Thursday, February 02, 2006

Two new words of the week...

Since the last word of the week was dead on arrival, I better provide substitutes. They are:

  • Lồng Tiếng: (verb) to dub.
  • Phụ Đề: (noun) subtitle.

The latter word's become a pretty important word in my life. My wife and I got ourselves a DVD player, as well as the the address of a local DVD rental place (at 2000đ a pop). Being far away from backpackers and "The Ghetto", the place rents almost exclusively to Vietnamese speakers, and the DVD are altered accordingly. The big question is how the DVDs are altered. I want to hear English-language films in English. I do not want to hear them in Vietnamese. So every time I'm off to the video store, I look for those magic words "Phụ Đề" on the covers. If they're not there, the DVD is dubbed, and it's no use to me at all.

I've commented on the dub versus subtitle conundrum before, so I'll summarize: dubbing bad, subtitling good. Unless your your target audience is illiterate... but that's not really a valid assumption in Việt Nam with its 94% literacy rate, is it?

Well, I've been thinking a little bit more about it lately. One important issue is how one measures literacy. This is what the Việt Nam National Literacy Policy defines as being "literate":

A person who is literate has to achieve the literacy skills equivalent to grade 3 out of 5 grades of primary education and to be able to apply these skills in his/her day life.

That's a bare-bones flat-lined definition of literacy indeed. In case you are wondering, "grade 3" here is at the same age as in the West: about 7 to 9 years old. It's not a high measure at all. Nor does it say a good deal about the local "numeracy" rates either. Grade 3 was when I first encountered those exotic mathematical operations called "multiplication" and "division".

Now the question arises: could someone meeting (if not exceeding) the National Literacy Level handle subtitled movies? I doubt it. As evidence, let me bring up the third member of the household, "Mr. B"; he helps around the house in exchange for free food and board and a small income. He's a nice guy, and he's bright, but he never finished high school. He's a few grades above the literacy level of grade 3. Nevertheless, he finds subtitles too hard. Every uttered English sentence is represented by about 8 or 10 Vietnamese words on the screen. He has to read them all, and he has to read them fast. Because if  he doesn't, then he'll miss the meaning a second later when they disappear; i.e., when another English statement is represented by another 8 or 10 Vietnamese words. Understandably, he prefers dubbing.

Now I have a lot of Vietnamese friends, workmates and acquaintances (plus one wife) whose literacy levels are far more literate than that. But remember, I work in a "white-collar" industry - to be exact, the teaching sector - and almost all of my workmates have some sort of tertiary degree. I also live in a very large city (Sài Gòn). But most people in this country do not live in cities, and very few people go to university: 5% of college-age people in 1995. My experience is atypical for someone living here, even if typical for an expat. Mr. B is far closer to the median than my pals. If he find subtitles too hard, then I reckon a lot of other Vietnamese do too. Accordingly, the state TV stations dub any foreign movie they show. They know their target audience.

Interestingly, it has been cable TV that has taken up the slack. They've been subtitle all the time since I watched it (2003 to 2004). The problem is that they service they provided here use to subtitle in Thai - great for the Thailand market, but no bloody use here. Fortunately, some cable executive realized that Việt Nam has a bigger population, if not as rich. Presto - subtitles in Vietnamese, sometime in the last year or so. Now the cable companies are milking it in. Cable is popular here - to be exact, among the well-off who can afford it. That also includes their offspring, some of who I happen to teach. The kids like Discovery Channel. They love the Cartoon Network. And for the love of god, they absolutely adore Smackdown. Due, in large part, to subtitles.