Dubbing or subtitling?

Dubbing is not the only way to translate a movie. In fact, there are other two techniques to achieve this aim: subtitling and oversound.

Oversound is a technique in which the new score of the film (that is the translated one) is added (and not only replaced) to the original one, which is in the background. This technique is particularly used in interviews. With the oversound, the dubbing actor starts speaking two-three seconds after the original actor; for this reason the dialogue adaptor must pay great attention to the translation of each sentence, so that what is said corresponds to what the actors actually do.

       On the contrary, a subtitle is a text written to help understand motion pictures. Subtitles are not the literal translation of a spoken text, but they consist in a real adaptation of it; in fact, when transposing an oral message to a written text, you must take into consideration several factors, such as the rhythm, the register, the space on the screen, etc.

       But why do producers sometimes prefer subtitling a film, instead of dubbing it?


       First of all dubbing a film is far more expensive than subtitling it. But this decision is not only based on economic reasons: for example, it also depends on the percentage of people that speak English in the foreign country. Thomas Herbst affirmed that the preference for subtitles increases in people with a higher education level and social class. He distinguishes the “subtitling countries” (where, on average, people prefer subtitles, like The Netherlands) from the “dubbing countries” (where dubbed films are preferred, like Italy, Spain and France), adding that generally subtitles are preferred in those marginal countries that are open to foreign culture; on the contrary, dubbing is more popular in countries like Italy or France, where often the government doesn’t want people to be influenced by different or unknown cultures (as during Fascist times when Mussolini banned the circulation of English-spoken movies). 


       Subtitles: The Features

  • with the subtitles, the original text is actually reduced, by 40 to 70%;
  • subtitles take up a part of the screen, preventing the spectator to totally watch the movie;
  • it takes more or less half of the film to read the subtitles for an average spectator; therefore half of the film is not actually “watched”;
  • the spectator can’t totally concentrate and get carried away by the plot of the film because he always has to read the subtitle;
  •  the person who speaks the original language of the film is somehow annoyed by the presence of the subtitles, while who doesn’t speak the language can’t learn it because he/she can read the subtitles
  • a subtitle can’t be longer than 2 lines of 36 letters and has to remain on the screen from half a second to four seconds.

Today subtitles are less disturbing than in the past, but they surely can’t replace dubbing, because subtitling means eliminating all the details that are not necessary to understand the dialogue (otherwise the subtitle would be too long); on the contrary, the heart of a movie is in the feelings and emotions which are expressed also through the dialogue. For this reason today subtitles are considered only something to help people understand a movie in a foreign language, but can’t be considered as a tool of linguistic transposition like dubbing.