Sunday, February 18, 2007

Subtitles, Dubs, and the Subtle Stupidity of Dubtitles

I watch a lot of movies. A lot. I try to go to a theater at least once every two weeks and will probably watch at least two at home every week. Admittedly, I haven't exactly been meeting that quota since I left North Carolina, but you get the idea: I watch a lot of movies.

Almost by default, but certainly by choice, I see quite a few foreign films. European, Asian, occasionally South American, and, less frequently, African (those aren't as well-distributed in this country; a problem that should be fixed). I watch them all. Story goes a long way for me, and I couldn't care less what language the film is in.

Unfortunately, most of the American public doesn't seem to agree with me. While the problem appears to be getting better, perhaps due to the overall pervasiveness of the communication age (read: Internet), most Americans act as though the very act of reading subtitles is an inconvenience. We've all heard the excuses, ranging from "if I have to read, I can't see the picture" or "this is America, they should dub everything in English." The former excuse implies a level of illiteracy (they can't read "See Spot run" fast enough to keep up) while the latter implies a level of stupidity and racism (why would I want to watch a foreign film in English?).

Either way, of course, subtitles are the preferred method of watching a foreign film, short of learning the language. And here's why:

Subtitles are less likely to change dialogue, script, and even plot. They usually are a simple translation of original language, printed on screen in white or yellow text. If done correctly, nothing about the film is changed, and what we see is the director's, writer's, and actors' vision.

Dubbing, on the other hand, most assuredly changes dialogue. After all, given the propensity to make fun of bad 70s Kung Fu film dubbing, studios started proliferating the idea of trying to match dialogue to the mouths of the foreign actors. And while the best of the business can do a decent job of maintaining the plot and story, most change what the dialogue actually says, and some even change the plot and story. For good measure, watch the fantastic Princess Mononoke subtitled, then watch it dubbed. Or, better yet, watch it dubbed AND subtitled. While the overall story remains the same, you're going to find some rather alarming subplot changes and significant differences in dialogue.

And then, finally, there is the travesty known informally as "dubtitling." As we've already established that subtitles rock, and dubbing is hit or miss, we're going to establish that dubtitling is stupidity incarnate, and should be outlawed.

Dubtitling, my dear friends, is the act of simply writing what the dubbed version of a film is saying, and passing them off as subtitles. This is essentially nothing more than Closed Captioning for a film. What's worse, few, if any, dubtitled DVDs or videos let the viewer know that they're dubtitled.

Watch The Bear on DVD in its original French. You'll see in the "subtitles" that extra dialogue is added when the actors aren't even speaking. Bad dialogue, at that. Why? Well, the American company figured to change the script, but instead of giving us the subtle dialogue of the original French version (which barely had any dialogue in the first place), we got a dubbed and comparatively loquacious American version instead. And thanks to the relative laziness of the DVD transfer company, they gave us dubtitles instead of proper subtitles. Fucking awesome.

Fans of Jackie Chan should watch My Lucky Stars on DVD in its original Chinese (I believe it's Cantonese, but I don't know for sure). The subtitles are, once again, dubtitles, and we have no idea whatsoever if they follow the original story at all. Thanks to some friends who speak the relevant version of Chinese, I know that the dubtitles are completely different from the original story, but how many others are going to have the luxury of Chinese-speaking friends?

Japanese anime is also guilty of this. Unfortunately, given the nature of its fans, nobody really seems to care.

Anyway, everyone should boycott dubtitled DVDs and videos. Ultimately, it's a lazy and irresponsible way of representing foreign cinema in the United States. It's also insulting to the original filmmakers, as well as to us, the audience. If we're taking the time to view a foreign film, chances are good that we're there to watch that foreign film, and not some misguided attempt at Americanizing that foreign film.

Call your congressman. This has to be stopped.

1 comment:

  1. I also watch a lot of movies, mostly foreign, and do not mind subtitles. At this point, I find myself watching less Hollywood fare, much of which I don't care for. The people who make excuses for not reading subtitles are often those who think that there is no need to learn other languages, understand something of other cultures or learn about other perspectives, the very things, aside from writing, direction and acting, that the best of these can offer.

    You are absolutely right about dubbing!

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