As long as I can remember, I’ve preferred watching movies in foreign languages that are subtitled, rather than dubbed. My earliest memory of a subtitled movie was Diva, which I watched with my mother when I was nine or ten. My memory is more of the subtitles than the movie itself, because I had to pay so much attention to reading them.
As I got older and grew into a movie snob gained an education about film history and theory, I preferred subtitled foreign movies because of course I wanted to see and hear the original performance. In almost all cases,* watching someone act in one language and hearing another performance in English is a little too jarring on the brain. It’s similar to my difficulty watching someone using true American Sign Language — which has so many differences from English, including features that don’t appear in spoken language — while listening to an interpretation. It has to be one or the other.
I’ve watched the movie La cité des enfants perdus (City of Lost Children) so many times with subtitles, elegant and terrible both, that I can watch it with subtitles off and understand what’s being said. Despite no longer being as fluent in French as I was during and after undergrad, I know it well enough to get not just the sense but the words themselves. One time I tried to watch it dubbed into English. I got about 15 or 20 minutes into it before I stopped, and never tried again. For one thing, the group of originally wonderful orphans sounded as though they were out of a Midwestern high school production of Oliver!. For another, it makes Ron Perlman’s character sound mentally disabled, rather than the foreigner speaking broken French that he is. The sense, not just the phrasing, is lost.
Watching shows on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic where people speaking languages other than English are dubbed into it annoy me in a different way. On the shows I’m thinking of, the voiceover actors are apparently told to give their performance a little punch, instead of a neutral interpretation. In most cases, I have no idea how good the translation is. But it comes off as patronizing, both to the audience, and to the person being overdubbed.
I wouldn’t be surprised if market research shows that people prefer to hear a whole show in English rather than be bothered reading subtitles, and it’s not an entirely invalid sentiment, especially for anyone with vision problems, including the elderly population. However, since most of these channels that do this purport to show the world to the armchair traveller and student, it’s incongruous to present it in English where the language is not spoken, and a rudely dismissive message that the sound of the person speaking doesn’t hold anything of value to English speakers.
(This doesn’t even take into account the general value of captioning, which benefits not just the deaf and hard-of-hearing but kids and adults learning English, as well as other considerations.)
Placing everything in a U.S.-centric context is one thing. I recently watched an ad for ChildFund, which used to be the Christian Children’s Fund — you remember, the ones who turned down a donation in honor of Gary Gygax. Normally I skip through these but I was mesmerized by a tactic I hadn’t seen in previous commercials. The children, usually relegated to peering doe-eyed up at the camera, spoke in this one, and were dubbed over by American English-speaking children. No matter what the actual voice of the child, every voiceover had a quavery, plaintive tone designed to wring the hearts of the vulnerable for every last cent drop of blood.
I’m not editorializing on the work that ChildFund does, since its reviews are largely good but a mixed bag. They’ve actually been attacked for exploiting the word “Christian” even though they really aren’t too much, which I think is a little perversely funny. But shoot me now because I have to mostly agree with MinistryWatch that “CCF’s TV and press fundraising ads often portray images of children that are designed to provoke an emotional giving response rather than a thoughtful, prayerful one.” I don’t know from prayerful, but oy vey is the schmaltz piled high like so much…well, schmaltz.
Is it ethical for a (presumed) ethical charity to exploit its recipients in order to provide more for them? It’s probably not the worst possible offense, but it’s made even more distasteful by using false voices specifically designed for maximum effect on U.S. viewers. I suppose it’s market research again that says donors are less moved by the children’s own subtitled voices, but it seems like a missed opportunity, if not even a bit xenophobic or at least imperialist, to censor the children’s identities in the process of helping them.
* When I went to Paris in college, I had a good grasp of French. It was January 1994, and The Nightmare Before Christmas had just opened. There, many movies and all Disney cartoons opened both dubbed into English and subtitled, a nice way to solve the debate. Since I had every frame of the original memorized, I decided to go see L’étrange Noël de Monsieur Jack without any subtitles. It was by far the best dubbed movie I have ever seen. From the voices to the lyrics to the dialogue, it conveyed the sound and tone of the original beautifully. Where an English turn of phrase might have had to be rendered literally, in another place a French pun would make up for it with the same macabre wit. I got the French soundtrack there and it’s every bit as fun to listen to as the original.