To dub or to sub?
Who wants to read when they’re in
the cinema? Here are two very different
opinions on a good night out
Although I like watching films in their original language, there are instances when dubbing is okay. Cinema is about sound and vision; it is not a medium that encourages reading and subtitles can be a distraction from the onscreen action.
In the silent era producers reduced rambling monologues to succinct dialogue intertitles – the film was international because all that was needed was to was change the intertitles to a different language.
And with sound film-makers do the same thing – replace the original language so that it can be understood in every market. You maybe moan the lack of subtlety in delivery and nuance but really that’s more down to the dubbing quality than your ability to detect cultural nuances in another language.
Then there’s the prospect of encouraging the next generation of cinephiles. Do you really expect a child to sit through Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea reading the subtitles rather than listening to Frozen because you want to enjoy the original Japanese soundtrack? The film was designed to be enjoyed by five-year-olds, not adults.
Dubbing is not always inherently bad – after all, primitive forms of dubbing were used on early sound films when the actors and actresses from other cultures didn’t possess sufficient language skills to make the film work but were perfect for the role in all other respects.
In Sergio Leone westerns (the Man With No Name trilogy etc) about half the dialogue was dubbed because the actors spoke different languages. And that finest of animations, Jan Svankmajer’s Alice, surely gains an added layer of surrealism precisely because the lip movements do not match the dialogue.
Whatever worthy gain can be obtained from watching a film subtitled is surely outweighed by introducing a wider and more diverse selection of world cinema to a general audience whose mainstream exposure to cinema is English-based content. Surely that can’t be a bad thing?
It’s an oft repeated and somewhat inevitable retort when, having suggested a film that someone might like, they reply with one of the two questions that plague the cineaste: “It isn’t in black and white, is it?” or “It’s not subtitled, is it?”
In some ways Hollywood films seem so ubiquitous that anything else is simply labelled “world cinema” and therefore to be avoided. But there is still a need to champion the subtitled film – even as something that is just different to the slew of rom-coms and CGI rollercoasters.
Keeping a film’s soundtrack intact is as important as keeping its image intact – it’s part of the essence of the film. Without the proper dialogue the nuances of the acting, the meaning in the intonation and the natural rhythm of the language are lost.
I wouldn’t expect a pair of Levis and a tee-shirt to be superimposed on Charlton Heston’s Ben Hur any more than I want to hear the whining voice that emanates from Franka Potente’s mouth in the dubbed version of Lola rennt (Run Lola Run). Given that most of us don’t have the time to learn Korean, French, Cantonese and Mandarin, Urdu, Hindi and Spanish subtitling offers the path of least damage. Sure, the results are not always perfect but you get closer to the film-maker’s meaning when watching the film. Besides which, hearing the original language helps create a better sense of culture.
The sadistic part of me loves seeing people squirm in the cinema when they are not expecting subtitles And how many times do you see a trailer for a subtitled film where no-one actually speaks? It happens quite often – we either hear the gravel-voiced man talking about epics or we see a number of quotes zooming from the screen intercut with carefully- edited action that allows only for the generic “Woooarghhh!” of a battle cry or maybe a diegetic kissing sound.
Are we selling world cinema under the pretence that it might be in English after all?
Michelle Le Blanc