Whose Voice is it, Anyway?: A Question of Dubbing

During my time here in Spain, I’ve come to see many aspects of the Spanish culture, or, well, at the very least Galician culture and Spanish TV. However, there is something I’ve always had some issue with that is rife on TV here, so now is a good enough excuse to discuss it. Dubbing. Technically dub localization, as general dubbing occurs in nearly every film, but I digress.

For six months I’ve sat at the same dinner table and seen a fair bit of Spanish TV, be it sports, movies, news programmes, game shows; whatever has just been on, really. One thing that I’ve noticed is the sheer lack of subtitles. Every movie I have seen has been dubbed over, almost every programme dubs voices of foreign athletes, actors, politicians, and whatever/ whomever else. There is occassionally some manner of subtitling, but it seems to be inconsistent at best. Not inconsistent as in inaccurate, but like a programme may subtitle a footballer’s comments one day, and then dub them the next.  Very curious, indeed.

Now I’m a slight stickler for film purity. If it’s in English, watch it in English. If it’s in French, watch it in French. Kick on those subtitles. For me, the loss of an actor’s performance is a hideous grievance, especially when they’re performances particularly worth noting. Like seeing The Godfather, Amelie, or Oldboy in Spanish. Valiently as it is tried, they just lack (and to me, will inherently lack) the same resonance as the actors’ actual performances. This holds true for me in general, not specifically to Spain or the Spanish approach, it just happens to dovetail together pefectly. To the Spanish industry’s credit, the same dubbing voice actor will voice the same actor in all of their roles, establishing at least some degree of continuity. But it’s still acting by proxy, in a way. It’s someone imitating the emotions of someone else.

To me, dubbing works totally fine in animated works, as those can be suitably flexible (and forgiving) to changing voices, but for live actors, I feel it often takes the words from their mouths and some of the power from their deliveries, leaving them them at times as mere marionettes. I’ve heard people say on multiple occassions that when they hear the real voice of a particular actor, they prefer the dubbed one. That, and one voice actor will “be,” say, Tom Hanks, but will also voice several other actors. There just aren’t enough artists to voice every foreign actor. Voicing over multiple actors is the norm, and that’s industry-wide, not just Spain at all.

Past the simple point of speaking over someone else’s lines, the real audio of the programmes/films are often incongruent to the dubbed effects. In say, a western, one character will be talking in a dusty town. He talks, and the dubbed voice is up front and clear, while some ambient sound persists (whistling wind, nervous horses, or whatever else). He ceases talking, and the actual film sound comes back in the older, grainier fidelity, like an audio switch has been flicked. The old-time hiss and pop is heard, the recording quality is audibly lower. It’s worse during action scenes, as you have a dubbed character talking over explosions, then if the same character dies, let’s say, it’s usually in the original audio, and at times their death scream is at an entirely different vocal pitch. It’s a jarring effect that largely shatters the perception of immersion within the film. Worse still are TV programmes, which often simply record over the audio as-is, so you constantly have a sort of double-audio situation of multiple layers of voices.

But not to totally condemn the entire field of dubbing, it does have its merits. For people poor of sight, or perhaps those looking to learn a new language, dubbing can be an important, if not necessary tool to help the greatest amount of people enjoy something. I know someone who watched Game of Thrones in Spanish with English subtitles, then rewatched the series in English with Spanish subtitles in a bid to improve their English. I live in a house with an elderly woman, who could not comfortably read subtitles when watching TV. I get these, they’re totally valid. The excuse, however, of “I don’t like to read” does not fly with me. Too often I have heard this as an excuse against watching a film in anything but English (or for some, they just don’t watch any foreign films at all), but here in Spain, it’s just… how things have been. The great majority of films shown aren’t Spanish made, and especially in the Galicia region, English is not very prevalent (nor really any other languages but Spanish or Gallego). So many people just don’t have the inclination to watch a film in anything else but their own language, nevermind reading subtitles instead. I think the same opinion exists in the United States, at least in my anecdotal experience, and the only real difference is just how many films are already in English. People don’t need to do anything else but stare at the screen and listen.

This is is wholly my own opinion, and I fully acknowledge there may be something I’m missing. I’d be interested to hear thoughts or your own impressions on this, dear readers. Are you pro-dub? Anti-dub? Shruggingly ambivilent? Leave a comment, and we’ll get a little discussion going, if you so choose.

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