Dubbing vs. Subtitling: Why it matters and what’s at stake

Director Bong Joon-ho and the cast of Parasite at Press Event in 2019

At the Golden Globe Awards held in January 2020, Bong Joon Ho accepted the Best Foreign Language Film award for his hit movie “Parasite,” which he directed and co-wrote with Han Jin-won. “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he said in Korean, translated by fellow director Sharon Choi. This one line in his speech spurred a number of articles and funny tweets regarding education, a larger appreciation of films from various countries in different languages, the language barrier, the institutional preference to English-language films, and the criteria in which movies are judged. Which begs the question: what informs these decisions and preferences? How does dubbing or subtitling affect the viewing experience, and what drives people to choose either? 

Dubbing: A question of nationalism and convenience 

As a language translation company, Lexcode knows that movies and TV shows are cultural artifacts. Their importation requires a certain level of localization in order to be consumed or understood. But as consumers of media content, it is aware that the general opinion on choosing dubbed movies and shows over subtitled ones is also based on convenience. This is neither a criticism, nor a necessarily bad opinion. It is common practice (as well as a logical move) to dub children’s shows and cartoons instead of putting subtitles on them, since small children are only learning how to read. Scenes and dialogue may go fast enough but a child’s reading skill would prevent them from keeping pace with what they are watching.  

This should not pose a problem for adult viewers, however. The subtext of Bong’s comment then becomes apparent: North American viewers, whether they’re from Hollywood or from the average American home, are averse to subtitles. Now, whether this is due to issues with reading while keeping pace with the movie or an ability to do both at the same time, is up for debate.  

Apart from the problem that dubbing shares with subtitling—inaccurate translations, dubbing runs the risk of mismatched performances between the actors on screen and the voice actors. Dubbing over a movie or TV show requires hiring and paying for a cast of voice actors who would, to the best of their abilities, perform dialogue that would match the visual performance of the actors on screen. Dubbing of poor quality or often not in sync with lip movement, and to a higher degree, not in sync with the actors’ on-screen performance. Movies and shows that require singing would require voice actors to sing with the same quality as the actors on screen. 

The prevalence of dubbing foreign movies and shows depends on the country, as dubbed media will be more prevalent in some countries than others. This prevalence logically boils down to cost: dubbing is a more expensive translation mode as it does not only pay translators and video/sound editors, it pays voice actors. Larger and wealthier countries like France, Italy, Germany, and Spain tend to adopt dubbing as the translation mode of their choice. However, the cost is not the only primary motivator for some countries. A strong cultural tradition supported by a nationalistic sociopolitical landscape makes the consideration of dubbing over subtitling an easy one, as exemplified by small Central European countries like Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Subtitles: Because dubbing ruins the experience 

The objective of subtitling is to preserve, as much as possible, the presentation as intended by the filmmaker. This type of localization respects the integrity of the work of the director, cast, and crew. Subtitling is an aesthetic consideration (not to mention a political one, as it implores the viewer to see the movie or show closer to the source’s perspective), and dubbing tends to destroy the mood or aesthetic that the movie or show tries to create. 

Subtitling maybe more cost-effective than dubbing because it doesn’t require sound recording/editing and voice actors but, of course, it has its fair share of problems. There is no nationalistic support or clamor for subtitling the way dubbing does as subtitling privileges the country of origin over the country whose language it is being translated to.  

However, much of the source dialogue tends to be cut in the translation process. Subtitling should ideally translate every word of the original dialogue but due to the gap between the contexts of the country of origin and the country of localization, some contextualization and clarification are needed. This results in more text than a single shot can hold.  

Now, the average reading speed of the viewer is between 150 and 180 words per minute. With the necessary intervals and the speed in which certain shots last, the duration and completeness in which the subtitles appear are limited. A short dialogue in Korean may require more words to translate in English, so for efficiency’s sake, the translation will be shortened as much as possible in order to fit the shot. As a result, much of the dialogue will be cut. This problem is one among many, not to mention considerations regarding typeface and subtitle placement. 

Cultural differences 

American attitudes to foreign cultures aside (now that’s a whole other discussion), Hollywood is not that keen on foreign films and whether “Parasite” becomes the movie that will change all that, remains to be seen. However, there is a rising clamor for recognizing and rewarding foreign films in the last decade (like 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color) and one wonders what is it about the Oscars that makes it matter on a global scale.  

Bong shares the same sentiment. When asked in an interview on Vulture.com what he thinks of the absence of Oscar nominations for Korean films, he responds, “It’s a little strange, but it’s not a big deal. The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” 

So why does it matter that a Korean movie, which has won accolades in international festivals such as the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, has to win an Oscar award, an award very specific to the American landscape? It goes to show how much influence American media has on the rest of the world, and this recognition would surely make waves in the international community, owing to the vast resources and wide reach of Hollywood. 

Learning and streaming services 

The preference for dubbing or subtitling is a matter of taste, and are often based on cultural biases. Choosing subtitles suggests an openness to expose oneself to a different language, which may eventually lead to viewers learning a new language.  

But some translators suggest that a tendency to select dubbing over subtitles reduces that ability. This correlation to language learning holds weight if we are to look at the English Proficiency Index of 2019, which places Spain in 25th place out of 33 European countries. Spain also happens to be a country that almost always dubs non-Spanish films and TV shows.  

While there is an increase in exposure of foreign films via streaming sites, like Netflix’s expanding catalogue of non-English movies and shows, a wider mainstream consumption of non-English movies is not our current reality. Still, the increasing functionality of video streaming sites means options for subtitled and dubbed versions of movies and shows are more prevalent. Companies like Lexcode producing both subtitled and closed-captioned options are bridging the gap between visual media that speak a different language from their viewers.  

So do not get intimidated by these services and remember that multilingual media projects are now easier and faster to create. Thanks to the partnership of streaming services and localization providers like us, schools operating remotely can now enjoy a growing number of dubbed and subtitled e-learning materials. You can read more about that on this blog or ask our project managers to help you get started. 


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