Chapter 7: English and the global perspective

7.3.4 Subtitling society (research essay)

Tate Zeman

English 102, April 2021

From the moment somebody is born they begin to form an ‘identity kit’ which will melt them into a discourse that they will take part in for the rest of their lives (Gee, “What is Literacy?” 1). Through the lens of literacy, discourse refers to the interaction of similar ‘identity kits’ and the discussion occurring between them. As James Paul Gee wrote in his article “What is Literacy?”, there are two primary methods that people gain knowledge by. The first being acquisition, which comes from being around the specific discourse that you are becoming included in simply by experiencing it. The second being learning, where you study, read, and practice the specific discourse you wish to become involved in (Gee 1). Any discourse you become involved in through acquisition is considered a natural discourse, since it occurred naturally due to the environment you are in. A prime example of a natural discourse you acquire is the language you speak. The language you grow up with also puts you into a much larger discourse made up of all the people from the same environment that have also acquired the same language. The ethics, ideals, and other aspects of your identity kit all come from the same discourse you acquire your native tongue with. Over time, you form your own opinions and preferences regarding certain things, but much of your identity kit is the same as the rest. Many debates only have two sides and next to no middle ground. Many of these debates are also equal in terms of popularity on both sides. In my research essay, I am going to focus on the decades-long debate of subtitles versus overdubs, as well as past and current events that give this argument its’ fuel.

At some point in everyone’s life, they will watch or listen to a movie or show that was not originally produced in their native language. Thus, in order to understand the events taking place, they will have to either read the subtitles or listen to the overdub. Subtitles are simply a translation of the original language a movie or show is in, to a chosen language that one can read to understand what is going on, while keeping the original language as the audio and dialogue. Overdubs are the opposite, in regards to keeping the original audio, since they replace the dialogue with a chosen language one can listen to, to understand. There are many advocates for both sides of this dispute, and each believes that his or her side is the shinier penny. Frankly, that is all a matter of opinion since neither side is better than the other. However, each side has valid arguments as to why they believe their way is better than the other and will defend their opinion like their life is on the line.

Beginning with a brief history of subtitles and the relevance they have in our society, the article by Aja Romano, “The debate over subtitles, explained”, is an excellent provider of material to give some background on the history of the dispute. Prior to Netflix, Hulu, and other large streaming platforms that give us access to all different kinds of movies, shows, and documentaries from worlds over, there was a very small market for foreign films, especially in the U.S. At the time, the biggest foreign entertainment market came from anime, with titles such as Dragon Ball-Z and Sailor Moon becoming international sensations that are enjoyed by many to this day (Romano). However, unless it was a show or movie like Dragon Ball-Z or Sailor Moon, there was almost no way to watch a foreign production in a way that could be understood by someone existing on the outside of that language. However, there was a very large underground market for illegally produced, fan-made subtitles (fansubs), so that different animes could be enjoyed by anyone from any country. Although there was a questionable level of quality and accuracy, these illegally subtitled and distributed shows helped produce a market for overseas entertainment (Romano). This era of subtitling led to many people seeing subtitling as a crappy, lowly form of translating foreign productions since it was not done professionally. From that moment forward, there has been a silent battle being fought between the samurais of subtitling and knights of overdubbing.

Continuing on the dispute, many renowned film critics answered the million-dollar question of which translation method they preferred to watch their foreign productions in. An article published on IndieWire by Hannah Nguyen catalogs their responses to that question, and it is no surprise that both sides are equally represented. Neither side seemed to obviously attack the other, except for a certain someone named Daniel Fienberg who writes for The Hollywood Reporter, and he says, “If it’s live action and you have a choice between subtitled or dubbed and you take dubbed, you deserve to be stripped naked, smeared in Nutella and left tied to a stake at the base of a hill of fire ants. And that’s my generous and kind opinion on this subject.” Looking beyond that one painfully specific response, it becomes clear that the arguments and reasonings given by both sides follow the same mindsets in comparison to the rest of their side. When the film critics talk about the reason they prefer subtitles, such as Allison Keene of Collider and Eric Deggans from NPR, they both mention how important the original rhythm, cadence and delivery are to a show’s integrity. To them, the overdubs marred the show and distracted them from something they wanted to enjoy. On the other hand, the critics who preferred to watch foreign productions with overdubs instead said similar things to each other as well. Critics such as April Neale from Monsters and Critics, and Marisa Roffman, who runs the website, Give me My Remote, are people who prefer dubbing for their foreign entertainment. Both critics think along the same lines when it comes to watching a movie or TV show. Both Roffman and Neale see it as an activity people do at the end of the day to wind down and relax. To them, it is extremely leisurely and low maintenance. They both mention that they often find themselves doing other things while watching TV, so they would not be able to have subtitles on even if they wanted. Subtitles demand your full attention, which is actually another reason Allison Keene enjoys subtitles more than overdubs. What matters here is that for each individual, they are able enjoy whatever show they want, in whichever method of translation that they want, and they feel comfortable talking about it.

It seems as if no one can make an opinionated statement without being vigorously attacked for it. A perfect example of that is when Kevin Drum, a writer and political blogger, responded to the Japanese film Parasite winning a Golden Globe for best foreign language film. In his post, he discussed his distaste for subtitles and said how they are “only common in countries that are too poor to afford dubbing” and that “no one likes subtitles” (Romano). While obviously an exaggeration, it is still interesting to see why and how someone can become so triggered over such a trivial thing. He later made another post on the same website, MotherJones, that was comprised of a self-questioned interview. In this post, he defended himself and what he said, stating how it is obvious that everyone would prefer to watch a film in their native tongue if possible (Drum). Drum adds that his statement of subtitles being more common in poorer countries is statistically sound due to the fact that overdubs are expensive, and that they do not have a large enough market for that. He then included a picture labeled with the countries more popular form of translating films to and from other languages.

He then discussed the data gathered by UK television providers in the year 1987 with the French soap opera broadcast Châteauvallon. In this gathering of data, Great Britian ran twenty-six episodes of the soap opera twice every week. It was the same episode each week except for one thing, whether the episode was subbed or dubbed. This was the first time in Great Britain that a program was transmitted on TV that gave its viewers a choice to watch with either subs or dubs. The results of this experiment were the opposite of what the expected. Considering Great Britain was historically known for preferring subtitles, the fact that the overdubbed version of the soap opera had a higher rating was very surprising (Drum). A modern study that was done with the same question in mind used the German drama Dark and its preferred form of either subtitling or overdubbing for the audience. It was then realized by people gathering data, that 81% of viewers in English-speaking countries were watching the overdubbed version (Drum). This information parallels the data discussed in Irene Ranzatos’ book, Reassessing Dubbing. Ranzato also mentions though, that in a study where several people were streamed either the overdubbed or subtitled version of a show by default, the viewers who were defaulted to the overdubbed version were more likely to finish the series (Ranzato 3). It is with this data that Netflix made the decision to default all their foreign shows to the overdubbed version for a specific language. Drum also mentioned that since the market for overdubbing is growing due to streaming services investing more into foreign productions, that it is without a doubt overdubbing will become a lot more popular over the next few years. The discourse represented here is marked by his understanding that his earlier post was ill-tempered and not worth the backlash. It also goes to show that he knows there are pros and cons to both subtitles and overdubs, and that neither is truly better than the other.

Focusing more on the demographics that are involved in subtitling and overdubbing, we will look into Ranzatos’ book, which goes into detail on what the current trends are as well as the future outlook for overdubbing and subtitling of foreign entertainment across the world. As written by James Gill, “Dubbing is back – thanks to Netflix” (Ranzato 3). The technological aspects of overdubs as well as the voice actors involved in overdubs are continuously improving and expanding upon themselves to supply the smoothest and most accurate overdub possible. The cadence and rhythm of these voice actors matches the characters much better than it used to years ago, and technology as well as improved translation methods make lip synchronization an entirely different game. Seeing as Netflix defaults all foreign productions to the overdubbed version for a specific language, it is worth noting that the trendiness of overdubs is going in a positive direction (Ranzato 4). This is a double-edged sword, since the interest in overdubs is increasing, the market for it will become larger and more stable, which will give its pioneers the ability to increase the quality further and so on. The increased popularity of overdubs and subtitles do go hand in hand with each other.

The future is always dependent on the next generation of adults to take over the market and support what they like the most. That is why it is so relevant to note how the majority of people aged under 18 prefer to watch foreign productions with subtitles, and actually prefer captions on everything in general. In the article “Lights, camera, caption!” by Hannah J. Davies, she discusses why captions are so prevalent in the current generation and why they will be the norm of future ones. As the youth continue to become more and more sophisticated with technology, the use of captions and subtitles on videos has skyrocketed. Thought to be a method of viewing suitable only for the deaf or hearing impaired, subtitling has become a common part of social media and pop culture. Davies’ study estimated that of 7.5 million people from the UK using subtitles, only 1.5 million had a hearing impairment. Another important statistic is one that comes from Facebook, which revealed how 85% of videos are watched with the sound off and captioning on (Davies). This is more than likely due to the constant smartphone use while in public, which leads courteous people to watch any videos with the sound off, so they do not disturb others around them. It is still a notable statistic that shows the trend of current media and how it is enjoyed. A study done by Henry Warren inspired by research done by Brij Kothari, an Indian Academic, aimed to identify a possible link between subtitle usage and increased levels of literacy. His hope is that by adding captioning and subtitles to videos and productions viewed in primary schooling, the literacy rates and levels will increase as well (Davies). While subtitles are becoming more common and increasing in popularity, it would be rude to not at least consider the people who were the primary reason subtitling and captioning became more common in the first place. The hearing impaired see this global increase in interest of reading while watching truly life changing. Anna Gryszkiewicz, who is 39 and lives in Östergötland in Sweden, was diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss in her 20s and began using captions (Davies). Anna states how it is much easier to be deaf today than it would have been 15 years ago, but also sees a negative impact on becoming reliant on technology such as YouTube’s auto generator for their captioning requests. She sees that accessibility as a harmful one, since the garbled captioning YouTube will use is most likely inaccurate throughout much of the video (Davies). While subtitling and captioning become more relevant, it will be important to note and record the quality of which it is done with, since that will determine its longevity and popularity in the future.

In an article titled “Translation Course in Film Subtitling” by Tatsuya Fukushima and David L. Major, these two authors dissect all the aspects of subtitling that are factual and not opinionated. Their article focuses on four key limitations studies have uncovered that give subtitles a more attractive outlook based on technical efficiency, artistic integrity, and economic viability. First, they mention how overdubbing is never seen as the financially responsible course to go, since it is generally ten times more expensive than subtitling (Fukushima/Major 59). This is fairly obvious, considering that in order to produce a quality overdub a company will have to cast, pay and direct voice actors, in addition to studio time and the editing that has to be done, it would make sense that overdubbing is a longer and more costly project. Second, they mention how the high level of study and collaboration makes the overdub process much more difficult. In addition to attempting lip-synchronization with the characters, the voice actors must overcome rhythmic differences between their language and the productions original language. Compare a syllable-timed language such as Japanese to a stress-timed language such as English, and the difference becomes very hard to overcome and match up (Fukushima/Major 60). Perhaps the most important advantage subtitling has in terms of technical efficiency and artistic integrity is the fact that overdubs have to rely on lip-synchronization more than actual dialogue in order to produce a quality dub. This is their third critical point, and it sheds light on why subtitling is truer and more honest to the original production and their creative vision/goal. The last key point they mention is how subtitling maintains faithfulness to the emotion and feeling in an actor’s voice. Many tonal qualities that come with overdubs do not normally match the environment or tone of the original dialogue, which takes away from the quality of the production (Fukushima/Major 60). A main parallel between this academic article and all the other articles that provide good information is that the main downside of subtitles is how they require the viewer to add a third cognitive activity into their normal viewing routine. Instead of simply watching and listening, the viewer must now watch, listen and read, which is more strenuous and tiring. Add in how the viewer is not able to control the pace at which they read, and it becomes obvious why leisurely viewers would prefer to watch with overdubs after a tough day (Fukushima/Major 60).

Lastly, an important aspect of foreign translation is the study that goes into it. Students that are involved in literature classes who want to be involved in linguistics would benefit heavily from exposure to foreign productions in all forms. Lucia Guzzi Harrison, a teacher from Southeastern Louisiana University, posted an article that focuses on the relevance of art, film, and media in foreign language acquisition. The importance of exposure to foreign cultures is one of the keys in acquiring knowledge about a foreign language. Watching a foreign film with subtitles and understanding all of what you are viewing is vital in understanding a foreign culture, which then translates into understanding the language if you choose to study it. (Harrison). Additionally, in a book titled Writing About Literature by Judith Woolf, both writers agree in the aspect that a strong foundation of any activity is the most important part in becoming proficient at it. In a society that is so focused on scoring highly on tests and exams, we begin to lose sight of what it truly means to be a student and how to live fruitful lives. This could be an additional cause of the dispute between subtitles and overdubs, increasing levels of stress and anxiety in students and people alike. The more tense and stressful a situation is the harder it becomes to control and understand your own feelings as well as other people’s. It seems like people are bred to later be put at each other’s throats and they learn to just be ok with that. A simple argument such as the one between subtitle advocates and overdub advocates can reveal a lot more about a person and society than one may realize.

It is obvious through all the research and information I have gathered on this subject, that the never-ending debate of subtitles versus overdubs is rooted in a whole lot more than personal preference. Throughout the course of this semester I have been doing my own experiments and studies into the difference in quality between subtitles and overdubs. I had asked many people I know how they prefer to watch foreign films and some told me they do not watch foreign films to begin with. Additionally, a few people have also said that they would never watch a movie in a different language because we live in America and English is the best. It was hard for me to switch back and forth between overdubs and subtitles while watching shows and movies because it truly is like watching two different things at the same time. I know that with advancements in technology and an increase in interest for foreign films, subtitling and overdubbing will become better than ever before. Both have a long and complicated history, yet each is just as important as the other. Even though for many the dispute is simply a matter of opinion and situation, it should also be known that to others, it is a debate fueled by classism, xenophobia, and oppression. In the United States, subtitles are more popular than overdubs. The United States, however, has an incredibly weak attraction to foreign productions compared to other countries, which is surprising considering how large our entertainment market is and that every movie or TV show will have a subtitle or overdub option for English. This is mainly due to the fact that English is the most spoken and known language in the world, but also because English speaking countries tend to be wealthier and have massive markets for entertainment of all sorts. The entire back and forth on which one is better, or which one is right versus wrong is utterly ridiculous. Both subtitles and overdubs have their place in society and deserve to be placed on pedestals side by side. While there are drawbacks for both, and the financial situation of a market does often influence which translation method will be produced, neither side has the upper hand on the other. When it comes to a matter of personal opinion, majority rules and that is the only statistic that can be used when trying to make one seem better than the other. Beyond that, there is simply nothing you can say to someone else who prefers to watch something in one way, that will make them want to watch it in a different way. The only time that will ever happen is if, or when, they choose to.


Works Cited


Davies, Hannah. “Lights, Camera, Caption! Why Subtitles Are No Longer Just for the Hard of Hearing.” The Guardian, 25 July 2019,

Drum, Kevin, et al. “Let’s Have Another Go at Subtitles, Shall We?” Mother Jones, 11 Feb. 2020,

Nguyen, Hanh. “Critics Debate How They Prefer Their Foreign-Language TV.” IndieWire, 17 Apr. 2018,

O’Falt, Chris. “Subtitles Vs. Dubbing: The Big Business of Translating Foreign Films in a Post-‘Parasite’ World.” Indie Wire, 25 Feb. 2020,

Romano, Aja. “The Debate over Subtitles or Dubbing, Explained.” Vox, 20 Feb.

2020, debate-history-anime.

Scholarly Sources

Fukushima, Tatsuya. “Translation Course in Film Subtitling.” Translation

Gee, James Paul. “What is literacy.” Negotiating academic literacies: Teaching and learning  across languages and cultures (1998): 18-25. Accessed February 25, 2021.

Harrison, Lucia. “Foreign Films In The Classroom: Gateway To Language And Culture.” Clute Journals, Southeastern Louisiana University, 8 Nov. 2009,

Ranzato, Irene. “Reassessing Dubbing.” Google Books, Google,

Woolf, Judith. “Writing About Literature.” Google Books, Routledge, 16 Feb. 2005,

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