Open Forum Friday: Are Subtitles Always Better Than Dubbing?


Ask any self-respecting film fan whether they prefer to see a foreign film with subtitles or dubbed voiceovers, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get slapped for even asking such a dumb question. Subtitles always have and always will be the only way to truly preserve the director’s original vision… right? Well, there are a couple of interesting news stories that came out this week that serve as a reminder why this may not always be such a cut-and-dry issue.

Earlier this week, the perceptive folks over at Icons of Fright revealed to the world that the subtitles on the DVD for the Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In had been changed significantly from the theatrical release of the film. They seemed to dumb down a lot of the dialogue and in some cases completely altered the tone of a scene. While I’m not necessarily implying that dubbing would have solved the problem, I think it’s important to point out that subtitles are still only as good as the translator writing them.

On a seemingly unrelated note, it was also announced this week that Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated blockbuster Ponyo will be coming to North American shores this August. The English-language version is being produced by Disney, with a star-studded voice cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, and Lily Tomlin, among others. I’ve always found that the Disney dubs for Miyazaki’s films are quite good, mainly thanks to the quality of the translation, and the A-list actors involved. To anyone who would argue adamantly for subtitles in this case, I ask: what about the kids who aren’t old enough to read? Shouldn’t they be allowed to enjoy this movie too?

I guess I’m not really making an argument for one side or the other here, I’m just bringing up some issues for discussion within this age old debate. What do you think? Do you have a preference when it comes to subtitles or dubbing? Are there cases where one is more appropriate than the other? Give us your thoughts here on Open Forum Friday.

  • Ian

    I enjoy anime which I usually watch dubbed because it’s mostly action cartoons and stuff that is filled with delightful spectacle (airship battles, cyberpunk building assults by heavy mechanized bi-pedal machines, etc). As for live action films I’d have to say that dubbing just doesn’t cut it. Not that all anime dubbing is great but Ninja Scroll is no Ran.

  • Primal

    I feel like we’ve had this discussion before on FJ, but it’s good to bring it up again because it’s one of the most subjective aspects of film today. I actually saw the dubbed Let The Right One In post on Row Three and thought instantly how lame that was.

    I guess it’s one of the rare cases where the translations fuck up. I’ve run into this a lot when playing video/pc rpg games, watching anime and import films, but not many will alter scenes the way Let The Right One In played out.

    There some cases like when I watch an old Shaw Bros. Kung-Fu flick where I don’t mind at all at the quality and way-off translation of the dubbing and syncing. It’s a part of it’s charm. With today’s technology, there really is no reason to have bad translation and such unless its its intentional like the stuff in Grindhouse or even Kung-Pow: Enter the Fist.

    I do prefer subtitles when watching a foreign film and I sometime have subtitles watching american films too. You know how much easier and enjoyable watching Brick is with the subtitles on? Dubbed foreign animated films are the way to go for me though. It doesn’t matter if you have hollywood actors doing the voices. Voicework is so much forgivable when your seeing an animated character. I guess it just depends for me where dubbing is appropriate. I’ve seen it go both ways.

  • Call me guilty as charged on enjoying the Dubbed versions of Miyazaki films. I often have watched them both ways, but on Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa, the Dubs are excellent. Animation survives dubbing better than live-action anyway. I have no problem with the english dub of Kirikou & The Sorceress (French->English) either.

    On that note, both Michael Keaton (US-English) and Jean Reno (France-French) dubbed for the Porco Rosso and both versions are excellent. Yes I’ll watch a Japanese movie with a French Dub and English subtitles. That’s what all the kool kids do.

    The Let The Right One in Subs debacle is a pretty black mark on MAGNETs face. What’s worse, taking a mediocre foreign genre film and wrecking it with a dub or bad subs, or taking some of the best foreign genre films and then not treating them well. I bet that Mark Cuban is getting a fair bit of emails these days.

    That being said, but Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon DVD into the player, turn on the subs, and turn the dialogue to the English dub and compare how un-nuanced the dub-track is. Yie.

  • typos. “but” = “put” at the beginning of the last paragraph.

  • Bob The Slob

    I always watch with subtitles…that is the way the film was intended to be heard.

  • Neil M

    I don’t really have much to add here, but I just wanted to say how disappointed I was to see that article on Icons Of Fright. I bought my Blu-ray copy of Let The Right One In the day it came out but haven’t watched it yet. I did, however, open it one day for the hell of it. Now that I finally have a chance to watch it, I don’t want to because I would like to go in fresh with the correct subtitles. Not only that, but I can’t return my opened copy to Best Buy or Magnet. So now I have to wait for the new round of discs that will have the original subtitles and pay an extra $30 plus dollars to get it again on Blu-ray. Oh, and I prefer subtitles, which should be obvious by now.

  • Falsk

    My first foreign films were all anime series and I learned pretty early on to avoid the cheesy, over-acting heard in dubs and have kind of grown up quite comfortable reading subtitles. Because of this, any foreign film I watch now I don’t even think of searching for an English Language Track. It just doesn’t occur to me.

    My one side note is that I do enjoy listening to the English dubs of Miyazaki’s stuff… because it IS good, and in some cases (like with “Howl’s Moving Castle”) the voice acting saves the poor/boring story.

  • Nemesis

    How could anyone not love those crazy dubbed movies from the 70s/80s.

    Best dubbing ever –

    For Your Height Only –

  • Me

    Beware of the Netflix version. I recently rented Let the Right One In from Netflx after hearing great things about it. When I put the movie in it was all dubbed in English with awful voice overs.

  • heapshake

    I don’t have a problem with subtitles, but if there is a dubbed track I’ll often use it. I guess subtitles allow you to hear the movie the way it is intended, but dubs allow you to see it the way it was intended.

  • paulm

    I’m not much of a purist on subtitles. If I’m working on something while I watch a foreign movie, I like the dubbed version, since I’m not able to keep an eye on the screen. When I’m watching a foreign movie while I’m on the treadmill, I like the subtitled version, so I don’t have to turn up the volume. I recently watched (on different days) “Let The Right One In”, “Downfall”, “Solaris”, “Brotherhood of War”, and “Rec” with subtitles while I walked the treadmill. I liked them all.

  • It depends on the movie/show. Like cartoons, I always want those dubbed to either English, or preferably, Danish.

    Movies, well, Asian movies in particular I prefer to have dubbed (that’s what I grew up with and liked), but English or most other European-languaged movies I prefer to have with subtitles. I guess it’s just a matter of taste. Both can be good and has their place.

  • Niklas

    I prefer subtitles. I grew up in Sweden where dubbing doesnt exist (accept in kids movies) so Im used to it.

    Now that I live in North America I hate it when they dub things even in news stories etc. I prefer to hear a persons real voice even if I dont understand the language.

    I think that you take away more from a movie by changing the voice and delivery from the actor with dubbing than what you take away with a “lesser” text translation.

  • theDia

    I think it was Fritz Lang who said in the fifties: “Dubbing is the german revenge to the allies” or something in this way. Thats exactly the way I feel.

    Of course when i was a kid I had to watched most movies dubbed, because back in the 70ies there was no way you could get another version over here in sauerkrautland.

    But now – and thats the biggest benefit of the DVD – after seeing almost every movie I loved the way it was shot (nd theres no difference for me if its in english, japanese, thai or kishuaheli), there no way of turning back.

    But we tried last month when the “Friday the 13th-Remake” started and there was no way to see it in english. And guess what -the dubbing was shit; not just a little shitty,but a whole mountain of steaming and stinking feces. They changed everything to “youthspeak” and even translated F**k and Bullsh*t. It was interesting from a comedic point of view, but it hurt even this movie, so you can expect what it would have done to – lets say – Watchmen….

  • I’m mixed on this one as I do not mind either.

  • If it was live action film, I would prefer the subtitles. For example, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, I saw it subtitled then I heard it dubbed on cable.

    I liked both of them.

    When I saw “Spirited Away”, it was dubbed. It was the better choice then subtitles. That movie is all visual.

  • One thing I forgot to add was that the Italians and Spanish for years did all their ‘voice work’ in POST anyway, so in essence they are all dubbed films, from Leone’s Fist Full of Dollars to Bertolucci’s 1900.

    The answer to dubbing vs. subs is clearly not a black and white one.

  • Glendon

    Subtitles. Although there are some actors that do their own dubbing like Jodie Foster who also speaks French. I imagine that would be much more tolerable.

  • swarez

    Subtitles all the way. People who don’t want to watch movies because they are subtitled are idiots IMO.

  • Julie

    I am at the point that I put subtitles on all movies, foreign and English language ones. Yes, my hearing isn’t the best at times, but I also find you pay better attention to what is being said, even it’s only a line that may stick with you when you see it in print. My friend commented in the last Bond flick that subtitles would’ve been nice if only to keep characters straight in a convoluted storyline.
    But I never watch dubbed foreign-language films because I prefer to hear the voice of someone in the moment than someone in a studio who’s trying to time lines instead of feeling the emotions of a character.

  • If they can dub it properly with proper emotion then I don’t have any problem with watching a dubbed version. However, with any film I watch I always try to get the subtitles. That is the proper way to watch a film, as #5 said.

  • “All your base are belong to us”

    ‘Nuff said.

  • Nobody has mentioned cost yet. While dubbing might reach a wider audience (those not old enough / not schooled enough to read, the dyslexic, those with poor vision), it also cost more.

    Given that the translation problem is the same in both, plus the added problem in dubbing that the actors/actresses are likely not as engaged in the dialogue as the originals (and worse: in some countries, a small clique of voice dubbers do most of the dubbing), it would seem that the downside of the “feel” of the original movie being lost is, in most cases, not worth the added cost.

  • The only movies that shoud EVER be dubbed are old-school kung-fu movies from the 70’s and 80’s… and I’m pretty sure they stopped making those in the 80’s.

  • Liz

    I usually prefer subtitles because of the dubbed movies I’ve seen, the dubbed voices are always so lame and poorly acted. Granted, most of the dubbing I’ve seen is of English movies dubbed in French and we watched them in high school French class, but “Jurassic Park” really isn’t the same with French voices. :)

    “I think it’s important to point out that subtitles are still only as good as the translator writing them.”

    This is pretty much the crux of the issue. I always think this when I watch “Amelie” because in one of the opening lines you get way more information in the actual French dialogue than you do in the English subtitles, and my knowledge of French isn’t that great so the fact that I noticed was kind of disappointing.

  • Neil M

    Well, I finally broke down and watched Let The Right One In. First of all, that ending was so good I am now rock hard. Besides that, it will be interesting to watch it again with the original subtitles. Maybe I don’t know what I’m missing, but the new version didn’t ruin the film at all for me.