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Translating Films: Dubbing, Voiceover and Subtitles

Have you ever seen Woody Allen talking fluent German? Or Robert De Niro joking in Chinese? Actors can speak more languages than you expect thanks to the techniques used to translate film dialogues and in particular to the dubbing.

The term “dubbing”, known also as “revoicing”, commonly refers to the replacement of the voices of the actors shown on the screen with those of different performers speaking another language.
This technique is frequently used in a lot of Countries such as Germany and the Germanophone area, Italy, Spain, Brazil, China or India.


The Germanophone dubbing market is the largest in Europe. Dubbing films is a traditional and common practice in German-speaking Europe, since subtitles are not accepted and used as much as in other European countries.

In Italy, dubbing is systematic, with a tradition going back to the 1930s in Rome, Milan, Florence and Turin. Rome is the principal base of the dubbing industry, where major productions such as movies, drama, documentaries and some cartoons are dubbed.

In Spain, some dubbing actors have achieved popularity for their voices, such as Constantino Romero (who dubs Clint Eastwood, Darth Vader and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, among others) and Óscar Muñoz (the official European Spanish dub-over voice artist for Elijah Wood and Hayden Christensen). In Catalonia, the Valencian Community, the Balearic Islands, Galicia and the Basque Country, many or most foreign programs are also dubbed into their own languages, different from European Spanish.

In Brazil subtitling was primarily for adult audience movies until 2012. Since then, dubbed versions also became available for all ages. As a result, in recent years, more cinemas have opened in Brazil, attracting new audiences to the cinema who prefer dubbing.

The Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio has been the most well-known studio in the film dubbing industry in China. In order to generate high-quality products, they divide each film into short segments, each one lasting only a few minutes, and then work on the segments one-by-one. In addition to the correct meaning in translation, they make tremendous effort to match the lips of the actors to the dialogue.

In India, where “foreign films” are synonymous with “Hollywood films”, dubbing is done mostly in three Indian languages, including Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Dubbing of foreign languages is rarely done with the other major Indian languages, namely Malayalam and Bengali, due to the high literacy rate among the population who speak the languages. The finished works are released into the towns and lower tier settlements of the respective states (where English penetration is low), often with the English-language originals released in the metropolitan areas.

Dubbing is a usual practice, but not the only one. In some Countries like the Scandinavian ones, Mexico, United States or Japan films are just subtitled. Only cartoons or programmes for children are dubbed.

Finally, there are Countries, which use the so-called voiceover dub. In particular in East Europe voiceover is very popular. Voice-over dub was inveted in the Soviet Union in 1980’s when with the fall of the regime, many popular foreign movies, previously forbidden under communist rule, started to flood in, in the form of low-quality home-copied videos. Since they were unofficial releases, they were dubbed using a very primitive equipment, also to avoid high costs. The quality of the resulting dub was very low, the translated phrases were off-sync, interfering with the original voices, translation was inaccurate and, most importantly, all dub voices were made by a single person who usually lacked the intonation of the original, making comprehension of some scenes quite difficult. This method of translation exerted a strong influence on Russian pop culture. Voices of translators became recognizable for generations.

In modern Russia, the overdubbing technique is still used in many cases, although with vastly improved quality, and now with multiple voice actors dubbing different original voices.

Author: Donatella Zunino

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