Translating speech allows you to watch a movie without the language barrier getting in the way, but on the other hand changes the film significantly. The subtleties of speech and an actor's performance don’t come through in the same way as the original. Dubbing can sometimes distort the personality of the actor, and the constraints of synchronising text to lip movement also affects the quality of translation.
The tradition of dubbing remains strong in countries such as Spain, France, Italy and Turkey. The “voice over” was used for a long time in Russia, where the dubbing is recorded as one single voice, usually male, on top of the dialogue which can still be heard muted in the background.
In the UK, Holland, USA and Scandinavian countries dubbing is less prevalent, and interestingly the Scandinavian countries usually have a very good grasp of English. Can the reason for this be simply that they are exposed to original versions of film and TV programmes with subtitles?
Subtitles and translation issues
Those who are skilled in languages will notice the many discrepancies between the original and the translation. There are many limitations, whether those are related to the written transcript or the original speech. The logistical constraint in space on the screen is also important: the phrases spoken by the actors can quickly overtake the entire screen. The text needs to be reduced to match the speed of speech to the speed of the viewer’s reading pace, as well as the size of the screen. For example, the average reading speed of a viewer is twelve letters per second. For a home movie the subtitles can’t exceed 36 characters per line, and the exposure time of the subtitle is important too: the viewer must have time both to read and to understand. Spoken and written words convey very different meanings. How would you translate a regional accent, or a stutter, or hesitation?
Humour, puns and expressions also take very specific forms in each language. The translator needs to choose the right words to best transcribe these nuances, even at the risk of changing the tone of the original speech completely.
Tips for language learning
Watching films is a good way to improve your language skills. It trains both your written and oral understanding, exposes you to the correct intonation as well as vocabulary, lexical and grammatical structures.
For beginners, a good place to start is watching the original movie with subtitles in your own language. Your brain will focus on the subtitles because it’s the easiest way to understand the film, but you are exposed to the new language and will start to recognise words.
For intermediate level, try watching the film in its original form with subtitles in the same language. This way you can really hone your understanding. Sometimes the difficulty lies in being able to separate between words, especially with different accents. You understand the sentence structure and learn expressions and colloquialisms that you do not necessarily learn in lessons.
For advanced level, watch the original movie without subtitles. This will be difficult initially but you will find that your brain uses all the elements of the film to aid your understanding and analyse the non-verbal communication. The important thing is not to understand everything but the essence of every scene: You will easily grasp who is the hero, the villain and the main plot of the film, and resolve the rest gradually.
A final tip for those who are not yet fully bilingual is to start with easy films such as romantic comedies or action films, and work your way up to tackling those philosophical epics…