Chapter 7: English and the global perspective
7.3.1 Reading subtitles (argument from experience)
English 102, January 2021
Growing up, my family and I would watch movies or TV shows every night. There were some occasions when the movie or show we were watching seemed off. The sounds seemed dull, and the lips were out of sync with the dialogue. One such movie that we watched was Akira. I didn’t realize how complex and captivating the movie was at the time, but I still tried to enjoy it. Despite all the beautiful animation and scenes, awesome action, and interesting story, the sound and dialogue did not fit the atmosphere. Even after I asked my parents, I still did not entirely understand what was wrong with what we were watching. All their explaining went in one ear, and out the other. It took a lot of questioning on my part, and patience on my parents, to help me comprehend it. Eventually, I understood the reason that everything seemed choppy was because the content we were watching was in a different language. Since the movie is in a different language, there must be an overdub so people can enjoy it in any language they want. I just assumed for the longest time that the only way to watch movies and shows that were not in English was to have the overdub on, and deal with the sloppy soundscape. Oh boy was I wrong.
My entire life turned upside down when I was at my friend’s house one night. He put on a Japanese movie about samurais, and the dark powers that tempt and consume them. I wish I remembered the name of it, because I would love to watch it again. Within seconds of watching, I realized that the audio was brighter, the foley fit the atmosphere, and the dialogue was in the original language that it was made in. The part that stood out the most to me, however, were the subtitles that accompanied every line. No more were the days of me having to sit through a movie with a poorly put together soundboard and voice actors that didn’t get paid enough to have any emotion or passion behind their words. My eyes, and especially ears, were opened.
Following that fateful day, I decided to rewatch some of the movies and shows that I was previously uninterested in. Movies that I had thought to be bland and grey, became diverse and colorful. It is almost unreal how big a difference something as basic as the audio can have on the quality of a movie or show. Everything fits together much nicer when the audio is designed to match the visual aspect. Prisoners of War, which ended up being one of my favorite shows, was disappointing and flat-out bad until I turned the subtitles on and used the original audio. Prior to my discovery and use of subtitles, these movies and shows were like 1,000-piece puzzles with gray pieces that all looked the same. However, the moment I flipped the subtitles on, the puzzle pieces began to look more clear and they took definitive forms. The colors they absorbed made everything clear and organized, so that I could really see it the way it was supposed to be seen. The depth that a show or movie has when watching with the original audio and subtitles on compared to an overdub is monumental. It is hard to believe that there are people who prefer the latter, when they are capable of enjoying it at a much higher level.
Over time, I’ve realized that there are certain aspects of watching these foreign productions with subtitles that I enjoy so much and have come to rely on. Whenever I have the subtitles on, I always seem to focus more on what’s being said, and how it’s being delivered. It gives all the characters more life and the entire picture more depth because it’s being heard the way it was meant to be. The personalities they have become apparent and intriguing. I think that due to the fact I have to read the dialogue and watch the action at the same time, my brain becomes and stays more active, which helps me to capture the themes and meanings much easier. It is unfortunate that overdubs are unable to provide the same effect, because it can give the viewer a less gripping experience. Subtitles are like contacts for shows. They make everything clearer and more attainable. Comparing my experiences of watching with subtitles versus without, I always enjoy the version that has the subtitles more.
Another particularly important thing that comes to mind when writing about reading subtitles is the accuracy of it. Overdubs always cut corners and use language that is less powerful than the original. They change the script as a whole sometimes and the translation is sub-par at best. A perfect example of this is in the show Money Heist. I watched the first few episodes when they came out in 2017 and was instantly hooked. As a little experiment, because I was quite curious about it, I decided to rewatch the first episode I had just finished from the beginning. The difference was that I turned off the subtitles and switched to the English audio overdub. Five minutes in and I stopped. Literal garbage. Nothing was the same, or even resembled it whatsoever. Entire interactions had different words and phrases being used that took away from and changed the emotion of the scene. The part that upset me the most and caused me to turn it off after a little was the voices. Obviously, I understand that they won’t have the same voice actor for the overdub and that it’s bound to sound different. That doesn’t change the fact that the difference was so immense and gross that I had to shower after I turned my TV off because I felt dirty. The most aggravating scene took place early on in the classroom. The characters were being introduced to the plan, the team, and the rules. One of the rules was that they had to use fake names. Although they kept the same name, it did not have the same effect. When each character picked their new name for the heist, it became their new identity. In the overdub version, they simply said the name like they would any other word. It was like listening to Darth Vader sing a song by Dolly Parton. It went from birds whistling to nails on a chalkboard, and I wasn’t having it.
The last thing I believe to be worthy of being mentioned here is the other side of the coin. While overdubs for foreign productions are mainly for the “ease of viewing,” I still do not see why someone would willingly sacrifice such an important aspect of a show for a silly version that does not capture the story at all. If someone prefers an easy viewing experience that does not require any thought or focus, watch Brickleberry or Adventure Time.
After all is said and done, I believe that subtitles provide a more captivating experience as opposed to overdubs. Watching it with subtitles keeps you focused on the interactions between characters and their environments. Watching with subtitles teaches you to multitask and keep your eyes open to everything in front of them. Watching with subtitles keeps the original intent and vibe intact that the creators and actors wanted to have their viewer’s experience. Watching with subtitles, simply put, is better.