Dubs Versus Subs - Enjoying Translated Cinema


Roll up the red carpet, switch off the lights, and get rid of all that make-up, for the 92nd Academy Awards, and the inevitable yearly controversies that go with them, are finally over.

The glorious winners can plonk the prize on the mantelpiece at last, and the losers get to try again next time.

But this year something rather unprecedented happened at the Oscars: A foreign film was absolutely showered in awards and praise. And we’re not talking about the “Best Foreign Language Film” category that non-American movies had to fight for in the past, but the actual Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best International Feature Film awards. These are the awards that have been historically considered the big ones.

While this is a great step forward in making the Oscars a bit more international and diverse, this huge amount of recognition for a non-English film has inevitably sparked a few discussions about how viewers should experience such a movie. Since the original language of the film is Korean, watching it as is can be quite a challenge, so two distinct camps have formed in our beloved twittersphere: One in favor of an English dub, and another in favor of subtitles. 

This is not an argument that will ever be realistically settled, as both options have their pros and their cons, but there are a few reasons why certain folk prefer one over the other. Let’s take a look at a few.


For those who enjoy cinema in a casual way and purely as entertainment, dubbing is the perfect solution for their foreign movie escapades. It helps to maintain a high level of immersion into the whole experience, but can require a bit of an effort in the suspension of disbelief department when the lip syncs are blatantly off. 

Truth be told, it works better for some movies more than others. The main loss when dubbing is related to the performances from the cast and the particular way in which they deliver their lines. Movies that rely heavily on excellent performances will be far more affected by a dub than any installment coming, for example, from the Transformers franchise. That being said, a good dub can also salvage an appalling performance and turn it into something watchable.

Alternatively, the use of dubbing also has certain drawbacks unrelated to the movies themselves. First, it’s massively expensive to produce a great dub, leading to a lot of subpar products that further exacerbate the already significant issues. Second, and this is more on the educational side of things, it really doesn’t help at all when learning the original language. It’s surprising how many people learn many concepts of a second language via film and other media, so it’s a shame to lose such a rather cool perk. 


The eternal enemy of anybody who just wants to put on a movie and doze off, subtitles will offer a completely authentic artistic experience from the movie in question, but the price is your full and total attention from beginning to end. Subtitles are relatively cheap to produce, so a larger part of the budget can be destined to deliver a more accurate interpretation, which undoubtedly adds to the overall quality of the viewing experience. 

Performances from the actors will be completely original, preserving their accents, delivery, dynamic range, and various other nuances expected from great performers. Poor actors will also stick out like a sore thumb, so the lack of adulteration is a double-edged sword after all.

The problem is that for a lot of people it’s really hard to be spirited away into the universe of film when they have to read constantly. The sacrifice in the name of artistic purity is just too much, and it’s perfectly understandable. However, in the case of the aforementioned Oscar-studded sensation, Bong Joon-Ho’s dark comedy Parasite, it feels like so much would be lost in a dub that one might leave the cinema wondering how the hell it won any award at all.

If something works, don’t touch it.

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