A plus rarely raised for subtitles in the sub vs. dub debate, is their reverse-compatibility. A subtitled film is accessible to two languages. Films can even be double-subbed to be accessible to three different languages.

It feels like such a rip-off to flick channels and stop at The Avengers or Return of the Jedi, only to realise it's dubbed: both low quality for the French (since many voice actors have the acting ability of a porn star) and inaccessible to the English. I would never have seen More if it weren't for subtitles, since it's a rare movie to find in video stores and was playing on a French channel. And, interesting to note, I found it hard not to read the French subtitles, which is contrary to many people's arguments against subtitles and also served to add a little to my French vocabulary.

Subtitles would also be useful for films that incorporate more than two languages. For example, in Seven Years in Tibet, Brad Pitt played an Austrian, who travelled to Tibet with some Germans. There seemed to be hardly any language barriers, considering everybody was fluent in English. Now, were they really all speaking English? Or German? Or Tibetan? Or Chinese?

But who really cares, it's only a movie.


Thanks, Gamaliel. The Red Violin is a great subtitling example.
As far as I’m concerned, dubbing a foreign movie into your native language usually destroys the whole experience. It drains every ounce of the culture out of the movie. All of the feeling in the character’s voices are removed and replaced with dry, emotionless voice acting. You can barely call it acting. It sounds more like someone blandly reading a script. And who casts these people? The voices never "fit" the characters. Given the option I will always chose subtitled. It is sad that the US is such an uncultured country. Most people I know will refuse to watch a movie simply because it isn't dubbed.

Still, there are actually cases where dubbing enhances a movie, though there are only a few circumstances where this is true.

Example A: Sometimes dubbed Kung Fu movies are more fun to watch. My friend and I love watching these Wu-Tang kung fu movies from the 70s. We only watch these movies for their comedic value, as the plot isn't worth following and the fighting is poorly choreographed and looks fake. They are so terrible to begin with, the god aweful voice acting makes them much more hysterical.

Example B: There are some rare circumstances where the voice acting is actually very good. Each voice actually fits the character's personality. The acting is actually somewhat convincing. The translation isn't too shady. Very few movies actually fit into this category. As far as I know, the only one that fits into this category is the first season of the Ranma 1/2 anime series.

One of the best examples of subtitling is in the fantastic movie The Red Violin, which has scenes in four different languages and it all works together smoothly. Thankfully, this wasn’t a Hollywood blockbuster or it would be an English-only mess.

I absolutely think subtitling is the way to go most of the time, but let me play devil’s advocate and throw out a few pro-dubbing notes. White subtitles can be very hard to read (but the recent trend is yellow subtitles). And the subtitled version of El Mariachi does not translate the song he sings in the bathtub with the knife at his throat, which is one of the funniest moments in the movie, while the dubbed version does.

One as yet unmentioned benefit of subbing is that you eventually start to pick up bits and pieces of the original language. I've picked up a small amount of Japansese from watching various anime, and it sparked my interest enough to sign up for elementary Japanese next semester.

The debate of dub vs sub is unfortunately often dominated by unfounded generalizations and rampant elitism on part of those who claim that subtitles are always superior, weak forms of which are also observable in the other writeups. In bad cases, anybody who prefers dubs is summarily accused of being illiterate.

Let's analyse it a bit closer:

Pro sub / Anti dub

  1. Subs allow you to pick up fragments of the foreign language: true, but these are worthless (often worse than worthless) if used out of context and without true understanding of the language, which can only be acquired through real lessons. Only when you actually know the language well enough to understand a substantial amount of what is being said and still read the subtitles at the same time can watching subtitled movies truly help you to learn a language. On the other hand, your pronounciation can benefit right from the beginning.

  2. Dub voice actors are bad / the voices are emotionless: unfounded generalization - sure, too often, this is the case, but it's a matter of budget, and experience, not a fundamental weakness of dubs. In the case of anime this is nowadays usually not the case, but bad experiences from 10 years ago still aren't forgotten. Some also say that the original voice actors are also often bad, but this is less noticeable when one doesn't understand the language.

  3. Dubs destroy the experience / drain the culture of the movie: Define "experience". if the main reason you watch the movie is because it's in another language, this may be right, but for the movie itself, very rarely does the language really make a difference, even less if you can't even understand it. And the culture is conveyed by settings, people's actions and the content of what they say, not the language. Of course, if this is really your gut feeling, it can't be disproven, but be aware that it's a personal preference, not an objective difference.

  4. Subtitles are translated more exactly / dub translations lose the content: the latter is nonsense, probably an unfounded generalization from a few hacked anime shown on US TV (e.g. Dragonball, Sailor Moon) that were intentionally changed. It is true that subtitles are a bit less restricted in respect to mouth movement, but this is usually a minor factor. In some cases, subtitles are more literal and assume more knowledge from the audience, while the dub is targeted at a broader audience and does things like substitute expressions that require background knowledge. But this is a decision made by the translator, not a fundamental weakness of dubs.

  5. Subtitles show you the movie as the director intended you to see it: He or she sure didn't intend you to watch it in a language you don't know and read a translation at the bottom of the screen. The language being used was almost certainly not a deliberate choice of the director. There are reports of cases where the dub was considered superior by the creator of the original.

  6. A dub changes the work, and I want to see the original: Well, a sub also changes it, and realistically, there isn't really anything sacrosanct about the "original" - it was likely a compromise between the artistic visions of the various people involved in the making, as well as considerations of the target audience and budget and time constraints. Even without all these factors, most creative people are never really completely satisfied with a work and would continue to change it if they could. Still, this is a valid reason to prefer subs if you feel that way, just don't overestimate its significance.

Pro dub / Anti sub

  1. You can watch a dub more casually, e.g. while eating and don't miss as much of what's going on. Obviously true, but then, it's kinda sacrilegous not to give your full attention to a good film.

  2. Dubs are cheaper: true for VHS tapes, but this is of course artificial (well, a function of market dynamics), not an inherent benefit of a dub. And with the advent of DVDs it ceases to be an issue.

  3. The subtitles sometimes change to fast so that you miss stuff: Depends of course very much on the film. People often dismiss this by questioning the education and/or intelligence of those who complain about this, which is a cheap underhanded way of avoiding the issue. It may be true that some people can read faster than anyone can talk, but you can't expect everyone to learn that, and beyond a certain minimum, reading speed does not correlate directly with education, far less intelligence. And in some cases, when actors talk extremely fast, or in Kare-Kano, where the original extensively uses on-screen text on top of fast-talking actors, subtitles are simply insufficient.

  4. The subtitles lessen the viewing experience: film is a visual medium, and the subtitles partially hide the visual part, and drain away attention that you should be able to pay to the visuals. Some people claim that they can take in the complete screen and read all the subtitles at the same time without moving their eyes. Personally, I find this physically impossible; it obviously depends on how sharp your peripheral vision is, which is not something people can control. So for some, this may be less of an issue than for others.

In conclusion, it should be clear by now that there exists no encompassing superiority of either format; what you choose to view depends on personal preference. My opinion is that the weaknesses of subs are stronger and cannot be avoided, but those of dubs, while avoidable, are worse when present. IMO a bad dub is a helluva lot less watchable than a bad sub, but a good dub is much more enjoyable than any sub can be. However, I watch almost exclusively subbed anime because by now, my Japanese can really benefit from it.

If I missed anything, /msg me.

Let's look at what dubbing does to your experience of watching a movie: The original actor's voice is replaced with another actor's voice, often from the country where the film is being distributed. Aside from the obvious facts that this is replacing the original actor's vocal performance with an often inferior one, and is basically undermining the whole point of acting (can you imagine dubbing in theater?), it just looks very weird when the lips don't match the words.

Now, of course, Germany has their own Woody Allen voice-impersonator, Italy has its Harrison Ford, Spain has it's own Sharon Stone (most of France's has the common sense not to dub its films), but generally these country's citizens grew up with these voices matched to these actors and they've gotten used to the strangeness of it all. Thankfully, we are not used to it, nor should we get used to it. The stigma against dubbed films we see here is a natural one. It's like saying you have a stigma against Cheese Whiz. It's artificial and doesn't taste as good. If someone cares about foreign movies so much, how come they're making the Cheese Whiz instead of fostering the Brie?

Interestingly, I recently read in an article in a newspaper that the reason most foreign movies on American TV are dubbed is because the average American's reading speed is slower than the average actor's talking speed. Resultantly, the TV stations find they can attaract a much larger audience for dubbed films than for subtitled, because a lot of people don't read fast enough to read all the subtitles. Some people who are aware of this fact claim to dislike dubbing because it's effectively saying "I accept an inferior experience because I can't read fast enough to simeltaniously watch the images"; People don't want to admit this.

Personally, I prefer subtitles, because I can read fast enough to still enjoy the film, but mostly I watch English films anyway.

Deaf people can't read the lips of people speaking a language they don't know. If you dub a movie into their language it does no good. If you subtitle it then they can read the words.

Don't just worry about preserving the cultural nuances.

Make the film accessible to the most people you can.

Of course, if you are blind then subtitles won't help you at all, but you can still listen to a dubbed film. Thanks to Starke7764 for pointing that out to me. I suppose this demonstrates how well produced DVDs are helping to make films more accessible to all by including various soundtracks and optional subtitles.

I've watched lots of foreign films. I've seen lots of bad dubbing. But I've also seen lots of bad subbing - subtitles that were incomplete or poorly translated, requiring me to back up several times in the movie and read the text over and over (ignoring what's actually happening on the screen) in an attempt to figure out what the characters are talking about.

So dubbing's better, right?

Not necessarily. Dubbing has its own problems, and they have been thoroughly described above.

So which is better? One's better than the other, right? Right? TELL ME WHAT TO THINK!

Please. Both have their merits, and I tend to watch most movies both ways (hooray for DVD). But dubbing is not the Pit of Evil and Despair the above writeups tend to make it out to be. Cowboy Bebop, for instance, is proof that dubs can be just as good (and maybe even a little bit better) than their subtitled counterparts. The translation is excellent, all the voice actors - even for bit parts like Rocco Bonarro - are fantastic, and great care was taken to make the speech match the mouth movements of the characters.

I also recently watched Jet Li's Fist of Legend on DVD. While I was disappointed that there was no subtitled version, the dubbing was fine - the translation was clear, lip movements matched well, and voices were well chosen. The voice actor for Jet Li actually sounded like Li. It didn't detract from the movie at all.

So both dubbing and subbing can be done poorly or well. I don't think either one has an inherent, innate advantage over the other.

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