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The debate over subtitles or dubbing, explained

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Following Parasite’s surprise Oscar win for Best Picture earlier this month, an age-old debate has roared to life once more: Which is better, subtitling or dubbing?

If you’ve never thought about the question before, it might seem puzzling to you that one could make for a better or worse viewing experience than the other. But there are fierce proponents for both options, and anyone who’s ever been in an anime fandom or group of international film lovers probably has experienced firsthand just how heated the debate can get.

The topic of subs versus dubs is far more complex and provocative than it might initially seem. The basic considerations, such as acting quality, translation quality, and personal preference, are all important. But the debate also walks the lines of race and xenophobia, classism and intellectualism, accessibility and ableism.

Shortly after Parasite, a Korean-language film, won Best Picture, all of those issues leaped to the forefront of the public conversation surrounding the film — arguably adding even more angles to a debate that was already convoluted.

The debate around subtitling is messy, complicated, and political

When it comes to subtitles and dubbing, many people take an all-or-nothing approach and have strenuous arguments for why one is better than the other.

Subtitles translate a film’s dialogue into written text superimposed on the screen, thus allowing you to read along and follow the actors as they speak in their native language. Dubbing, or voice-over, most often involves getting actors to read a translation of the script in the language common to the region where the film is being distributed. Today, it’s typical for many regions to offer both subtitled and dubbed versions of many films, when possible.

The primary argument in favor of subtitles is that they allow you to follow the action and dialogue while experiencing the actors’ full performance. Additionally, they often function interchangeably with captioning to help viewers (including those who are deaf or hard of hearing) more clearly understand dialogue in their own native language than reading subtitles alone would.

The main complaint about subtitles is that it can be difficult to read and follow the action, and that can subsequently make processing the media you’re consuming more difficult. A corollary complaint is that often subtitled translations will discard more of the actual spoken dialogue you hear in the original language, due to time constraints — humans need to be able to read all the words on the screen before the dialogue moves on. And localization could remove nuances in script translations, so there are concerns about loss of quality and full meaning. For example, a 1978 survey of the practice of subtitling by the British Film Institute found that, on average, a full third of a film’s original dialogue would be discarded through the subtitling process.

One of the big arguments in favor of dubbing is that it preserves the cinematic experience more fully than subtitling while also allowing for more film dialogue to be translated. There are other, more insidious, political arguments, too, but we’ll get to those in a minute.

The primary complaint about dubbing, regardless of the language being dubbed, is that voice actors can often be wildly over-the-top, which can be grating to experience, especially if you’re not used to it. Dubbing, the argument goes, can distract many people from the cinematic experience far more than subtitling. A tangential argument is that any time you replace the original dialogue, you inevitably lose valuable nuance. It’s also costlier to produce a dub, which means a dubbed film or series can take considerably longer to produce and distribute overseas, though this process has sped up thanks to technological advances. For instance, in 1997, the dubbing process alone for a film took around 6–8 weeks; these days, Netflix demands dubbing turnaround times of mere days. But of course, that’s all assuming the film even gets dubbed in your language to begin with.

If you’re an anime fan, the topic of subs and dubs is even more complicated. Between the 1960s and the mid-2000s, many anime series were inaccessible overseas unless they were translated and distributed by fans, usually illegally. The rare exception was when a popular anime would make it to international TV networks, like Sailor Moon or Dragon Ball Z. In countries where anime is an export, these TV runs were nearly always in dubbed format, with no subtitles.

Fan translations (or fansubs) were usually distributed illegally, but they could help generate overseas interest for a show. They could also be of questionable quality, and often contained copious translation notes that necessitated pausing to read. On the flip side, professionally dubbed voice acting was often painfully overdone, which was an equally jarring experience for many fans. So if you were a fan and wanted your anime however you could get it, you often were faced with the devil’s choice of unofficial subtitling with dubious translations, or officially translated dubs featuring wild voice acting.

Fansub communities often engaged in intense back and forth over whether subs or dubs were superior. If you grew up watching various anime series on Cartoon Network, you might well be used to the over-the-top conceit of voice acting, and you might even resent people who imply that dubbing is inferior. Especially if you associate subtitling with messy fan-made translations, you might prefer dubbing; waiting for a studio-produced dub of a series tends to mean that the translation is more effectively done. There are usually officially produced subtitles as well, but those don’t always guarantee a smooth or a faithful translation, either.

You can probably already see from these factors that what might seem at first like just a simple matter of personal preference gets immediately complicated by issues of production, access, regional factors, and translation. These are all huge concerns for many film lovers and anime fans. So the debate surrounding subs and dubs has been an ongoing, extremely contentious, and highly charged topic for decades.

Netflix has added fuel to the fire as of late due to its intense focus on providing international content to a global audience. Netflix has been aggressively pursuing subtitled content as well as dubbed properties, and the audiences for each have been accordingly expanding.

And in January, Parasite’s impressive awards-season run brought those audiences into conflict.

Parasite drew attention to the “one-inch tall barrier” of subtitles

In January, Parasite director Bong Joon-ho planted his flag in the subtitle camp, stating during his Golden Globes acceptance speech (for Best Foreign Language Film) that “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” After Parasite’s Oscar win, it seemed that fans of foreign films had punched a sizable hole through that wall.

But on February 10, the day after the Oscars, an opinion piece on Mother Jones about subtitles by political blogger Kevin Drum went viral. in the piece, originally headlined “Dubbing is better than subtitles,” Drum made several outrageous and baffling statements: He claimed that “No one likes subtitles” and that subtitles obscure actors “reading lines,” even though subtitles let you hear the original actors performing their lines in the film’s scripted language. In an early version of the piece, Drum also asserted that subtitles are “only common in countries too poor to afford a dubbing industry.” The line was removed in an updated version of the story, in which it was amended to, “They’re only common in markets where film revenues aren’t high enough for studios to recoup the cost of producing dubbed versions.”

On top of all this, Drum noted that he hadn’t even seen Parasite.

The backlash to Drum’s piece was scathing. “If you poured holy water on this article it would start foaming and screeching,” read one tweet that seemed to sum up the public reaction.

Critics called Drum’s argument about subtitling obscuring line-reading strange, while many others shared their own experiences as international viewers seeking out or being reliant upon subtitles. Some readers additionally pointed out that the take had elements of racism and ableism, and some argued that everything, including films in your native language, should come with subtitles as a default option.

Among those who spoke out were vehement detractors of dubbing, who argued that dubbing is an atrocious experience for the viewer. The argument for subtitles often seems inextricable from the argument against dubbing; that was true for this round of debate:

Drum published a follow-up piece that seemed to engage more with the social media furor than with his own argument. Elaborating on why he thought subtitles are bad, he wrote:

I didn’t say that subtitles are bad in an absolute sense. I said that subtitles detract from the theatrical experience and there are legitimate reasons to dislike them. This seems obvious: if possible, everyone would prefer to watch movies made in their native tongue.

The number of people who asserted throughout the debate that they’d rather hear actors performing in their native languages would suggest otherwise. But Drum also clarified that the original context for his piece was the hyperbolic annoyance he felt in response to a piece about Parasite’s Oscar win by Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, in which she framed Bong’s “one-inch tall” quote as a “challenge” for Americans who “just don’t like reading subtitles.”

First off, “everyone hates subtitles” was, I thought, humorous hyperbole. I meant that most people dislike subtitles. What’s more, the context was my annoyance at Alissa Wilkinson saying that “Americans just don’t like reading subtitles,” a derisive attitude that’s uncalled for since in fact it’s a very global phenomenon.

Drum called it “faux sophistication” to claim that subtitles are infallible. But both in the responses to Drum’s piece and the concurrent discussion around subtitles, something of the opposite attitude seemed primarily on display. Many media consumers have not only espoused an unwillingness to read subtitles but also rejected the whole pro-reading argument on principle — even if it meant facing vehement opposition.

There’s a hefty dose of condescension and intellectual snobbery on all sides of the debate — and some ableism, too

A less widely acknowledged part of the debate around subtitles seems to be related to the mode by which we consume media. A prevalent argument that emerged in response both to Parasite’s win generally and Drum’s argument specifically was that having to read subtitles felt like a chore.

One person who spoke out against subtitles after Parasite’s win was retired esports pro Nick Kershner, who told his 200,000 followers after buying Parasite on DVD that he just wasn’t up for watching a movie with subtitles — only to quickly walk away from the backlash.

Kershner insisted that he’d “just wanted to lay down, watch it, chill out and fall asleep,” which subtitles wouldn’t let him do. In response, one Twitter user replied, “You can’t go into a movie that just won best picture wanting to chill and fall asleep.. mistake #1.”

A recurring part of the subs versus dubs conversation is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to consume media. And it’s an especially incendiary part of the debate, as New York Times tech writer Taylor Lorenz learned when she went to bat for dubbing.

In a series of since-deleted tweets about Drum’s piece, Lorenz argued that her “brain” just can’t follow subtitles:

Dubbing > subtitles every time. Subtitles you have to read so fast, which is so hard. I can never keep up and miss everything that’s going on on screen … Ppl saying this is a bad take, take it up with my brain lol. I can’t read fast enough to follow along with subtitles! I wish I could, but I can’t. I’m a very slow reader. Also when I watch movies I’m doing other things, so if I look away from the screen Idk what’s happening. :/

But because Lorenz added that she likes to watch movies while doing other things, the conversation around her thread was partly a sideshow in which many film lovers attacked Lorenz for being a lazy film-watcher.

Lorenz followed up with an acknowledgment that subtitles are a popular, preferred way of consuming much media, even in native languages:

But the outrage around Lorenz’s thread seemed to confirm the belief espoused in Wilkinson’s initial Vox piece, that Americans don’t like the “challenge” of reading subtitles while watching films. Throughout the debate, anyone who dared to say they didn’t like subtitles was usually met with scathing condescension. If you didn’t like subtitles, proponents said, you were watching a movie wrong, you were uncommitted to the film experience, or you were just being intellectually lazy.

But all of these arguments also fail to acknowledge that the entire conversation can be equally ableist. Blind film lovers, people with low vision, and those with difficulty reading may appreciate dubbing, while the deaf and hard-of-hearing can benefit from subtitles.

These arguments often also come with additional stigmas. Someone who has difficulty reading may be unfairly stereotyped as less intelligent, which may contribute to the idea that only unintelligent or lazy people prefer dubs. So that’s yet another layer to add to a debate with many entangled issues.

And we’re not done yet. There’s one final significant concern, over and above the many messy factors already discussed, that make the entire subject of subtitles and dubbing even more fraught: the tradition of nationalist propaganda that dubbing is a part of.

Dubbing has its roots in fascist propaganda, and the impact is still felt globally

Did you think this would be the one debate that wasn’t ultimately going to turn out to be about Nazis? Sorry!

The claim that, as Drum put it, “everyone would prefer to watch movies made in their native tongue,” may not seem inherently political. But in fact, thinking that there’s something inherently better about seeing a movie in one’s native language helped turn dubbing into a major propaganda tool during the 20th century. The rise of dubbing as a global phenomenon was due in part to the emphasis on nationalism by fascist European regimes during the 1930s and ’40s.

For instance, Spanish censorship boards, founded in the late ’30s and exacerbated under Francisco Franco’s regime, required that, starting in 1941, all foreign films had to be dubbed into Spanish. The rise in dubbing coincided with a number of censorship changes to make the films more palatable with perceived Spanish cultural values. This ban on subtitled films remained in place until 1967, but its impact can still be felt today.

Likewise, in occupied countries where the Nazi regime required all films to be dubbed into German during WWII, dubbing remains the most common form of foreign film viewing, and the German dubbing market is still the largest globally. The 2018 book Introducing Translational Studies reports that “Austria is the country with the highest rejection rate (more than 70 percent) of subtitles, followed by Italy, Spain, and Germany.” And dubbing is still being used today in places like Quebec to promote political agendas, as writer Julian Leu observes in his recent pro-subtitle breakdown of the role of nationalism in the debate.

On the one hand, we can talk about the intellectual snobbery that lies behind condescending attitudes toward a film-lover who says they don’t like to read subtitles. But on the other hand, the disdain toward subtitles has been systematically, culturally ingrained in many movie-goers throughout the world by nationalist governments.

And there’s evidence that this propaganda machine does have a real-world impact on learning: A 2019 study found that non-English-speaking countries that routinely subtitle their foreign television shows have a higher English-language proficiency, while countries that dub foreign TV into the local language have a lower English-language proficiency.

None of this invalidates the media consumer who wants to watch movies in the background, has trouble following subtitles, has access issues that require the use of dubs, or just prefers dubs. But a knowledge of the history of dubbing and its role in nationalist propaganda does lend credence to the idea that a preference for dubbing aligns with close-mindedness.

Then again, the scathing attitudes toward dubbing within pro-subtitle arguments can seem equally closed-minded. Perhaps the ultimate answer to the subs/dubs debate should simply be, “choose whatever works for you.” But the many factors we’ve laid out here also illustrate why, to many people, personal preference isn’t enough to justify one choice over the other.

So despite Parasite’s temporary victory for Team Subtitles, we’ll almost certainly see this age-old debate recurring the next time a major foreign film makes a splash.

In the meantime, if you’re firmly in one camp or the other, consider experiencing your next foreign film by switching up your typical viewing format. Who knows? You might actually enjoy watching that way — and help demolish the idea that there’s a “right” and a “wrong” way to experience a movie.





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