Subtitling vs. Dubbing: The Great Debate

26/02/2019 | Marketing Team
Subtitling vs dubbing
Netflix increases their selection of foreign language films and TV shows

The last few years have seen a boom in the popularity of foreign films and television shows, and TV giants like Netflix are increasing their selection of foreign language films and series. As a result of many foreign language films and TV shows like Narcos being a huge success with viewers, English-speaking audiences are getting used to subtitles and dubbing as more foreign language films are set to heading to their screens soon.

Indie vs. Crowd-pleaser

In March 2010, the British Film Council (BFC) ordered its own survey to determine whether audiences preferred their foreign language movies to be subtitled or dubbed. Working on the BFC’s behalf, OTX Research polled audience members who had just seen the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The researchers visited the Curzon cinema in Mayfair, London, the Vue in Hull and the Odeon Printworks in Manchester.

Audiences in Hull only had the option of seeing the dubbed film, while in London only the subtitled version was shown. In Manchester, audiences had the option of seeing either format. The researchers concluded that fans of mainstream cinema, such as blockbusters like Avatar, were most likely to see the dubbed version of the film. Meanwhile, those who saw the subtitled version were more likely to have an interest in foreign language and arthouse films. In addition, 65% of those who saw the subtitled film watched non-English language movies either a lot or occasionally, compared to 34% of those who saw the dubbed version.

A matter of taste

In the end, the research company reported back to the BFC that offering the choice of watching a non-English language film either with dubbing or subtitles was the best option if it wanted to attract a wide range of audience members. This was supported by the finding that audiences in Manchester – where they had the choice of film versions – had given The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the most favourable rating A.

The findings presented to the BFC are particularly interesting as it’s often easy to assume subtitles would be the preferred option when watching a foreign language film. After all, this option means the audience can hear the real voices of the actors, while the lack of synchronisation between dubbed dialogue and the movement of the actors’ mouths can prove distracting. In addition, dubbed films sometimes feature a handful of actors performing as multiple characters, which might make the experience less enjoyable and even a little confusing.

The downside of dubbing

However, according to the blog Lonely Translations, one of the biggest issues with selecting dubbed over subtitled is that it may reduce the viewer’s ability to learn a new language. To support its findings, it cites the English Proficiency Index from a few years ago and reveals that in this survey people in Spain had the least grasp of the English language in Europe. They also live somewhere where non-Spanish films and television programmes are almost always dubbed. Lonely Translation believes that these two facts are linked.

“Does it not make sense, then, that by watching and listening to TV programmes and films in English, foreign viewers are more likely to improve their ear for the language, their pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary?” the blogger asks.

Of course, when an audience goes to see a film, their primary reason for being there is likely to be entertainment, rather than a desire to learn a new language. However, dubbing may also infringe on this enjoyment, as TV Tropes claims subtitles are more accurate than voice-over. As a result, some humour, quirks, character traits and authenticity will be translated better to the audience.

The downside of subtitles

Having said that, reading subtitles can mean the viewer misses some of what’s going on onscreen, whether that’s the visual action or the subtitles themselves due to the speed the characters are talking. It could also alter the way a person would usually watch a film. For example, when watching a horror they might close their eyes or look away, but they can’t do this if they are reading subtitles as they will have no idea what is going on if they don’t understand the language.

The majority of users who prefer dubbing over subtitles are usually the viewers where the “ease of viewing” is a priority. Dubbing allows users to be able to sit back and relax, whereas subtitles usually require viewers to pay full attention to the film at all times or else they’ll miss out on important information. As a result of this, Netflix set the majority of their foreign films and TV shows (like 3% and Dark) to dubbed by default, rather than subtitles.

Pick a side, subtitling or dubbing?

Perhaps there will never be a conclusion to this debate as it’s so subjective. It may be that the recommendation made to the BFI was right and that the best option is to give people the choice. As foreign language films and TV shows continue to sweep the boards at awards ceremonies and accumulate significant profits, we all need to pick a side: dubbed or subtitled?

22 Replies to “Subtitling vs. Dubbing: The Great Debate”

  1. Dubbing. I never watch foreign with subs. If I can’t watch it in English, I won’t watch it, simple as that, I don’t care how good it is. Ever since Netflix started offering English dubbings, I’ve watched Spanish, Korean and Japanese movies, and now even an Arab one. I didn’t mind initially switching to English manually, but obviously I like it better now that it’s the default.

    • It’s an interesting debate as it really does appear to come down to personal preference. There are pros and cons to both, and it can also depend on whether you’re the type of person to watch a film intently and read subtitles or just put a program on in the background and listen to the dubbing. Being given the choice is key!

    • Me for example, I don’t like dubbing. I’d rather watch a movie with its original character voices. If you know both versions of the same movie/series, the dubbed version just sounds odd. Always. I watch Arabic shows, Japanese and Spanish movies only subtitled. Would there be only a dubbed version as it unfortunately mostly is on Prime Video, those movies become irrelevant to me.

      • So true! I tried watching russian or japanes movies dubbed in English and just doesn’t feel true at all.

  2. This is such a great debate! Thanks for sharing such an informative blog about subtitling vs dubbing. Once again thanks for taking the time to gather them all in one place!

  3. Good Blog Actually! Thanks for sharing… Effective subtitling makes any audio, video program universally appealing. But many services fails to give flawless subtitling Dubbing services that enhances the value of content.

  4. After hearing season three of 3% was coming out, I decided to give it a go.
    I was watching it online, without English dubbing, so I had to use subtitles.
    This is OK, the Portuguese wasn’t that distracting, I was fine.

    I watched the entire first season.
    Liked it very much.

    Recently, I had a chance to watch beginning of season two on Netflix at a friends house.
    By default it was in English audio.
    I was really put off, because the new dialogue sounded nothing like the original actors.
    Ezekiel was totally different, and his Voice, to me, didn’t even match his character that I had become used to in season one.
    So even though it was more effort, I chose to watch it in original Portuguese audio, with English subtitles.

    In contrast, I watched the original season of Dark on Netflix when it came out. In English.
    Recently, I started watching season two the exact same way, in English.
    Fortunately for me, I had forgotten the complicated storyline & started rewatching season one.
    Today I read an article about how you’re missing out if you watch dark in English, so I’m gonna go back to change my audio to German and see how it is.

    One thing that always confused me, is how the subtitles don’t even match the audio.
    Recently, and I can’t remember what it is, someone said something like the big bang was 120 million years ago , And the subtitles didn’t even match the number. It said like 118 million years ago. I don’t think this is the exact example, because I can’t remember, but it was that idea. Person on the screen says 50, why will the English subtitles say 48? It’s just dumb inconsistencies like that, that makes me wonder which is the original intent of the writer and director. It makes me feel like I’m missing something, but I don’t know what.

    A Wise man said once: a man with two thermometers doesn’t know which one to trust?

  5. Depends on the type of movie. If it is an action/adventure film with plenty of visual effects, I prefer dubbing. For movies that are more introspective, and often focus on the characters through dialogue, I prefer subtitles.

  6. That said, I feel like it s a different scenario when it comes to live-action compared to animation. In a live-action series, you really do want to concentrate on the actor s WHOLE performance. I can t imagine watching Sidse Babett Knudsen s incredibly subtle work on the great Danish drama Borgen then hearing the voice of, like, Dana Delany coming out of her mouth, much as I love Dana Delany. So while I can appreciate a good dub (especially for animation), I would generally rather watch something with subtitles, even if I have to look away every so often to absorb the text. I don t think I miss THAT much of the performance in the process.

  7. That said, I feel like it s a different scenario when it comes to live-action compared to animation. In a live-action series, you really do want to concentrate on the actor s WHOLE performance.I can t imagine watching Sidse Babett Knudsen s incredibly subtle work on the great Danish drama Borgen then hearing the voice of, like, Dana Delany coming out of her mouth, much as I love Dana Delany. So while I can appreciate a good dub (especially for animation), I would generally rather watch something with subtitles, even if I have to look away every so often to absorb the text. I don t think I miss THAT much of the performance in the process.

  8. I come from Croatia. Here we do not dubb foreign movies, maybe only cartoons or some documentary.

    I think subtitle are great because you can improve your English (I even like to watch English movies and series with English sub so if I don’t hear I can always read. Choosing subtitles instead of dubbing is the reason why, in my opinion Croatians are good in other languages. I can speak, read, write in English, I can understand and even speak a little bit of Italian and Spanish, and I can understand sometimes French, German and so on.

    The other benefit of subtitles is that its the only way to fully appreciate and enjoy actor and his acting. I had opportunity to watch Italian Tv and to see Freeman, DeNiro, Streep, Earl Jones, Irons, Hopkins and other and hear someone else is really strange and the experience isn’t the same.

    I first saw Dark in English, and it felt so strange, then I switched to original (German) and it was so much better.

  9. It depends largely on the quality of the dubbing. Reading subtitles is too distracting on some shows, but a bad dubbing can also ruin the realism and impact of the actor’s emotions on the viewer.

    That said, we watch TV for entertainment. In that scenario a dubbed show is a more relaxing experience and gives you the chance to look around your surroundings and not have your eyes “glued” to the screen, less eye strain.

    Given today’s technology, a good voice actor could effectively transmit emotions to the viewer, and the voice could be digitally enhanced to match the original actor’s voice. Sort of a “deep fake” for voice. A given voice clip can be stretched or compressed without changing the pitch.

    As for the difference between text subtitled and read, I think the subtitling should be based on what the voice actor says. If it is good enough to be said out loud, it should be good enough for text read.

    My suggestion to the industry, create at least two sets of subtitles/captions, instead of a one-size-fits-all:

    1. A good translation of the original text
    2. A track that matches 1-1 the spoken track << this is more important than #1

    Let the user choose.

  10. Subtitles are distracting – requiring focus away from the action throughout.

    Bad dubbing can annoying ….. but only for the occasional mis-synch.

    Recently the BBC has been pushing subtitles – apparently because they think we should be ‘educated’ rather than entertained.

  11. As someone who is hearing impaired I need subtitles for everything, including movies in English. I would never watch a dubbed movie for that reason alone

  12. I tend to prefer subtitles — even when you don’t know the language there is so much the actor conveys through the voice. And dubbing is so often comically awful, both in terms of acting and synchronizing to the lip movements, but sometimes it can be quite good.

    When movies stream, the ideal situation is to offer as much viewer choice as possible. For our example, we are learning Spanish and love watching English-language movies and tv shows dubbed in Spanish, and we also love watching Spanish-language movies with Spanish subtitles.

  13. I just saw Parasite yesterday. Even not knowing the language, you get so much from the actors’ voices. It’s a fantastic cast that makes a great case for subtitles! (It just happens, too, that the subtitles were quite economical, so it was very easy to follow along.)

  14. Imagine Hollywood movies being dubbed, actors with distinctive voices being dubbed (usually by people with no emotions in their voice), it is just not fair altering the hard work of actors no matter who they are.
    Here most people see the debate from one point of view, foreign movies being dubbed, try look at the debate from both angles to really understand how nasty and frustrating the dubbing really is.
    Also learning to read between the lines can be helpful.

  15. Dubbing is usually flat, An actor’s voice is extremely important to the overall performance. Especially bad is Asian dubbing. People that do not like subtitles have not allowed themselves the opportunity to learn how to read them, or they are intimidated by an imagined effort. Your eyes are a camera, you do not need to read words individually, unless it is a long soliloquy, your eyes will capture the entirety with a split second glance and never taking your eyes off the action. My viewing is mostly foreign film, if dubbing is the only option, I pass.

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