Film dubbing vs. subtitles

27 December 2008 at 4:05 PM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

This is really about film, rather than literature strictly speaking, but the point raised by one reviewer about the Mandarin Chinese dialogue of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gives me an idea of how to test experimentally the effect of language on readers or audiences. Holly E. Ordway says this about the soundtrack of the DVD version of the highly-acclaimed film: “I recommend that on the first watching you play it with the English dubbed track. The subtitles can be tricky to watch, as it’s possible to wind up slightly confused about the story because you looked away at the wrong moment and missed a key plot element mentioned in the subtitles. Choosing the dubbed track allows you to follow the story without having to worry about missing a crucial piece of information, and it also allows you to enjoy the cinematography and imagery of the film more fully, as you won’t have to be constantly looking at the bottom of the screen. On the second watching (for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a movie that definitely merits multiple viewings), you should consider watching it with the original Mandarin soundtrack with English subtitles, thus allowing you to get the original flavor of the film’s dialogue now that you are familiar with the storyline.” I recommend three, rather than just two viewings: first, watch the film in Mandarin without English subtitles; second, watch it with the dubbed English; third, watch it with the English subtitles. Do the visuals change? Not from the point of view of the film, but it would from the point of view of the viewer, who has to move her/his eyes up and down with the subtitles. Does the overall effect change? If we assume that the viewer does not understand Mandarin, then clearly the first viewing would not be exactly completely satisfying. Even more interesting would be the case if the viewer knows neither Mandarin nor English. The DVD has French (and perhaps in later versions, other languages) subtitles, so a French person would have a fourth possible viewing. But consider a Filipino that’s a non-Chinese and non-English speaker. There’s plenty of economic evidence that, in places where Tagalog is not widely spoken, Tagalog kungfu movies are very popular. I would think Ang Lee’s film would be similarly attractive even to those that cannot understand any of the languages in the DVD. This is an experiment that can surely be tried by someone.

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