Dubbing vs. Subtitling: The Case for watching Foreign Films

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Parasite’s storming of this year’s awards season and explosive box office success has reignited the debate around how to watch foreign films. With subbing and dubbing each having their merits, Ananya Sriram argues that the only language that matters is the language of cinema.

With films like Parasite, Atlantics, Roma and more receiving accolades from Western institutions of cinema in recent years, it seems that foreign films are ‘in’. But does this awards season success translate to popular appeal? For many Anglophone audiences, the ‘one-inch barrier of subtitles’ is still an obstacle, with many people still being reluctant to watch foreign films.

One of the most common complaints heard about foreign films is having to read subtitles. For some, reading requires too much concentration and detracts from their enjoyment of the film, with key details sometimes being missed due to having to read what’s at the bottom of the screen. It’s true that subtitles present a problem for those with dyslexia, ADHD, or trouble concentrating. On the other end of the scale, however, subtitles are essential for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, and can help many people better process what they are watching. Dubbing on the other hand, suffers from a bad reputation, with a history of bad voice acting and out-of-sync dubs rendering it a ‘lesser’ option, often said to dilute the cultural character of a film. Having to make trade-offs in the viewing experience can put many filmgoers off the whole idea of foreign films.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma was nominated for Best Picture in 2019

But why is this? Is it really because reading subtitles commands too much focus, making it impossible to scroll through Instagram while watching? Or do most of us hold deeper-seated prejudices, which turn us off foreign films more than we’d like to admit? Whatever your preferred method of watching, the truth of the matter is that foreign films force us outside of our comfort zones: physically, linguistically and culturally. The dominance of Hollywood over global markets means that most of us don’t even come into contact with foreign films, unless we go searching for them ourselves. Given that the majority of global audiences grow up watching English-language films subbed or dubbed into their own languages, the very fact that this debate exists and even puts people off watching foreign films altogether, highlights the privilege of our position as Anglophone audiences. We’re so used to media being catered to us, packaged up in culturally familiar contexts, and in language that we don’t have to work hard to understand, that any media which veers off this carefully-trodden path presents us with a challenge.

More often than not, our hesitations over and preconceptions of foreign films are rooted in xenophobia. Whether or not we’d like to admit it, we all have internalised racist ideas and stereotypes, which often manifest themselves in our knee-jerk reactions to foreign films – sometimes so subtly and subconsciously that we don’t even realise it. Moreover, foreign films tend to draw less interest from Western audiences, perhaps because of their unfamiliarity. Think about it – when you’re scrolling through Netflix, which film are you more likely to pause over: a gripping Somali thriller, or a time-trodden American teen rom-com, full of the clichés we all know and love? Of course, this answer will depend on your mood, personality and general taste in films, but ultimately, many people would be drawn to the latter for the factor of familiarity alone.

However, the idea that linguistic and cultural barriers can dampen the viewing experience and make it harder to relate to and empathise with characters has been disproven time and time again. You only have to look at the success of foreign films from Amélie to Howl’s Moving Castle to see that they have captivated and inspired audiences for decades, albeit niche ones. Human emotion is universal after all, and regardless of language, a good film will find a way to connect with its viewers, whether it be through performance, storytelling, cinematography or direction. The hallmark of any good film is its immersive quality, and most of the time, any apprehensions about language, culture or not being able to understand will melt away once the story gets underway. In fact, another strength of foreign films is their ability to transport you into another world. Rife with new stories, worlds and ideas, foreign films could just be the antidote to the plethora of franchises, remakes and prequels Hollywood is so saturated with these days.

Image Credit: Variety