Foreign Film Fights: Sub vs Dub

Slip of the Lip

Caroline is in her third year of a Bachelor of Languages, and is now well and truly drawn into the fascinating world that is linguistics – the science of language. A Slip of the Lip is her way of sharing interesting linguistic research in an engaging, digestible way.

Welcome to today’s big Foreign Film Fight: Sub vs Dub! In one corner, we have Sam Subtitle. Her movies feature writing across the bottom of the screen translated into the audience’s language, while the foreign language audio stays in place. In the other corner, we have Aditi Dub, whose movies go straight to the bones of it by scrapping the audio completely and starting again with voices speaking the audience’s language. The crowd tonight is full of foreign-language learners and film aficionados. They’re getting quite wild – let’s interview some spectators and get the low-down.

Reporter: This is Shawn, he’s here supporting Sam Subtitle. Shawn, why do you think Sam Subtitle is going to win tonight?

Shawn: Subtitles are by far the superior foreign-language viewing approach. With Dub you can never tell what it is the actors are really saying, and the actors’ lips never line up with their words! It’s barbaric!

Reporter: Thanks for that Shawn, best of luck. Over here we have Tino, who’s here supporting Aditi Dub. Tino, why do you think Dub’s going to win?

Tino: Ah mate, Dub is where it’s at. Subtitles block part of the screen, and you have to spend all this effort just reading. No-one watches movies so they can read – that’s what books are for!

Reporter: Thanks, Tino. I suspect whatever outcome we have tonight, the fans will stay loyal. Research has shown that people prefer whichever it is they’re more used to. But it’s not about the fans, it’s about glory. Time to get down to business.

Round One: Which conveys the meaning better?

In reality, neither form can hope to completely capture the original meaning of the dialogue. Not only do they have to contend with the usual troubles of translation, but they also have a very limited time in which to do it.

Subtitles usually follow what is referred to as the ‘six-second rule’: a subtitle of 64 characters, or approximately 13 words, is displayed on-screen for six seconds. No more than that is allowed, and any less is shown for a proportionate amount of time – so approximately two words are displayed per second, as people tend to speak at a similar rate.

Humans are usually able to read faster than they can comprehend speech, so reading the whole subtitle in time is not a problem. What is a problem is that the subtitles can only be shown for the time it takes the person to finish their utterance, otherwise the subtitles will fall behind the dialogue. To overcome this, they must be condensed. For example, according to Koolstra et al. in their 30-page article The Pros and Cons of Dubbing and Subtitling – yes, people actually get paid to research this – Dutch subtitles leave out about 30 percent of the English dialogue they translate from.

On the other hand, dubbing requires the relevant phrase of speech to begin and end at the same time as the actors’ lips, although how closely the intermediate speech needs to match the lip movements is dependent on the audience and language of translation. This, however, does not pose a significant limitation on time, as most languages are quite similar when it comes to length of expression. And so, round one goes to Dub!

Round Two: Who is less distracting?

While dubbing naturally entails the annoying out-of-sync lips, subtitles prevent the viewer from absorbing as much of the imagery that they otherwise would. Apart from this, there is little difference in the distraction caused to viewers between subtitles and dubbing. Jackson Harris et al. have found that there is no disparity between subtitles and dubbing when it comes to registering and remembering the emotions of the characters. In addition to this, Wissmath et al. have reported that there is no significant discrepancy in the level of investment in the storyline that either method conjured in the audience. Round two: Tie!

Round Three: Who helps you learn?

It is indisputable that the benefits of subtitles far outweigh those of dubbing when it comes to this.

For learners of a foreign language, having the chance to hear their target language whilst reading the translation is a far better learning opportunity than just watching a movie in their own language. Additionally, Koolstra et al. assert that ‘watching subtitled television programmes leads over time to better reading skills in children.’ Round three: Sub!

Round Four: Who costs less?

This one is a brutally short round: Aditi Dub costs ten to fifteen times more than Sam Subtitle! And with that, round four goes to Sam Subtitle!

So there you have it. It was a close call but Sam Subtitle has come out on top. Who do you think should have won? Did you agree with the ref? Be sure to let us know what you think and thank you for joining us on Foreign Film Fights!