The debate on the need to maintain dubbing for audiovisual media in Spain is old and tiresome. I’m probably preaching to the converted here but I’d like to contribute (or stress) arguments which are not often considered. Funnily, the inspiration for both lines of thought comes from recent articles on Rogue One, the exciting prequel to Stars Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (or plain Star Wars, as it was once called).
One of the film’s stars, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, declared in a recent interview that he doesn’t much relish hearing himself dubbed. After joking that perhaps the diverse dubbing actors may have improved his performance, he stated that he’d rather films were not dubbed (see in Spanish, http://metropoli.elmundo.es/cine/2016/12/15/58526f8ae5fdeab0528b458c.html).
As far as I can recall, whenever Spanish journalists asks foreign actors how they feel about dubbing, they expect said actors to answer politely that they respect very much the work of dubbing actors. Mikkelsen’s discordant answer, though still polite, suggests that it is about time we hear actors express an opinion. Although Mikkelsen did not expand on his, it follows that actors, who use their voices as much as their bodies to act, must profoundly dislike having that crucial part of their performance erased. Try to imagine for a second what it would be like to keep the original voice and replace the bodily appearance and you’ll get an idea of how gross what we do using dubbing is.
Another Rogue One star, Mexican Diego Luna, recently declared in his Twitter account that he felt “emotional” when reading a certain Tumblr post (which quickly went viral). In this post an American girl using the nick ‘riveralwaysknew’ narrated her experience of taking her Mexican immigrant father to see Rogue One (see the complete post at, for instance, http://nextshark.com/star-wars-fan-riveraalwaysknew-expresses-how-diego-lunas-character-in-rogue-one-impacted-her-mexican-father/).
“I wanted”, she wrote “my Mexican father, with his thick Mexican accent, to experience what it was like to see a hero in a blockbuster film, speak the way he does.” The father was, like many other spectators including myself, much surprised by Luna’s “heavy accent”. The daughter explained to her puzzled dad that indeed, Rogue One is extremely popular, and that Luna refuses to alter his accent because he’s proud of it. After mulling this over, the father declared himself very happy: “As we drove home he started telling me about other Mexican actors that he thinks should be in movies in America. Representation matters.” Now, in the version dubbed into Spanish for release in Spain, Luna has no Mexican accent–just the standard Castilian accent generally used in dubbing, with few exceptions. So much for representation.
Here, then, are my two main points against dubbing: 1) it is disrespectful of the actors’ work, 2) it erases accent, which is essential in performance.
Before I continue let me present briefly the situation in Spain (you might like to take a peak at my article ““Major Films and Minor Languages: Catalan Speakers and the War over Dubbing Hollywood Films”, available also in Spanish from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/136984). Dubbing was originally introduced by Hollywood studios (specifically Paramount) in 1929 as a strategy to end the cumbersome use of subtitles (useless for illiterate audiences) and the expensive practice of shooting different versions of the same film, one for each language. In Spain dubbing was introduced in Republican times (1931-6), precisely because most Spaniards were illiterate; also to ease the censor’s role.
A legal order of 1945 made dubbing into Spanish Castilian compulsory for all foreign films, forbidding in addition subtitling and dubbing into any other Spanish language (Catalan, Basque, Galician). Subtitling would only return in the 1950s for art-house films. Spanish TV, inaugurated in 1956, simply copied the practice habitual in cinemas, extending it to TV series. The 1945 decree, issued by Dictator Francisco Franco, went, then, much further than the Republic’s timid application of censorship to foreign films, turning dubbing into an instrument of nationalist linguistic cohesion (in imitation of the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany).
Ironically, in the same period the Portuguese Dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (1932-68, though his regime lasted until 1974), decided to do the opposite: forbid dubbing, hoping thus that the illiterate Portuguese spectators would shun foreign films, then only accessible through subtitles. Dubbing is still limited today in Portugal to films for children as, logically, they have difficulties to follow subtitles. In Finland, where they follow the same practice, they assume that by the age of 7 children are already literate enough to read subtitles.
For here’s the question: in Spain we are very reluctant to abandoning dubbing simply because most people are very poor readers and have serious difficulties to keep up with the pace of subtitles. Incidentally, if the demand for subtitles were bigger, I assume the quality of translation (often questionable) would also improve.
Whenever dubbing is discussed in Spain, however, the problem of literacy is set aside. Instead, we usually the issue of how little English we command, as if dubbing only affects films originally in that language. Thus, many who prefer dubbing claim that a) you don’t learn languages by seeing films in original version (see how much Japanese you can learn this way…), b) our dubbing actors are wonderful and so is our dubbing technique (I agree), c) cinemas’ revenue would fall even further if dubbing was suppressed, d) technology already allows most consumers to choose the version they prefer (which is true for TV or DVD but not for cinema).
I find dubbing simply barbaric, akin to smearing another layer of colour on another person’s paintings or chipping off bits of sculpture that one doesn’t like. Translation of print texts is bad enough but a sort of inevitable evil. In audiovisual products, however, translation can be easily pushed to the margins with the use of subtitles, respecting in this way the integrity of the actors’ work. I see all films and series in their original version, regardless of the language, and putting all my trust into the persons who translate subtitles. I may not understand a single word of Japanese beyond ‘arigato’ and ‘hai’ but I’d much rather hear the original voices.
These foreign voices come enshrouded in linguistic fog which, of course, fades away the better you know the language. A film in German, French or Italian is less opaque than one in Japanese, whereas a film in English is far more accessible. Not always, of course–we all have the experience of using subtitles to follow English-language products. The accent of Baltimore gangsters in The Wire is hard even for persons with PhDs in English Literature, and so is the working-class Leith brogue used in Trainspotting. We tend to forget about Spanish itself: I needed subtitles to follow the Argentinean film Nueve reinas, and I have abandoned recently a couple of films from Venezuela which I simply could not follow (they had no subtitles).
To sum up: the point of suppressing dubbing is not learning other languages (this is an extra bonus) but respecting the actors’ work. To get a glimpse of how hard they struggle with accent, see the video in which dialogue coach Erik Singer generously reviews an impressive collection of accented film performances: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvDvESEXcgE
Whenever one mentions accent in films outside a university Department, eyebrows are quickly raised. Just picture your average Spaniard and you’ll see him/her struggling with the concept of accent in foreign films. You cannot give an approximate rendition of accent in dubbed versions, as this sounds ridiculous and, so, accent simply does not exist for the average Spanish film goer (even film lover). There is also the matter of voices: as everyone knows, often the same Spanish actor dubs several foreign actors – Ramón Langa lends his voice to both Bruce Willis and Kevin Costner, among many, many others (see http://www.eldoblaje.com/datos/Fichaactordoblaje.asp?Id=127). This means that dubbing also results in a ridiculously homogeneous panorama, with a few voices replacing the multiplicity that makes international cinema so rich.
Let me get back to Mikkelsen and Luna (and Rogue One). You can hear Mikkelsen express himself in his native Danish language in the disturbing Jagten (The Hunt, 2012) or play an American character in Hannibal (2013-15). In this second case, although we here in Spain missed the issue completely, he was criticized by American audiences for playing Lecter with a thick non-American accent (some spectators claimed that this was fine, as Lecter is originally a Lithuanian). This is an interesting conflict which even extends to English native speakers (was the American accent of British actor Hugh Laurie in House good enough?).
I’d say that Mikkelsen’s Galen Erso in Rogue One also speaks English with a Danish accent. Actually, very few American voices are heard in that English-language film, though I have not come across any negative comments from American audiences–rather, praise for the film’s international casting choices. I’m sure that in Denmark they feel happy to see Mikkelsen play in such a big film (and such a heroic role!) but his presence is not as heavily loaded with representation issues as Luna’s. Mexican actress Selma Hayek was seemingly told that she could not play the main role in Mexican director’s Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity because nobody in the audience would believe in a Mexican astronaut. Instead, producers chose bland all-American star Sandra Bullock (yes, I know that Hayek is also from America–the continent). Rogue One’s multi-accented cast may have been selected to please a wide-ranging international audience but the case is that Luna’s heavy Mexican accent is a breath of fresh air… in the galaxy.
Except in Spain, where dubbing sounds a bit like the echo of Darth Vader’s Empire… or just Franco’s regime. Now, come join the rebellion…
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