There’s something a little exotic about watching a foreign language film; cue images of smoky, half-filled theatres and a romantic scene with subtitles that don’t quite capture the magic that you’re seeing onscreen. When it comes to films and TV, there are three main methods of translation used to make them accessible for all. Here’s our look at those methods, where they’re typical in Europe, and what impact they have on the average language learner.
...is the least common method of presenting foreign media. The original soundtrack is lowered and over the top played either a translation or a single-speaker narration describing what the actors are saying and doing. Whilst lectoring does increase the potential viewing audience and is likely the cheapest option, the result can be a bland, monotone experience with an unpleasant mumbling in the background and the original passion and excitement of the picture being lost. Lectoring is more likely to be found in Russia and Eastern European countries, at least for television, whilst cinemas tend to lean more towards subtitling.
...is an economical option for film and TV-makers alike. Popular in the Netherlands and throughout most Scandinavian countries, subtitling, with the text displayed across the bottom of the screen, provides the quickest turnaround for cinematic releases and offers a mostly-direct translation for viewers. What often happens though is good old lost in translation, and you can witness this for yourself if you watch an English film in a non-English speaking country. Native English viewers laugh at the intentional jokes, leaving the non-natives looking perplexed, and then suddenly those non-natives are bursting out with their own laughter in different places, whilst the original language viewers raise eyebrows and wonder what they’ve missed.
Our final method of translation is dubbing, where an entire replacement cast provides the voices of the original picture in the local language. Dubbing is seen in many European countries, and the history behind Spain’s dubbing of foreign language media dates back to the Franco dictatorship. Franco did not approve of anything that would be seen to weaken Spanish, and therefore demanded that all foreign media be dubbed. Italian dubbing often improved the original films by going off-script, and France is known for its passionate pride in keeping French alive, so it follows the dubbing route too. Dubbing is such a big deal in Germany that it even hosts special awards ceremonies for voice over actors. Whilst effective, dubbing, like subtitling, can take away authenticity, particularly with the translation of things like colloquialisms.
There are no rules
Of course, there are no hard and fast rules for where and when each of these translation methods are used. Switzerland subtitles films but often uses dubbing for television. Portugal dubs children’s films and some documentaries, but subtitles everything else. Slovenia is similar, subtitling all but children’s television which is dubbed. Hungary dubs films, uses some lectoring for television, and on occasion you can find subtitling as well.
Through a learner’s eye
So what impact does this have on learners? Listening is arguably the hardest part of learning a language, so dubbing instantly takes away an incredibly useful tool. It is also often bad quality: students in Czech have even protested about badly dubbed TV favourites like Downton Abbey and CSI, as well as films. Subtitling provides a much better way of aiding with language learning than dubbing, and this correlates well with where you can find the most confident of second language English speakers. Countries that consistently use subtitling over dubbing are seen to have a much better standard of English than those using dubbing as their main method of translation. Those countries relying heavily on lectoring tend to have students who experience the most difficulty with listening, pronunciation and overall English ability.
Use your resources
Original language television and film are fantastic resources for language learning. Pronunciation, colloquialisms, fluency; there is a long list of important elements of learning that you will find on the screen. Of course, the best way to approach language learning is from all sides; as many resources as possible! Books, language practice, news articles; you have unlimited possibilities available to you.