Subtitling vs. Dubbing: The Great Debate

26/02/2019 | Hayley
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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 dubbed or subtitled. 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?

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