Killing me softly without his words: The problem with dubbing

"Si Señor...!" - Nicolas Cage gets the dubbing treatment in Bangkok Dangerous

Will Peach is one of the site editors over at Gap Daemon, the gap year community website for backpackers and gap year travellers. Currently living in Spain, you can find out more about his language learning pursuits at myspanishadventure.com.

If you’d asked me a few months ago what I found to be the single most offensive thing about film, I really wouldn’t have been able to tell you. My interest was only ever a passive one. However, now that I find myself in Spain in a wild attempt to learn the language, get under the skin of the culture and finally reveal just what it is exactly that can be found lying beneath that aging mask of Zorro, my apathetic opinion of the past is being challenged by a particular vagary of foreign viewing. That’s right: dubbing. In the absence of one single, universal language, I have had to learn to cope with this aural game of smoke and mirrors.

It all began one evening when I settled down in front of my Spanish apartment’s fuzzy Sony mini-TV and switched on Bangkok Dangerous in the hope of drowning out the tunes pumping out of the gay bar from the street below. The jet-black mullet of the balding Nicolas Cage hoved into view, his bovine eyes narrowed, and his lips opened. And then… what the hell was that?!  Cage’s mannered, trademark bark had been replaced by the disarming tones of an effete, lisping Spaniard.

If it’s bad in the case of a two-bob action film, it’s worse with the classics. Two nights ago I tried to watch Rocky, a film so popular here that the iconic image of the first film can be spotted on the T-shirt of at least one passing Spaniard per day. Given my experience of watching it here, and the dubbing massacre that ensued, I doubt if any of the film’s fans would be able to recognise the actual voice of star Sylvester Stallone. Not that they would care (ignorance is bliss after all) yet, for someone like me, a long time fan of the movie, watching it without hearing the infamous drawl of the down-and-out Philly southpaw was a rather painful experience. If the television programming body or the Spanish Film Commission did away with the process of dubbing, at least I’d have the option of hearing how ridiculous Stallone’s voice really is, instead of the finely clipped Spanish-voice actor kicking back with a far-too-casual “Adddrrrriiiiiaaaaannnnn” before launching full pelt into a 100mph delivery of inaudible dialogue.

The same thing happened with Pulp Fiction, which I was only able to watch for half an hour before the impact of the film became so lessened by the act of dubbing. It’s strange to think how suddenly a good film can become, despite being cinematically arresting, unwatchable, when the voices of characters fail to match the actions on screen. Unlike subtitles, dubbing has a distancing effect which often fatally disrupts the internal logic a film tries so hard to achieve to get you to believe in what you’re watching.

The problem with dubbing and its impact on the portrayal of character extends to dialogue in film too, in particular cursing which, for me, can lift any stale drama or action feature and is especially warranted out here in Extremadura where I haven’t heard a public “shit”, “fuck” or “cunt” in a month. The Spanish way of cursing, when applied to the dubbing of foreign films, leaves me unsatisfied. How can the Spanish “agillipollao”, for example, represent “asshole”, “cocksucker” and “motherfucker” all at once? This lack of diversity, or rather lack of creativity in translation, is robbing me of one of my greatest joys in film, namely the ability to seek solace in nasty language.

Language, for me, is what it’s all about. I never used to mind dubbing before I became a language student. I used to find the whole process of replacing another actor’s voice with a foreign equivalent largely comical. It was something mainly reserved for holiday hotel rooms, where’d you get in from a day of battling Germans for sunbeds to switching on the TV and watching, for a few minutes at least, The Last Action Hero, before eventually finding something better to do. Or, as I’d like to more accurately point out, school trips to Western Europe where you and your mates would joyously stumbe upon the local porn channel to find a big-titted American blonde overdubbed with the grinding (if you’ll excuse the pun) accent of a French native. Back then, in circumstances of youth and folly,  dubbing was inherently innocent and forgivably foreign. It would never deprive you and your monolingual mates of taking it in turns to stand about in the lavatory while the other gets prime viewing in front of the foreign cable box, tissue-paper clasped firmly in hand.

Now that I’m possession of a foreign language, and I’m that much more grown up, dubbing is a nuisance. The last thing I want to do at the end of the day after listening to my Spanish Rasta housemate harp on about Frisbee and “hierba” for hours, is watch what I know is a half-decent film, spoiled by the shortcomings of more incomprehensible foreign gibberish.

Can’t I just have the original again please? I’m tired of all this.

P.S. It’s not all bad. Check out this video for some improvisatory dubbing gold. If only dubbing was always this creative.


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3 thoughts on “Killing me softly without his words: The problem with dubbing

  1. Pingback: My Spanish Adventure » Blog Archive Four Weeks of Studying Spanish Under Immersion - My Spanish Adventure

  2. Pingback: My Spanish Adventure » Blog Archive My Spanish Lovers: Immersion in Andalucia with Christine in Spain - My Spanish Adventure

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