Dubbing and Language

My smart TV has hundreds of channels. Although digital TV has been with us for some years now, almost everything is still either already in the local language or dubbed1 into the local language, with no alternatives provided. I don’t have any great difficulty understanding spoken Czech, Slovak, or German, but I do try very hard not to watch anything that’s dubbed.

     Before we go any further, I have heard hundreds of times about how wonderful František Filipovský’s dubbing of Louis de Funes is. Maybe that’s true, but it certainly isn’t true of all the dubbing that there is on TV. Lots of it is rubbish2, and even if it was all up to Filipovský’s standard, I still hate it and always will. Let me explain why.

    First, I can understand its appeal3 if the audience can’t read, and so if something aimed at very small children is going to be dubbed, I can live with that (although without enthusiasm – see my comments about language learning below). But what about literate4and educated nations like the Czechs and Slovaks? Are they too lazy to read?

     Next, in Europe, there is a strong link between dubbing and totalitarianism. Fascist or communist regimes tend to like dubbing as then they can control what the public hear, and dubbing is strong in countries that have had these, while countries with a strong democratic tradition, like the Netherlands and Scandinavia, prefer subtitles. So, choosing subtitles is a democratic statement; anything that goes against what the Nazis and Stalinists want is surely a good thing.

     Third, the actors who dub films often have very different voices from the original actors, which can make the speech much less appealing. Eddie Murphy as the donkey in Shrek in English is at least ten times better than the donkey is in Czech, for instance. And the great cinema dialogue lines just cry out to be heard in the original: Forrest Gump and his “My Mama always said ‘Life was like a box of chocolates; you never know what you‘re gonna get’,” Clint Eastwood saying “Make my day,” or Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his Terminator persona, telling us “I’ll be back.” It’s not the same when it’s dubbed. Believe me.

      Fourth, when I watch something, I like to hear the original language. Its sounds form part of the atmosphere for me. I have seen films at the cinema in Japanese, Persian, Hebrew, Icelandic, Inuit, Finnish, and other languages I don’t speak, and I followed and enjoyed the dialogue through the subtitles. It just sounds stupid to hear people in Tokyo, Helsinki, and Reykjavik speaking Czech or Slovak together. It’s like going on a world tour but only eating at McDonald’s in every country.

      Fifth, subtitles are much cheaper and quicker to produce than dubbing is. And sixth, and finally, they are a great way to learn languages. The reason why Scandinavians and Dutch people speak such good English is not because of their language classes at school; it’s because everything on their TV, even programmes for tiny kids, is broadcast in the original language with subtitles, so that viewers are absolutely bombarded with foreign languages, particularly English. 

    To conclude, I believe dubbing is an act of aesthetic vandalism which should be made a criminal offence5. It’s also the biggest single impediment6 there is to a population learning foreign languages. If you’re serious about learning English, sell the TV, go online, and watch your favourite series, films, and shows in the original.

Simon Gill

Do you share my negative opinion of dubbing? Why/why not?
What do you do online to improve your English? What else could you do?

1 dabovať – dabovat; 2 nekvalitný; 3 pôvab, pôsobivosť – půvab, působivost; 4 gramotný; 5 porušenie zákona – porušení zákona; 6 prekážka, zábrana – překážka, zábrana