Subs Vs Dubs: Understanding The Politics Of Content Localization And Its Implications | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

Subs Vs Dubs: Understanding The Politics Of Content Localization And Its Implications

If there’s anything that South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s groundbreaking Academy award-winning film Parasite (2019) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) have taught us is that international films are dominating the global arena. That implies that many people nowadays are finally embracing cultural diversity and are curious to know more about unique stories from around the world.

One of the main reasons why international films are oftentimes snubbed by the public in the past is due to the language barrier that comes in between. Audiences are required to exert more effort in understanding the film by reading the subtitles. However, the popularity of streaming platforms such as Netflix paved the way for content localization and hiring hundreds of voice artists to dub international films or TV shows.

The popularity of streaming platforms such as Netflix paved the way for content localization

As a professional who works in the entertainment industry, my appreciation for cinema knows no bounds. However, the exception to the rule is watching dubbed films or TV shows. Mismatched voices and lips simply don’t sit right with me as I’ve always valued and respected the film or show’s original language. I never thought of this as a pressing issue until I moved to Europe wherein most, if not all, foreign films are dubbed to fit its local film culture.

Unless you live in metropolitan cities, foreigners will rarely find a cinema that offers the film in its original language nor the option to watch it with English subtitles. This is not only unwarranted and limiting but could also be detrimental to language acquisition and the filmmaker’s intended artistic effect. This sparked my curiosity to discover the benefits and disadvantages of dubbing as well as the reason why dubbing is widely used in European countries compared to other international countries that choose to preserve the film’s original language and offer a variety of viewing options for foreigners.

It All Comes Down to Politics

In simple terms, dubbing is the process in which audio recordings or sounds are integrated into the soundtrack of a foreign film or show to replace the original dialogue with the local language of a specific country. Dubbing films can be traced back to the 1930s, primarily in European countries such as France, Italy, Germany, and Spain, where the majority of its citizens solely speak the local language. Other parts of Europe such as Denmark and Sweden where English is commonly taught in their formative years, usually don’t invest in dubbing foreign films. The differing film culture among European countries mainly has something to do with their respective political culture and ideologies.

“Dubbing is a brilliant tool for film censorship. Sound films began to appear in the early 1930s, a time when many countries were falling under the sway of totalitarian regimes. In Europe, these included those of Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco and the Nazis. Censorship had been a feature of film production and distribution in Italy, Spain and Germany since before these dictatorships took power, but it increased markedly after they did so,” via The Conversation.

Dubbing was a powerful and useful tool to manipulate and shape the people’s perception of the government

In Italy, for instance, dubbing was a powerful and useful tool to manipulate and shape the people’s perception of the government. Mussolini’s fascists used this opportunity to change the dialogues and eliminate references in the film that dishonored or offended the country, government, and its citizens. Not to mention, fascists also demanded that the language used for dubbing should be limited to the standardized Italian language to avoid dialects and foreign words influencing and infiltrating their culture. The dictators of Italy, Spain, and Germany took advantage of dubbing films to instill nationalism and autonomy in their people.

Many traditionalists and conformists in the art world would argue that art or films should be preserved in their original way, shape, or form. In the case of dubbed films, the intended artistic impact, value, and performances are diminished due to distracting lip-reading, unsynchronized audio, and poor or exaggerated voice acting – some of the factors that could be extremely jarring to the viewer. As a compromise, the use of subtitles is widely used as a better alternative. Furthermore, dubbing and subtitling go beyond political or personal inclinations. While being proud of one’s culture and language is an admirable trait, there are also significant repercussions to think about when being a purist, especially in the age of globalization.

At the top of the list is the missed opportunity to be multilingual. Films and TV shows prove to be effective educational tools to impart knowledge and learn foreign languages. As we all know, English is mainly used in mainstream media or in international social settings, and those residents of countries that do not dub foreign films or shows demonstrate their ability to speak or understand English moreso than those who only grew up watching dubbed films in their local language. This is not only limited to English because the same principle applies if an individual is interested in learning a foreign language. It is always best to watch a film in its original language to fully expose yourself and understand its mechanics, pronunciation, grammar, tone, and vocabulary.

According to the 2015 EF English Proficiency Index, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are rated as the top three countries, while Spain, Italy and France were ranked as having moderate to low proficiency in English. This seems to reflect quite accurately the dubbing-subtitling divide in Europe.”

Pros and Cons

Despite the drawbacks, dubbing could also be beneficial to those who have visual impairments or to some who have difficulties in reading and following subtitles. Not to mention, since dubbing is translated and catered to the local culture of a country, audiences are able to better understand and relate to the story and its characters. This also makes a foreign film or show accessible to a worldwide audience as proven by Netflix’s global strategy to offer dubbed and subtitled content in at least 30 plus languages, as seen in award-winning shows such as Spain’s Money Heist (2017) and South Korea’s Squid Game (2021).

Content localization by way of dubbing and subtitling will always be one of those inconclusive debates where nobody exactly wins or loses. It serves different purposes and is mainly influenced by our personal preferences as well as our cultural upbringing. It only becomes a problem when foreign audiences are not given options or access to watch films in the cinema in its original language as is the case for most non-English speaking countries. We must keep evolving with the times and embracing globalization without feeling threatened or compromised. While each person has their own unique opinion and way of watching films, the bottom line is that cinema is a visual medium that should effectively tell the story and evoke emotions primarily through the use of images, actions, music, and non-verbal cues. After all, cinema is a universal language, don’t we all agree?

Damaged City Festival 2019 | Photos | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.

Damaged City Festival 2019 | Photos | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

My Cart Close (×)

Your cart is empty
Browse Shop


Don't miss out on weekly new content and exclusive deals