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What are the benefits for viewers of subtitling over dubbing -or- dubbing over subtitling foreign TV and film?

I've noticed some media will opt for subtitles, while others will opt to dub.

There must be benefits and drawbacks to both, for example:

Reading vs. Listening: Reading might be harder to put oneself in the scene, where as listening could make you feel a part of the "show".

Are there any studies or any data as to benefits and drawbacks of subtitling vs. dubbing?

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    Note: Culture issue also. In France, a lot of movies/TV-Shows are translated, and nowadays, some "educated" young people prefers in VO with subtitles (especially for English language). – Larme Sep 25 '15 at 11:31
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    Just as a factor to consider, I assume there is a difference in cost between producing subtitles and dubbing. I assume dubbing is more expensive. – Volker Siegel Sep 25 '15 at 13:52
  • @VolkerSiegel assuming isn't necessary, that certainly must be true in every case. – Apologize and reinstate Monica Sep 25 '15 at 21:54
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    @VolkerSiegel I mention that in my answer but the question seems solely framed in the perspective of the viewer, so the cost wouldn't really matter since I don't believe they charge differently based on whether its subbed or dubbed. – Catija Sep 25 '15 at 22:27
  • Ah, I see your point - did not take the explicit focus on viewer benefits into account. But wait! It does not say immediate benefits... and in long term average, the cost difference directly relevant to the customer. There are lots of random factors and other cost involved, so it would needs lots of statistics to understand the details of what happens - but in the end, the customer pays the cost, and he will pay more when dubbing is used... – Volker Siegel Sep 26 '15 at 2:37
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+200

In the US, Europe, Canada and other countries with nearly 100% literacy rates, dubbing vs subtitling is certainly a matter of preference.

Subtitling allows the viewer to get a more exact translation of the dialogue but requires that the viewer read the text, potentially missing visual elements of the film.

From TV Tropes:

Subtitling has many advantages: It allows for an extremely accurate translation, including quirks of the original language that play a role in the plot, while allowing you to hear the original actors' performances. It renders the show accessible to the deaf or hard of hearing. People bilingual in or learning the original language will be able to benefit as well, since they can enjoy at least parts of the film/TV show in the original while their friends can still know what's going on.

Dubbing allows the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the film but the translation (because the attempt is often made to match the foreign dialogue to mouth movements, at least in duration - called "Lip lock") can greatly suffer.

Viewers whose thought processes are more speech-oriented than word-oriented also may simply find dubs easier to comprehend and process, especially in works that are heavy on meaningful dialogue or exposition. The opposite, of course, can be true for viewers who process information more easily through the written word than through speech. For many viewers, hearing the dialogue in their native language makes it easier to immerse themselves in the media and feel a sense of familiarity with the story and characters that is much harder to obtain while trying to hear dialogue in a foreign language and simultaneously read subtitles. Hayao Miyazaki has said several times that he always intended his films to be watched, not read, which is why he supports them being dubbed into other languages.

Hearing actors speaking one's native language also allows the audience to catch subtle non-verbal parts of a performance, which many times is part of the "authentic" viewing experience the original was shooting for. Subtitles can cover up important parts of the image or switch too quickly to be read by everyone, especially if the show is extremely fast-paced, dialogue and/or text-heavy, or aimed at younger audiences – for example, go look up the subtitled Tatami Galaxy; many a YouTube commenter have complained that the subs are simply too fast to read... for the entire series. In addition, subtitles – particularly for unofficial fansubs – are sometimes criticized for being too literal; a well-made dub can preserve the spirit of a joke or reference, even while replacing the actual line. Not to mention all the cultural references that are not understood outside the native country (phrases, puns, etc.) may wind up Lost in Translation if there's no explanation. This is much much easier to work around in a print work, because one can read at their own pace.

To see this specifically, I encourage you to find a film that's been both subtitled and dubbed and watch the film dubbed with the subtitles on and you'll really see a major difference (provided the subs are true subs and not captioning). I first became painfully aware of this when watching Steven Chow's Shaolin Soccer a decade ago. There's so much more color and comedy in the dialogue if subtitled rather than the dubbed version.

The article from TV Tropes further points out an interesting point that the English-speaking native may not think of... because so much of film is produced in English, the argument of which is better doesn't really exist in many non-English communities:

Funnily enough, this debate doesn't really arise in non-English speaking countries when it comes to English language films. Mostly because of the omnipresence of Hollywood, one can easily assume that at least half the movies someone from Germany, Russia, France, Italy, or Brazil will see in a year are English-language movies. Thus, many countries have a well-entrenched, very active dubbing industry with recognizable voice actors. In most cases, one dubber is paired with one actor for the duration of the actor's career. In these countries, due to enormous exposure to it, dubbing is seen much more positively than in the anime community.

But, on the other hand:

The opposite can happen too. In some countries (such as The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, or Finland), dubbing is only done for works that are intended for children that are too young to read the subtitles fluently. Everything else is available with subtitles only. In these countries, people would get much more distracted by the dubbing because they are not used to it. This pattern is particularly common where a substantial chunk of the population in the country is fluent or at least proficient in English – which is incidentally true in the Netherlands as well as the Nordic countries. A major problem are works that appeal to both the children and the parents, the parents would prefer to hear the original actors' performances, but can't get their hands on it because the only version in theaters is aimed for kids.note Sometimes they can get lucky and the original audio track is included in the DVD release once (if ever) it happens.

Now, in other countries where the literacy is lower, dubbing becomes more necessary. Here's a chart of literacy in the world as of 2013:

Unesco Literacy Chart "Analfabetismo2013unesco" by Alex12345yuri - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Analfabetismo2013unesco.png#/media/File:Analfabetismo2013unesco.png

Granted, a lot of people who are illiterate may not be going to see a film as illiteracy is more common amongst the very poor, who may not be able to afford to see a film, but it's worth noting.


Now, I know you asked why it would matter to the viewer, but I do want to mention the production side of things.

Dubbing is much more expensive than subtitling. Writers have to spend time creating dialogue that will fit, then actors have to be paid to do a studio recording (and the studio has to be paid for), it can take hours of work for each character and the audio tracks have to be edited to match up perfectly.

That's why, particularly in the case of small-budget projects or projects with a niche audience, it's rare to find dubbed versions. It makes more financial sense to subtitle.

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    And then there's the "cheapo" version of dubbing where it is one person who talks over the entire movie roughly translating what the actors say and various signs that are pictured etc. A friend of mine lives in Latvia and has told me about this; she says she stopped going to the movies there because of this -- it drives her crazy. – BCdotWEB Sep 26 '15 at 12:28
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    @BCdotWEB: As far as I'm aware, that only happened/happens in Soviet/ex-Soviet countries. The woman who did it is a living legend BTW: paleofuture.gizmodo.com/… – slebetman Sep 26 '15 at 15:04
  • @slebetman She told me about this in the mid-1990s, when she was living there. Not VHS tapes, actual cinema showings (AFAIK / IIRC). – BCdotWEB Sep 26 '15 at 17:08
  • @BCdotWEB: Yes, but I bet that the public only accepted it because they're used to it. I've not seen it happen anywhere else – slebetman Sep 26 '15 at 17:30
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    Congrats for winning Bounty for best answer of this quarter – Ankit Sharma Oct 17 '15 at 12:55
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The debate of dubbing vs subtitles is well discussed, including numerous studies and polls of movie goers. It's an opinion that is split by demographic, by country, by certain distributors.

Essentially, it's down to the personal choice of the viewer - some people prefer the original experience in its original language with its original dialogue but with subtitles so that they can understand dialogue spoken in a language they don't necessarily know. This is also useful for some if you're learning a new language, as you can hear what is spoken while reading what it means.

The other side of the argument is that movies and TV is a primarily visual media and some people would rather spend their time watching the content intently without having to keep up with the subtitles, and thus prefer dubbing. That, and dubbing is a business in itself - people have to voice act all of the dialogue a second (or third, or fourth...) time in order to provide the dub track to a show, and this means more people working.

  • You get used to subtitles. So much so that recently I was watching a Dutch-language show (Dutch is my mother tongue) with English subtitles and it was doing my head in because I was reading the subtitles without it being necessary. It felt like two different parts of my brain were fighting for my attention. – BCdotWEB Sep 26 '15 at 12:35
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There are times where subtitles are actually more accurate than dubbing. With dubbing, the voice actors have to stay as true to the mouth movements as possible....sometimes even also the sound of the words. This can be very difficult or even impossible to do while keeping the same meaning, so meanings end up changing. Whereas with subtitles, this is not an issue since they are free to be as close to the meaning as possible no matter what or how many words it takes.

I'll give you an example from my own personal experience: I watch "Fairy Tale" which is an anime originally in Japanese. There is a particular character which in Japanese ends his sentences in "Ebi"...which in Japanese means shrimp or prawn. This character is a crab, so it's always a joke when he meets someone new that "he's a crab, but ends his sentences with "shrimp"??" Well, in the dubbed version, the voice stayed true to the sound instead of the meaning, so to make it make sense, he ends his sentences with "baby". TOTALLY different meaning, and the joke doesn't work.

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    I recall reading that Germans who watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer didn't get that the show was part-comedy because the dubbing had removed most of the jokes from the show. Only when they watched the original they noticed the show was nowhere near as serious as the German-dubbed version made it out to be. – BCdotWEB Sep 26 '15 at 12:31
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There's a certain interesting idea behind dubbing rather than subtitling.

As a part of the Marshall Plan (if I remember correctly) after World War II in certain countries it was part of the agreement that Hollywood films were translated into other languages. That implies that everything made in the USA was easily spread around the world.

This gave tons of new doors to the United States ideology, it's probably one of the biggest marketing movements that have ever happened. It implied that any Hollywood movie could (and probably would) be seen by a lot (a real lot) more people that would see it if it was in VO with subtitles, with all the consequences it brought (and brings).

Just the idea that this (mandatory translation of Hollywood movies into other language) appeared in the conditions imposed to certain countries to be included in the Marshall Plan is breathtaking, in my opinion.

(Sorry, this answer lacks of necessary citations, feel free to edit.)

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Coincidentally I recently watched Wolfgang Schmitt discuss the pros and cons of dubbing vs subtitles on his YouTube channel (unfortunately, and ironically, not available in English). While he certainly has a personal standpoint towards the matter and the existing answers already discuss many of the common arguments, I found that he still gives some interesting points worth mentioning here.1 All in all he, to a certain degree, makes a point for dubbing (or at least against categorical aversion towards dubbing), grounded on the general argument that film is primarily a visual medium anyway and none of the two forms can be 100% perfect, nor is it that essential for the enjoyment at all.

It's a very controversial topic, the fronts are arrested. Some viewers categorically decline dubbed movies, not rarely even those who watch dubbed version are accused of not actually knowing anything about the movie. So do you even have to be ashamed of watching dubbed versions? The answer is, no. It's absolutely not a shame, maybe it's even not that bad to watch dubbed versions. [...] Dubbing or subtitled original, that is also a matter of taste, but let's always consider that film first and foremost speaks to the eye, then we hear and read.

  • A major point to consider is the existing prevalence of dubbing, which can make people accustomed to it if they simply get used to dubbed movies due to year long conditioning.

    Most people in Germany watch dubbed movies and often they don't have a choice as original versions in cinemas as well as on TV are very rare. After getting used to this, only few people will, when watching a DVD, switch on the subtitles to watch it in the original version.

  • A major disadvantage of dubbing is that it might actually tends to make the viewer lose the feeling of watching something foreign set in a foreign culture by presenting such a major aspect as spoken language in a form so common.

    I know many people who swear by the original versions but if you ask them what movies they tend to watch, you realize they watch mostly English language movies, so they don't actually make an ecounter with the foreign, as they like so much with the original version. [...] First fact is, spoken language of course also has its own musicality which is lost by the translation. This also dimishes the experience of foreignness, that is existential for engaging into art. German language dialogue maybe suggests that this actually completely foreign culture is like our own. But we should beware this fallacy. With subtitling this danger isn't as apparent.

  • While the primary disadvantage of subtitles, as other answers have also pointed out, is that you lose much of the audiovisual impact of the movie by having to concentrate on reading the dialogue.

    But what's problematic with films is often the speed of speaking. If you need to read subtitles for e.g. Woody Allen or Éric Rohmer, you have quite much to do and can only occasionally view the image. While you read you can just not see properly, but first and foremost cinema is something visual, it started with the silent movie. I already watched films in languages I couldn't understand and where there were no subtitles available, but vice versa I of course wouldn't ever have done it, I cannot find much sense in listening to a movie.

    He backs this with a famous quote by Alfred Hitchcock as printed in the book Hitchcock/Truffaut (wherever Mr. Hitchcock took those exact numbers from):

    A film goes around the world, it loses 15% of its power if subtitled and only 10% if dubbed well.

  • And then he makes a very interesting point, namely that subtitles are not necessarily more accurate just because they don't have any time or lip-syncing limitations (and as we've seen above there is very well a time limitation if you have to read the whole movie). The fact that subtitles are read and not heard means that many aspects of spoken language and tone are lost and those cannot necessarily be captured by simultaneously hearing a language you don't have the slightest ear for. An accurate literal translation is not automatically the best translation since the exact words are not always as important as the message and the tone (the irony of currently trying to translate a speech as accurately as possible myself does not escape me ;-)).

    Even people who are well-versed in a foreign language won't be able to capture every nuance and every subliminal tone. You have to have a feeling for a language to capture e.g. subtle irony or a melancholic undertone in a voice. With completely alien languages, like Japanese, that's nearly impossible, the subtitles won't help there, it only reads "I love you" but how is it meant? We can't really hear this there. Humour is also very difficult.

  • Another disadvantage of dubbing, though, is of course that you lose an important part of an actor's play, namely their voice. But this can be accomodated to some degree by carefully chosing good speakers that are able to at least transport the actors' and directors' original visions well.

    What does get lost with all this dubbing is the voice of the actor. It's a pity if you have to do without the voice of an actor or actress. For example hearing Isabelle Huppert or Charlotte Gainsbourg speaking is an event, no dubbing can beat that. But there are also many cases where the dubbing is better. Kubrick for example has cared himself for the dubbing speakers and has cast them and sometimes those speakers were even better than the actors. But my favourite example is the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. Bill Murray has a wonderful voice, but I have to say in the German dub his speaker Arne Elsholtz transports the mood of the film even better.

  • And of course the financial argument that dubbing costs more money still stands and it's certainly better for a movie to be distributed "only" with subtitles than to not be distributed at all.

    Subtitling a movie is of course much cheaper and therefore small productions should resort to this, it's the only possibility as they can't afford the expensive dubbings.

At the end of the day, the debate isn't going to get solved and each of the two possibilities has its strengths and weaknesses.

Yes, it would be nice being able to speak every language in the world, just it doesn't work. When translating there's always something lost, every word play isn't translatable. It's always a walk on the edge, you can't be too free but you also have to be creative. Now and then there's broad adulteration and delicate allusions get weakened, but sometimes translations are also stronger.


1) It has to be noted, though, that he himself comes from a society (Germany, to be precise) that has a very active dubbing culture and while he gives some reasonable general arguments, they still have to be seen under the premise of an established and well-functioning dubbing industry in the first place, which might not always be given everywhere.

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What are the benefits for viewers of subtitling over dubbing -or- dubbing over subtitling foreign TV and film?

One benefit, or con depending on your point of view, of a subtitling over dubbing, is that a foreign film in subtitles have to be watched to understand what is happening, while dubbed films can be related to the background. The viewer, typically cannot multitask without getting lost, as reading multiple things at the same time is not easy to do. Dubbed media, like media in the viewer's same language, can easily be put in the background while they do other things. In essences, subtitling creates a captive audience by it's very nature.

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