Dubbing or subtitles?

english german dubbing translation

Dub or sub?
The decision could be more important than we realise.

It is no secret that with dubbing, so much can be lost in translation. Humour sometimes falls flat-on-its-face flat and the voices of actors can ring hollow – or worse, come off as camp or macho when they should be the other way round. However, hidden under the voice-over, there is a far bigger concern lurking: does dubbing affect our ability to aquire another language?

Surely, it is no coincidence that the citizens of Spain, whose TV and cinema are dubbed into the local language, have the worst level of English in the EU according to a recent survey (http://www.ef-uk.co.uk/epi/download-full-report/), nor that the top five on the same list, including Norway, The Netherlands and Denmark, all use subtitling. Research has shown that we pick up languages much quicker as children than we do as adults, and that in order to aquire a language we need constant exposure to it – indeed, it is estimated that we need 30% daily exposure to a foreign language to become fluent.

Does it not make sense, then, that by watching and listening to TV programmes and films in English, foreign viewers are more likely to improve their ear for the language, their pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary? According to various studies, the answer seems to be yes. One such study found that language aquisition increases dramatically when material is subtitled as opposed to dubbed; indeed, it is suggested that the difference is equivalent to between one and a half to four years of English education at school. Imagine that – a possible four years worth of classes, just by watching TV? English language learners will be reaching for the subtitle buttons on their remotes in droves.

So too, perhaps, should business owners. Subtitled television has been shown to influence the economy of a country, particularly in foreign direct investment, the increase in the percentage of the population who speak English translating into an increase in the country’s GDP.

Equally, a 2007 EC survey among nearly 2,000 European small and medium enterprises found that a signicant amount of business is being lost as a result of a lack of language skills, mainly in English. In all but 8 of the 29 countries surveyed, more than 10% of businesses had experienced intercultural and/or language difficulties; 11% had missed out on business due to a lack of foreign language skills, with almost a fifth of these losing actual contracts, an estimated total loss of up to €12 million. When this is scaled up to reflect the almost one million exporting SMEs in Europe, the potential and actual losses caused by language shortages could conceivably run into the billions.

The bottom line seems clear, then. Or does it? Other bottom-line factors need to be considered. Dubbing itself is big business; in Germany alone, where they have their very own ‘Oscars of dubbing’ awards, and some German voice actors are almost as famous as the original stars, the total turnover of the dubbing industry in 2009 was €87.25 million. Add to that the fact that changing the translation mode from dubbing to subtitling (or vice versa) would incur substantial costs, and it is easy to see why no OECD country has changed from one mode to the other since World War Two.

And what about the public? Much like Marmite and Mourinho, dubbing continues to divide opinion, and for viewers it seems to be a case of sticking with what you’re used to. Any change would meet considerable resistance; in Poland, for example, a recently proposed move away from dubbing was only favoured by 19% of the public.

Unfortunately, it seems, at least for countries where dubbing is used, it could be a case of continuing to give the audience what they want – and not what they need.

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4 comments
  1. Scott said:

    A lot of great input; I especially appreciated the note about Spain’s use of dubbing and their level of English within the EU… I had not considered that aspect. Dubbing is an essential element for children’s movies and for countries or areas without the level of education required to read two lines of text and also focus on the action on the screen…there are positives and negatives to everything.

    • There are, indeed. Dubbing for children’s movies, subtitles from the age of 10 or something… and we can still have a childhood but learn languages as soon as we have to. As we are seeing in Spain, after 20 is too late to make your first babysteps in English.

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