Dubbing Versus Subtitling

The choice of dubbing or subtitling has been a controversial issue for more than 70 years. As part of my uni dissertation, which was about audiovisual translation, I wrote a small chapter about the pros and cons of each technique and thought you might find this useful.

Subtitles can be shortly defined as “an abbreviated version of the dialogue, which is projected on the screen”. As for dubbing, it consists in “an alternate, synchronised soundtrack of the complete dialogue”.  Some countries tend to traditionally use subtitles (Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Dutch-speaking Belgium) whereas others prefer dubbing (France, Spain, Germany and Italy). The choice of one approach rather than another not only depends on the country’s preferences, but also on its cultural, ideological and linguistic particularities. Nevertheless, for some types of programmes such as those aimed at children, dubbing is the only option because the viewers have not yet learned to read or can simply not read quickly enough to follow the subtitles.

In order to have a clear idea about what dubbing and subtitling imply, I thought fit to draw a comparison between the advantages and the disadvantages of each of these two modes of audiovisual transfer.

Advantages of dubbing

–     Unless they pay good attention to read lips in the original version, viewers will rarely be able to identify potential mistakes. Thus, in case of censorship, dubbing is generally favoured. This is what happened in Spain under Franco’s dictatorship, which prohibited all original versions with subtitles and improved synchronisation in order to change dialogues and convey so‑called higher moral values.

–     Dialogues do not need to be abbreviated as in theory there is no limit to space. However, the writer of a dubbed script will have to pay attention to the movements of the lips.

–     The viewers can focus their attention on the images and the words at the same time whereas in subtitled versions they constantly have to look up and down the screen to be able to follow the story.

Disadvantages of dubbing

–     Synchronisation is the major element that needs to be taken into account  and it poses considerable problems. When dubbing, the writer is not free to modify the text as he wishes to make the speech in the target language more natural. On the contrary, he has to strictly follow what appears on the screen and the dubbed dialogue should fit the lip movements of the actors.

–     Even when the lip movements of the actors is well synchronised with the voice in the translated version, dubbing only creates “the illusion of an illusion”. A perfect synchronisation is almost impossible as one-to-one substitutions are very uncommon. For instance, some words have only one syllable in English and two or more in French. This is the case for the English word hat, the French translation of which is chapeau.

–     Dubbing a movie can be up to 15 times more expensive than adding subtitles. Thus, it is advisable to use subtitles for languages that are not commonly spoken because dubbing would not be cost-effective.

Advantages of subtitling

–     Subtitling is far less expensive than dubbing, which is why smaller countries tend to favour this mode of transfer. It is worth mentioning that voice-over, where both the original and the translated versions can be heard, is even less expensive than subtitling and is widely used in countries such as Russia and Poland.

–     When they started to use subtitles, the Scandinavian countries discovered that listening to the original dialogue made it possible for the viewers to improve their language skills. In 1987, a research project was carried out on 4200 students of English from nine European countries. This research revealed that students from “subtitling countries” were better at listening comprehension than students from “dubbing countries.

Disadvantages of subtitling

–     The audience cannot see the screen. They have to pay too much attention to the translated words at the expense of the other surrounding elements such as the sound, the movie set or the characters.

–     Subtitles are mainly criticised because they omit elements of the original dialogue.

–     It is easy for viewers who know both the original and subtitled versions to detect mistakes. However, it is far more difficult to improve subtitles in a concise way.

In conclusion, one can say that neither dubbing nor subtitling is a perfect mode of audiovisual translation. Each of the two methods has its drawbacks, which can be less important in some situations than in others. Phonetics is the central element of dubbing whereas subtitling emphasizes semantics. According to Edmond Cary, because dubbing not only has to follow the written text, but also the soul of the words, articulation and gesture, it should be placed at the top of the translation pyramid. In any case, before he starts anything, the translator has to deeply understand the source text, whether it is for dubbing or subtitling. This implies analysing the text sequence by sequence and watching the movie at least twice. Some authors even argue that it takes months for the target version to be original. Yet, the translator always has to rush so that the target version is released in due time.

I got most of my references from the following books/online articles, so if you wish to read more about this topic, check them out ;-)

  • ZATLIN, Ph., (2005), Theatrical Translation and Film Adaptation: A Practitioner’s View.
  • TRANSLATION DIRECTORY, Subtitling and Dubbing: Restrictions and Priorities, [Online].
  • BETZ, M., Dubbing versus subtitling, [Online].

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