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Some thoughts on the language barrier

For some people who live in the United States, this weekend will be their first opportunity to see Norway’s 2012 Best Foreign Language Film nominee Kon-Tiki in a movie theater. Sort of. In point of fact, nobody in the United States, not this weekend nor during the film’s limited roll-out, is going to see the film nominated for that Oscar, unless it’s because they’ve imported the unsubtitled DVD from Europe. Because the version of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s movie playing in the States is a combination of footage from the “real” version that played in Norway, with dialogue sequences re-shot in English. It is, literally, a different movie, with the exact same plot and shot setups.

(The New York Times had a nifty little demonstration of the two versions a couple of weeks back)

We’re not here to rip apart the Weinstein Company for releasing that version (though seriously, it’s pretty dumb – the audience for Kon-Tiki in English is certainly not significantly larger than the audience for the original version), but to consider the greater questions it raises about watching foreign language movies in the first place. I assume that you, like me, are at least a little bit offended by this bit of Anglophonic pandering, and would all things considered, rather see Kon-Tiki in its original version, and the question I ask both you and myself is: why?

English-speaking film fans have for quite a long time been used to thinking of subtitled movie as being the only legitimate way to watch a movie that wasn’t shot in English, but it wasn’t always so. As recently as the 1980s, genre films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or The Raid: Redemption would have been dubbed, not subtitled, and even today, in those few occasions with Japanese anime gets a theatrical release, it tends to be dubbed into the local language. And of course, if we go back far enough, examples on the Kon-Tiki model of movies being filmed in multiple languages at the same time used to be quite common. The most famous example is the 1931 Bela Lugosi picture Dracula, for which a Spanish-language production directed by George Melford was produced on the same sets with the same props (and it’s different enough from the original version that many people – I’m among them – don’t simply regard it as a separate movie but a substantially better one), but the traditional of making multilingual copies was fairly common in the ‘30s, especially in Europe.

Decades of practice have ensured that we tend to regard subtitled films as the most “authentic”, given that they’re closest to the version the director had in mind, but this is as much a convention and cultural opinion as anything else. Even the hallowed idea of The Director’s Intent isn’t necessarily meaningful. The Italian director Roberto Rossellini’s preference wasn’t that viewers should watch his movies in Italian, but in whatever their native language was, for example, and even then he slightly re-edited some of his films, notably the iconic Journey to Italy, based on which country that version was going to be seen in. Meaning that Rossellini’s “Directorial Intent” was based less on himself than on you, the person watching.

This image makes Roberto Rossellini sad

It’s easy for an Italian to adopt that kind of attitude, because at that point in time, Italian films didn’t have synchronized sound in the first place: everything screened in Italy was dubbed. For Rossellini to thus demand that Americans watch his movies dubbed into English would have seemed absolutely no big deal at all. For Americans, though, dubbing looks patently artificial and cheap: the only American films to be recorded without on-set sound are the very lowest of the low, grade-Z trash like The Beast of Yucca Flats, and the idea of a movie character’s mouth moving in an even slight misalignment with the sounds they’re making drives us mad. It’s the reason that even the very best-made and most imaginative of the Godzilla movies have long been lumped in among the famously bad schlock B-movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s: for an extremely long time, the only way to see them in the English language world was in the form of rather hokey looking dubs. Even here in 2013, you have to be prepared to trek into legally vague places if you want to see many of the Godzilla films in the original Japanese with subtitles.

That leaves us with the question, though: are subtitles clearly the way to go? Any American cinephile will say yes without hesitation, but it’s not a perfect solution. I vividly recall the awareness I had in watching Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse for the first time, that I wasn’t getting the full effect: the first few minutes of that movie are a black screen with narration being read out loud, and given the way the movie proceeds to plunge us into a grainy monochrome end-of-the-world scenario, it seems pretty clear that directorial intent in this case was that we’d be plunged into absolute darkness for that opening monologue, only to be born into the sickly world of the film. One thing that bright white lettering against a black background surely isn’t, is absolute darkness: the exact opposite, in fact, and sitting there, being aware that the text I absolutely required in order to comprehend one syllable of the Hungarian words being intoned was also creating a visual element that wasn’t just unintended, but actively deleterious to the mood the film was creating. At a slightly more prosaic remove, how many of us have that subtitle-hating friend who “doesn’t like to read movies” – the implication not being that the friend is illiterate, but that if you’re looking at words at the bottom of the screen, you’re not as focused on the images behind them.

Regardless of how we approach a foreign production – subbed, dubbed, or remade – there’s still always going to be a level of remove. To return to Kon-Tiki, where we started: the movie isn’t just in Norwegian, there’s also Swedish and English spoken, and the distinction between the former two is important; but they’re close enough that a non-Scandinavian would have a hard time telling them apart. That’s the sort of thing that cannot be replicated in any translation medium, just the same as puns and nuances of line readings simply cannot be ported over. Watching a foreign film, like reading a foreign book, is always going to include some measure of compromise and translation.

The solution to all this is simple: every serious film fan has to be fluent in every single language in the world.

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Reader Comments (29)

Well, being German, we are used to dubbed films, and indeed, the difference is just what you say - you get to concentrate on the visual side more. However, the film buffs would always watch original version / subtitled films.

On another note, it used to be absolutely normal in the 1920s 30s to produce films in more than one language, sometimes with different actors even. For example, The Blue Angel was shot simultaneously as a german and english language film.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBacio

I prefer subtitles to dubbed, but it can be jarring (as in the example you mention above). My worst experience was with Ridicule. My French is basic as best and not really good enough to fully grasp a French film without the subtitles, but even I could tell from the subs that they were poor at best and we were losing the brilliance of the script and its meaning due to poor translation (and therefore much of the performances).

I also remember seeing ET in Portugal (in English subbed into Portuguese) and hearing the native audience laugh at different times than we did and sometimes not at all. Might have been cultural, might have been poor translation. I think you are right that to be truly versed in film we have to speak every language, but lacking the patience to immerse myself in every Rosetta Stone program, I'll take subtitles over any other form and kick myself for not having been born into the Matrix.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Extremely well put.
I tend to be condescending towards people who watch dubbed movies (which is quite common in France) but this is really making me think.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJulien

I will second the notion that the French are dub fiends. God help you if you want to watch an animated film in the original version over here.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGavin

No question for me. Absolotuley no dubbing. I know that I'm going to miss a lot of things when I see a movie in Korean with subtitles, but I accept that fact. If I had to choose what I prefer to miss, the integrity of the movie- with the actors voices- or being explained through dubbing the parts I'm missing, I think it's essential to hear the actors. Even though in some cases there're extraordinary voice actors, they're not the ones who were on set, in character, putting every single layer to an emotion (or not doing). They're isolated, in a studio (see Maura in Women on the Verge), and that's how it sounds, artificial, in a box. the fact that In some cases the same voice actor can dub Ryan Reynolds or Ryan Gosling is just unacceptable (for me).

As someone who grew up watching dubbed films and only later on could have access to subtitled ones, there's no contest. Neither possibility is perfect, both have to synchronize the translation with the the real voices, but in my experience subtitles are less explanatory -patronizing- than dubbing which by the way, can be also used to censor movies.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

Here's my issue with dubbing: Acting is about more than physicality. Inflection is crucial, and can easily make or break a performance. Even if the same actor is dubbing the part, like in Kon-Tiki, there is no way to match the emotions of the original. No two takes are completely alike - there's a reason many directors shoot their scenes repeatedly.

Foreign films will always be imperfect unless you speak the language. The black opening shot is a good example. If you really want to experience the film as it was meant to be experienced, learn the language. In the meantime, I will defend some of my favorites from being slaughtered by awkward second-hand delivery. The thought that this is how we might treat foreign films in the future pisses me off.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I'm also from Germany, and like Bacio said, about everything gets dubbed over here. I sometimes find many things annoying in the dubbed versions ... bad translations I can make out, the voices of some of the voice-over actors, a fake German that noone really speaks ... but all in all the dubbed versions are ok and quite enjoyable. I do try to watch original versions (of Englisch-laguage films and TV series) whenever I can, I really like it better that way. But it is a completely different situation than the situation you are describing, because I understand English. I use subtitles, only to cover the things I miss from hearing only, and when available I prefer English subtitles to German subtitles, I tend to find them less distracting. I've watched one or two French movies with subtitles, I've learned French once, I would be lost without German subtitles here, but it's still a language I'm familar with. Still it seems more genuine to me, which I understand is the common argument for originals with subtitles. But I must say, I don't really have an urge to watch a Swedish, Norwegian etc. movie in original with subtitles. Hearing a language that sounds like strange babble to me I find indeed a little distracting to the film.
@Henry, funny that you mention Portugal. I recently met a colleague from Portugal, and she told us that they get English language films and TV programs with subtitles in Portugal, and that she doesn't understand why we would dub it in Germany.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDominik

provocative piece, Tim with such a great punchline! :)

As some of you may recall I speak a little Norwegian and I was so excited to see Kon-Tiki which played as part of a Scandinavian mini-fest at the Walter Reade and was billied as the Oscar submission. So I was horrified to sit there watching an English language movie -- ESPECIALLY since the movie itself takes place internationally and the shifts between languages (swedish, english, norwegian and I assume Spanish?) are important to the context if not quite the narrative thrust.

Like when Thor phones his wife in Lillehammer for a bit of home after a tough American meeting and they speak in English together? NO

The only Norwegian I got was a song being sung.

But then because I do speak a little Norwegian -- and used to speak a lot more of it -- I do sometimes notice when a subtitle is terrible. Subtitles often miss nuances in language and nuance is so important to the full experience of most movies.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I watched two thirds of Deepa Mehta's 'Water' before thinking 'this is a bit rubbish, the dialogue is very stilted'. I'd also never expected it to be an English language film. Turns out that film had the same 'two versions' as this one. I'm still yet to see the subtitled Indian version (which I'm sure will be more satisfying)...

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKermit

The only time I think its okay with dubbing is animated features and Japanese anime

Ghost in the Shell is a perfect example. I watched the american dubbed version first, then a couple of years later I catched up with the Japanese original version. Though I already knew what was going on, I could be more engaged with the story and the details

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

I was not aware of this when I went to watch Kon-Tiki and was taken aback when the dialogue started. It was clear that the film was not dubbed, but since it had been nominated for the foreign-language award it wasn't supposed to be in English, right? Weirdest thing is that I do not live in an English-language country, so there were still subtitles. It's not necessarily uncommon; if a movie has a different American version, it will always be the American version we get. The same happened with The Raid (entirely different music by one of the guys from Linkin Park). The Hong Kong Jackie Chan-films were also invariably released dubbed in English with subtitles.

@Kermit, try China Strike Force, in the English-language version the actors are quite clearly reading phonetically off a teleprompter, which caused a lot of hilarity amongst the audience.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick

I will always rather watch a movie in its original language. I agree with those who say we may miss something in the performance when it's dubbed, and even if I know nothing of the language I like hearing a different idiom (to try to understand some words, see how the actors express themselves etc).

here in brazil we get movies with subtitles, unless it's a kids movie or maybe a blockbuster (the avengers, those pirates movies etc --- though we cand find these subtitled too). the rest, as far as I know, is always subtitled.

the only type of movie I don't mind seeing dubbed are animated ones. as a matter of fact, I grew up listening to them dubbed, I've memorized the songs in disney movies in portuguese, so definitely when I rewatch them I stick to the dubbed version.

but here is something interesting: there are some movies that I've watched dubbed on tv (foreign movies on the major networks - not cable - are always dubbed here) and I've grown fond of them like that. even today, I quite like watching them dubbed, because the dubbing is part of the 'experience'. one example I remember is that movie where bettle middler and lily tomlin play twins (or two sets of twins), "big business". it's a silly picture, but I find the dubbed version that I originally saw so funny (with the dubbing adding to the that) and have seen it so many times that I actually prefer watching that movie dubbed.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

agreed with some here who like animated films duibbed. Though I have to admit that with more serious animated picture I dont like the american "acting" on top of it (like with Princess Mononoke for example). But i LOVED seeing the little mermaid dubbed in Norwegian when i lived here and i have the soundtracks in two languages. If i learned more languages i would want the little mermiad in all of them ;)

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I truly cannot stand dubbed films. It's one of the reasons I have a hard time with anime, actually. I just can't deal with it. I even had a hard time with those older foreign films for which that is the only option, like La Strada. If the rest of the film is strong enough (like La Strada), I can sometimes overlook it, but usually it takes me right out of the moment. I'm not sure if it's a suspension of disbelief thing or what, but it annoys me to no end. Maybe it's because when I see lips moving out-of-sync with the soundtrack, all I can think of is "No! No! No!" "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

Subtitles sometimes take me out of the moment, too, but only when they're difficult to read (as was the case sometimes in NO recently). Maybe that's why I love French films so much more than films from other foreign countries; I speak French, so I don't have to rely on the subtitles as much.

Anyway, the idea that you have to release your film in English in order to be seen in America is ridiculous, insulting, and probably (sadly) just a little bit true at the same time. It mostly shows lack of faith in the merits of the film itself, in which case, why bother releasing it at all?

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

One thought I meant to mention in my post but forgot:
I just love to know that the voice I hear is the voice of the person I see...

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDominik

I can't do dubs at all.

Even with anime. Anime is so quintessentially Japanese. I remember I saw Howl's Moving Castle and Ponyo in dubbed versions in the theaters and I was numb to both. I rewatched in Japanese and I was very moved by the former and enjoyed the latter much more. It's very important for me to hear the musicality of the original language, even if I cannot speak it.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAle-Alejandro

I don't know how you foreigners can stand dubbed films. I know I can't. I'm fine with subtitles, and even though "Kon-Tiki" looks as dull as dishwater, I still wanted to see it so I could see all five FLF nominees. I've seen two ("Amour" and "No"), and "A Royal Affair" is on DVD (hope to rent it soon). That leaves this and "War Witch." Any news on when that film is being released in any fashion?

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRandy

I prefer subtitles for live-action foreign films, primarily because it's easier for me to surrender myself to the story when I'm not distracted by the silliness of voices and words coming from the actors that are not their own. Of course, there is a degree of fidelity lost, as some words and sentiments don't have direct translations from language to language, but as long as the spirit is the same, I can live with that.

What I would like to know is whether or not there is a heavier financial burden for shooting a film in multiple languages.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

I"m with Dominik <<I just love to know that the voice I hear is the voice of the person I see...>> On those rare occasions when I get to see a dubbed film that I know in its original language, its jarring how "off" the dubbed voice can be in timbre, accent, inflection etc.

I remember how everyone raved about Streep when she did her own dubbing of Sophie's Choice into French (apparently American English into French sounds a lot like Polish into French). Diane Kruger also does a lot of her own dubbing into other languages which must be a plus to the film.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

You'll never experience movies wholly as they are originally conceived for their time and their native country of origins' cultural/sub cultural identity. Example, there are non-black American audiences who enjoy Tyler Perry movies, but, they're still distanced from them at arm's length, it has nothing to do with a language barrier, but, a cultural one.

I deem dubbed versions of Asian genre movies acceptable, because in the 80's they were apart of the American consensus of unintentional comedy, and that's now apart of their appeal. Dubbed versions of animated content is fine, because the whole thing is artificial to begin with.

I love subtitled movies, let my qualify, I can deal with them when the auteur is Almodovar or Lanthimos. Lanthimos' next feature will be in English, and Pedro keeps threatening to make an English language movie with American cow Meryl Streep.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Yeah, I've been debating whether this release "counts" as far as seeing the film, but have decided that it does. It's not a great system though (leave it to Harvey to stir up a debate this impassioned with art house fans, though).

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

@Henry, On actors dubbing themselves: When the Dutch hit-comedy New Kids Turbo was acquired for a german release the group of actors who made the film wanted to dub themselves, even though their german was sub-par. They did it anyway and the crappy dubbing was very succesful: the film was number one in the german box office and Dutch theaters started playing the film with german dubbing and Dutch subtitles.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick

This came up a while ago back home in Australia. I went to an advanced media screening and was like "okay, they're in america so that's why they're speaking english" and then THEY JUST KEPT SPEAKING ENGLISH. I was so confused, as were several other of the critics that were there - "It's nominated for best foreign language film... but it's in English?"

I don't so much have a problem with there being two versions of the film, but it would be nice if you're going to release one then why not the other as well. Even just in one cinema so that if anybody does indeed want to see the film in its native language with subtitles then they can. Even worse is that they kept advertising it as a "foreign language film" nominee (for the Golden Globes when I saw it, then Oscars shortly after) which it really isn't. Anybody who's seen someone like, say, early Penelope Cruz knows that what one can do in their native tongue they can't always do in English.

Many of the problems with the film wouldn't necessarily have been erased had i seen the Norwegian version, but I may have had less of a problem with the actors if I had.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

@Denny, your post made me laugh--we use those lines so often in our house!

For me, dubbed movies are painful to watch, due mostly in part to the lack of cadence, rhythm, and musicality of the language I expect to hear, and as others have mentioned, the lack of real emotion, inflection, and tone. Also, I wonder about the foley--is it original, or is is new stuff added when the film is dubbed? And other on-set sounds that may be in the original, like a sigh or throat-clearing--are they recreated in the dubbing process, or eliminated?

People who live outside of the U.S. are quite used to subtitles and dubbing, but Americans are not, and unfortunately many are unwilling to watch a movie they have to "read". With that attitude, the readers of this blog know those "poor, dumb folk" are missing a major part of quality cinema. That said, if the only option was to watch a dubbed version, I would rather do so than miss the movie.

I am really starting to appreciate the works of many bilingual actors (e.g., Kristin Scott Thomas) and filmmakers who are willing to make multilingual movies. I believe Susanne Bier's next release with the lovely Trine Dyrholm and Pierce Brosnan is in Danish and English, with most of the actors (except Brosnan) speaking in both languages.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

That's strange, I saw this last year and it was a perfectly normal, subtitled version of the film with no odd or added scenes.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterErik Anderson

I just think this is pathetic. Did they really think they were going to attract the average American moviegoer tho this material by remaking it in English? I can't believe they thought that investment was worthwhile. The audience for foreign films in the US and other English-speaking markets should feel insulted. Meanwhile, the Academy still needs to fix this category. FIlms that release two months AFTER the awards ceremony should not be eligible. Oh wait, this isn't that film...

April 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermikey67

I also think it's annoying since the Weinsteins released a PG13 version of THE KING'S SPEECH, so why not a second version of this?

I do like that the Weinsteins were told they weren't allowed to market the film as Oscar nominated since, well, it's an entirely different film that they're releasing.

April 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn


Norway is the second most Americanized country next to US itself. And it all started with the Marshall help after the WWII. Poor Norwegian kids were wearing American clothings and everything from the US was consider a luxury and of high value. Entertainment vice American movies were favoured against Norwegian movies. Untill now. The Norwegian movie industry has slowly started to believe in itself and slowly started to find the form and the identiy the community has searched for since the WWII. After commercial and critical success of Norwegian films such as Reprise, Oslo 31 August, Kon-Tiki, Max Manus, Elling, Hodejegerne, Jo Nesbø writing a pilot for the US marked, Harald Zwart Karate Kid, Hansel und Grethel movie, we are starting to get out of the self made American shadow. Thanks to an aggresive campaign from both the government and the industry the success do continue.

There were tons of article about Kon-Tiki during the awards season with Globes and Oscar. Most of the times, it sounded like the journalists were talking with their heads in their asses. The hype was incredible and thank god for Amour winning Best Foreign language.

After this little background info, you may understand why Kon-Tiki was made with the intension of attract a bigger audience while loosing its originality and self respect at the same time. . Its sad and I hope this does not happen again with any foreign movie.

April 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

I've got no time for that kind of learning. So I'm going to teach you the exact same shortcuts I used to become a skilled, effective photographer in no time flat.

trick photography

You're going to be jumping over all the frustrations and difficulty, all the mystery of not knowing where to start, and instead getting right to the point where you can easily take the kinds of shots you've been dying to take your whole life.

trick photography

August 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike

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