Dubbed a mystery – A reflection on film translation

Since the death of silent film and the birth of the ‘talkies’ in the late 1920s, the question of how to translate on-screen entertainment has been a worldwide conundrum. Almost a century later, film translation has developed into an art form of its own – yet approaches remain very different.

For anyone watching a dubbed Hollywood blockbuster for the first time, it’s quite a shock to hear your childhood idols speaking in the ‘wrong’ voice, the ‘wrong’ language, and, most likely, slightly out of sync with their own mouths. And for those who grew up swallowing subtitles at almost 200 words a minute while still keeping an eye on the action, the concept of dubbing seems equally alien. Yet dubbing remains a major, even award-winning, industry across Europe and the world. So what can it tell us about the way different countries relate to language?

Dubbing vs. subtitling

Most native English speakers will never have encountered a live-action film dubbed into their own language, despite the fact that foreign programming is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. By contrast, trying to find a non-dubbed screening of the latest release in Germany can sometimes feel like Mission Impossible. The situation is similar in France, Spain and Italy, while in countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, a dubbed version can be as hard to come by as in the UK.

Why? It’s not about language proficiency: the average level of English in German-speaking countries is comparable to countries where subtitles are the norm, and is almost identical to Poland, where dubbing is the dominant form. Neither is the size of the target audience a deciding factor: dubbing is still widespread in countries such as Serbia, where the number of native speakers (8.7 million) is comparable to that of, say, Sweden (9.2 million), where subtitling is most popular.

Cultural implications

While the origins of these conventions remain a mystery (and the subject of many opinionated online threads), a country’s stance on subtitling vs. dubbing offers interesting insights into its view of languages – both its own and others. The English subtitling approach has resulted in a distinct cultural cachet being attached to the viewing of foreign films – we feel terribly proud and cultured for achieving the same level of multi-tasking as most eight-year-olds in Scandinavia. In French-speaking Canada, however, English language films are consistently dubbed into French despite the bilinguality of its core audience, indicating that the choice to dub may be a cultural and linguistic statement as much as a commercial decision. And given that many Germans speak and read impeccable English, the flourishing German dubbing industry makes an implicit statement about the cultural significance of providing entertainment in your native language.

Set in our ways

Despite the oft-cited educational value of subtitling for second language acquisition, dubbing continues to prevail in many countries, both in Europe and internationally. Whatever the reason for it, film translation conventions seem unlikely to change in the near future: the ‘cultured’ English will continue struggling to read and watch at the same time in Arts Picturehouses across the country, and much of Western Europe will continue to enjoy horrifically dubbed primetime butcheries of US sitcoms. And we will probably all continue to believe that we are doing it the ‘right’ way.

Photo by Noom Peerapong on Unsplash



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