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Subtitles vs. Dubbed: Critics Debate How They Prefer Their Foreign-Language TV

Surprise! There's no consensus on how TV critics like to watch shows like "Dark," "3%," and "Babylon Berlin."

"3%"

“3%”

Pedro Saad/Netflix

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Do you prefer subtitles or dubbing on foreign-language TV shows? Why? Are there cases in which you’d make an exception?

(This is partially inspired by the report that Netflix defaults to dubbing because viewers are more likely to finish a series than if it defaulted to subtitles.)

Pilot Viruet (@pilotbacon), Freelance

Both, sort of! I usually go for dubbing when it’s available but I also always, always prefer subtitles on everything I watch, no matter the language, unless it’s a live event with terrible closed captioning. The dubbing preference is because I tend to do other things while watching television, whether it’s taking notes for a review or washing dishes, so even if I’m not looking at the screen at any given moment, I can still hear what’s happening. And my love for subtitles is mostly just a habit: I’ve always watched TV with subtitles because it makes it much easier for me to focus on what’s happening (and because I have tricky issues with the sounds of certain words/letters which is why I find it extremely annoying that screeners aren’t required to have them). I do sometimes make an exception with Spanish-language shows—because I’m Latinx myself — and challenge myself without dubbing, but even then it can get tricky.

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

In an ideal world, we’d only ever watch foreign films and TV shows with subtitles, which provides the original performances in their entirety, and the rest unmarred by dubbing that doesn’t match, even when the audio performers are good. But we live in a time where there’s a flood of content, where lots of the foreign shows we’re getting are the kind of intensely serialized, not always briskly paced, dramas that we already have tons of in English, and I’ve found that going back and forth between dubbed and subtitled versions is the easiest way to move through something like “Babylon Berlin” relatively quickly. When you watch a subtitled show, it’s the only thing you can do — even note-taking to a degree is more difficult, because you have to focus on reading the subtitles — where the dubbed versions offer a bit more freedom to either multi-task a bit or simply not sweat so much over the long expository/filler stretches in the middle. So I tend to toggle back and forth between the two language settings, which makes me feel like a philistine, but also makes the task feel far more manageable.

"Babylon Berlin"

“Babylon Berlin”

Netflix

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

I’m someone who likes subtitles on English-language shows even as a native English speaker, so they certainly don’t bother me. Subtitles for all! I also think that subtitles give foreign series an important sense of context; it’s a good thing to hear and take in those languages and cadences, even in the background. It’s also the last thing that keeps viewers from drifting off to look at a phone, or wander into the kitchen to make a snack while the show plays — subtitles demand your attention.

There are certainly examples where dubbing can be successful, and I think that lies mostly with animated series, like “Cowboy Bebop’s” famously great English dub. But it can also go pretty terribly awry. Basically, don’t be afraid to read your TV, folks! You tend to get a lot more out of it when you do.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

Who on EARTH do you think you’re talking to? When it comes to animation, I accept at least some degree of conversation on the subject. After all, in that case you’re replacing the work of one group of craftsmen with another comparable group. But 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. This opinion had better be unanimous. It was bad enough that we weren’t unanimous on “Teddy Perkins” last week, but heaven help him if Eric Deggans says “dubbed.”

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

I’ve always been a subtitles guy, mostly because subtitles preserve the original rhythms of the scene. In watching shows like Netflix’s “Narcos” and the Chilean political thriller “Bala Loca,” for me, the subtitles eventually fade and I barely realize I’m reading. But dubbing, even when expertly done, pulls me out of scenes when the words don’t match the movement of the actors’ mouths. Also, I find I enjoy the feeling of intersecting with the culture that subtitles allow. And, in the case of Spanish-language shows, I can even try to practice some of my long-ago college classes while enjoying some of TV’s coolest programming. Win-win.

NARCOS

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

Subtitled! Please! Even though it requires so much more of our attention, the subtleties of the original language can’t really be underestimated, and subtitles are the best way to appreciate that.

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

C’est un excellent question. Pour moi, bien… oh wait. No subtitles on IndieWire! Well, this depends on how good the TV production actually is. Overall I prefer dubbing… if it is done well. I hate any kind of bottom screen scroll (that includes tune-ins or “coming up on adverts” you sneaky networks!) and trying to read films and TV while I am trying to soak in an actor’s performance. My exception to this rule was lifted for two very good series, “Les Revenants,” the original French-language version series of “The Returned” – which was superior, in my opinion. And the Danish political drama “Borgen,” which was also excellent.

Regarding Netflix’s decision… my opinion is many people are in relax mode when they are settled in and watching TV. Having to attend to “reading” the TV show or film while watching the action for a lot of people can be wearisome.

Can you imagine your gig is having to write and contextually translate the subtitles for “Twin Peaks” for a non-English speaking audience? Nightmare.

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

Subtitles all the way. I freak the fuck out when the audio on my TV isn’t synched with the picture; there’s no way I’m going to willingly experience that just because I’m too lazy to read. Plus, watching foreign shows in dubbed English takes away part of what is amazing in the industry right now, which is that the Golden Age of television isn’t just confined to America right now.

Louis Hoffman, "Dark"

Louis Hoffman, “Dark

Julia Terjung/Netflix

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

I was offended when I pushed play on the first episode of the German-language series “Dark” and heard the English dubbing. When I watch a foreign show, I want to be able to watch it the way a native speaker from that country would. I want to immerse myself in the show completely, even if it means I have to spend my time reading (it probably helps that I also really enjoy reading). Language might not be important to everyone — I totally get that this is a personal preference — but to me, there’s something vital that is lost when a show is dubbed. The simple act of replacing dialogue with English erases a part of the original series, and I don’t want to silence the voices of the people depicted within a foreign show simply to make my life easier. Plus, I just can’t stand it when characters’ mouths don’t match up with what I’m hearing.

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

I generally prefer subtitles, but one of the most entrancing film-going experiences of my life was seeing “Spirited Away” with the English-language dub, whose cast was assembled by Disney. It’s an already beautiful movie, and with the right actors chosen for the roles, I was able to just concentrate on the eye-popping visuals and not worry so much about having to read something every few split seconds. So I try not to be religious about it.

That said, I feel like it’s a different scenario when it comes to live-action compared to animation. In a live-action series, you really do want to concentrate on the actor’s WHOLE performance. I can’t imagine watching Sidse Babett Knudsen’s incredibly subtle work on the great Danish drama “Borgen”… then hearing the voice of, like, Dana Delany coming out of her mouth, much as I love Dana Delany. So while I can appreciate a good dub (especially for animation), I would generally rather watch something with subtitles, even if I have to look away every so often to absorb the text. I don’t think I miss THAT much of the performance in the process.

"Borgen"

“Borgen”

DR Fiktion

Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote

I feel bad about it, but: dubbing. In a perfect world, I’d be able to devote 100 percent of my attention on a television show when I’m watching it – and there are, maybe, three shows I have done that with over the past couple of years — but the fact is there’s no time. (You may have heard there’s a lot of TV right now.) Sadly, the odds are better I’ll be able to watch your show if I know I can dedicate even 85 percent of my attention to it vs. knowing I’ll have to keep my eyes on the screen the entire time.

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby

Ugh, no dubbing. Subtitles forever! I will never understand people’s aversion to subtitles. Reading is not hard! Subtitles are efficient, helpful and add way more to the experience than dubbing does. I often watch English-language shows with subtitles. You can read a line that might not have been enunciated well or had bad ADR, you can judge all the words and names the closed captioners misspelled or marvel at the Hall of Fame captions they come up with. The only downside is they might block something you need to see on screen, but it’s not a huge deal to rewind. I suppose some people like dubbing so they can be free do other things while just listening to the show, but that means you’re not really paying attention in the first place. And no disrespect to voice actors, but they never truly capture the greatness or intricacies of the original performance via dubbing, and oftentimes might convey something else entirely — even worse when the dubbing is out of sync with what’s on screen. Watch — and read — the show the way it was meant to be seen.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

I like my foreign language TV like I like my English-language TV: with subtitles, plus spoken word as a backup. Years ago, I learned to truly appreciate the benefits of subtitles. They really help hold your attention, especially for those times when it’s harder than usual to keep your mind from wandering. In the day-and-age of “too much TV” and shortened attention spans, it’s important to take advantage of any means necessary to trick yourself into being as immersed as possible with shows that deserve it.

It’s the ones that are on the fence between great and OK that need spoken word. Maybe you’re doing dishes or baking a soufflé and you need something in the background to enjoy, but it’s only getting half your attention. As a professional TV critic, I often have to stay up to date on TV this way, and I imagine obsessive fans do, as well. Heck, maybe that’s just your favorite way to spend your alone time: guilty pleasure TV + another activity. Then you need to be able to listen, since you can’t always be watching the screen.

This practice might make it more difficult to keep up with foreign language shows that don’t offer dubbing, so again I say, give us both! Subtitles are always better, under ideal circumstances, but you never know when dubbed voices will come in handy.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Killing Eve” (four votes)

Other contenders: “The Americans” (three votes), “Atlanta,” “Barry,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Howards End,” “Legion,” “Trust” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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