Dubbing vs. Sub-titling
of Foreign Language Movies

The art of combination is not infinite in its possibilities, though those possibilities are apt to be frightening.  The Greeks engendered the chimera, a monster with the head of a lion, the head of a dragon, and the head of a goat; the second-century theologians, the Trinity, in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are inextricably linked; the Chinese zoologists, the ti-yiang, a bright red, supernatural bird equipped with six feet and six wings but with neither face nor eyes; nineteenth-century geometrists, the hypercube, a four-dimensional figure enclosing an infinite number of cubes and bounded by eight cubes and twenty-four squares.  Hollywood has just enriched this frivolous museum of teratology: by means of a perverse artifice they call dubbing, they devise monsters that combine the famous face of Greta Garbo with the voice of Aldonza Lorenzo.  How can we fail to proclaim our admiration for this bleak magic, for these ingenious audio-visual deformations?

On Dubbing, Jorge Luis Borges, 1945

Much of the world trade in films is dominated by the United States of America, which enjoys competitive advantages in financing, technology, production, distribution, sales and marketing.  The North American films are obviously produced in the English-language.  When these films are brought to other non-English-speaking countries, they may subjected to local modifications.  The choices are (1) dubbing in the local language; (2) subtitling in the local language(s); (3) dubbing as well as sub-titling in local language(s); or do nothing at all.

The decision to dub and/or sub-title depends on many factors, some of which are a matter of local regulations.  The following is a list of some local regulations in some Latin American countries:

Another important consideration is the relative costs.  Generally speaking, dubbing is more expensive than subtitling.  But there are some possible short cuts.  For example, in lieu of dubbing, there may be live commentary by a narrative; also, subtitling can be projected separately onto the movie screen by an operator.  

But most important of all is how consumers receive these movies.  It does not matter if the distributor can meet the local regulations at minimum cost if the consumers are unreceptive.  We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Latina study about the attitudes towards dubbing versus sub-titling in Latin America.  The TGI Latina study is a consumer survey of persons between the ages of 12 and 64 years old in seven Latin American countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.  Among these people, 61% indicated that they preferred foreign movies to be dubbed while 24% preferred to see subtitles.  The remaining 15% had no preference one way or the other.  The next table shows the demographic breakdown:

Demographic Groups % preferred dubbing % preferred subtitling
Country
     Argentina
     Brazil
     Chile
     Colombia
     Mexico
     Peru
     Venezuela

50%
65%
63%
67%
53%
72%
67%

28%
20%
22%
20%
34%
18%
17%
Age/Sex
     Males 12-19
     Males 20-24
     Males 25-34
     Males 35-44
     Males 45-54
     Males 55-64

     Females 12-19
     Females 20-24
     Females 25-34
     Females 35-44
     Females 45-54
     Females 55-64

59%
52%
58%
62%
64%
64%

61%
54%
62%
62%
64%
66%

28%
32%
28%
24%
20%
15%

26%
31%
23%
22%
20%
15%
Socio-Economic Level
     Level A (top 10%)
     Level B (next 20%)
     Level C (next 30%)
     Level D (bottom 40%)

38%
55%
62%
68%

47%
32%
24%
15%
TOTAL 61% 24%

(source:  TGI Latina)

From the above table, we observed:

We would suspect that the ability to comprehend spoken English would be a strong determinant of the preference for dubbing.  In the next table, we show the preferences by the people's comprehension of spoken English.  

Comprehension of spoken English % preferred dubbing % preferred subtitling
Very good
Some
Very little
Nothing at all
21%
48%
61%
68%
57%
38%
26%
16%

(source:  TGI Latina)

The oddity about the above table that even those who understand no spoken English at all are not 100% for dubbing.  What could possibly be going through their minds?  Perhaps one answer is that listening to the words and reading subtitles is a way of learning the language.  Alternately, perhaps they are aesthetes in the following sense:

Those who defend dubbing might argue (perhaps) that objections to it can also be raised against any kind of translation.  This argument ignores, or avoids, the principal defect: the arbitrary implant of another voice and another language.  The voice of Hepburn or Garbo is not accidental but, for the world, one of their defining features.

On Dubbing, Jorge Luis Borges, 1945

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(posted by Roland Soong, 2/17/2001)


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