overthinking the idiot box

July 25, 2005

The Subbing vs. Dubbing Wars

by Joelle Tjahjadi

What do you do when there's a show that you really, really, really want to watch, but which is in a language that you do not understand? Most people (I assume) wait for the DVD to come out, plop themselves in front of the TV, pop the DVD in, and start watching it in a language that they do understand. Aren't menu options a lovely thing? Now the question here is, when you read "start watching it in a language that they do understand," did you envision yourself clicking your way to Language Options --> Audio --> Language-You-Understand? Or were you thinking more along the lines of Language Options --> Subtitles --> Language-You-Understand?

It is at this stage where battle lines are drawn in the living room, figuratively speaking.

There are two major forms of language transfer in television: subtitles (aka subbing) and dubbing. Both forms have pros and cons, and also their proponents and opponents. So what's the big deal? Why have there been heated discussions on the Subbing vs. Dubbing Episode ? Let's take a look, shall we?

According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, dubbing is "the replacement of the dialogue and narration of the foreign or source language into the language of the viewing audience, the target language." Dubbing is more difficult because good dubbing not only gives the viewer an accurate translation of the original, but also matches up the performed translation with the lip movements of the onscreen characters. To further complicate matters, the character's gender, ethnicity, social status and age needs to be matched in their voice portrayal.

Some things like gender and age are easily matched. However, social status and ethnicity are completely different animals altogether. In some cases, the culture that the show is translated into just doesn't have the kind of social class that is portrayed, for instance, nobles versus warriors versus commoners in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The biggest constraint that dubbing runs up against is lip synchronization between the translation and the on-screen characters.

Subbing, on the other hand, is easier to do. The translation is placed as text at the bottom (or top) of the screen, and the show is seen in the original language. Other than ensuring that the translation is accurate, there is little need for anything else.

So why isn't subbing typically done? Proponents of dubbing say that the subtitles at the bottom of the screen are distracting, and furthermore, that they end up spending most of their time watching TV reading instead of focusing on the plot of the TV show. Others agree that dubbing is best because all they need is an accurate translation.

Subbing supporters are quick to note that there are nuances in speech that cannot be substituted when the show in question has been dubbed. The viewer then has to take for granted that the dubbing is an accurate translation of what is going on in the TV-verse. They also like to point out that the translation is only as accurate as the dubbing constraints (i.e. lip syncing) allow them to be.

Overall, larger TV markets tend to get dubbed, whereas smaller markets get subbed. While I was in Europe, I was treated to MTV dubbed in German (or with some German programming), surely something worth a second look. Watching Pimp Your Fahrrad ("Pimp your bicycle") can only be described as a mindbender. In Sweden, though, the Discovery Channel was broadcasted in English with Swedish subtitles. Why the difference?

My Swedish host told me that all TV in Scandinavia was subbed, whereas German TV was dubbed simply because of market size. The Scandinavian population totals approximately 24 million people, whereas Germany easily more than triples that number at 82 million. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the numbers game behind subbing and dubbing. The bigger the market, the more companies pay for advertising, and this advertising income helps to fund the cost required for dubbing or subbing.

Herein lies the problem with dubbing. Unless the majority of the population you are living in speaks the same language, then subbing becomes your best alternative.
In some countries, subbing is a natural part of every day life. When I was a child in Singapore, English TV shows would have Malay or Chinese subtitles or both, and vice versa. In a country with a population of 4 million or less, yet home to four official languages (English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil), the most efficient way to ensure that everybody has an equal chance at watching all the shows is to subtitle them (sometimes with two or even three languages). Herein lies the problem with dubbing. Unless the majority of the population you are living in speaks the same language, then subbing becomes your best alternative.

Perhaps now is the time for me to confess that I much prefer subtitles to dubbing. This is in part because I grew up with subtitles, and in part because I am an avid language geek. I first watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the cinema in the original Chinese with English subtitles and loved it, so when it was shown on network television, I naturally jumped at the chance to watch it again. Alas, I didn't realize that the illustrious folks at ABC had dubbed the show into English for the American audience, and that pretty much spoiled everything for me. In my opinion, any dubbing, no matter how good, just can't match the original for rhythm and style. Every language has their own specific rhythm (English, for example, defaults to iambic most of the time), and the English dubbing disrupted the flow of the movie for me.

The choice of subbing or dubbing a show is usually left to the television networks who tend to operate on the idea of profits and market share and also by the lingual culture of the society where the show is being broadcast. However, subbing and dubbing discussions are still heated, and viewers are still protective of their viewing preferences. As a very general rule, viewers in America and other countries who are used to a single language culture tend to prefer dubbing, whereas viewers who are used to a multi-lingual culture tend to prefer subbing. Ultimately, though, it all boils down to personal preferences in the subbing vs. dubbing wars.

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