Friday, January 21, 2011

Subbed vs. Dubbed: Where do you stand?

This is a guest post by TeachStreet writer Kenji Crosland. TeachStreet is a website dedicated to providing local and online classes, including foreign language classes in languages like Spanish and French.

There’s a lot lost in translation: humor, depth, and sometimes even the basic meaning of words themselves. Although great translators can manage to capture the spirit of the original, it can take them years to do so. I have even heard of some translators spending days pondering the nuance of a single phrase! Because of strict deadlines, however, film translators don’t have that kind of luxury, and thus the translations aren’t as good as they could be.

A very clever joke in English, for example, might go flat when translated into Japanese. With time, a translator might be able to think of a way to make a joke work, but usually they can’t. I had this experience myself when I watched the movie “Dodgeball” in Tokyo. I must have laughed out loud several times at intervals when the crowd was silent. It was not until I had read the subtitles that I realized why. Oftentimes certain jokes weren’t translated at all, and were replaced with lame Japanese jokes that were similar in nature but failed to hit the punchline.

I was able to forgive the translators their terrible work because I knew just how difficult a job it was. A year or two back I had read a Japanese news article (Sorry, the title escapes me) about how hard it is to translate for movies. You can’t have subtitles crowding half the screen, so you’re limited to a certain amount of characters (just like twitter). When the actors are talking rapid-fire, sometimes you have to cut out part of what they’re saying from your translation just to keep up with the flow. Jokes, which often require cultural and linguistic context, often don’t stand a chance.

If you’re dubbing, however, you have a little more freedom. Although dubbing has a bad reputation in the States because the voice acting for most dubbed movies is horrendous and the words often appear out of sync with mouth movements, we must remember that the budget simply isn’t there to make dubbing better (by hiring better actors, sound technicians, etc). When done right, however, dubbing can be a good alternative to subtitles. First of all, you’re able to add more colloquial language which can be less stilted than subtitles. If you have a comedian voice actor, for example, they might be able to ad lib a joke or even use a certain voice inflections which carry a joke’s meaning much more effectively than a stale sentence would. Furthermore, although you have a time limit, you have no character limit, so you may not have to cut short dialogue in order to fit the screen.

Personally, I haven’t seen many good dubbed movies myself, although some animated movies seem to do a fair job at it. I have heard it’s possible, however. I can’t speak for myself, but a friend of mine told me that the dubbed Italian version of the first Spiderman movie was done so well it was hard to tell that they weren’t the original voices.

If I had a choice, I’d probably choose subtitles over dubbing most of the time. In some movies, however, the subtitles can be so distracting from the action that you’ll spend more time reading than actually watching--especially when you don’t know one word of the original language (I had this experience with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).

My guess is that most people prefer subtitles to dubbed movies. I’m wondering, however, if the vote wouldn’t turn out differently if more time and money was spent improving the quality of dubbed films. So what do you think? Subbed or Dubbed?


S.G. said...

When I was younger I was involved in Japanese anime (& manga) fandom for a few years, and the overwhelming preference in those communities is for subtitled, I guess because it's the most "pure" form of a work of anime. At that time a lot of dubbed anime was not just dubbed -- sometimes they were massacred and changed into almost completely different shows (usually when they were trying to make them palatable for the North American childrens' TV market). However apparently in recent years, DVDs of shows like that also come with a "light touch" version of the dub that aims to keep as true to the original as possible [].

Once, a long time ago, I read an interesting web post about how subtitled anime, with no dub available, can make it much less accessible to people with disabilities such as dyslexia, especially if there is a lot of information being transmitted in the subtitles. That's something to think about too.

Unknown said...


Sarah Irving said...

Subbed, definitely! It's less intrusive, somehow, and doesn't leave the viewer with unfortable gaps where a character is mouthing words and no sound is coming out. Also, I love subtitles movies for when I'm trying to learn a langauge - either in my language with the new tongue in subtitles or vice versa, it can be a great tool for listening and comprehension.

B.J. Epstein said...

I agree -- subbed!

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...


But I live in Italy where everything except pirated movies is dubbed, AND we have very good dubbers.

Anonymous said...

Subbed for me.

Having lived in a country that sub-titles movies, moving to a country that dubs them is very disturbing. Actors suddenly have a different voice than the (real) voice you're used to, different actors in two different movies end up with the same (wrong) voice, and so on.
The advantage of sub-titling is that it helps you to learn a foreign language. It happened many times that when a movie was interrupted because of a problem with the subtitles (that was in the 80's) we actually hadn't noticed that the subtitles had gone.

There's also a fun side to subbing, when you detect that the sub-titling doesn't match what is said. And with subbing, the jokes aren't lost in translation either...

Nyasha said...

Nice article! By the way, would you be interested in reading and commenting your opinion on whether you believe subbed vs dubbed animes is better?