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The translation of film and TV dialogue can be significantly more awkward than that of written material, and there are multiple ways of approaching the task.
Dubbing is the preferred option in many European countries where large single-language audiences can justify the production cost – France, Germany, Italy and Spain, for example. There are historical reasons for the choice: France initially favoured dubbing in order to protect the French language against foreign influence, and dubbing was chosen in the 1930s dictatorships in Spain, Germany and Italy to strengthen the sense of national identity through a common language.
Even in countries that usually subtitle, children’s films and TV programmes are dubbed, as the target audience has limited reading skills. The process involves voice actors re-recording dialogue in the target language, and in most cases the only restriction is that the translated dialogue has to last the same length as the original, so the dubbed dialogue doesn’t ‘bleed’ over and carry on after the on-screen actor’s mouth stops moving. Lip-synchronisation is no longer considered necessary in European countries, where audiences have become accustomed to the mismatch of sound and mouth movement.
Subtitling is preferred in Portugal, The Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, among others, mainly because the relatively inexpensive cost is more viable for small audiences. It is quite a challenge to express dialogue in subtitles. Conventions can vary, but translators are usually restricted to two lines of around 35 characters on screen at a time, so that the text is big enough but does not obscure the picture. Each set of subtitles must stay on the screen for at least six seconds, requiring translations to be hugely compressed.
The number of film and TV programme imports is just as influential on translation method as audience size. At one end of the scale, the US industry prefers to completely remake foreign productions rather than translate them, because subtitles are unpopular and, where dubbing might be used, audiences insist on complete lip-synchronisation – an extremely difficult task that makes shooting a new version the easiest option. An exception to this is animated films, which are easier to synchronise and can therefore arrive with no trace of ‘foreignness’. At the other end of the scale, countries such as Poland and Hungary import so many English-language programmes that a quick and cheap technique called lectoring is used. This involves a single voice ‘narrating’ over the dialogue of all characters, while the original language track is still audible underneath; it serves more as a check of understanding than a full translation.
Those who favour dubbing argue that subtitles distract from the visual image and prevent immersion and entertainment, but the choice of translation method has consequences far beyond the viewing experience. Studies have shown that the standard of English is higher in countries that use subtitles, because viewers are exposed to the language through the many imported English-language films and TV programmes – whereas dubbing erases and replaces the original audio.
There may also be an impact on the creation of films. The ‘Bergman effect’, named after the Swedish director, refers to how the awareness of export potential affects writers and filmmakers. In Bergman’s case, the films he intended for an international audience had a significantly more succinct dialogue that was easier to convert into subtitles.
Translation method is chosen based on audience size, historical circumstances and film import levels, but the choice affects much more than the viewing experience. It has an impact on national industry, language acquisition and even the style of filmmakers, becoming entrenched in, and influencing, national culture.
By Jenny Nicholls
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham