Thursday, December 8, 2011

Localization of Video Contents: Dubbing, Subtitles, Voice-overs

Among the fields of translation, the localization of audio-video contents appears to be one of the trickiest...

The modality of localization in itself can be performed in more than one way, depending on various factors such as audience, cultural environment, purpose, and sometimes socio-political context. Generally speaking, movies, TV series, and recently video games from foreign countries can be localized in three different ways: dubbing, subtitles and voice-over.

Dubbing (in regard to localization) commonly refers to the substitution of the voices of the actors shown on the screen by those of different performers, who speak a different language.

The use of subtitles helps to preserve the actors’ original voices, while furnishing a translation of the dialogue on screen.

With the voice-over technique, a narrator (usually only one person) explain the content of the dialogues the actors are performing on screen, while the original voices of the actors can be heard in the background.

The discussion on which type of technique is the best is still open.

With the advent of the DVD and the spread of cable TV, now it is possible to freely choose between these different systems. People who prefer the dubbing think of it as a minor loss in terms of contents. Movies are a visual art, and it is necessary not only to understand the meaning of the dialogue, but also to be able to view the scenes without any other distraction. Moreover, a film that has been dubbed is received as more natural by the audience: the actors speak in the same local language, and not only the meanings, but also the intonation of the voices, the emotions, and other non-verbal language will be fully localized. The intonation of the voice for a question or a particular emotional state differs from culture to culture, and it may eventually not be understandable by different audiences of different cultures. Of course, if the dubbing is not done by professionals, the effect can be very odd (look, for example, at some Japanese localizations of American movies!).

On the other hand, people who support the cause of subtitling insist that in order to completely enjoy a movie it’s necessary to watch it as it was originally imagined and intended. Acting skills of an actor are what make that particular actor great, and are part of the character that he/she is playing. However, there are some other little “drawbacks” related to the use of subtitles: it is necessary to respect a particular time of exposition for the text in order to make it readable and, at the same time, synchronized with the action on the screen; in case more than one person is talking simultaneously, the screen will be full of text; while reading the subtitles, the viewer may accidentally skip some relevant parts on the scene, and so on. If it is true that subtitles allow the viewer to watch the movie in its fully-original state, in order to fit exposure time and length of the text the translation is unavoidably deeply affected. In the end subtitling seems to be preferable only for the viewer who has competent ability in the original language, and can use subtitles only as a reference while listening to the dialogue.

The voice-over technique is normally used for interviews, becoming something similar to simultaneous interpretation. The voice-over technique is standard in only a few countries, even in the movie industry. Among these, some countries are in East-Europe, where the population is not extensive enough to justify the use of dubbing. The voice-over standard allows the audience to enjoy the movie with the original voices and at the same time keep the viewer free of any effort in reading text. Anyway, the presence of multiple voices at the same time and the fact that the same narrator usually provides the voices for all the characters, without any distinctions between males, females, children, and so on, tends to create a “strange” effect to the audience not used to this kind of adaptation.

Each country seems to prefer one method over another for several different reasons. In most of the cases historical situations seems to be determinant for the developing of one of these techniques. The discussion on the evolution of localization procedure for each country will require an article for each one. To make a brief example, in Italy, almost every foreign movie, TV show, soap opera, documentary, and other audio-video media is completely dubbed in Italian. Italy also has some of the most advanced dubbing studios, and most of the voice actors used for dubbing have backgrounds in performing, singing, and reciting. There are schools in Rome (founded in 1933) and Milan, with special courses for dubbing. This is due to the fact that during the Fascist era, under Mussolini, any foreign language was prohibited, and the only way to allow movies from other countries to be shown in Italian theaters was to substitute all of the dialogue with Italian. The custom was established in that period and only recently, with the coming of DVD releases and pay-per-view, has it become possible to have both the dubbed and original versions of a movie, with or without subtitles. 

Personally, if I understand the original language, I’d prefer to make use of the subtitles. In other cases, the dubbing is more than fine… 

F.C., an Italian