Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Case Against Film Subtitles: Dubbing Is Better

Back in film school (NYU) I was taught that, regarding foreign films, true cinĂ©astes prefer subtitles over dubbing. This is why lowbrow exploitation films (Godzilla and Zombi 2) are dubbed, whereas highbrow art films (Jules and Jim and Breathless) are subtitled. 

The rationale is that an actor's voice is part of his performance. Dub the actor, and you can no longer appreciate the film as performed by that actor. It becomes a new film. This is especially obvious with certain actors who have highly distinctive voices, such as Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you've seen films with their voices dubbed, you not only hear, you can feel the difference.

Nevertheless, I prefer dubbing.

Sure, I prefer Schwarzenegger in his original voice. But that's because he's speaking English, a language I understand. I might not appreciate his voice as much if he were speaking German and I had to read subtitles.

The notion that an actor's performance is better preserved with subtitles, rather than dubbing, is overrated. It's true that dubbing dilutes an actor's performance, but in a way, so do subtitles. This is especially true with films that are dialog intensive -- a lot of dialog, quickly spoken, to the point that the actors are practically speaking over each other.

Subtitles dilute an actor's performance because, when I watch a dialog heavy film, I can't actually watch the actors. Streams of sentences incessantly fill the bottom of the screen. No sooner do I finish reading the text than a new word dump appears. I can't keep up. I repeatedly pause the DVD to read the dialog. Then I unpause, and pause again, so I can read the next batch of sentences. It's like flipping through pages. I'm no longer watching a film. I'm reading a book.

How then can I focus on the actors' performances? Their facial expressions, reactions, or even their voices? You can't appreciate a vocal performance when you hear it broken into bits from constantly pausing the DVD.

Another distraction is the surprisingly large number of misspelled words and incorrect punctuation in many subtitles. I've seen we're spelled were, and I'm spelled Im. I saw a film in which a mad scientist was conducting experiences rather than experiments. One character said "I was a theft." when he clearly meant "I was a thief." 

Among foreign horror films, inept subtitles are the rule rather than the exception. It's rare that I see a film whose English subtitles are in perfect English.

What's the problem? Is there a shortage of "professional" script translators overseas? Have the big studios booked the few competent translators? Or do indie horror filmmakers have such low budgets that they can't afford competent translators? Maybe they think that translation is easy, a safe item on which to save money, so they can't be bothered to hire a professional? Instead they recruit some student intern (for no pay) who's looking to break into the business, despite his not having achieved sufficient English language proficiency to do a competent job.

Every incorrect subtitle, every pause of the DVD, distracts me, interrupting my suspension of disbelief, lessening a scene's tension or humor, hindering my enjoyment of the film.

Unfortunately, subtitles are now the norm in horror films. It wasn't always so. Italian exploitation films of the 1970s and 1980s were routinely dubbed. I think the practice of subtitling horror films began with the advent of J-horror in the late 1990s.

Why is subtitling the new norm? I don't think it's because distributors have suddenly gained an appreciation for film as an art form. Rather, subtitling is cheaper than is dubbing. Either way, you hire a translator for the script. But now you needn't hire a new cast of actors to perform that script in a foreign language. The more countries you hope to distribute the film in, the more money you save.

The rise in the number of indie horror filmmakers worldwide, along with a concomitant increase in horror film festivals to encourage their efforts, is another factor. It's a race to the bottom. If you see your competition getting away with saving money by not hiring actors to dub foreign dialog, why should you spend extra? Thus have subtitles -- poorly written at that -- replaced dubbing as the new norm.

Horror fans have enthusiastically embraced many dubbed films over the decades. So although contemporary horror filmmakers might say they're opting for subtitles for art's sake, really, it's to save a dime.


For more about sound issues in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.