Today, thanks to the technology’s improvements, we have access to movies from basically any part of the world. As people usually speak 1 to 3 languages aside from their mother tongue, it has quickly become a real need for the cinema industry to make movies available for foreign people in order to increase their popularity – and thus their business.
Now when it comes to making a movie understandable for foreign cultures, there are two options; to subtitle it or to dub it. Both of them offer language understanding of the film and have pros and cons.
If you don’t really get the difference between these two practices, here is a small explanation of subtitling and dubbing, and their differences.
What is dubbing?
Dubbing a movie means recording all human sounds of the source-version in the target-language and replacing them. It is a kind of auditive copy-paste in another language to make the characters “speak” in the target version. To do this “revoicing”, the dubbers replace the original voices with theirs, trying to fit the movements of the lips as much as possible in order to make it seem real.
This is the big challenge. There are many ways to say the same thing, and the dubbers must find the best one to make it as natural as possible. How does it work? They are alone in a room, facing a screen on which the movie is shown, and they record their part in a microphone. Think about the difficulty when they must take some intonations such as surprise, fear or overjoy on request. And what about the musicals, Disney & Co? Well, most dubbers must also have the musical ear!
When should you watch a dubbed movie?
Watching dubbed movies is perfect when you don’t really mind the original language and just want to watch a movie and relax. When you don’t have enough knowledge in the source-language of the movie but don’t want to kill your eyes reading for 1:40, a dubbed film will be perfect for you. Most children’s productions such as cartoons are automatically dubbed because it makes it easier for them to understand.
If there is a risk in watching a dubbed movie, it is that the dubbing is of bad quality. If you can see too many discrepancies between the audio and the lips of the characters it can become very annoying and sting your eyes! In a similar way, sometimes you can feel that the voice in the dubbed version just doesn’t fit at all with the character, their appearance, etc.
What is subtitling?
Subtitling is the art of inserting all dialogs, voice-overs, sometimes even background sounds, on the bottom of the screen, while the audio track of the movie remains the original one. In order to understand the movie, the spectator has to keep reading the subtitles as the film is going on.
Subtitles are usually white or yellow with a black border, in order to contrast with the image behind. They take around ¼ of the screen and are placed at the bottom. The aim of the subtitles is to let whatever is going on at the moment fit in a maximum of 2 lines and up to 40 characters. Beyond these, it is too much and you don’t have enough time to read everything. Challenging too, isn’t it?
And when should you watch a subtitled movie?
The biggest perk of watching a movie with subtitles is that you can enjoy the real intonations, tones of voice, etc. of the actors. Many purists can only bear to watch foreign movies in VOST because dubbed films sometimes kind of “ruin” the original version.
However, subtitled movies are not reachable by everyone, the first obstacle being the age: a child who doesn’t read very fast yet, will surely get lost after a few minutes, the subtitles go much faster for them. Beware, adults too can have difficulties with it, when a movie gets too long or deals with very deep and thought-provoking subjects. Eyes get tired from focusing on the reading.
Which one do people prefer?
Depending on the country, dubbed movies will be more widespread than subtitled ones, and vice versa. Dubbing is a common practice in German-speaking countries (for some reason subtitles are not accepted and used as much as in other European countries), Italy (the principal base of the dubbing industry is Rome, well then…), Spain, China and India but also Brazil since 2012 only, leading to the opening of many cinemas in the past 4 years!
On the other hand, Scandinavian countries are really fond of subtitles, but also the United States, Mexico or Japan, where only cartoons or programmes for children are actually dubbed.
Oh, and I almost forgot a third category, which is the voiceover dub, dating back to the Soviet Union in the 80s, consisting of dubbing over instead of in the place of the original, which I guess was creating a total auditive mess… Luckily, this practice is now more anecdotal than actually used for movies, although it is still used for documentaries in which you can hear the voice of the person speaking behind the voice of the commentator.
To conclude, which one is the best?
Both are great, it depends on the situation, on your preferences, even on your mood! My advice would be perhaps to choose depending on the kind of movie you want to watch, if you are alone or not, etc.
One last thing: either dubbed or subtitled, beware of bad translations! You can always find an unreliable version which you will forget – or worse, misinterpret – jokes, puns, or even simple sentences… You’ve been warned!