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subbing or dubbing

Do you prefer to read films?

Revised: May 2021

It is the season of film festivals: the Raindance Film Festival begins 21st September in London, the Netherlands Film Festival starts 22nd September, and the Cambridge Film Festival begins 20th October. These events celebrate local and international film makers by showing both feature films and shorts.

Many of the international films shown at festivals must be dubbed with voice over or subtitled. Each method of translation has its benefits, as well as potential drawbacks.

Subtitles are cheaper to produce, while dubbing takes a great deal more time and effort. Low-quality dubbing, either due to using unskilled voice actors or due to bad timing, can ruin a film. On the other hand, subtitles draw the viewer’s attention away from the on-screen action of the film, since they must focus on reading the subtitles. How does one choose which method to use when translating a foreign film?

Subtitling or dubbing

There is a long-standing, heated debate among film lovers in some countries about whether subtitling or dubbing better preserves the film’s original message. Different directors and producers have their own preferences, as well.

However, it is interesting to note that a study by the UK Film Council compared how movie-goers enjoyed a film when dubbed versus when subtitled, and they concluded that “giving cinema-goers choice is key” (emphasis theirs). In other words, some people will always prefer subtitles while others will prefer voice-over. When possible, then, it is best for film-makers to enable audiences to see the film with either option.

If it is not possible to provide both options, then the type of film and the intended audience should be taken into consideration. Horror and action films are often dubbed because so much of the entertainment depends upon what is physically happening on-screen. Dramatic films, on the other hand, often opt for subtitling so that the actors’ voices – the inflection and nuance – can be preserved.

Netherlands Film Festival

Netherlands film festival - subbing or dubbing

The Netherlands Film Festival will be held on 21-30 September, 2016 and will feature many Dutch films with English subtitles, to help draw an international audience. Photo © Netherlands Film Festival

Many countries, especially outside of the English-speaking world, have no great debate over how to translate films and television shows. The Netherlands Film Festival, for instance, will feature most foreign films with subtitles, which is traditional.

In the Netherlands, as well as most Scandinavian countries, only children’s programmes are given voiceover translation, while everything else has subtitles. In other European countries, such as Germany, Spain, and Italy, dubbing is the norm; for varying reasons, voiceover is just “how it is done” and subtitles are rare.

This might be something to do with the evidence that dubbing increases audience engagement. Apparently, viewers are more likely to watch content to completion when it is dubbed, instead of subbed

The bottom line here is, if you have a preference for how you enjoy foreign films, check out the individual film festivals to see who is featuring dubbed films and who is showing subtitles. And remember that the location of the festival will likely determine which option is favoured.

Where do you stand in the great “Sub or Dub” debate? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook. And if you’d like to learn more about either process for your own film or online video, contact our studios today!