Tuesday, November 23, 2004

I hate dubbing

You have a show or a movie in one language. You want to target it to a different country: one that doesn't share this language. There are two ways to go. First, there's dubbing, when actors from the target language record their voices over their original. Alternately, you have subtitling, where the translation is printed on or underneath the film, and no change is made to the soundtrack.

Guess which technique Vietnamese TV prefers? And guess which technique makes me unhappy? If you picked "dubbing" for both, give yourself a pat on the back.

I hate dubbing for several reasons. The first is that it restricts the audience to the target language. Subtitling expands the audience; dubbing just switches it. Vietnamese TV is adept at grabbing programs from the western world (sometimes with the original blotchy TV logo) and mutating it for their purposes. That makes it useless for me.

The aesthetics are also a disaster. Apart from the problem of lip sync (or lack of it), you often hear the original soundtrack underneath. But what's worse is that Vietnamese TV has shocking taste in the actors it chooses dubbing. S.O.P. seems to be to use soft-spoken women to cover both male and female voices. Imagine Lethal Weapon. Now imagine Lethal Weapon where Gibson's and Glover's voices  are replaced by the Indochinese equivalent of Yeardley Smith. It's that bad.

(And I even hate it when I am part of the target audience. Case in point: Christiane F., that sad movie about a German teenager turning to heroin and prostitution. I've only seem the dubbed version, and the choice for voice over - a very bored sounding American - ruined it for me.)

Fortunately, there may be some winds of change in the local television network. And the harbinger is (don't laugh) Barney the Dinosaur! Yes, Barney and friends play it up for the pretty young things of Hồ Chí Minh City and Hà Nội! Most of the program is still dubbed but at least they use a wider range of actors: Male and female. Young and old. Appropriate choices. But the best thing is that they give up dubbing the songs altogether, and make do with subtitles!  Trying to speak over the songs would be a waste of time - and as for singing - the hurdles one would have translating a tonal version of the song while preserving the original tune. And then you have to make it rhyme as well. I reckon the local producers gave it up as a bad job, and thought subtitles would be a tidy band aid.

I think it's better that a band-aid. Subtitled movies give the Vietnamese (many of whom want to learn a foreign language) a chance to listen to English. Unfortunately, listening is probably the worst skill students seem to have - and that's me speaking as an English teacher. They need all the help they can get. Yes, some can pick up some foreign DVDs if they want to, but many don't have the time or the wealth to do it too often. And if the speech get too hard, they have the  fall back of the written word. Unfortunately, subtitled movies are not common here. Only one cinema (Cinebox) actually subtitles its movie. Every other firm in town relies on dubbing.

The only drawback with subtitles is that it assumes literacy of the watcher. Now the literacy rate in Việt Nam is officially about 90% - but there's the other 10% to think about.