Why should we get over our fear of subtitled films? Because they train our minds and contribute to society.
Dubbing or subtitles? The leading daily Mladá fronta Dnes recently examined the phenomenon of dubbing, which the Czechs have a special fondness for. They even have the František Filipovský Prize, named after a man who was unrivalled in the sphere.
The newspaper was particularly interested in the small pool of Czech actors and actresses who provide dubbing for a large number of characters in serials (the layperson would be surprised at how many such serials exist, though that’s another subject). The article begins with a scene from the serial Warehouse 13, in which one character sounds suspiciously like a character from the series Desperate Housewives.
“Your confusion is caused by the fact that both characters in the different serials have been dubbed by the same actress, Tereza Bebarová. By the way, Bebarová is also the voice of Kelly Bailey from Misfits, Debra Morgan from Dexter and the main female roles of many other serials. The same goes for characters dubbed by Jan Šťastný, Martin Stránský, Bohdan Tůma and Andrea Elsnerová – you simply can’t avoid their voices.” On Saturdays alone some 50 foreign serials can be seen on Czech TV stations!
Leaving aside for the moment the question of who would want to spend their lives following so many serials, let’s focus instead on the fact that, according to the actors and directors referred to, “Czech viewers need to hear Czech: reading subtitles is tiring.”
This makes dubbing an important source of extra income although it’s no piece of cake. As Šťastný, one of the most often-used professionals, says: “These days the dubbing is done incredibly quickly, so there’s no time to examine character and motive.” In short, it is a culture factory.
Ten crowns a line
Without wanting to mock, this production line process sometimes understandably results in translations that grate on the ears, not only of specialists in Czech studies. Perhaps five episodes are dubbed in one go. An actor will receive around Kč 10 per line. The central character might have 90 lines, which over five episodes makes a total of 450 lines. “Ha, but be careful. The money is then reduced. The actor won’t receive Kč 4,500. If it takes him a total of two hours, he’ll receive Kč 2,000 and no more,” the director Václava Knopa told MfD.
Women doing the ironing in front of the television and men drinking beer in a comfortable armchair aren’t likely to complain about the fact that programs are dubbed. But there does exist a group of viewers who reject dubbing outright and prefer subtitles. These are young people who are used to foreign language series from the internet and can speak other languages. This is why the station Prima Cool broadcasts several series in both dubbed and subtitled form.
“Viewers responded very well. We increased awareness of Prima Cool among the young internet generation, which is not so interested in television per se,” said Zdeňka Chrzová, head of program planning and content. Will other television stations join in and offer Czechs the original version of foreign programs?
Greater worldliness through reading?
It is almost a year since Czech Position published an article entitled “Let’s get rid of Czech dubbing and help the population!” Back then teachers were complaining that children were reluctant to read and had no interest in overcoming hurdles but preferred to sit passively in front of the TV screen watching dubbed programs.
“If we stop translating everything, children will be obliged to start reading the subtitles, overcome barriers, begin naturally to learn foreign languages and even apply them in practice, which is what the Ministry of Education wants. In addition, the TV industry itself would make big savings, which it could use on buying or creating better quality programs. What’s more, we would have a more worldly society familiar with languages,” we wrote, and drew attention to the situation in Scandinavia, where the population speaks excellent English thanks to subtitled films.
If we look at Wikipedia, the English version of which apparently contains fewer errors than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the countries where dubbing is most prevalent are as follows: Italy, France, Turkey, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In several Northern European countries only programs for children are dubbed.
Subtitles as a form of art
What do the experts think? In 2004 MIT Press published an anthology titled “Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film,” which examines the transferability of the film message on various levels, including subtitles. The first audio film to be subtitled was The Jazz Singer, shown in Paris in 1929. “It was soon realized that this was the most accurate way of retaining the original dramatic intentions of the director and screenwriter,” says the anthology.
The book goes into depth regarding the advantages and disadvantages of subtitles: they can be a good idea in bars where the sound is turned down; film theoreticians claim they create a multilevel “cultural jigsaw puzzle”; it is difficult to catch the cadences of the spoken word in the case of several languages; and subtitles can represent the squeezing of ideas into the poetry of a haiku...
The topic is complex. Some theoreticians even claim that “it isn’t important what a foreign looks like but how it sounds.” In this case, even the most adept dubbing (for instance at the level of František Filipovský) would destroy the film. This is not to speak of the fact that practising a foreign language through the medium of TV never hurt anyone. So once again: dubbing or subtitles?