Dubbing is defined by Merriam-Webster as:
- to add (sound effects or new dialogue) to a film or to a radio or television production
- to provide (a motion-picture film) with a new sound track and especially dialogue in a different language
When bringing a foreign-language TV show or movie into the United States, the tendency here is to dub it into English. When bringing a foreign-language TV show or movie into Japan, the tendency is to leave the original language in place, but superimpose subtitles.
I generally find the latter to be far superior for two reasons:
- Dubbed voices rarely match the visual and are often comically distracting (see any Kung Fu movie).
- The original language is lost.
The latter is my big peeve. I actually want to be exposed to other cultures and languages. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I find it pleasing to listen to other languages, even if I don’t understand them.
In the case of a feature-length movie, I will admit that perhaps resorting to dubbing results in a less-taxing experience for the average non-linguist-geek viewer. But in the case of shows like G4TV’s “Ninja Warrior,” I find the dubbing to be absolutely horrible and very distracting. Not only are the translations not always correct (or even close), the announcer makes a hobby out completely mispronouncing people’s names, despite the immediately-preceding original audio giving a perfect example of proper pronunciation. It grates like a spork on a chalkboard to me.
As I write this, I’m watching a program on NHK (basically a Japanese version of the channel PBS in the U.S.) featuring someone taking a “walk” through a French town, “meeting” the locals, and “talking” about whatever happens to be going on. The narrator (who is never seen) asks questions in Japanese, the answers coming in French with Japanese subtitles (in most cases). I find this not only more aurally pleasant, but also a great opportunity to work on both my French and Japanese.
Another phenomenon I often see in Asian TV broadcasts is the use of subtitles (in the native language) to support what is being said on screen. In the case of Japan and Korea, it seems that it is often done in comedy/variety shows to emphasize what is “supposed” to be funny. In Chinese programs, however, it seems to be done to overcome the vast differences in dialects, providing the viewer with a standardized written base so that they can understand what is going on, even if they don’t understand the dialect being spoken. I do not speak Chinese, so this is purely speculative and based solely on observation and conversations with Chinese friends.
Are Americans really so adverse to the sound of foreign languages? Why? How could we benefit linguistically and socially from subtitled foreign languages vs. dubbing? How could using more subtitles and less dubbing help linguistically draw Americans into the rest of the world?