Subtitles vs. Dubbing: How Europeans Watch Foreign Movies

(Image courtesy of Natalia Grosner)

It’s Monday.  And it’s likely that at least one of you watched a movie this weekend.  Ever wonder how your favourite flicks are viewed in European countries?   Here’s a short round up:

In Germany, all movies and TV shows are dubbed.  And they take their dubbing very seriously.  Each foreign-language actor (American, French, Spanish, etc.) is matched up with a German voice actor to produce what Berliner Sybille Paulsen coins a “signature voice”.  This signature voice is born from a continuous pairing of an actor’s movie characters and the voice actor who dubs for them.  As the German movie viewers grow accustom to the signature voice dubbing for the actor’s actual voice, the association between the two strengthens.  And so, when the distribution companies shake up that relationship by choosing a new voice actor, viewers are left feeling confused and annoyed.  Just ask any German how they felt about Brad Pitt’s voice in Meet Joe Black.  They’ll all readily tell you that something was off.

The same is true in France; a voice actor is matched to his foreign actor’s movie or TV characters for a consistent actor/voice actor relationship.  Does anyone else find it odd that the success of a voice actor’s career in Germany or France can potentially depend on the career of the foreign actor for whom he dubs?  I guess it will finally pay off again to be the French voice actor who dubs for Paul Reubens when the new Apatow-produced Pee-Wee Herman movie is released later this year.

Although dubbing is the norm in France, they do resort to subtitles at times.  For example, in Paris last summer, my friends and I went to Parc de Villette to watch the Quebecois film C.R.A.Z.Y. We were stunned to see subtitles across the bottom of the outdoor screen that interpreted the French Canadian dialogue, apparently too difficult for the Parisians to understand.  Seriously.  Maudit calisse de B.S.

In Croatia, subtitles have long been used for adult foreign TV series and films.  A recent attempt to introduce dubbing was poorly received by the Croatian audience.  According to Wikipedia, “previously quite popular shows lost their appeal completely after dubbing started and were eventually taken off the program”.  If I wagered a guess, I’d say subtitles won that war because they help Croatians learn foreign languages.  I’m certain that this is how most of my cousins learned English in Croatia.  Plus, dubbing the 1980s soap opera Santa Barbara in syndication last year just wouldn’t have captured the series’ original emotion.

But the best by far is Poland.

In Poland, a lektor, a typically male narrator, does the voice-overs for every character on a foreign-language TV series or film. It’s not a myth.  This means that if you’re watching Seinfeld in Poland, one man will lend his emotionless voice to each of George, Jerry, Elaine, Kramer AND Newman. Same dude!  However, after having spoken to two Polish friends who confirmed this for me, each admitted that having a single narrating voice isn’t weird at all.  Who are these sly handful of men who have convinced an entire nation that it’s OK for them to take jobs away from hundreds of voice-over hopefuls?

Hmm, what’s the unemployment rate in Poland again?

The above poster was designed by Natalia Grosner as part of her Re-Translations series, based on foreign movie titles re-translated back into English.  For purchasing inquiries, email


One Comment on “Subtitles vs. Dubbing: How Europeans Watch Foreign Movies”

  1. Copy says:

    agreed about Polish and I would HATE it if Croatian people allowed dubbing… that would KILL IT.
    Cartoons are .. .so-so OK for me… not a fan of it.
    but polish people being OK with a “documentary” approach to most movies is like Charlie Sheen tiger blood crazy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s