The most common explanation for the divide between dubbing and subtitling countries derives from cost: dubbing, the more expensive translation mode, is adopted by the larger, wealthier countries with significant single-language communities, subtitling by the smaller countries whose audiences comprise more restricted markets. While there is some truth to this rationale, cost alone does not dictate national choice: small Central European countries such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia prefer dubbing, despite its high cost. Historical and political developments, along with tradition, are equally important factors.
In Western Europe, dubbing emerged in the early 1930s as the standard method of language transfer in France, Italy, Germany, and Spain (sometimes referred to as the FIGS group). In France, where the Joinville studio was converted into a dubbing center, the supremacy of dubbing derives from the nation's cultural mission to preserve and protect the French language in the face of foreign (especially American) influence, and the prevalence of French as the lingua franca for a populace accustomed to hearing it in its own films. For the other countries of the FIGS group, culture and political ideology were determining causes. Italy, Germany, and Spain, all of which faced cultural boycotts in the mid-1930s and were ruled by fascist governments, only allowed dubbed versions of foreign films. The dictators of these countries understood how hearing one's own language served to confirm its importance and reinforce a sense of national identity and autonomy. In Italy especially—where most people, including the filmmakers themselves, spoke dialect rather than the official Tuscan—dubbing forged the synthetic unity of a shared national language. As early as 1929, Benito Mussolini's government decreed that all films projected on Italian screens must have an Italian-language sound track regardless of where it was produced. Both Francisco Franco's Spain and Adolf Hitler's Germany established strict quotas regarding imports, almost all of which were dubbed. Through the quickly established and standardized dubbing industries that were built up in these nations, dubbed movies came to be seen as local productions. The highly developed and still active dubbing industries in these countries are thus remnants of their political contexts of the early 1930s, when sound film emerged.
Dubbing is a labor-intensive process. In a sound booth, dubbing actors view film segments repeatedly while voicing their lines from a prepared script. Several recording attempts may be necessary to achieve, as near as possible, the synchronization of translated lines of dialogue or other vocalizations with the lip movements of the original on-screen actors. Films are dubbed well or badly depending on the time and care taken and the resources devoted to the process. Until the 1960s, lip synchrony was held by the dubbing industry as the most important factor for sustaining the illusion of watching and hearing a homogeneous whole. Now, lip synch is considered to be of secondary importance, since research has shown that the viewer cannot discern minor slips and discrepancies in lip movements, and asynchrony is not bothersome to audiences in dubbing countries. Audio synchrony, or using voices that fit the characters on the screen, is important to the overall effect, and studios tend to employ the same dubbing actors for well-known foreign stars. This has led in some cases to voice actors achieving star power within the industry, or even becoming film actors in their own right: for example, Monica Vitti (b. 1931), the star of several Michelangelo Antonioni films in the 1960s, came to the director's notice through a dubbing assignment for his film Il Grido ( The Cry , 1957). In the postwar Indian film industry (now commonly referred to as "Bollywood"), the ubiquitous song sequences are sung not by the actors but by professional singers who can become as famous as the screen stars who lip-synch their recordings during shooting.
Even in the dubbing countries there are sectors of the audience who prefer to watch subtitled films. In France these are advertised as "version originale soustitrée" ("original version with subtitles"); in Spain, cinemas increasingly offer both subtitled and dubbed versions of foreign films. Source-language countries—which means English-speaking countries, especially the United States and the United Kingdom—import few films that are not in English and so use these language transfer modes as needed and in a mixed manner. But several non-English-speaking nations, many of which import a high proportion of films, prefer subtitling, including Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the Scandinavian countries.
Subtitling, more cost-effective than dubbing because it dispenses with sound recording and voice actors, is nonetheless complex work. The subtitling industry is not nationalized to the same degree as the dubbing one, since the translators are the key personnel and need not reside in the target country. But a primary issue for subtitling lies in the translation, which entails enormous cuts to the source dialogue—as much as half. While the ideal in subtitling is to translate each utterance in full, the limitation of screen space is a major obstacle. The average viewer's reading speed is 150–180 words per minute, with necessary intervals, which severely limits the duration and hence completeness of the subtitles. The final part of the process involves striking a duplicate photographic print of the master print, while simultaneously exposing it with titles to produce a new print with the titles "burned in." Companies hired to affix the subtitles to film prints face a myriad of possibilities concerning type size and typeface, background and placement, indications for extended sentences and multiple speakers, and the like. As with dubbing, films can be subtitled well or badly.