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August 2000, Week 2


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"Shari L. Rosenblum" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 10 Aug 2000 14:08:41 EDT
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Sandy Camargo writes:

> I came across an article recently (and of course I don't have the reference
>  with me, but I can find it if people want it) that argued that, while most
>  of us prefer subtitles for reasons of textual authenticity, they create a
>  distanciation that may actually make it more difficult for us to appreciate
>  a film's full power and meaning. The author suggests that watching a dubbed
>  film, on the other hand, gives us a clearer insight into the experience of
>  watching the film and that therefore dubbing can bring us closer to the
>  filmmaker's original intention.

Speaking from the personal rather than as a general proposition, I
find the integration-failures of dubbing (not just the synchronization
problems, but the match of tone and body language, voice and image,
etc.) far more disconcerting than the intrusion of subtitles.

For one thing, in my experience as a linguist, I've noticed that one of
the elements that  distinguishes a persuasive speaker of a foreign
tongue from a less persuasive one is the incorporation of the native
facial and corporal accompaniments to that language.  It's not the
sort of thing most people take in consciously, but I suspect it's the
sort of thing that nevertheless colors most people's impressions.
And this is glaringly contradicted in dubbed offerings.

On the other hand, a well-subtitled film (i.e., one that translates
dialogue and context within the standard viewer's reading time) may
even work to give the viewer the illusion he speaks the film's language,
so that there's no palpable distanciation in that viewer's experience.

For all these reasons, I think subtitling preserves more than
just textual (i.e., verbal/dialogic) integrity.

Further, if we see film as an artistic offering, it seems to me that we
must acknowledge aural resonances, including voice, as integral to its
artistry.  Surely, the filmmaker's original intention included a sense
of how his actors sounded, alone and together, how their vocal
expression blended with their physical bearing, etc.   Think John
Wayne or Marilyn Monroe or James Mason or Kathleen Turner or
Jimmy Stewart or Judy Holliday or Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn
or Sean Connery or Clint Eastwood or hell, Tom Waits -- among
the many obvious instances of voices and voice-styles we easily
recognize as integrated into bodytype and movement.  Can even
dubbing with an imitative voice capture the filmmakers' intention
for those effects?  I'd argue that it's unlikely.

(I do, however, recall hearing it argued in France that Laurel and Hardy
are funnier there because the voices of those who dub them are
better than the originals.)

While a mistranslation in a subtitle might throw a scene off, the
erasure and replacement of the original actors'  voices changes
the film's larger aesthetic.  It alters the sense of both watching
and hearing a film from what the filmmaker set down as his final

Moreover, the translation variant can be explicated before a class and
may lead to deeper and more rewarding analysis of the dialogue and
its derivative.  The aesthetic variant, on the other hand, is more likely
to defy academic explanation -- as it negates the value of the original
and by its nature renders that original inaccessible.

Still and all, as far as classes are concerned, I suppose it depends
on our purposes for showing any particular film, the quality of prints
to which we have access (dubbed or subtitled), the limits on our
time, and, alas, the limitations of our students.

Shari Rosenblum

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