For as long as people have been consuming foreign-language media, there have been two translation options: subtitling and dubbing. Each method has its own benefits and drawbacks, but is one objectively “better” than the other?
There is probably no definite answer to this. Viewers have their own preferences and certain types of media naturally lend themselves better to one method or the other. In this article, we’ll be considering entertainment — namely movies and television — to determine the pros and cons of dubbing and subtitling.
Authenticity vs. Localisation
If you want an authentic viewing experience — that is, if you want to watch something in the way that most closely evokes the original — you will probably want to hear it in its original language with subtitles. However, if you’re not the hand-on type when it comes to crossing cultural or linguistic barriers, you may prefer the localisation that dubbing offers.
But be honest: why would you watch, for example, a foreign movie? It could simply be a good movie but there is an appeal that comes from the fact that it is foreign. Can you imagine Amelie or Downfall in English? Over-localisation takes away from the reason why people consume many kinds of foreign things. And besides, no one has ever complained about a movie being “too authentic”.
Watching something written in a language you don’t speak makes for a unique viewing experience. Whether you are speed reading subtitles so you can catch a glimpse of what the characters are doing or are cringing at the sound of your native language being shoehorned into dialogue, viewing translated content has an effect on your experience.
This one is a bit of a toss-up, as it is mostly up to an individual’s preference. But I would say that dubbing edges ahead because it has more potential to improve the viewing experience. A skilled voice actor can deliver lines better, a good translator can make jokes work. It’s very possible (although not yet common) to do away with the campy voice acting and sloppy delivery that dubbing is notorious for.
But nothing can be done with subtitles to change the fact that while you’re reading, you’re missing the action.
Satisfy the Fans vs. Cater to the Masses
We owe a lot to the dedicated fans who laid the foundation for bringing foreign media into the mainstream. Without that one friend of yours in high school who insisted that everyone become interested in Pokemon, we might not be experiencing the joy of chasing imaginary creatures through traffic today.
But fans represent mostly niche interests. And while they generally prefer subtitles, the casual viewer usually prefers dubbing (at least in the West). If foreign films, television, and games were still a niche area, it would make more sense to subtitle them. But all of these things have already entered the mainstream. Dubbing is simply a necessity at this point.
A decade ago, viewers would be stuck with whichever form of translation that was chosen by the publisher. However, thanks to advances in technology and social collaboration, there are now more options.
Platforms such as YouTube allow nearly anyone to add closed captions to video content (provided there are no copyright issues). Online communities foster collaborative fan subbing for untranslated content. These things allow media to reach wider audiences more quickly, and help popularise things that would otherwise not be given much attention.
Of course, these innovations apply almost entirely to subbing. Dubbing will always require voice actors, equipment, and more time. As such, it does not have the impact as subtitling.