Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lost in Translation: Subtitles VS. Dubbing

Being a reader, someone who is enthusiastic about reading and who prefers reading books over watching movies but still enjoys watching movies from time to time, I've found that of all the films I watch, I especially enjoy watching foreign language films with English subtitles, probably because it's a blend of watching and reading.

Of course, you can always look at subtitles while listening to a language that you understand. For instance, watching an English language film while reading English subtitles. But to me it is not the same, and I usually see no point in doing so. I enjoy the mystery of not understanding what is said while listening, but being able to understand while reading and watching and feeling. Reading subtitles to a film that you otherwise would not understand, makes you much more engaged with it than perhaps you'd be while reading something that you already understand verbally, where you are reading more carefully, seeing how it integrates with the unfamiliar speech, sounds, and movement on the screen, of which you'd perhaps otherwise be lost. This makes it interesting, where my senses are on high alert, where on the one hand I'm reading and understanding what is said, but at the same time it is very different from what I am used to. That is what I like about foreign language films.

I'm an American who unfortunately, despite taking classes years ago in both Spanish and French, am only fluent in one language, English, and even that is somewhat debatable, as I must have been sleepwalking through my English grammar lessons, as I'm still pretty much lost about how to properly punctuate a sentence.

Well anyway, despite my language handicap, as I said before, I prefer books to movies, but I do watch my fair share of films on DVD, which are all from the public library. This is just something I started doing over the past year, when I discovered that the public library had a really great selection of films. I never spend a single penny on them, neither own nor rent DVDs, other than the cost of electricity and operating equipment, which being a supreme tightwad, just doesn't seem worth it. If I couldn't watch the DVDs for free, I probably wouldn't watch any at all, or only very rarely. And other than that, I hardly watch any television at all. I've found most of it to be crap anyway, even the premium channels don't seem worth it anymore, and any decent Showtime or HBO series can be found on DVD, so no reason at all to subscribe to the channels, it's just a waste of time and money, in my opinion.

I just started watching a film tonight called The Girl Who Played With Fire, which is based on the follow-up novel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after seeing the Swedish language film first, instead of reading the book before seeing the movie, as I usually prefer to do, and I liked the movie better. Can't say whether my opinion of it would have differed had I read the book first, but it does seem to be the case that seeing a movie adaptation of a book does have some influence on the way you view the story, sometimes forever altering your perception of it, and often, but not always, in a negative way. Personally I prefer to keep the two formats separate. Meaning, that a great movie or book stands alone in its greatness, that if I love the movie, there is no reason to read the book; and if I love the book, there is no reason to watch the movie. That you basically need to take your pick, choose one, if you love it, stick with it, otherwise, if not, you got nothing to lose. Of course, not that I will always stick to that rule, but just that I have found that in hindsight, in most cases, it is preferable; as combining the two, watching a movie version of a book I loved, more often than not leads to disappointment, and forever alters my relationship to the book, where as I'm reading it, I can't get the goddamn movie out of my mind.

Anyway, the whole point of this post (yes there is a point beyond my rambling) was to comment on an observation I made tonight while watching, for the first time, the Swedish film The Girl Who Played With Fire. Like I said, I haven't finished watching it yet, and in fact the DVD is paused right now as I write this, but one thing I noticed in this particular DVD version, is that there are two viewing options: you can watch the original Swedish language movie with English subtitles, or you can watch it dubbed in English. Just for curiosity I decided to view the dubbed version, and although I only watched about twenty minutes of it, it was crap, felt like some low budget movie with bad actors, and on top of that, whose dubbed spoken English dialogue did not match the English subtitles. I quickly went back to the Swedish language version, and it is much more enjoyable, not only to watch, but also to hear. Seemed much better quality, and much more natural, where the voices more closely matched the emotional expression of its characters.

Something very important is lost when a film is dubbed into a different language; it is much better to translate it into written subtitles, while preserving the original spoken language. Even if something is still lost in translation, from, for instance, spoken Swedish to written English, it at least preserves the emotional authenticity of the film, matching feelings and physical mannerisms with words. Where what you see, still matches what you hear and feel and understand.


baroness radon said...

As you know I watch a LOT of Chinese and Korean film and TV productions, always subtitled. (I have an odd little MA DVD that I simply can't watch because it is dubbed in English...horrible.) I have learned a bit of Korean,and your ear becomes accustomed to the rhythm, but my real dilemma is with Chinese film...I prefer to hear the Mandarin along with the subtitles, I can recognize a lot of the spoken word, but if it is a original Cantonese film, I find myself going back and forth on the audio. And sometimes with the Mandarin, I can tell that's not exactly what they said, or they usually say more. But you're right, there is an emotional connection with hearing the original language.

I have a DVD set I've been working on for over a year (had to get an all-region player just to see it) about one of the emperors in the early Qing. It's gorgeous to watch and the story--I think--is compelling, but the subtitles are SO bad (not even amusing) I am sure I am missing 50 percent of it.

You know Chinese videos are often subtitled in...Chinese...for the benefit of those who speak different dialects.

baroness radon said...

And actually, the subtitles themselves can help you learn another language...if the ST's were done by a native's a second level of translation once you learn not to agonize over the confusion, for example , of "take" and "bring." You just kind of let go.