Lost in Dubbing

Why the sound of the voice matters in cinema that is breaking language barriers

By Melany Gonzalez

Growing up in Dallas, my siblings and I spent a lot of summers in Mexico where we would watch American shows and films, dubbed in Spanish. I remember sitting around my grandma’s living room laughing at Spongebob’s Spanish accent. He didn’t sound like himself—or so we thought because our ‘normal’ was his American voice. He sounded like he had aged overnight. Spongebob’s voice sounded deeper, much like the mutation of voice a pubescent boy might experience rather suddenly. You could hear the strain and overcompensation of the voice of an older actor trying to pass as a much younger version of himself. Hearing dubbed dialogue as a bilingual kid can be a strange experience. Subconsciously, we were aware but just couldn’t put into words what was happening. All we knew was that Spongebob sounded weird and funny. Why?

Pirated ‘Just One Bite’ episode in Spanish
English Version of the Same Episode

Our cognitive connection to language extends beyond the lexical meaning of words. When we watch dubbed films, and even dubbed cartoons, vocal delivery matters. The replacement of an unfamiliar voice heightens our attention. For those who aren’t bilingual or multilingual, the voice replacement might create an entirely new character. If the dubbed version is the only one known, an entire group of people will have gained a skewed perspective of the film. Dubbing creates a multiplicity of cultural representations—a unique mix of social and cultural cues—often offering one image while sounding like another. Cutting up the original formulates a ‘neutralized’ final product that denies us appreciating a film in its intended context.

The little things in life…

To truly understand what is lost in dubbing, we have to hear the voice in all its capabilities. The sound of speaking—that which precedes and creates the word—is the most powerful factor of language in dubbed products, but goes unnoticed in everyday life. The philosopher Mladen Dolar coined the term ‘vanishing mediator’ to describe the voice in our society. Of the everyday interaction with voices he says, “we may at first be very much aware of his or her voice and its particular qualities, its color and accent, but soon we accommodate to it and concentrate only on the meaning that is conveyed.” When we lose focus on the voice, we overlook its sonic qualities as well. Special characteristics like pitch, timbre, and tone produce individuality and can change the entire meaning of a phrase. A hint of sarcasm and a question turns into a challenge. The dynamic characteristics of the voice can also hold our stories. They provide context of our geographical and ethnic upbringing, holding value beyond that expressed through plain words. 

Dubbing at Work…

But what does any of this have to do with dubbing? Dubbed films generally receive positive and negative reviews. Those who enjoy them are usually content being able to understand films produced in different languages, while the negative ones typically point out the monotone voices that are used. Despite opinions, dubbed films are inevitably altered as a result of dividing the original product into parts. A film’s features—actors, background music, source sounds, angle shots—are purposely composed and chosen by the director. When such a prominent aspect, like the dialogue of a film, is replaced with a completely different form it will always be inferior to the original. Likewise, the translation of words is also inferior to the replacement of voice. It is easy to find a close parallel of a commonly used phrase from one culture in another. However, dubbed films typically do not, and simply cannot, mimic the true texture and awareness of a voice, changing the entirety of the delivery.

Cousins, Priyanka and Parineeti Chopra, on the cover for Frozen 2, dubbed in Hindi (per Parineeti’s Instagram)

In an interview with Perry Sherouse, Giovani, a Georgian live-interpreter, recalls his experience of representing dialects in foreign films by sharing that “what was more important…was that the audience ‘understands’ the film. If a joke or insult were made, he would invent something on the spot to convey that illocutionary act.” The audience is then also dependent on the interpreter to provide an accurate understanding of the original film in a different context. The dubbing of film voices cannot be reproduced in the same manner. Much like in comedy where two people can tell the same joke, but their delivery will invoke different responses. In the case of dubbing, what is missing is the expression of culture relayed in the original film through the delivery of voice. Dubbed voices transport the characters on screen into a different realm or cultural sphere, but their physical appearance remains a representation of their intended roles. The audience then receives two individual, unique signals—a mixed message of sorts. One from the voice and another from the visual. Take the dubbing of films during the Soviet Union era for example.

Sherouse points to a pirated version of Rambo to exemplify the difficulty in scoring the quality of dubbed films due to the range of representation and delivery. He notes, “dubbed in a single male voice in Russian…such an artifact indexes ‘Westernness’ (in content) as well as ‘Sovietness’ (in form) in a fashion that blurs the neatness of singular emanation of  ‘quality’.” At stake is the neutralization of culture. These dubbed films are essentially a separate category—a salad bowl of different representations—that we can think of as ‘patched’ films. Creating a final product out of different parts, these films use the original visuals while picking and choosing audio to cover up the holes in order for audiences to understand.

In his study about the effect of dubbing on emotions, Víctor González Ruiz points out that, “unlike subtitling, the process of dubbing does not give the audience the opportunity to fully perceive the cultural gap between what they hear and see, and their own reality”. In his study, the German film Anatomie is misidentified as an American film because of its Hollywood-like suspense elements and its dubbed voices in Spanish. The audience’s confusion in correctly classifying the film’s cultural and geographical origins emphasized the power that dubbed voices have in audiovisual mediums. There is no room for interpretation or exposure to the representation that a film conveys when the original voice is missing. 

So what’s left…

The question remains: if dubbing alters so much of the audiences’ reception, do we simply leave the gates closed to social integration in film? Should we just appreciate films in their original form even if we cannot understand the words? Will the other elements provided—accent, inflection, speech melody, etc.—be sufficient enough to get the message across together with body language, music, and visuals? It is hard to be critical of dubbed films and what they lose in the process when the positive outlook is the exposure of a film beyond geographical and language barriers. As of now, we remain viewers of ‘patched’ films when watching dubbed films and ignorant of the original product in its most authentic form. It’s a push and pull relationship—a battle between losses and gains.