Film & TV Muse

“Sub vs Dub?”: Debating the Age-old Question

Camila Ponce-Hernández and Kyle Boulton offer opposing views on this polarising issue

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Image Credit: Netflix

With Squid Game’s global success, the question of ‘sub vs dub?’ has become more prevalent than ever. More often than not, it is met with a rather hostile response; something along the lines of dubbing not being the proper way of consuming foreign media. In some cases, to even ask the question is an act of heresy. Despite the strong reactions that dubbing garners, popular consumption tells another story. For those of us in the UK, Squid Game (2021) automatically begins with the English dubbed version rather than the Korean original. As one of Netflix’s most popular shows of all time, it’s not a stretch to suggest that a lot of people will have left the audio settings alone and experienced the show this way. For the aforementioned cinephiles and lovers of foreign entertainment, it’s a nightmare come true.

Yet, it’s also true that Squid Game would not have achieved its level of success without the options that dubbing provides. These translated productions, whether we like it or not, make foreign media accessible to many, even if it comes at the expense of quality. This article will try to take a different, more level-headed approach to the age-old debate; in the first section, Camila will explicate how subtitles are crucial to experiencing a text as the creator(s) intended. Kyle, contrarily, will play devil’s advocate and make the case for dubbing and why its existence always has been, and always will be, key to making foreign media both accessible and sustainable.

For Subtitles (Camila)

Dubbing, and voice acting more generally, often makes for an unpleasant viewing experience. Infamously, in the Hungarian dubbing of the cult-favourite Beetlejuice (1988) which strangely took place in Hong Kong, the voice actor casting sounds incongruent and unenjoyable, creating harsh and blatant moments of disconnect through the alternating speeds they speak at, whilst in the process failing to match up with the mouths of the actors. Further, the voiceover provided in the French renditions of the Star Wars movie franchise used literal translations of the English names for the characters. The Tusken raiders became sandpeople, the battle droids were droids of combat and Darth Vader was renamed Dark Vador. Despite these being names which native French speakers would find easier to grapple with, the films’ receptions failed to correlate with the screen-writers’ and director’s intentions, for their art had lost its nuances in relation to the original narrative of the films themselves.

Turning to animations, the scripts for these dubs, particularly in Japanese anime and the like, are usually crafted to synchronise with the mouths of the characters, as if erasing the original language of the show and fooling the viewer into thinking that the dub is, in fact, not a dub at all. This typically leads to a pitfall in the accuracy of the translation, since those in charge of writing the translated language’s dialogue are urged to take creative liberties in the very process of transferring meaning accurately. Further, without careful consideration, some actors employ certain accents in order to convey a sense of realism, a kind of grip on the ‘culture’ that is being transmitted through the film or show. This, paradoxically, lends to a further blockage of language barrier by the very overriding and silencing of the voices in the original film. In turn, I think subtitles, when done with accuracy, are a more composed and insightful guide to storytelling, capturing the spirit of what the actors are saying, not mouthing.

Dubbing, in a sense, seems to discredit the skillset of the actors on screen, depreciating and altering the art form with which the director and crew intended for a viewer to consume the media they are watching. Subtitles, therefore, are not a hindrance to cultural awareness but instead allow us to access the world of the movie and further make us privy to details we otherwise wouldn’t hear, even if it were in our own language – for instance, if there is background dialogue, or a muffled conversation from the other side of a telephone.

The most successful foreign-language films have not required voice actors to catalyse their international status as established works. A few examples we have seen independently rise to fame include: Parasite (2019, South Korea), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Mexico), Amélie & Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2001/2019, France), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, China), Seven Samurai (1954, Japan), among many others, and many more to come. Needless to say, the hard work we have to do to occasionally avert our eyes for a breath of air from the action of a film, pays off.

For Dubbing (Kyle)

To put it simply, dubbing would not be an industry-standard if there wasn’t a demand for it. The process of translating and reenacting an original text for different languages is called localisation, and it can admittedly be a double-edged sword. True, the purpose of localisation is to ensure that as many international markets as possible can enjoy the text, therefore sacrificing its quality and sense of authorship in the process. At the same time, many films have historically relied on these markets (and still do) to make profit or lessen the blow of a box office failure in their native country. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) stands out as one such example. Although the film was panned by audiences and critics alike in the West, a cult-following emerged in Japan where an appetite for Twin Peaks remained strong. I’m not sure how, exactly, this craving for coffee and cherry pie translates to Japanese culture, but I’ll give you a clue: type in ‘Twin Peaks Georgia Coffee Commercial’ on YouTube and prepare to be amazed.

This brings me to another important point: when a text is released, audiences can do whatever they wish with it. As Camila rightly noted, another culture’s appropriation of a text can, at worst, “silence” voices and reinforce harmful perspectives. In the case of Monkey, a popular Japanese television export produced in the late 70s, UK audiences became accustomed to an English localisation that played on oriental stereotypes and racist attitudes. Yet, despite its wide-ranging distribution, many nostalgic Brits still think of Monkey as a relic of their childhood (as well as speaking to their bigoted preconceptions). On the flip side, tasteful dubs have the potential to positively relocate a text’s relativism to another culture. Returning to Lynch’s Fire Walk with Me, the Japanese conception of Twin Peaks is far different than what we’ve come to expect in the West - it is, in fact, its own culturally specific thing. Despite this potentially obfuscating what Lynch himself intended the film to be, the same Japanese audiences were pivotal to its eventual success. Not only did they keep its revenue afloat, but they also laid the foundation for its critical renaissance twenty years later, when Fire Walk with Me was later identified as one of Lynch’s darkest and most overlooked works to date.

The same idea of textual belonging, or lack thereof, is intrinsic to Japan’s position as a global entertainment giant. Contrary to Camila’s claim that anime dubs “erase” the text’s “original language”, I would argue that Japanese productions are more than willing to make these sacrifices. Whilst it would be a lie to suggest all English dubs are of good quality, there is generally a greater emphasis on localisation and its potential to open new streams of revenue. Take Studio Ghibli, for example, and their evolution from a small animation studio to the one we all know and love today. Although the magic of their films is plain to see, audiences would perhaps not have taken the plunge if not for the cultural safety-net that dubbing provides. I’m specifically thinking of young people like myself who still have an old Spirited Away DVD lying under their bed, who would not have been introduced to Ghibli films without the Disneyfication of them. Speaking of which, Ghibli’s filmography now has a longstanding tradition of Hollywood actors giving English language performances that are just as natural and enchanting as the original. The same catering to international audiences has since extended to Japanese television and gaming, with texts like Cowboy Bebop (1998), Persona 5 (2016), and NieR: Automata (2017) giving us English voice acting just as nuanced and immersive as the original subbed versions. I’ll admit: this dynamic remains fairly restricted, as of now, to English translations of Japanese texts. In time, however, this will hopefully change in keeping with the idea that where there is demand, there is an improvement in quality.

On a more personal level, I would like to bring up issues of accessibility. Whilst binge-watching has become a phenomenon throughout the streaming era, the same trend appears antithetical to our lack of free time and ever-declining attention spans. For those who wish to consume exciting shows like Squid Game and Dark (2017) without an unwanted Duolingo lesson, dubs are an incredibly useful feature. It’s true that you’ll be missing the nuances of the performances and each show’s acute sense of national identity, but one’s free time and energy is immeasurable in comparison. If you want to watch the newest foreign hit everyone’s raving about and wash the dishes at the same time, I won’t be the one to judge.

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