound design has increased (twenty-four tracks or more are now commonplace), as has the number of sound tracks used in the dubbing process. When each speaking character has a separate voice track in the film's original recording, dubbing only for language is possible, leaving the rest of the original aural expression of the film intact. For subtitling, laser processing has enabled the introduction of larger letters, outlined words, broader color ranges, and translucent background bands to increase legibility. But it is digitalization that has brought the most dramatic changes. Analyzing and resynthesizing the voices of dubbing actors make it possible for intonation, tone, and timbre to be adjusted to match those of the source actors almost identically. Asynchrony between lip movements and translated revoicings can also be corrected digitally to achieve lip synchrony, which is especially important in close-ups. The introduction of "soft titles," which are similar to the simultaneous translation one may experience with opera, has been enabled by CD-ROM technology and has allowed for high-quality subtitling for films that have no existing subtitled prints, providing a cheaper and more easily transportable solution than the expensive process of burning subtitles onto a newly struck print.

Finally, the introduction of Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) and the Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) has produced increasing user choice and demand for television and film in other languages. Digital TV (DVB) enables transmission of a number of signals and thus live or simultaneous subtitling—a particularly important development for those countries accustomed to reading subtitles, as it means new access to foreign satellite channels. DVDs have become a crucial mode of film consumption. Their viewers can choose between dubbed or subtitled streams in a range of languages—up to four dubbing tracks and thirty-two subtitled tracks. Translations or subtitles are also required for the extra features frequently found on DVDs, such as trailers, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and biographical information on key cast members. While the subtitling versus dubbing debate is unlikely to ever be resolved, digital technologies have provided new opportunities for both modes of audiovisual translation.

SEE ALSO Dialogue ; Sound ; Technology

Betz, Mark. "The Name above the (Sub)Title: Internationalism, Coproduction, and Polyglot European Art Cinema." Camera Obscura 46 (2001): 1–44.

Danan, Martine. "Dubbing as an Expression of Nationalism." Meta: Journal des Traducteurs/Translator's Journal 36, no. 4 (1991): 606–614.

Egoyan, Atom, and Ian Balfour, eds. Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film . Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004.

Ivarsson, Jan, and Mary Carroll. Subtitling . Simrishamn, Sweden: TransEdit, 1998.

Vincendeau, Ginette. "Hollywood Babel: The Coming of Sound and the Multiple-Language Version." Screen 29, no. 2 (Spring 1988): 24–39.

Whitman-Linsen, Candance. Through the Dubbing Glass: The Synchronization of American Motion Pictures into German, French, and Spanish . New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

Mark Betz

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