19 junio 2024
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Dubbing into English is Here to Stay

The streaming boom and various historical events over the past five years have driven the English-speaking world to consume more foreign-language content. However, today’s “average viewer” is quite different from that of the second half of the 20th century. This change has fueled a renaissance in dubbing into English, in which the rules of the game and best practices have yet to be defined.

Streaming has democratized the consumption of foreign content. Gone are the days of pilgrimages to film festivals and highbrow date nights to your local arthouse theater. Now you can visit the Royal Mint of Spain, the Louvre, or Seongapdo Island while you eat a bowl of cereal, sitting on your living room couch in your underwear.

In the United States, foreign-language content consumption has historically been an active process, first and foremost because most people traditionally associate foreign films with subtitles. Look no further than Bong Joon-ho’s acceptance speech at the 2020 Golden Globes, in which his film Parasite won the award for best foreign language film. Through an interpreter Joon-ho said, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Joon-ho keenly identified how the vast majority of Americans feel about foreign films and, by extension, foreign content in general: watching it is hard work.

There simply isn’t a mainstream practice of watching foreign films dubbed into English in theaters.

Traditionally, the consumption of foreign films has required viewers to first seek out a theater that is showing those films (typically arthouse/independent venues) and then take on the cognitive challenge of reading subtitles while processing audio and video. There simply isn’t a mainstream practice of watching foreign films dubbed into English in theaters. You’d be hard-pressed to find one that offers foreign films subtitled into English for most of the week but that shows versions dubbed into English on Thursdays, for example. The opposite model exists in Spain, where theaters almost always offer foreign films dubbed into Spanish and have limited slots of original-version screenings with Spanish subtitles.

Therefore, the limited domestic demand for foreign content in the US did not warrant the creation of an expensive and robust industry for dubbing into English.

One explanation for the historical lack of English dubs is that foreign content simply wasn’t mainstream. Especially during the Cold War era, we as a nation believed it was in our best interest to export as much American content as possible to the rest of the world in an attempt to consolidate and expand our sphere of influence. Therefore, the limited domestic demand for foreign content in the US did not warrant the creation of an expensive and robust industry for dubbing into English.

However, it is true that throughout history dubbing into English has been employed for localizing specific genres of content to varying degrees of success: Spaghetti westerns, kung fu movies, anime and videogames. I would argue that in the case of the latter two content categories, English dubs have traditionally been well received because it is easier to achieve lip sync to characters’ more simplistic mouth movements. In fact, it’s safe to say that some viewers, especially younger ones, may not even know that the original language of a given anime series or video game is Japanese. As a kid growing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I religiously watched Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z, and though I was aware that the series came from Japan (due to cultural elements in the art and animation style) it never once crossed my mind that I was watching the English dub of a series that was originally written for a Japanese audience.

In a 2019 New York Times Magazine article on Spaghetti westerns entitled “Letter of Recommendation: Badly Dubbed Movies,” Mark Binelli succinctly conveys the historical American predilection for subtitles. He writes:

What’s the best way to help Americans “overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”? Remove it.

As of the streaming revolution, more specifically as of 2018-2019, the strength of that “uncontested truth” has been tested. According to Article 13 of the Directive (EU) 2018/1808 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 November 2018 amending Directive 2010/13/EU, “Member States shall ensure that media service providers of on-demand audiovisual media services under their jurisdiction secure at least a 30% share of European works in their catalogues and ensure prominence of those works.” So how could streaming services ensure a solid return on their now obligatory investment in original content from Europe? One way would be to entice North American viewers (the world’s largest streaming market) to watch more foreign content. And what’s the best way to help Americans “overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”? Remove it.

The vast majority of streaming users just want to be entertained by good storytelling and would prefer to not work too hard in the process.

It’s no secret that streaming platforms are pushing English dubs. In fact, Netflix sets the English dub as the default audio for foreign content when streamed in English-speaking countries. According to Lydia Hayes, this “default to dubs” could, in part, explain the recent success of English dubs “especially if you consider the context in which people sit down to enjoy a series. People may be on their phones. More often than not, you might find people at home in the evening. The TV might be quite far away.” Hayes touches on the fact that new consumers of foreign content are passive (as opposed to active consumption through subtitles). They are not glued to the screen for the full duration of a given episode or movie, and they aren’t necessarily interested in foreign languages or the linguistic nuances of the original dialogue. In our conversation over Zoom, Hayes also mentioned anecdotal evidence of “people who don’t have too much of an interest in language and haven’t noticed for a while” that they were watching an English dub. This goes to show that the vast majority of streaming users just want to be entertained by good storytelling and would prefer to not work too hard in the process.

Lydia Hayes researches Spanish and English dubbing at the University of Bristol and is a consultant to ZOO Digital, one of the world’s largest media localization companies. She has extensively researched the use of foreign accents in English dubs and believes that, theoretically, including accents within English dubs enhances the viewing experience for multiple reasons. Native English speakers are very accustomed to hearing non-native speakers since English is the “de facto lingua franca.” A diversity of accents in the English dub would support the veracity of a show or movie’s fictive universe. In addition, leveraging foreign accents may allow for better lip sync. “If you’re going to use a foreign accent,” said Hayes, “you can shift the wording…. You can sync [the voice actor’s performance to the video] more easily because you don’t need to always be moving towards naturalness of speech in your word choice.” If a foreign character in a foreign setting speaks English with a foreign accent, then viewers are more likely to accept less natural syntax (resembling that of the source language). This would make it easier to sync the English voice-actor’s performance to the on-screen mouth movements of the original actor speaking Spanish, for example.

The fact is that English-speaking viewers are hyperaware of the lip sync in dubs.

The fact is that English-speaking viewers are hyperaware of the lip sync in dubs. Sofía Sánchez-Mompeán, a researcher and professor in the Translation and Interpretation Department at the University of Murcia, attributes this in part to our lack of exposure to dubbed content or to our negative experiences with dubbing quality in Spaghetti westerns or kung fu films. Referring to audiences in “dubbing countries,” where this localization strategy is the norm across film and television, she said, “we have a greater tolerance for dubbing. We’ve been listening to dubs and watching that content since we were born. English-speaking users need time to at least give dubbing an opportunity.” Perhaps the very nature of the English language makes it hard for us to enjoy dubs. In a separate interview over Zoom, Sánchez-Mompeán said:

Adapting an English dubbing script to Spanish actors on-screen is a balancing act—as is the art of dubbing script adaptation in any language combination.

Adapting an English dubbing script to Spanish actors on-screen is a balancing act—as is the art of dubbing script adaptation in any language combination. In general, texts contract when translated into English from Romance languages (as well as from German and Polish, among others), so it stands to reason that, in general, fewer mouth movements would be required to convey a line of written dialogue in English that was originally written in Spanish. This makes it particularly challenging to sync the English audio to the mouth movements of the actor on-screen, which is critical to the magic trick of dubbing. As Sánchez-Mompeán mentioned, script adapters may need to “amplify” the English translation so that it fits in the on-screen actor’s mouth—but not at the expense of natural, idiomatic English. Though it is incredibly jarring to see an on-screen actor’s mouth move and not hear any words, it is equally (if not more) frustrating to hear the voice of a native English speaker use syntax and expressions that smack of translation.

Since the resurgence of English dubs is relatively new, the industry is in flux.

In addition to a checkered past and concise target language, other factors illustrate the unique nature of dubbing into English in the streaming era. Since the resurgence of English dubs is relatively new, the industry is in flux. Hayes explained:

A combination of external factors has also contributed to the boom in English dubbing. If the aforementioned EU directive required streaming platforms to devote roughly one third of their catalogues to European content, then the COVID-19 pandemic likely drove some users to take a chance on it. If they had very limited exposure to or interest in such content prior to the pandemic, I find it highly unlikely that they would opt for watching it in the original language with English subtitles during lockdown. According to a 2020 article from Parrot Analytics:

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the sudden increase in time at home and desire for new hobbies, coupled with the “Trending Now” feature on platforms like Netflix and increased time spent on social media likely drove users to experiment with watching content from other countries. In a 2021 article for Axios entitled “Americans are consuming more foreign content than ever,” Sara Fischer writes, “The pandemic has put more pressure on streamers to feed antsy audiences in lockdown, especially those craving travel. With production limited or halted in some cases, TV networks and streamers looked to foreign content to deliver to U.S. audiences.”

The success of Netflix’s Korean titles with US audiences illustrates the power of English dubs.

The success of Netflix’s Korean titles with US audiences illustrates the power of English dubs. In a 2022 Los Angeles Times article on the English dubbing process, Wendy Lee writes that “dubbing has played a key role in drawing more viewers. On Netflix, more people chose to watch Squid Game dubbed over the version voiced by its original cast in Korean.” She later broadly states, “As Netflix pushes to expand international programming, dubbing helps make more shows and films accessible to viewers who do not like to, or can’t, read subtitles.”

The current SAG-AFTRA strike, which is still ongoing as of late October, may prove to be a similar boon for foreign content consumption in the United States. In a recent article for Slator, Seyma Albarino writes:

Furthermore, dubbing projects are considered non-struck work. According to Rick Porter, a fortuitously named journalist for the Hollywood Reporter, “Recording of audiobooks, dubbing work into English or Spanish from other languages, work on video games and hosting or performing on independent podcasts are all permitted.”

The specter of artificial intelligence, may completely upend the market for dubbing into English before best practices are even established.

Coincidentally, one of the main villains in the SAG-AFTRA strike, the specter of artificial intelligence, may completely upend the market for dubbing into English before best practices are even established. Both Lydia Hayes and Sofía Sánchez-Mompeán agree that studios and streaming platforms are still quite open to experimentation in terms of translation strategies, workflows and creative decisions when dubbing foreign content into English. I would be pleasantly surprised if AI dubbing technology doesn’t play an increasing role in the near future. Through speech-to-text, machine translation, synthetic voice technology and deepfakes, one could theoretically translate, dub and achieve exceptional lip sync in an English dub, only resorting to humans for post-editing tasks and fine-tuning. Though this would be the worst-case scenario for audiovisual translators, it would be wishful thinking to assume that profit-driven studios and platforms won’t try to cut localization costs wherever possible. It is up to us as translators to educate clients on the limits of these new technologies, explain the superiority of human translators, adapters and voice actors in the highly creative art of audiovisual translation, and push back against the impending downward pressure on rates and working conditions. We must lean on and support our professional associations in this fight.

Recent popular forays into AI dubbing, as evidenced by viral clips on X, demonstrate just how pervasive and accessible this technology has become.

Recent popular forays into AI dubbing, as evidenced by viral clips on X (formerly Twitter), demonstrate just how pervasive and accessible this technology has become. Whether or not you agree that is in fact “dubbing,” the potential to achieve near-perfect lip sync through manipulating on-screen actors’ or virtual avatars’ mouth movements would be enough to make any studio executive salivate, especially if it can be tested on a streaming audience that has limited prior exposure to dubbed content, historically prefers subtitles, and happens to be the largest streaming market in the world.

If and when the well of new original streaming content from Hollywood runs dry (either due to the current actors’ strike or post-strike production delays), foreign films and series dubbed into English may be the average American’s best bet for enjoying new, original streaming content without barriers. Hopefully, that’s a long-term boon for into-English script translators, adapters and voice actors, and we secure a solid foothold in the market to avoid being replaced by cheap prosthetics.

References

Albarino, Seyma. Plot twist: Hollywood strikes may boost demand for (some) localization. Slator [online]. 8 August 2023. [Accessed 25 October 2023].

Binelli, Mark. Letter of Recommendation: Badly Dubbed Movies. The New York Times Magazine. 3 December 2019.

Demand for Spanish Language Content in the US. Parrot Analytics [online]. 13 July 2020. [Accessed 25 October 2023].

Fischer, Sara. Americans are consuming more foreign content than ever. Axios [online]. 16 February 2021. [Accessed 25 October 2023].

Lee, Wendy. Why dubbing has become more crucial to Netflix’s business. Los Angeles Times [online]. 28 February 2022. [Accessed 25 October 2023].

Porter, Rick. SAG-AFTRA STRIKE: What Actors Can Still Work on Without Violating Union Rules. The Hollywood Reporter [online]. 19 July 2023. [Accessed 25 October 2023].

Publication Office of the European Union. Directive (EU) 2018/1808 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 November 2018 amending Directive 2010/13/EU on the coordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the provision of audiovisual media services (Audiovisual Media Services Directive) in view of changing market realities 2018. English edition. Publications Office of the European Union. [Accessed 25 October 2023]. Official Journal of the European Union L 303.

Sullivan, Tom and Hayes, Lydia. Dubbing into English Zoom Interview with Lydia. personal. 27 July 2023.

Sullivan, Tom and Sánchez-Mompeán, Sofía. Dubbing into English Zoom Interview with Sofía. personal. 1 August 2023.

Tom Sullivan
Tom Sullivan
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Tom Sullivan is an ES>EN audiovisual translator based in Spain and a member of Asetrad and ATRAE. One of his recent projects was the English subtitles for Face to Face with ETA: Conversations with a Terrorist (No me llame Ternera), which premiered at the San Sebastian International Film Festival and is now streaming on Netflix. He has worked on the English subtitles and dubbing-dialogue-lists for a wide variety of streaming content from both Spain and Latin America.

Tom Sullivan
Tom Sullivan
Tom Sullivan is an ES>EN audiovisual translator based in Spain and a member of Asetrad and ATRAE. One of his recent projects was the English subtitles for Face to Face with ETA: Conversations with a Terrorist (No me llame Ternera), which premiered at the San Sebastian International Film Festival and is now streaming on Netflix. He has worked on the English subtitles and dubbing-dialogue-lists for a wide variety of streaming content from both Spain and Latin America.

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