It is quite easy to discuss what the cons of dubbing are. Many of us whether we consider ourselves to be filmsnobs or not agree with most if not all of them. Yet, I will within these paragraphs play devil’s advocate. To be completely frank, I’m doing more than that. I am taking a global view in this piece so while you will read me vehemently explain and defend dubbing as a necessity (in some cases, and an artform when done well) I do prefer to watch a film, in which I do not know the language, subtitled.
So very quickly here is the east part where we can agree on are the cons of dubbing:
When watching a film dubbed you are automatically submitting to a film wherein you are not witnessing the original vision of the director. The actors choices are re-interepreted as is his text. The edit is compromised in terms of intonation and inflection. The director’s choices are muted. A good dub will try and replicate as closely as it can what those choices are but a copy and a translation are not the same thing as hearing the original audio. Not to say that subtitles are impeachable. I know of at least two cases where edits tantamount to censorship occurred in subtitles making the theatrical release and the home video release quite different.
The biggest con for me, an American consumer who enjoys films from all around the world, is that many times in North American distribution dubbing is a “business decision.” This kind of decision is an attempt to broaden an audience which is niche to begin with and alienating the small but devoted groups of filmgoers who would watch subtitled fare (horror fans and the art house crowd to name two). Without wandering too much into the pro area the North American audience is not the base for which dubbing really is a functional, preferable alternative. We can pick and choose and those of us who will watch foreign films prefer subtitles.
When a film is dubbed suspension of disbelief becomes a major concern. Subtitles do add an artifice but it’s just relaying what is being said. You still hear it as intended. When a film is dubbed there is more artifice to it, it’s something you’re conscious of which is jarring you’re simultaneously distracted by detaching the voice from the actor and giving them a pass and gauging the abilities of the voice over artist. Then there’s the obvious that depending on what language the original was recorded in sync can be very difficult to accomplish at times, or in the worst cases completely disregarded.
And needless to say I have rarely if ever seen English dubbing that was palatable.
Charles Emmanuel in the studio for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Charles Emmanuel/Warner Bros.)
There is a technique to matching sync on dialogue. With care, performance and at times searching for synonyms or synonymous sentences it can be accomplished even when the languages in question have a large gulf between them.
So there’s technique, that’s fine, most would even be willing to grant that if they’ve seen halfway decent dubbing, however, too much dubbing experience is in Japanese monster movies of the 50s and 60s. There is, however, an art to it as well. Now I come to these conclusions because I speak two languages fluently (English and Portuguese) therefore if I am already familiar with material I can and have examined it dubbed and found some of them enjoyable. The first spark I had when I was about 13 I think and I saw Home Alone in Brazil and was rather impressed by how natural it managed to seem.
It was my most recent trip to Brazil that really got me thinking about dubbing more and differently. Just prior I had started to think of it because all of a sudden I did a “Where are They Now?” kind of search, the kind the internet seems specifically designed for and discovered that one actor who’s work I had enjoyed had taken to dubbing as he came of age and transitioned from being a child actor mostly on screen to mostly voice over work.
When in Brazil though I did some more watching and thinking. First, as I would often peruse the local showtimes seeking something to see (I ended up only seeing Harry Potter 7.2 there) I noticed things. For example, there was only one showing I could find in Rio for Winnie the Pooh that was subtitled. The reason is target audience. Little kids can’t read or very well so it’s easier for them to watch and comprehend a film from another country dubbed than it is subtitled. With most of the cinematic product around the world being American young people make it a necessity the world over.
However, children’s films and children as audience members only make up a small portion of the global box office Hollywood is so eager to conquer. The other reality dubbing addresses is that many countries throughout the world have lower than average literacy rate, thus subtitles present an issue. Many of the films coming out of Hollywood are easy enough to follow just a bit of assistance is needed to make it accessible to that many more people. Dubbing bridges that gap too.
So there’s a duality of purpose. The studios want a more impressive international gross and people the world round need entertainment. So its functionality is very clear. Especially when you consider the fact that the need for dubbing creates jobs for actors, recordists, editors and so on the world round in nations whose entertainment industries may not be as robust.
However, I needed to test the potential for artistry again. Being a kid seeing Home Alone, which I knew and still know quite well, opened the window in my mind allowing the possibility that seeing a dubbed film could be beyond tolerable but even enjoyable. However, the more we watch the more jaded we become. The more we study the less impressed we end to be. A new test case was needed. Again, Harry Potter fit the bill.
I must say that I did see The Deathly Hallows Part 2 subtitled, as it was a new film to me and I wanted to realize it fully. Therefore, considering it was the hot film series of the moment it was easy enough to find both on sale and readily available at people’s homes. My test case was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in part because the “Where Are They Now?” actor (Charles Emmanuel) who I’d re-discovered as a dubbist played Ron Weasley in all eight films.
The first thing that struck me was how much better I knew the film than I thought. I knew it quite well indeed enough that I noticed the nuanced changes in language, syntax, intonation, inflection and so on that were made to make the film register as more natural in the language spoken. I reiterate that I must see a film many times before I can submit to seeing it dubbed but it is a masterfully well done job. I even managed to get the sense from it how one can become accustomed to and prefer the dubbed version when that’s all they’ve ever know, which is typically the case with animation. Only studio and network-based international networks show American programming mostly subtitled there.
So that was a revelation and then came another most recently and unexpectedly. I actuality this piece, though I have long pondered it would likely not exist without the following story. The reason that is so is that it’s all well and good to wax philosophical about the hypothetical (to the inexperienced) benefits of dubbing especially when most of them aren’t aesthetic but it’s another to get some insight into how two actors, each of whom portray the same character viewed their dubbing experience.
Dylan Riley Snyder
While on Twitter I saw a tweet from Dylan Riley Snyder (an actor whom you may know from either Disney XD’s Kickin’ It or Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime) the link was a YouTube clip of scenes from Kickin’ It dubbed into Portuguese, the Brazilian version. I, of course, watched it and rather enjoyed it and was able to laugh at some of the same bits in the same way that I had in English.
The clips were uploaded to the dubbist’s personal Youtube but as of yet Snyder had not been able to discern if he had a Twitter account. After a quick search I was able to find it and relay it. So there I had discovered that the actor originating the role, to borrow the stage term, had heard the dubbist’s work and approved.
I was then further surprised by the ability to get insight into the other more unknown aspect of it, the voice over artist’s thoughts on his craft, his role and responsibilities. Bruno Dias had written a blog post and wanted a version translated to English so that Snyder could read it.
What I expected the post to be and what it was were two completely different things. I expected a cordial, complimentary, anecdotal re-telling of their interaction. What was surprising was the preface and the absolute sincerity and clarity with which Bruno Dias described his adopted and beloved form of acting and also the parallels drawn, respect felt for and connection he made with the actor whose work he is interpreting.
It is and always will be a much better explanation of how dubbing can be an artform than I can ever write so I suggest you read it. If one treats their work behind the microphone with the commitment and dedication that an actor onscreen and respects their interpretee’s process and interpretation they will be successful and yes it will be artful.