The political history of dubbing in films

Not exactly about books, but Felix suggested it and I usually agree with him.

From Salon:

English-speaking audiences rarely come across dubbed films and television programmes. This probably explains why they tend to find dubbing so, well, weird. Dubbed voices usually sound a bit flat and never quite sync up with the mouths we see onscreen. This can be off-putting and perhaps even a bit unsettling.

But since the birth of sound cinema in the late 1920s and 1930s, dubbing has been commonplace in many countries, including (looking just at Europe) Italy, Spain and Germany. Dubbing is still used in many of these countries as a way of translating foreign films and television. In Italy, the dubbing system became so developed in the 1930s that it was even used to add voices to Italian films, right up until the 1980s when the growth of TV (which used directly recorded sound) led to changes in standard industry practice.

So why did such a seemingly bizarre practice gain a foothold in these countries’ burgeoning film industries? After all, aren’t subtitles a better way to keep the original film intact and translate it at the same time? There are a few reasons.

. . . .

In the early 20th century, much of Europe’s film-going population had low literacy levels. Subtitles are useless if you can’t read them (or read them fast enough). There’s also the argument that subtitles ruin a film’s images and keep the viewer’s eyes glued to the bottom of the screen. However, perhaps the most important reason for dubbing’s favour was political.

Dubbing is a brilliant tool for film censorship. Sound films began to appear in the early 1930s, a time when many countries were falling under the sway of totalitarian regimes. In Europe, these included those of Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco and the Nazis. Censorship had been a feature of film production and distribution in Italy, Spain and Germany since before these dictatorships took power, but it increased markedly after they did so.

Italy and Spain, in particular, found dubbing ideologically useful. Mussolini’s Fascists, for example, manipulated foreign films during the dubbing process by changing dialogue to remove any unflattering reference to Italy or Italians. They also used dubbing to alter morally undesirable elements of film plots. For example, the Italian dub of the 1931 American film “Men in Her Life” was altered to remove a reference to Mussolini.

. . . .

Perhaps even more nefariously, they also insisted that films be dubbed into standardised national Italian (the official form of the language that was generally understood around the country). This was an effort to stop people in different regions from speaking local dialects and minority languages, and to prevent foreign words from entering Italian culture. Dubbing became a key nationalist tool that could unify and isolate Italy at a fundamental socio-cultural level.

The same story played out in Franco’s Spain where dubbing kept films ideologically acceptable and marginalised minority languages like Catalan, Basque and Galician. In post-Nazi Germany, dubbing was used to alter film dialogue to play down references to the country’s Nazi past and the atrocities it entailed. For example, the Nazis in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 “Notorious” were rebranded as generic drug smugglers.

. . . .

In the post-second world war period, western Europe (with the exception of Spain) broke free of totalitarianism and literacy began to increase, but dubbing remained. This was partly because it had become an established and familiar habit. But dubbing had also become vital to the system of co-production, which European cinema was increasingly reliant upon. Co-production basically involved two (or more) production companies in different countries teaming up and making a film together. It was popular with producers as it meant they could pool resources and access grants and tax relief from multiple governments.

. . . .

Dubbing meant that each actor could act in the language of their choosing on-set (if you watch an old dubbed film closely, you can often tell that actors are speaking different languages. Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is a clear example of this practice). The films were shot without sound and a range of different dubs in different languages were produced in post-production, using various teams of voice actors.

. . . .

Dubbing is still used as a key method of audio-visual translation in many countries and it still attracts politicised debates. For example, the film market in French-speaking Canada has argued that dubs produced in European French are not appropriate for that territory. Dubbing frequently and unsurprisingly ends up at the centre of debates around the politics of language and cultural imperialism, the imposition of one country’s culture onto another country or people.

Link to the rest at Salon and thanks to Felix for the tip.

11 thoughts on “The political history of dubbing in films”

  1. What caught my interest was the parallel between the intentional mandated biases and (potential and actual) biases in translations from cultural differences and assumptions. The highly acclaimed MONEY HEIST (nee CASA DE PAPEL) came to mind instantly. The show is available in dubbed english (very well done) and the original and you have a choice of language, spoken and subtitle. Thing is the “spanish” isn’t. It’s castillian with a very deep slang vernacular that bears no resemblance to the equivalents elsewhere. Even the spanish subtitles required more than just fluency in the language. Cultural fluency matters, too. And doing full research is not always enough. Minefields lie that way.

    Disney has just crashed into this phenomenon with MULAN and as a result the CCP has denied a theater slot to BLACK WIDOW and probably to their next panderfest, SHANG-CHI.

  2. “Dubbed voices usually sound a bit flat”
    Or not. Here in Spain there were professional “dubbers” (is it a word?) and when an actor became famous, they usually choose the same dubber in all his/her films. The professional dubber usually worked also for the radio, and there were a lot with great voices. Nowadays the quality has declined, but still there are very good professionals.
    It could be confusing sometimes, there was a dubber with a great voice (sadly deceased) asigned to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood and Darth Vader (among others, so if you only hear small parts of a movie you can’t tell which actor is, but on the other hand, from what I heard Bruce Willis hasn’t a great voice, and his dubber Ramón Langa (also usually Kevin Costner’s voice) has a great one, for example, in this video (an interview to Ramón Langa), in minute 2:59 they put some cuts of Bruce Willis films.
    There are also great catastrophes dubbing, everybody mentions in these cases The Shining. They chose an actress with a very peculiar voice to dub Shelley Duvall, and the voice was totally anticlimatic. I haven’t found a Spanish cut with good sound, this one has only a few seconds of Verónica Forqué voice, you hardly catch the peculiarities: But in the case of this film, it was Kubrick who decided he didn’t want professional dubbers, and the dubbing wasn’t made by experts in dubbing, they were film professionals and actors, but not especialized in dubbing.

    • I usually avoid dubbed movies like the plague, preferring subtitles if its a language I can’t handle.

      Most_spanish dubbed content in the americas these days seems to come from Miami and the actually tamp down the actors’ natural accents (be tbey cuban, mexican, or puertorican), which used to be noticeable in past times. I still cringe when I remember my (accidental) exposure to the original dub of STAR WARS from way back before EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Seriously strong “caftillian acfents”. 😉
      Really broke the whole “galaxy far, far away immersion”.
      Presumably it was redone in more recent times.

      (I still think Lucas’ original plan of filming with a dubbed all-japanese cast was a great idea. 😀 )

      More recently, I caught a bit of a dubbed Wonder Woman that found a great match for Gal Gadot’s voice…but not her accent. At least it was accent neutral. Not sure a strong regional accent would’ve worked.

      Anime is the bulk of my foreign video these days and the DVDs give you a choice between dub and subtitles and the…oddities there are the disconnect from both and bowdlerizing. You’d think the two would be working off the same translation, ideally based on the original script, but I don’t see that very often.

      • Well, even Spanish Castillian people avoid Spanish Latin dub films, some will still watch them if there’s no other source, but myself and most of my friends prefer in that case the subtitled version, what you describe of Miami dubbers is definitely a “no, no” here, regional Spanish accents are avoided, unless in the original version there’s a character in which the accent plays a role so they try to introduce it in the film.
        When I watched the Night Manager in Amazon Premium it was only available in Latin. We watched it dubbed anyway because it was usually during our dinner, so we were farther from the TV (we didn’t have a larger TV like now) and as sometimes we weren’t going to be looking to the TV, we decide to continue. It was a neutral Spanish, but still, the words were different and the accents… Everytime I heard to Hugh Laurie dubbed voice it was a big shock, and probably we didn’t enjoy the series as much as if we had watched it with subtitles (in fact, that reminds me that I should revisit the series properly, maybe during my next vacation I’ll had time)

        • Heh.
          My own take is castillian is no more “spanish” than catalan. 😉
          The tail wags the dog.

          Brits probably feel similarly about mid-america english.
          (And Quebeqois feel the same about Parisian.)

          Thing is in a global marketplace (and dubbing is a business process) accessibility matters and the neutral flavors of the major languages travel be$t.

          People might prefer accents and diction they’re familiar with but that familiarity fades pretty fast as you move away from the epicenter. Neutral accents start out as accessibility compromises but over time they become everybody’s second choice and eventually they take over. It happened with mid-america english in the US and it’s happening with Global english, that is shifting from european (BBC) english to a more North American tone *outside* both regions. The commercial anglosphere is likely going to end up sounding Canadian. Which is not necessarily great as there are some nice regional lilts and tones out there that will fall by the wayside.

          Tara Strong’s excellent voice work on Miss Minutes on Disney’s Loki owes a lot of its nuance to her choice of a slight southern US lilt. Inspired way of bringing a hidden menace to innocuous words. Over in latin telenovelas accents serve a classist purpose, stuff that often gets lost in dubbing and neutral accent mandates. Henry Higgins would be proud. But money rules.

          Blame Hollywood and (more recently) streaming.

          On a side note, have dubbed turkish telenovelas gotten much of a foothold on tbat side of the pond? Round these parts they’re getting a lot of traction on broadcast (cheap content!) as a reaction to the increasing prevalence of streaming services.

          • BTW, on accents, this just dropped:


            “From the approachable Geordie dialect to the instantly recognisable Liverpool lilt, many of England’s most distinctive accents are from the north.

            But a new study has warned that northern accents could all but disappear in just 45 years.

            Using physics modelling, researchers from the Universities of Portsmouth and Cambridge predicted how accents are likely to change across England by 2066.

            Their findings suggest that northern accents could be replaced with ‘posh’ south eastern pronunciations. ”


            There is also this:

            The most attractive accents
            In a recent experiment, eharmony asked respondents to listen to a sentence read by speakers with 20 distinct accents and rate each one on attractiveness. The results revealed that the most attractive accents were:

            1. Received Pronunciation
            2. New Zealand
            3. Edinburgh
            4. Australian
            5. German
            6. Yorkshire
            7. Irish
            8. Glasgow
            9. Geordie
            10. American
            11. Essex
            12. Liverpudlian
            13. London
            14. Manchester
            15. Italian
            16. Welsh
            17. Birmingham
            18. Spanish
            19. French
            20. Cornish

            It’s only about present day preferences but it’s interesting to see New Zealand that high.

  3. Give me a Lazy Boy, popcorn, an old Japanese monster movie, something rubber arising from the ocean, scientist Dad, serious daughter, blond haired gaijin kid, and lips running north while voices run south.

  4. Politics aside, back in my early “cinematheque” years, whenever I visited Germany or France—and ultimately living there—it used to really bug me being forced to watch dubbed American films. Nowadays, back in the good ‘ole USofA, I still prefer original language with subtitles, but my wife prefers dubbed (if foreign). Problem solved with two different iPads for each preference. Which usually means we can only watch English-language films together. Oh well, there are bigger problems in the world, eh?

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