3 August 2022

Subtitles or dubbing for a foreign film?

Categoria: Linguistic Services

Is it better to choose subtitles or dubbing for a foreign film? There are different schools of thought on the matter. Some firmly believe that a foreign film must only ever be watched in the original language to be fully enjoyed, whereas others would never forgo dubbing for anything in the world.

As is often the case, there is no right answer here. Choosing between subtitles and dubbing depends on a series of factors, including audience, budget, available time, the author’s intentions, etc.

One thing is sure however: There are limits to both techniques and it is important to be aware of them in order to make the right choice.

The limits of dubbing

Cinephiles will be the first to say that watching a dubbed foreign film is not the same as watching it in the original language.

This technique involves replacing the original sound and dialog with a new voice track, translated into the target language. This means that content is inevitably modified due to syntactic differences. The culture that permeates each language makes each one unique in its own right.

Linguistic and cultural adaptation, commonly referred to as localization, may involve altering the structure of a sentence. Even if this is for inclusive purposes, to the benefit of those who do not speak a given language, it may be considered a sacrilege and perceived as something negative.

Indeed if we stop to think, watching a foreign film in the original language enables us to immerse ourselves in a different cultural dimension, discover aspects and unique features of it, which would never emerge with dubbing. Sayings, accents, filler words are just some examples of quirks that would be missed.

In addition to these purely qualitative factors, there are other, more technical ones that weigh against dubbing.

First and foremost, dubbing a foreign film is a lengthy job. The work cycle consists of several steps: from the transcription and timing of original audio content, to translation and localization, and lastly, the mixing and timing of the final dub with original scenes.

Costs are generally high, because the process involves several professionals, including translators, voice actors, editors, etc. Add to all this any additional costs — like renting a recording studio — which are often far from negligible.

Lastly, unlike in Italy, where dubbing is a widespread art, it should be considered that elsewhere this technique may face cultural setbacks due to a lack of professional voice actors on the market.

The limits of subtitles

Similarly, the use of subtitles presents both technical and qualitative limits.

Despite giving us the chance to watch the original film in its entirety, under certain circumstances subtitles may also hinder viewing quality. Spectators may find it difficult to simultaneously follow all the components of a scene, i.e. subtitles, images and sounds. They run the risk of focusing too much on a single aspect and fail to enjoy the film. To prevent this from happening, it is important to follow specific rules , which subtitling professionals are all too familiar with.

Add to this other obstacles of a technical nature. When opting for subtitles, it is important to bear in mind that they are not identical to the full text. Indeed subtitles are usually short lines that remain visible for a few moments, which is why the translation should only contain key concepts or a selection of the most significant content.

Another disadvantage of subtitles is that often in the quest to cut costs, they are generated using automated translation, without being proofed by a professional post-editor. Despite being a technology in rapid evolution, Machine Translation is still yet to guarantee perfect subtitles, so the risk of obtaining poorly structured sentences or even well-written complete mistranslations that hinder the viewer’s experience is still very real.

We have already seen how subtitles and dubbing have weak points, which should certainly not be neglected. This does not mean that both techniques should simply be avoided altogether, on the contrary, they are highly useful and effective procedures for making a foreign film available in another language.

To understand the best option on a case-by-case basis, it is best to turn to a professional. At Way2Global we deliver a full set of services for translation of multimedia content. Through our business developers we recommend the solution that best suits the customer’s requirements, which is then implemented through the cooperation of specialized professionals, including project managers, translators, post-editors, voice actors, etc. Turn to us to make all your films accessible and spectacular.

Contact us for more information or to request a quote!


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    Laura Gori is the Founder and CEO of Way2Global, a women-led translation agency startup with a Benefit ethos. After 30 years at the helm of a small multinational localization company, Laura decided to make a fresh start and founded Way2Global to conduct business in a way that benefits society and the environment, while promoting corporate growth. A fervent advocate of Benefit Corporations and women’s empowerment, Laura takes every opportunity to spread awareness on these issues and contribute to a fairer, more egalitarian and sustainable economy for all.
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