originally published July 3, 2012
Are you ready to move?
You’ve picked the new country where you want to live. You’ve looked at the local economy and figured out how you’ll make a sustainable living. You’ve factored in all the other variables like climate, tax system, cost of living, high-speed internet access, local prostitution laws, quality of national beer exports, and whether the Soup-Mix-of-the-Month club will still send their regular shipments to you.
Hopefully you’ve given some thought to learning the local language, maybe picking up a piece of software that will school you in the phrases you’ll need to survive, like “Which way to the hospital?” and “Does your pet ocelot eat people?”
But what about movies? Do you want to be able to head to a show and enjoy the comedic stylings of Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis in English, or do you want to have to bring your quick-translate guide and a flashlight to the theatre?
Each country has its own unofficial policy on dubbing vs. subtitles. Here’s a handy reference chart if your intended destination is in Europe:
The nations in blue will dub children’s movies, but that’s usually about it. This is a good thing; apart from old kung fu movies and the occasional spaghetti western, I can’t stand dubbed films. Subtitles don’t bother me, unless they’re in English for an English-language movie. Then I find I’m reading the same words I’m hearing, which makes me want to punch something. But in a foreign land, I’d rather hear Christian Bale’s low Batman growl than some Dutch guy try to mimic it while I scan the words at the bottom to see what he’s saying.
That huge chunk of red countries favor dubbing over subtitles, which means as an English speaker, if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of home without having to mentally translate, you’re out of luck. Voice actors in these countries can haul in a steady income pretending to embody the larynx of Hollywood actors.
Like this guy. Christian Tramitz is a legitimate comedy actor in Germany, but he’s also pulling in a wheelbarrow-full of money by speaking on behalf of others. He’s been Matt Dillon, David Schwimmer, Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Alec Baldwin and Jim J. Bullock. He also does the German voice of the narrator in How I Met Your Mother. Even more impressive is the resume of this veteran:
Rogelio Hernandez has participated in the Spanish dubbing of over 1000 films. He provided speech for Michael Caine’s face on 41 occasions, Paul Newman for 27, and achieved notoriety for what was apparently an impressive dub-job overtop Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Rogelio was the Elvis of Spanish dubbing. He delivered a more human and realistic persona to his voices, which was nice – watching Dustin Hoffman fight for custody of his son in Kramer vs. Kramer with a Spanish Wally Gator-type voice would have been unsettling.
For residents in foreign countries, it often comes down to a choice between losing a massive chunk of the nuance and performance in an import film and seeing a local production whose performance is intact. Governments usually stay out of these matters and let the local film community select which style works best for their audience. Usually, but not always. Portugal passed a law in 1948 that banned dubbing, figuring that the hassle of reading subtitles will drive more Portuguese audiences to films made at home. Even cartoon imports were included in this law, though it became easy to circumvent once video technology allowed for easy import of dubbed movies in Brazilian Portuguese. The law was tweaked, and starting with 1994’s The Lion King, kids’ movies tend to get dubbed in the European dialect.
If your search for a new home landed you in Paris (and really, why shouldn’t it? Have you ever tried a street-vendor crepe?), you can often choose between seeing a dubbed or original-voice version of an American film. Like in other countries, the voice actors who do the dubbing also achieve a modicum of local fame. Here’s another sorta-celebrity you’ll probably never see:
Roger Carel is the French voice of Fred Flintstone, Benny Hill, C3PO, Winnie the Pooh, Mr. Miyagi, ALF, and Professor Slughorn. It pays to have versatile pipes.
In Italy, foreign languages were banned under the rule of Mussolini, so dubbing became standard practice. A lot of Italian movies have been shot without any audio track, meaning actors had to record their vocals in a post-production studio. This is why movies like The Good, The Bad & The Ugly seem like they’re dubbed, even when Clint Eastwood is talking in English, with Clint Eastwood’s voice. The film is dubbed no matter what language it’s in.
The areas in yellow in that map (and I’ll just include Russia here as an example so you don’t have to scroll up) tend to dub using only one or two actors who try to cover all the parts, with the original soundtrack still audible underneath. For that reason, I’d simply cross Russia off my list of places to go. Unless they have a lot of Russian Rich Littles doing this, I don’t want to hear it.
If your travels are taking you further east (or possibly west if you’re hip to that whole ‘world is round’ notion), you can enjoy a long tradition of dubbing in China, or a stronger commitment to the original soundtrack plus subtitles in Japan. Not that dubbing in Japan is unheard of – in fact, a number of celebrities have been assigned an official voice-over artist, ensuring that every time you see Nicolas Cage in a dubbed film, you’ll be assured that Akio Otsuka’s voice will be delivering the dialog.
Modern technology, specifically the ‘Second Audio Program’ feature on most televisions – you know, that button you accidentally hit sometimes, then wonder why Frasieris speaking perfect Spanish – allows for the streaming of multiple language streams. This isn’t possible in theatres yet, but it does make things easier for English-speakers in other countries to hear a little taste of home. But cultural norms still take precedence, so don’t count on the SAP button to be a comforting daily tether to your homeland.
Really, if this is a big enough priority to you that you’re actually making your habitation plans with this article as a reference point, perhaps you should consider sticking to an English-as-a-first-language nation. Or learn how to rely on the internet to acquire your daily menu of entertainment.
Or, just suck it up and learn the language.