Essay: To dub or not to dub

Published in Monocle, Dec 2012 / Jan 2013

Language barriers

Finland’s only attempt at dubbing a non-children’s television show went terribly wrong. In 2001, eight years after it first appeared on Finnish television, daytime soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful ran for a special week with a local voice cast. The wrath of the audience took TV station MTV3 by surprise; the channel got so many angry calls that they had to close phone lines two hours after Stephanie Forrester started speaking in theatre and film icon Seela Sella’s voice.

While the Nordic region tends to leave all programmes in their original language, dubbing is more prevalent elsewhere in Europe. A German roommate once refused to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator with me because without the familiar voice of German voice actor Thomas Danneberg, it just “sounded weird”.

Finland is in a sticky situation language-wise. With only five million speakers worldwide there is a struggle to simultaneously reach out to the rest of the world by learning widely spoken languages and trying to hold on to our own. In Germany, France or Italy, dubbing has been a way of cherishing local culture. It is not too long ago when Mussolini’s Italy banned all foreign languages.

A Finnish study showed that a third of all texts that we come across in everyday life in our country have been translated from another language. I completed a Master’s degree in marketing without ever reading a marketing textbook in my own language. Because universities are ranked through international citations there is no way around the English language.

It is an easy argument to say that dubbing hinders your chances of grasping a foreign language. On the other hand, a Eurobarometer study from 2006 indicated that a majority of Europeans prefer to pick up their language skills from elsewhere. Research is still inconclusive on whether subtitling benefits a viewer’s language learning skills as it’s thought that text written in another language may actually confuse the audiovisual messages.

The debate on dubbing and subtitling comes down to two discussions: the learning of foreign languages and the defence of one’s own culture. Ideally these go hand in hand but one may necessitate the sacrifice of the other. Finnish language teachers continuously worry about the deterioration of our language. More and more foreign words are incorporated into conversation and the pervasive abbreviations of the online world (LOL! OMG!) appear in school essays.

As for television, saying that dubbing should be restricted is a tricky claim to make. I for one would not wish to hear Stephanie Forrester replaced by a Finnish diva. Then again, I would like to see Finns fight for our language with Italian passion. We need to ensure that alongside the subtitled foreign sitcoms we also have top-notch Finnish content. One healthy sign is that 2012 has seen record-breaking audiences for Finnish films – hopefully to be dubbed into many other languages.