As a modern languages student I am probably exposed to an above average amount of foreign films, for pleasure or, more often than not, borrowed from the library for late-night cramming. Unfortunately, as much as I love international cinema, scrutinising and analysing to scrape together essay content can take the joy out of most activities. So last November a course mate and I decided to take action and, in an attempt to put the fun back in foreign cinema, headed along to the Glasgow Film Theatre to check out the French Film Festival. We ended up seeing L’Assassin habite au 22, a 1942 farcical murder mystery, and a good time was had by all.
While at the cinema, I happened to notice that all 18 of the films included in the festival were subtitled into English, rather than dubbed. Not a particularly remarkable choice: foreign film and TV shown in the UK uses subtitles more often than not. But why is this the case, when on the continent the dubbing of English language cinema is incredibly widespread? So common, in fact, that the French actress who has provided the voice for Angelina Jolie for many years has gained fame and popularity in her own right, and a French acquaintance claims to be able to pick out the French Brad Pitt even when he dubs for other actors.
A large part of the reasoning behind the popularity of subtitles in the UK is the fact that foreign film and TV is largely viewed as somewhat obscure and artistic, a cultural experience which involves hearing the original dialogue, and whose viewers don’t mind a bit of reading. As a result, French film is more likely to appear in its own festival than in the standard listings, and subtitled Scandinavian detective series are squirreled away on the more ‘alternative’ BBC4.
Elsewhere in Europe, however, American film and television dominates screens as much as it does in the UK, but with an added language barrier. Popular films such as Frozen are renamed, dubbed, and even have entirely new musical soundtracks recorded, making Let It Go a global phenomenon in 42 languages. The use of dubbing makes film and television accessible to mainstream audiences, regardless of age or literacy level, and there is no attached implication of foreign film being more cultured or educational. However, certain elements are sacrificed. The original accents of characters, for example, are lost or substituted, in order to make the film relatable to its new audience. This is particularly an issue in French dubbing, where regional distinctions are often erased altogether, as hearing an accent other than Parisian in film is still considered something of a statement.
Not to claim that subtitling does not have its own issues. Anyone who has ever watched anything in English with English subtitles knows that what appears on the screen does not match what you hear. The same applies in foreign films, as subtitlers are constrained by some general rules: a maximum of two lines of 38 characters on screen at any one time, and 6 seconds per caption. These limits aim to cater to the slowest readers, but also change captions quickly enough that faster readers do not read the same lines twice. Subtitle writers also face the added challenge of matching the captions to the rhythm of the dialogue. Unfortunately, despite their efforts, when watching a subtitled film things like comedic timing can often fall to the wayside. Captions can also distract, to varying extents, from the actual action of the film. For instance, during my year abroad, while suffering from a brief bout of homesickness, I decided to go see an English language film, only to discover that in Belgium it is quite normal to use both French and Dutch subtitles simultaneously. Two different colours of text, one on top of the other. During the tenser moments of dialogue, more than half of the screen was covered, and my eye was continuously caught by amusing-looking Dutch words, such as “Onverschrokkenheid.” Not the ideal film-going experience.
So, while subtitling has saved me during many a line of muttered French dialogue, I believe that the UK film market could benefit from more mainstream exposure to other cultures, and the dubbing of film and TV, especially for children, could be an avenue to explore. Foreign cinema can be for the general public, and not something exclusive. Best of all would be a choice, so the possibility to hear the original dialogue as it was intended to be spoken is not lost, but rather supplemented, something that shouldn’t be difficult with modern technology.