Hollywood’s Financial Saviors: Dubbing Makes U.S. Films Accessible to World Audiences and Allow Americans to Enjoy the Best of World Cinema

Dubbing and subtitling are the two methods of making movies live up to their proud billing as “the universal language of the screen”. Without language translation there would never have been a film industry with worldwide appeal. Many Americans, living in the largest of English-speaking countries, would be surprised to find out how dependent Hollywood is on foreign box office. Poor countries, especially ones with minority languages, have often have to put up with inferior translation, while wealthier, often European countries pride themselves on flawless conversions into the local tongue. Television demands even more translation work than feature films do.

In the days of silent films, it was usually easy to make movies accessible to foreign audiences; skilled editors just snipped out the English title “cards” between scenes and spliced in translated ones in the local language. Some studios actually went to the trouble of making sure that the fake stores and restaurants in the background of their studio backstreet sets had very few words painted on them, a subtle way to make it easier for overseas audiences to accept the movie as “theirs”. In 1927, all films were silent except one—“The Jazz Singer”, starring Al Jolson. They could be easily adapted to be shown in any silent cinema anywhere. But by 1931 all films were sound except one—Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights”. For a couple of years, cinemas all over the world converted their equipment to show sound movies, and suddenly audiences everywhere could hear the sounds of American English. There are reports that London audiences couldn’t help laughing at the diction of early Hollywood “talkies”.

But outside of the English-speaking countries, the film industry had a massive new financial challenge. The richest companies in the film Industry tried to regain their world audiences by shooting each scene several times, in several languages, but this proved to be expensive, slow and impractical.

Gradually Hollywood met the challenge with the new technique called “voice doubling”, which became the more familiar “dubbing”: a voice specialist watches the lip movements of the actor in the film and matches them as closely as possible with new words spoken in the target language.

Dubbing was the financial savior of the movies, giving Hollywood its world audience back. Most overseas sales territories for American films and TV have long-established arrangements to have new productions translated and dubbed into local languages.

It’s a little known fact that sometimes English speaking actors have had to be dubbed into English! The movie “Singing In the Rain”, a famous musical comedy about the arrival of sound in Hollywood, shows a mythical version of the invention of dubbing when a silent beauty queen’s piercing East Coast U.S. accent has to be replaced with another actress’s warm, cultured voice. Although the story is fictionalized, it’s based on truth; replacing actors’ voices became possible very early on, but in Hollywood it’s mostly been used as it is in “Singing In the Rain”, as a desperation move to rescue a picture. Even in modern times, the 1980 film “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” became legendary in the Industry for only one reason: the studio decided it never liked the leading man’s voice, so every word he spoke in the entire film had to be replaced with someone else speaking the lines.

If dubbing plays only an occasional supporting role in Hollywood’s domestic production, it plays the central leading role in Hollywood’s export business. Of course, when a feature film leaves the theaters and enters the DVD market, it is possible and customary to include several choices of language on the soundtrack.

Subtitling is the other major method for making films accessible to foreign language audiences. Though subtitling has also been done since the earliest days of sound films, it is relatively rarely used compared to dubbing, since it requires more effort on the part of the viewer. Children’s films in particular are seldom subtitled since it’s hard for children to read the titles.

Whether dubbing or subtitling, filmmakers who want the revenue and cultural outreach of multilingual audiences can always find the best language solutions at American Language Services. Although many factors come into play with dealing with film and television projects, there is one thing that remains constant. Translations should be done by experienced, professional translators with the proper and necessary experience to ensure the best quality service possible. We at American Language Services have been providing just that for over 26 years. AML-Global is happy to assist you with your dubbing and subtitling needs. Please contact us at the numbers listed below for more information or to schedule translation for your next dub session or script mark-up for subtitling.

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