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TO DUB OR TO SUB, THAT IS THE QUESTION

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, April 13, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: Although Americans tend to prefer dubbing to subtitles in foreign-language movies, I’ve always preferred the latter. So when the late Jack Valenti was head of the MPAA and said he favored dubbing, I had to react. Here’s my ‘Hicks on Flicks’ column published in the Deseret News on Oct. 1, 1989, under the headline, ‘Dubbing distorts flavor, rhythm of a film.’

Subtitles vs. dubbing.

Have we talked about this before? OK, we have, so you may already know that I much prefer subtitles. But to my surprise, Jack Valenti prefers dubbing.

Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, was in Park City a couple of weeks ago and, among other topics, he addressed foreign-language movies, which most Americans tend to dismiss because watching them requires reading subtitles or coping with dubbing.

“Subtitles,” of course, is the name given actors’ dialogue printed out at the bottom of the screen. “Dubbing” is when actors’ lips go east while the words go west.

Moviegoers in other countries happily put up with either subtitles or dubbing to watch American films, but for some reason Americans aren’t so easily satisfied.

“More and more Europeans are vexed by the idea that they welcome hospitably what we produce, but the American public is not given a chance to see what they produce,” Valenti said, addressing the Association of Film Commissioners International.

I expected Valenti to simply chide American moviegoers for not being patient enough to read subtitles, but to my surprise, not only did Valenti not rally for subtitles, he actually endorsed dubbing – though he admitted that dubbing could be done better.

     

Giulietta Masina, center, in Federico Fellini's 'La Strada' (1954)

“Subtitles on television are a disaster, unless you have ‘letterbox,’ where you can at least have subtitling on the black band on the top or on the bottom, so you can read it,” he said.

“I really believe that first-class dubbing (would) be almost (undetectable) to the American audience. I’ve seen marvelous dubbing of Italian in Italy to American film, and you cannot tell the difference. You really believe these American actors are speaking Italian.

“It’s rarely done (in the United States) by real artists. I think it’s possible to do that in this country, and I have some ideas to see if we can’t find some way to take the best that Europeans have to offer.”

Well, all right. Valenti’s entitled to his opinion. I can live with that. But here is what he said that got to me:

“Subtitling is a problem. You just can’t get the magic of what’s going on in subtitles. And I think dubbing is the answer.”

You can’t get the “magic” of a foreign movie with subtitles? But you do with dubbing?”

With that I completely disagree.

     

Zhang Ziyi in Ang Lee's 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' (2000)

The problem with dubbing, no matter how good it is, is that it inherently removes the “magic” of a foreign film. When an English-language voice, even with an accent, replaces the original French or Japanese or whatever, the “magic,” the “flavor,” the very “feel” of the film is undermined.

It may be a bit bothersome to read subtitles at the bottom of the screen, but the voice inflection of the actors as originally intended, the ambient sound effects and music, which are distorted even in the best-dubbed movies, displace the sense of another place and culture that are vital to foreign films.

Personally, I can’t understand why anyone would want to see a dubbed film. When a fantasy – even one as stunning as “Star Wars” – takes us to another world, we still know it’s all fake. But when a French or Japanese film, for example, takes you to a foreign world, it gives you a sense of what life is like in a real place with real people who live there, even though the story and characters are fabricated.

No, Mr. Valenti. Dubbing isn’t the answer. Better reading glasses, maybe. More patience while viewing movies, perhaps. And, for when such films come to TV or video, something you yourself mentioned — the “letterbox” format.

Dubbing isn’t “magic.” It’s just lazy.