Books: Speaking in Subtitles

May 14, 2023 · 0 comments

By Jonathan Clements.

The sub-versus-dub debate was first truly ignited in August 1960, when Bosley Crowther in the New York Times issued a broadside against having to read a film. “It is foolish,” he wrote, “to hobble expression with an old device that was mainly contrived as a convenience to save the cost of dubbing foreign-language films when they had limited appeal.” Dubbing was the future, proclaimed Crowther, and anyone who thought that films deserved to be distributed abroad in their native language was a snob.

Crowther’s angry, and to my mind, misguided harangue begins Tessa Dwyer’s wonderful book Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation, an invaluable account of a cul-de-sac in movie history that boldly places anime at the heart of modern developments. The endless cat-and-mouse fight between people like me, who like their foreign films in the original Foreign, and people like that guy over there, who want it dubbed, often devolve into finger-pointing and shouting. To some extent, there was a truce called in the late 1990s, when the advent of the DVD meant that everybody could, in theory, have both. But Dwyer’s history delves far deeper into the ideological and cultural forces that mean there is a sub-versus-dub debate at all.

Her quest takes her back to Mussolini’s Italy, where she points to dubbing as a tool of Fascist ideology, imposing a blanket, approved Italian norm on films that otherwise might have switched in and out of multiple dialects. Aha, shouts Crowther from the gallery, this meant that all Italian movies were “shot wild”, with their dialogue recorded later on in post. In other words, to steal a phrase from Carl Macek, “all Italian movies were dubbed” even in their original language. Meanwhile, European movies, shot in a mix of French, Italian and German, might show up in New York in a unifying French dub, that was itself a redaction of the original version. This, of course, becomes an even bigger issue in Chinese film, where shooting wild is the norm, and even big-name stars have approved voice-actors who re-dub them to make sure everyone is speaking received-pronunciation Mandarin.

Dwyer examines powerful and persuasive arguments from both sides of the argument, including the suggestion that dubbing whips stuff out whereas subtitling keeps it all in. Not so, she writes: “Translation Studies research has consistently shown that subtitling removes between 20%-50% of a film’s dialogue.” Sometimes, I have to add, for the better! Watch Babylon 5 with the English subs turned on, and marvel at how concisely the wittering gets trimmed. Dwyer even finds an academic prepared to argue that dubbing preserves more of the original writer’s intent, and hence arguably more faithful to the original.

Well, that depends on how you define the original. I am not morally opposed to dubbing, but getting it right is substantially harder than getting subtitling right, and in the meantime, one is (usually) removing a huge part of the performances of the original actors. When I see a Japanese film, I want to hear Japanese, and I want to hear the performances of the Japanese actors.

This leads Dwyer to a fascinating chapter on “The Invisible Cinema”, an art project in 1970s New York that insisted on screening foreign films in their original “pure” format, without subs or dubs. I personally find the Invisible Cinema project to be insufferably up itself and outrageously elitist, as if there were a snooty usherette at the entrance sneering: “What do you mean you can’t understand Norwegian?” As an experimental art installation, it was an intriguing project, but in, for example, refusing to provide musical accompaniment to “silent” films (which were never truly silent), it also betrayed its own aims to provide an “authentic” experience. Some of its arguments recall those of the Pure Cinema movement in early 20th century Japan, but at the risk of sounding populist, surely at some point movies should also be entertaining? And understandable?

Dwyer moves on to describe the issues that beset dubbers and subbers in various censorship regimes, as well as the concept of “abusive fidelity”, where some translators can’t see the wood for the trees and end up making something less than the sum of its parts. Which brings us to an entire chapter on fansubbing, described by Dwyer as “one of the most significant developments to occur within screen translation to date.” Dwyer describes the early adopters, tech nerds and weebs of US anime fandom as part of a technological convergence which has since spread beyond anime, into a global feeding frenzy of Polish Game of Thrones subs, same-day Korean drama translations, and semi-professional crowd-sourced streaming providers. But it all goes back to those anime fandom pioneers in the 1980s, grabbing Lupin III and Ranma ½ episodes from their Japanese pen-friends in exchange for contraband VHS copies of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek. The crucial year, she notes, was 1991-2, over which fansubbing went from being a rarity at US convention video rooms to being the norm.

Dwyer provides intimate insights into the various spats and ideological disputes over subtitling, and the influence it has had, often through AnimEigo, on the way that professional subtitles appear today. She also alludes to the unspoken shadow at the heart of modern anime translation, that whatever some companies may claim, English is still sometimes used as an unacknowledged “pivot” between Japanese and the target language. I remember this vividly myself, not only because of my discovery that a script I’d translated for Plastic Little was being swiftly rendered into Dutch as part of a movie-business horse-trade, but that a well-known (and still operating subtitle company) once told me that their Japanese “translation” service would require me to first provide them with a spotting list for a Japanese film in English. So, not translation at all, then.

And then there’s cost. A 1998 estimate from Subtitles International claims that dubbing one film costs the same as subtitling a hundred – the sort of consideration that becomes particularly crucial in language niches with a small likely audience. I think that Subtitles International was describing the sort of gold-plated dub with Hollywood voices… I’d say that one of Dwyer’s alternative citations, from 2008, claiming that dubbing cost ten times as much, was more reasonable.

She ends with an account of Viki, the service that tries to use volunteer labour to create multilingual subtitles at a professional level, going through the various implications therein for what a “professional” level might be, when a generation of fansubbers can’t agree on it among themselves.

If you have any professional dealings with the world of subtitles, or are the sort of person who goes all-in on the sub versus dub debate, then I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The debates that Dwyer brings out are fascinating, provocative and illustrative in equal measure, and it left me, an avowed member of Team Subtitles, with a lot to think about.

Fun fact: in 1938 the Italian censors were so aghast at the liberties taken in the Hollywood movie The Adventures of Marco Polo that they refused to allow it to be released under that title. Instead, it was carefully redubbed to ensure that the lead could be recast as some guy called “MacPool”, and it was released in Italy as A Scot at the Court of the Great Khan.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Tessa Dwyer’s Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation is published by Edinburgh University Press.

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