Subtitles Suck

The Bicycle Thieves - Subtitles SuckI’m a big fan of foreign films — especially French comedy and Japanese action. But I hate subtitles. Most film fanatics feel the opposite way. Actually, in my experience, most all Americans feel the opposite way. They think that dubbing somehow destroys the the integrity of the film. Leave it to Americans to be simultaneously ignorant and arrogant.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t always prefer a dubbed films. As I noted about Bloody Mallory, the English language voice acting was so weak that you are pretty much required to watch it in French.

And there are times when so little care is taken with the technical side of dubbing that it is distracting (but not nearly as big a problem as bad acting). But this is rarely the case. I think dubbing got a bad reputation when cheap Japanese monster movies from Toho and Daiei were quickly dubbed with both bad technique and bad acting were dumped onto the American market.

The Technical Side of Dubbing

Good technical dubbing, where the dubbed voices match the actors’ lips has been easily accomplished since at least the 1940s. And with the advent of digital sound, it’s been trivial. I was shocked just recently to see how well Dead Snow was dubbed into English. As I noted when writing about Dead Snow: Red vs Dead, I think very few American film-goers would even notice that the film had been dubbed.

There are two parts to the technical side of dubbing:

  1. The dialog has to be translate in such a way that it fits what was said in the original language. There is far more than making the dubbed language last as long as the original. Sounds like “B” and “P” need to be lined up as much as possible. Doing this is a great art, and it can take a translator a long time to do it. I remember hearing an interview with a translator of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly where he said it took him over a day to get one particularly important line translated.

  2. The dialog must be matched to the film. This is where digital audio really helps. Maybe you have a 4 second line, but the voice actor says it in 4.5 seconds. In the old days, it might take a long time to get that right. Now you can digitally compress the line and the actor can be home by 5:00.

Obviously, if you don’t care, you can just throw it all together. And really, if you’re watching a Gamera film, good dubbing probably doesn’t matter that much.

Voice Acting

To me, good voice acting is far more important. When I’m watching a film, I see the big picture. I don’t pay much attention to lip movements. And the best situation is where the original actor does the English dub. But that’s hardly necessary. There are a lot of great American voice actors. The problem with them is that they tend to cost more than actors in other nations.

One funny thing is that Italian films were, for decades, shot without sync sound. The recorded sound would then be used for reference in the studio to dub the film. A great example of this is from 1948’s The Bicycle Thieves, where the Italian voice actor was not even the actor on the screen. So if you see the film, it will be dubbed. If you want to watch it dubbed in Italian and read English scrolling on the bottom of the screen, do ahead. You’ll be an idiot, but it’s your right. I don’t know if the same actor dubbed the original English or not, but that was common in the Italian film industry.

Film Is a Visual Art Form

Everyone knows that film is a visual art. You go to see a film, not to read it. So subtitles really detract from the experience of watching a film. I often watch films with my father who is hard of hearing. As a result of this, I put on the English subtitles, even though the film is in English. And still, I find myself having my eyes move down to the words.

So if English words are blinking at the bottom of the screen when I do not know the language being spoken, it’s even worse. At best I get half the view of the film that I do when I don’t have subtitles to deal with.

Film lovers should hate subtitles. They degrade films. And since we can now create good subtitles easily, we should get rid of them.

5 replies on “Subtitles Suck”

  1. I sometimes watch the Star Wars movies in one of the optional languages. I leave the subtitles on even though I mostly don’t need them to remember the dialogue. I recall my initial surprise that the actors were not voicing the parts. Not having thought about it at all I supposed the studio got Harrison Ford to read all his lines in Spanish and French. The foolishness of this notion lasted about two seconds. I think I prefer French. Probably all the capes and sword fights gives it a Three Musketeers vibe. There have been far more treatments of that for American audiences than Zorro. And, yes, I realize how shallow it is that I’m equating Zorro with Dumas. Captain From Castile is probably a better fit. I never read it, though. Zorro was supposedly the inspiration for Batman, so I’m actually surprised no on is trying to monetize it. You could get one of the highbrow comic book authors, Alan Moore has had enough attention, but perhaps Todd McFarlane’s career could have a second act? And it could be a big, sloppy mess with the corrupt government fighting Zorro, and an exiled Ronin (because a disgraced Shaolin monk has been done, but then why not both?), and Apaches and Aztecs. Throw in your favorite Cervantes character as well. People would watch that.

  2. This is a bad opinion. I turn on subtitles even when I’m watching a film in English. My OCD is such that I’ll find myself rewinding every time I miss a line of dialogue- it’s good to know I can just glance at the bottom of the screen to see what I missed.

      • Oh yeah! If I have to read the subtitles, my appreciation for the film goes down by at least half. Of course, I will watch any film that appears on this site many times, so it isn’t so bad.

    • It’s a personal thing then. And I do love having subtitles. After I’ve seen a film a few times, I put on the subtitles, and there are always lines I missed (usually background noise). It helps to understand the film.

      An interesting thing to do is to turn on the dubbed soundtrack and the subtitles. Then you will see a more literal translation in the subtitles and the brilliance of dubbing writers — assuming it is good dubbing. The Italians are great.

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