Movies: Dubbed* or Original Version?


In my first year living in Spain I remember having a conversation with a woman from here and her boyfriend from Scotland. I was at their house and the film Cast Away (Naufrago) with Tom Hanks was on the TV. Both the Scottish guy and I found it difficult to watch because the movie had been dubbed and the voice we associate with Tom Hanks was completely different. For me it sounded like every noise he made was so fake that I couldn’t stay with the story. For her, however, this was Tom Hank’s voice. She said that it was the same voice actor used in all his films and when she heard Tom Hank’s real voice it sounded strange to her. I found this fascinating.

Before moving here, dubbing had never been something I’d really thought about. At home it’s considered to be a lazy, inauthentic and sometimes comical way to translate a movie. The reason for this dates back to the 1970’s.

At this time, martial arts movies from Hong Kong became popular with audiences in the West, reaching a peek* in the 1980’s. These movies were made on a fairly cheap budget, often with the sound being added in post-production. This meant that, although it was easier to translate the films into different languages, it didn’t look very professional. There would sometimes be a series of lines from a character where the mouth visibly moved for a long time with the translated line in English being, “I’m going to kill you” or something equally short. Before long, in English speaking countries, dubbing became a sort of joke.

And this was the attitude I had to dubbing when I first arrived in Spain. I looked down on it*, thinking it was cheap, lazy and made a movie almost unwatchable. But there is a big difference between the dubbing of the 1980’s and dubbing of today. Whereas in the 1980’s it was done without much thought to the aesthetics of the movie or the emotions of the characters, now it is a form of art. Translators are hired who live in the country the language is being dubbed into. Not only do they then have to translate the script, they also have to try to match, as much as possible, the movement of the mouth in the original language. For example, if the original language is English when the actor uses a “labial” movement (consonants which cause the lips to close e.g. ‘M’ ‘B’ or ‘P’) the new language has to match the same movement.

If you take the sentence in English, “I’m going to kill you” the labial movement is at the beginning of the sentence: “I’m”. So the translation into Spanish, “Te voy a matar” mightn’t work very well because the labial movement is at the end of the sentence: “matar”. Instead the translation, “Te mataré” might work better because the labial movement is also near the start of the sentence.

The amount of skill needed to dub a movie well is definitely something I now have respect for. That being said, I still believe, no matter how good the translation, something is lost. At home, instead of foreign movies being dubbed, most people prefer the original version with subtitles. I have watched scenes in a language I don’t understand while still understanding more or less what was happening. That’s because so much information is conveyed through tone, pauses and other non-verbal signals. Especially if an actor is very good these small pieces of communication are lost and it means that, even now, I find it almost impossible to watch a film originally in English dubbed into Spanish.

And I’m not alone in this, I’ve met many Spanish people who tell me that they can’t stand* English films in Spanish. In more and more cinemas in Spain, the original version of films is becoming popular and I think this can only be a good thing. Once you get used to reading the subtitles, you forget they’re there, and you find that you experience a much more subtle and interesting movie.


Dubbed: when the original language is removed and a new one added

Reaching a peek: the most popular

Look down on something: to not think it´s very good

To not stand something: not able to tolerate

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