Dubbing and subtitles

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From an anonymous correspondent:

G and I have always enjoyed foreign films, but only if they're subtitled. We shy away from films that are dubbed into English. The dubbing clearly adds another layer of clumsy artifice that stops me from entering into the film.

The Italians, and I believe most Europeans, prefer dubbing when they're watching foreign films. Their voice actors are a highly-paid group. A few years ago, when the Italian dubbers went on strike, no new foreign (i.e., American, British, French, etc.) films were released for months, maybe years.

What's interesting to me, and to G, is that when we watch a foreign film and are reading English subtitles, we actually HEAR the script being spoken in English. I mean audibly. The Danish (for example) must be there somewhere in the background, I can hear it if I force myself to try. But otherwise it is as if English language is coming out of the actors' mouths. Even though we know that they must be speaking Danish.
Is there a name for this phenomenon?

From another correspondent:

I've also experienced the phenomenon of hearing subtltled dialogue in English.

In a way, this is a kind of synaesthesia. The input is visual, but one's mind converts it into auditory perception. It's as if the visual stimulus bleeds over into the auditory cortex.

I have to agree with our two correspondents:   well done and well presented, subtitles are more effective and less intrusive than most dubbing, which always strikes me as unnatural.  For example, when I hear Italians speaking English in a film, even though the dubbers may be highly skilled, it just seems odd to me.


Selected reading



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 5:36 am

    Two nights ago I tried to warch Azumi 2, only to find that I was offered only English dubbing or the original Japanese soundtrack with no sub-titles. The English dubbing was far too banal, and my Japanese was not up to following the full intricacies of the story, so I re-multiplexed the video to burn in the English sub-titles. Last night I watched it in full, with the original Japanese soundtrack and English sub-titles — superb. So today I am re-multiplexing Azumi 3 in the same way (Azumi 1 came with sub-titles).

  2. Chris Button said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 6:10 am

    Early in his spaghetti western career, Cuban-born Tomas Milian used to be dubbed into Italian and English. Then people realized that audiences much preferred to listen to his Spitaliano and Spanglish and they stopped dubbing him altogether in either language.

  3. cM said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 6:51 am

    Sort of related: When films have lots of dialogue and therefore require fast and occasionally hard to follow subtitles, increasing the sound volume weirdly improves my comprehension noticeably.
    And that's for films in languages I don't speak even a little.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 7:20 am

    From Jens Østergaard Petersen:

    Films, whether in cinemas or on television, are never dubbed in Denmark.

    I don’t know if I have ever had the experience of “hearing” what I read in the subtitles — perhaps I need to check out some the substances mentioned in the last SPP!

    My wife and I incidentally make subtitles for Chinese on Danish national television and have been doing so for decades.

  5. Steve Jones said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 7:40 am

    Addicted as I am to subtitles, I find myself unable to resist following the Spanish subtitles for the Monty Python Beethoven sketch,

    and the Greek subtitles for Shoeshine Johnny…

  6. bks said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 7:53 am

    Not only does this happen for me, but when I'm watching a movie in a language that I have no knowledge of (Korean, e.g.) and one of the characters speaks English, I am startled.

  7. Lawrence said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 8:23 am

    I always watch the subtitled version. Once, I asked my wife to turn up the volume, as "I can't hear the subtitles."

  8. Ross Presser said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 8:58 am

    I have long, long been addicted to using subtitles/closed captions on everything I watch, even when the audio is in English. (This started when my wife & I met, as her family has a deeply ingrained habit of talking over whatever is on TV at any and all times.) But I've found that I lose something too: keeping my eyes where the subtitles are, and not on the actors' faces, I don't always get the same feeling of immersion.

    Also, when the subtitles are badly timed it is INFURIATING. :)

  9. unekdoud said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 9:30 am

    When I "hear" Chinese subtitles, their length never matches up with the pacing of the original. This is often a worse experience than no subs.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 10:45 am

    From Heidi Mair:

    Well, I am very visual and the subtitles take me out of most movies. Dan and I are watching a Turkish series now and it is dubbed very well.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 10:55 am

    I took a survey of the dozen or so students in my "Language, Script, and Society in China" course, which has native speakers of Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, and English, and every single one of them said they preferred subtitles to dubbing.

    We also discussed many other related topics, such as why Chinese news programs, films, etc., almost invariably have subtitles in Chinese, the impact of volume on dubbing and subtitles, and so forth.

  12. Michael said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 11:50 am

    I used to be a hardcore subtitle fan, but as I've gotten older, my perspective has shifted more and more to Heidi's. I find it completely impossible to watch a movie in English with closed captioning on, because I basically miss the entire visual experience; my eyes are constantly drawn to reading the words at the bottom of the screen.
    As Butthead (or was it Beavis?) used to say, "if I wanted to read, I'd go to school."

  13. Terpomo said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 11:52 am

    I've found that dubbing is less weird to me on animated movies than live action ones, since what you're seeing is not actually the person who was saying the words; that is the original is also a "dub" in some sense, especially with Japanese animation which, unlike Western animation, is (I believe) often animated first and then voice-acted. I have a slight preference for subtitles personally, but when watching with my family I'll often settle for dubbed as my mother says it's hard for her to follow the subtitles and also see everything occurring on screen.

  14. David Marjanović said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 12:02 pm

    Everything is dubbed into German – well enough that the only time I notice it's dubbed is when someone says "wwwwhaaaaat!?!?!" in the original and the extreme lip rounding doesn't match what I hear. I grew up expecting the TV to speak German.

    I've seen bad dubbing into French and, well, would have found it very distracting if the series I accidentally caught a glimpse of had had a plot worth paying attention to.

    I've never heard subtitles – which isn't surprising because I don't have any other form of synesthesia either.

  15. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 12:10 pm

    In Italy dubbing is the norm for all movies, not just foreign ones. Italian directors often hired non-Italian actors (Anthony Quinn, Jeanne Moreau, François Périer and many others) who spoke in their own language and were dubbed. Even Italian actors (e.g. Sophia Loren) were dubbed if their accent was wrong for the part.
    In Franco Spain and Nazi Germany dubbing was a part of censorship; dialogue was changed if it was politically incorrect.
    I don't know why dubbing came to be preferred in France as well. I happened to be there when the first subtitled American film was shown on French television; it was a Woody Allen film (I don't remember which one), and the line "I've known him for years" was translated as Je le connais depuis quatre ans.
    These four "big countries" are the only ones in Europe, as far as I know, for which Hollywood movies are dubbed. All the others get subtitled, and this is often given as a reason why their residents (Portuguese, Dutch and Flemings, Scandinavians etc.) learn English better than the others.

  16. Karen Hart said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 12:40 pm

    When I watch films with foreign language spoken and English subtitles I enjoy hearing the foreign language spoken and find that the information conveyed by the English subtitles happens quickly and easily. I almost forget that I am reading. I never hear the English words in my head. There is typically lots of information conveyed by actions, gestures, tones of voice, expectations set up by the plot, and sometimes recognizing the occasional word in the foreign language. The subtitles add the remaining bit of meaning.

  17. Mike Grubb said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 2:33 pm

    An answer to o.p.'s question about the name for the phenomenon of hearing processing shifting to match visual cues could be the "McGurk Effect."

  18. Matt said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 4:42 pm

    Since my daughter was born, we have started using English subtitles for English shows so that we can keep the TV volume lower, rather than turning it up compete with the roar of our ducted heating system.

    When it is foreign, I often forget I am reading subtitles until I walk to the kitchen and realise I have lost track of what is going on. The rest of the time, I am so used to subtitles that I normally couldn’t tell you if the show we are watching has English audio or not.

    But I do agree with others that it does mean I spend all my time reading rather than watching, even when it is English and perfectly easy to hear..

    I also agree that poorly timed subtitles are infuriating. They are worst on comedy, where the punchline is given away before the joke is setup… or, at least, the delivery loses a lot of its humour when read rather than spoken. Oddly, I don’t find other emotions affected as much – it doesn’t lose the drama, sadness, etc. in the same way.

  19. Viseguy said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 6:54 pm

    As far as distractions go, I much prefer subtitles to dubbing. Bad dubbing is unsettling, but when the dubbing is good I find myself wondering, how'd they do that?

    As for hearing the dialogue in the language of the subtitles … that's foreign to my experience. If I'm familiar with the language of the film, I hear two tracks simultaneously, my interior voice reciting the subtitles and the actors' voices on screen, all the while trying to make semantic connections between the two. (If I know the language well enough, I can have a bit of fun identifying where the subtitles go wrong or cut corners.) Even if the language is totally foreign, I'm still trying to guess at connections between on-screen sounds and subtitled meanings. And yet, somehow, I still manage to watch the movie!

  20. Viseguy said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 7:02 pm

    @Matt: My wife and I, both native New Yorkers and both in our 70s, routinely use subtitles for the many British TV dramas we watch, and even for some American ones. Subtitles nicely address the dual issues of audibility and comprehensibility in one swell foop. (The ability, nowadays, to rewind even live TV broadcasts is a boon as well.)

  21. Tom Dawkes said,

    October 22, 2021 @ 6:18 am

    @Coby Lubliner. On a northern cruise in 2003 we stopped in Norway, and our Norwegian guide — perfect English, of course — remarked that her children were accustomed to watching English-language films and were thus picking up English almost unconsciously.

  22. David Morris said,

    October 22, 2021 @ 6:37 am

    I am struggling to remember ever having watched a dubbed movie. If I have, then maybe once or twice, and a long time ago.
    Many Korean non-drama tv shows have Korean subtitles and a lot of other text on-screen.

  23. MattF said,

    October 22, 2021 @ 7:10 am

    I much prefer subtitles. The only time I’ve ever really noticed them was watching a James Bond movie in Switzerland— three sets of subtitles!

  24. cliff arroyo said,

    October 22, 2021 @ 12:31 pm

    "four "big countries" are the only ones in Europe, as far as I know, for which Hollywood movies are dubbed"

    For tv at least, dubbing is also routine in the Czech Republic and Hungary (German influence?). When I've been in Slovakia there's also dubbing but I can't necessarily tell if it's local or Czech…

    And there's the third option, the voice-over (restricted to documentaries or news stories in the US but used for tv series and movies in a number of Eastern European countries.

    There's also a hybrid with different voices (usually at least two men and two women) in Bulgaria. The original soundtrack is audible in the background but the voice-overs are more like dubbing in style…

    I've gotten to where I can watch tv shows with a 'lektor' (as the guys doing the voice-overs are called) in Polish as long as the original dialogue isn't in English. Other foreigners here say the same thing, if the original dialogue is in their language they can't stand watching with voice-over.

  25. cliff arroyo said,

    October 22, 2021 @ 12:34 pm

    One problem with subtitles is that a lot of information is lost (the numbers 30-40 % comes to mind).
    Sub-titles are actually more like summaries of what's been said than real translations. Not to mention that sociolinguistic information related to things like region or class is almost always lost.

  26. Rosie Redfield said,

    October 22, 2021 @ 3:28 pm

    And of course there's this subtitling classic:


  27. David Marjanović said,

    October 24, 2021 @ 12:23 pm

    Yes, subtitles are very often shorter than what's actually said.

  28. Andreas Johansson said,

    October 25, 2021 @ 7:22 am

    In Sweden, dubbing is largely confined to media aimed at children. Simply a question of the size of the market, I'm told, but that can't very well explain the difference from Czechia, the languages having roughly the same numbers of speakers.

    I've never experienced "hearing" subtitles.

  29. Kate Bunting said,

    October 25, 2021 @ 7:59 am

    I certainly don't hear the dialogue of subtitled films in English. Having some knowledge of the Scandinavian languages, when watching the 'Scandi noir' serials that we often get on British TV I usually try to relate what the characters are saying to the subtitles. I also sometimes watch American TV dramas with subtitles because I don't always pick up on colloquialisms in rapid dialogue.

  30. Hans Adler said,

    October 26, 2021 @ 9:11 am

    Like most people here, I can't really contribute anything to the intriguing synaesthesia angle. I think it's not something I am experiencing myself. But I would like to provide some general information on dubbing:

    Whether dubbing or subtitles is the standard strategy for localizing a film for adults depends on the target language. (Of course for children who can't read there is no alternative.) As a rule of thumb, if a language has many speakers in wealthy countries, dubbing is the standard strategy, otherwise subtitling. English is a notable exception — probably mostly because so many films are produced in English itself. Some really successful foreign language films get a Hollywood remake (usually far inferior) rather than an English dubbing. But the rule isn't strict in general, either. For example, there aren't all that many Hungarian speakers, but Hungary, despite not being a very wealthy country, has a tradition of good dubbings.

    For Spanish and Portuguese, there are typically two dubbings — one European and one Latin American. Dubbings from Germany are used in Austria and Switzerland, but when Germany was still divided, East and West Germany had separate dubbing industries and many films were dubbed twice.

    Languages also differ in the quality of the dubbing. At the lower end of the spectrum there is Russian. For Russian there is typically a single man speaking everything over the original voices (male and female) — with a slight delay so we can hear what the original voice was like. But the more common case seems to be proper synchronized dubbing by voices that match the actors at least in gender.

    Some countries, such as Germany and Italy, have specialized industries providing high-quality dubbings for almost all foreign productions. The dialogs are translated freely so that they approximately fit the original lip movements. Every somewhat important foreign actor is ideally assigned a dedicated voice actor with a roughly similar voice, for life. A lot of effort goes into synchronizing the speech with the lip movements and retaining or reproducing the original ambient sound. At least for German dubbed versions it used to be common to also replace some written text such as part of the opening titles or the occasional shot of a book page.

    For several decades, West German dubbings of comedies, while otherwise still of high quality, suffered from extremely poor taste in terms of the translations. Typically, even the most sophisticated humor was replaced by extremely low-brow would-be thigh-slappers that weren't funny for the more intelligent viewers. I am not sure if this is still a problem because I am barely exposed to new German dubbings any more. And some German dubbings are cheap and poor quality in every way. I think this is a huge problem for modern sitcoms, which are often practically unwatchable in the version shown on German TV.

    Many classical movies are available on the Internet in several dubbed versions, sometimes more than one for the same language. It can be fun to compare European and Latin American Spanish dubbings, or European and Brazilian Portuguese dubbings. Or the original cinema dubbing of a film and a later re-dubbing for television.

    When native English speakers say they don't like dubbing, I think it's in part based on not being used to it, and in part it's a comment on the typical quality of English dubbings. In the best case, a dubbing can be so good that someone equally familiar with both languages may prefer the dubbed version due to its better dialogs. For example, the classic science fiction parody Barbarella was the product of a French director in Italy. The film's original language is English, but it seems to me that the French dubbing is actually better. As another example, some of the better French movies with Louis de Funès have excellent German dubbings that often improve on the original.

  31. Philip Taylor said,

    October 26, 2021 @ 3:14 pm

    Hans — "When native English speakers say they don't like dubbing, I think it's in part based on not being used to it, and in part it's a comment on the typical quality of English dubbings" — I respectfully disagree. Of course I cannot claim to speak for all native English speakers, or even for most of them, but from a purely personal perspective, and speaking as a native English speaker, my dislike of dubbing has nothing to do with either of the reasons that you suggest. I dislike dubbing because it is "wrong", "unnatural", "out of kilter" with the narrative of the film. If two Japanese speak to each other in Kyoto, then in all probability they speak Japanese; ditto two French men in Marseilles, two Chinese in Gui-Lin and so on. So when I see them speaking in a film, that is what I expect to hear. Of course, if my Japanese / French / Chinese is poor, then in order to follow the film I read the sub-titles; but I still want to hear the actors speaking their own language, not "pretending" to speak English.

  32. Hans Adler said,

    October 27, 2021 @ 3:10 am

    Philip: I totally agree with the aspect you are stressing being an important one. I didn't mention it because I wasn't trying to make my list of reasons exhaustive. I apologize for not making that clear. I also think that in part this is a later rationalization after a taste for or against dubbing has been developed through lifelong exposure — or lack thereof. The same reason should apply to German, French, Italian, Spanish speaking people and so on, yet it seems to be far less important to people in these cultures. I think this isn't _just_ because we are mostly unsophisticated barbarians.

    Also, it seems almost incomprehensible to me how Russian speakers can enjoy a movie with voice-over translations, spoken all by the same monotone male voice. I can only explain this by the fact that this is what they have grown up with. Maybe even you prefer voice-over to dubbing proper because it takes your main concern into account?

    I must admit that practices are gradually changing. In the late 1980s, when Monty Python's Flying Circus was first shown on German TV, it was almost unique in that this series was never dubbed and was shown in the original version with subtitles. This must have been because it was considered a niche product and only broadcast on the regional chains. (The same happened with the French market. Sometimes I watched an episode on French TV, where it had French subtitles. I don't remember noticing any other program with subtitles on French TV.) In those days (my late school days) I was still struggling a bit with fast spoken English and would have preferred a good dubbing because reading subtitles felt so strange and distracting. This was my first real exposure to them.

    Nowadays, subtitles are a bit more common on German TV, but they are still far from normal. Cheap American sitcoms are still shown with horribly bad dubbings rather than subitles. (Voices that don't fit the characters, poor translations, often not in synch.) I think the change in mainstream cinemas is similarly slow and mostly motivated by financial concerns. Of course smaller German cinemas showing unusual foreign films have been showing films with subtitles since practically forever simply because for financial reasons there is no alternative.

    To some extent the situation should be similar for novels, at least when it comes to dialog that takes place in a language that is somewhat comprehensible to most readers of the novel's main language. In an English translation of Don Quijote, shouldn't everyone be speaking Spanish, with an interlinear translation provided? Of course when translating between English and Chinese this would be pointless for most readers. But between English and Spanish this would make a lot of sense, and I think it's just because it's unheard-of that people don't complain when it isn't done.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    October 27, 2021 @ 5:15 am

    To address your last point first, Hans, I thank that that is a brilliant idea — all dialogue in the language in which it would have been spoken, narrative in the author's/target reader's language. Do any examples of this exist, do you know ?

    To your earlier point ("Maybe even you prefer voice-over to dubbing proper because it takes your main concern into account ?"). I don't think that I do, but I might. I say this because when I listen to the BBC, and one of the participants is speaking in a language other than English, we get a few seconds of the original speaker and then his/her voice is replaced by that of an interpreter. This infuriates me — why am I not to be allowed to hear what the speaker said ? Why must I be offered only an interpretation ? If the BBC and the industry were so minded, the ever-increasing prevalence of digital transmission might encourage the production of radio sets with a "language" option, similar to that on Blu-ray players and the like.

  34. cliff arroyo said,

    October 27, 2021 @ 9:57 am

    "Why must I be offered only an interpretation ?"

    What do you think subtitles are?

    AFAICT at the national level, which system prevails in a particular place is mostly a question of historical accident and there's no real criteria for thinking that one (subbing, subtitles, voice-over) is better than another.

  35. Philip Taylor said,

    October 27, 2021 @ 2:12 pm

    Cliff, the (unspoken) stress was on "only". Subtitles are not "only" an interpretation, they augment the spoken word, not replace it.

  36. 번하드 said,

    October 27, 2021 @ 5:29 pm

    Part of this comment should have gone below "green needles/brainstorm", but as interactions between different areas of the cortex were mentioned here, here goes:

    A few days ago, I stumbled across a video about acoustic/musical illusions by two music students, https://youtu.be/Ec7BR5Zic-U , and at ~00:12:00 they show part of a video about a thing called talking/speaking piano. I think I found that clip, too, https://youtu.be/muCPjK4nGY4 , try to listen with closed eyes in a first pass, then with open eyes in a second pass so you can see the captions.
    The first pass, for me, was almost perfect gibberish, with captions suddenly it worked!
    Also when listening again with eyes closed but knowing what to expect, I can hear the words, too, very similar to my experience with greenbrain.

    Re: captions in general. I have no synaesthetics going on. I prefer them a lot over dubbing.
    And the ideal movie in Korean has subtitles in both Korean and English, when I'm lazy I watch with captions in English but always ready to rewind a bit and switch to Korean when I suspect a bad translation. Ah, and from watching a lot of TV material from Korea, I get the impression that if an interviewee uses even very mild dialect, they will be captioned in standard language.
    TV announcers are painstakingly taught standard language and its pronunciation anyway.

  37. Stuart Brown said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 9:03 am

    Two separate thoughts: my favorite subtitle was in the French version of a British tv drama (Midsomer Murders, maybe) An older character drinking a glass of colorless liquid wryly comments “Mother’s Ruin” (rhyming slang for gin). The subtitle said “La ruine de ma mère”.
    Living in France, I sometimes watch documentaries on tv. But many of these are originally English-language, and are invariably dubbed. With narration this doesn’t matter, but for on- camera speech, they invariably leave the original audio underneath the dubbing. I find this totally Infuriating

  38. Stuart Brown said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 9:11 am

    I should perhaps clarify that it’s precisely because I understand the background language but can only semi- hear it that it’s troubling. If the original language is one I don’t know at all, I’m not confused.

  39. Chas Belov said,

    October 30, 2021 @ 2:18 am

    Hmmm, when watching the subtitled movie I hear the other language as I read the English. But when I remember individual lines from such a movie (doesn't happen for a lot of lines, but does happen), I hear them in English with the original intonation that was spoken in the other language.

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