Friday, March 06, 2009

Aye, there's the dub

Hungarian TV is dubbed. Not all of it obviously, some of it is originally in Hungarian anyway, but foreign language films and series are dubbed into Hungarian. Hungarians are extremely proud of their dubbing industry, and claim it to be fantastic. This may indeed be the case – it’s obviously better than the Polish/Russian dubbing industry which involves the original backing track being muffled a little and one bloke doing sort of a consecutive interpretation job over the top – regardless of what gender, age, species etc the speaker is supposed to be. It does seem also to be superior to the Spanish dubbing system.

The Hungarian dubbing factory seems to employ a large number of dubbers, many of whom do really pretty good accents which seem to stay quite close to the original (the bloke who dubs Thomas the Tank Engine, for example, seems to have managed somehow – at least to my ears – to have come up with a kind of Hungarian Scouse accent). (It doesn't always work flawlessly though, even on kids TV - the woman who dubs Dora the Explorer - who in her Hungarian incarnation teaches English whilst conducting her adventures mostly in Hungarian - for example,seems not actually to speak English rendering her pronunciation extremely amusing and/or cringe-inducing)

My problem is that saying that you are the world’s best dubbers is akin to saying that X is the world’s best instant coffee. It may be true, and you may even be proud of it, but ultimately it’s pride in an excellent version of an inferior product.

Based on my experiences as an action researcher in both teaching English and watching TV (by which I mean I have done both of those things a fair bit, and thought about this from time to time when I''ve got nothing much on), I have long held the theory that countries that dub their TV are significantly worse at speaking English than countries that subtitle. Obviously dubbing/subtitling is not the only variable here, but it is my submission that dubbing is a significant one of the variables. The Portuguese (subtitlers), for example, speak much better English than the Spanish (dubbers). They also speak much better English than the Brazilians who speak the same first language, but who are also dubbers. (There is a stress-timed/syllable timed variable here, which cannot be discounted, but I think it does not account for the whole difference).

Note: This theory excludes my own monolingual countrymen whose language skills are not noticeably improved by the fact that we subtitle and don’t dub, but I’d say that this was because if we import CSI or Desperate Housewives, we don’t need to do either, and if we were actually watching French films three times a week, or daily doses of Venezuelan Telenovelas, we would, I believe, through language exposure be better at those languages. Well, not Venezuelan because that’s not actually a language, but you know what I’m saying here.

Hungary is, according to a Eurostat survey a couple of years ago, which I am unable to locate at the moment, so you’ll have to take my word for it, the most monolingual country in the EU. Bearing in mind that the EU also includes Britain and Ireland, this is a pretty poor show. (I suspect that the numbers of immigrants in the UK and Ireland skew the figures considerably and Hungary really is not quite as bad as to be behind us, but even so the figures show something). Yes, Hungarian is a language which is radically different from English, for example, but then so is Finnish and Estonian and they’re up among the top countries. I’m also fairly certain that Hungarian L1 speakers (for those not familiar with the jargon, L1 means first language) in Romania speak better English than those in Hungary (and this is on top of the fact that Romanian Hungarians have to be functionally bilingual anyway because of the need to speak Romanian. English is, for most people here, a third or fourth language). Romanian TV? Subtitled.

So, join with me in SOD (Subtitling Over Dubbing). We can change the world. There is the minor problem of what to do with the obviously very talented people who are employed in the Hungarian dubbing factory should anyone pay heed to this message and throw off the shackles of voiceover, but there is enough work, I hope, in the cartoons/childrens programmes end of the market (I think subtitling TV programmes which are aimed at children who cannot be expected to be able to read subtitles would be a bit much, I’m not that hardcore of a SODomite. There are branches of our movement who believe that even shows aimed at the very young like In The Night Garden, ought really to be subtitled as it would (in their words) “encourage the lazy little bleeders to learn to read as well as to pick up a second language”.

In the meantime, I’d really like to discover that Albanians of a certain age all speak English with Norman Wisdom’s accent.


ursus arctos said...

I would argue that Italy (an obsessive dubber) also supports your theory.

Mokus said...

Andy: Albanians, at least more than Hungarians, are very adroit with languages, though Italian is more likely to get you by.

As for Hungary, yes, the difference is noticeable when you cross into Romania. And it is primarily because of the reasons you mention. But, additionally, there is a trend to view English as the elitist (sznob) language of globalization. Combine that with dismal teaching conditions for native speakers (not to mention for Hungarian English teachers) and things aren't likely to improve anytime soon. Anyway, Hungarians don't seems terribly concerned about it, so why should we be?

p.s. the really can't do Eddie Murphy or Woody Allen voices, but it is fun to watch them try.

Emily said...

About Hungarians being insanely proud of their dubbing? I've had the experience of watching American movies on DVD with Hungarian friends (all English speakers) and being forced to watch the dubbed Hungarian version because friends insisted it was better.

Anonymous said...

Dubbers in Europe have one thing in common - a massively inflated superiority complex, hence the German, Spanish, Italian, French and (Rep. of) Hungarian operations.

Non-dubbers, such as the Dutch, Portuguese Romanians, Hungarians in Romania, et al, do not.

Usually the rest of the world (esp Russia) dubs when it's targeted at a population with low literacy.

Dubbing isn't the CAUSE of 1L exclusivity, it's the RESULT of it. People in Hungary, Germany, etc just assume you don't need anything else!


Andy said...

I'm not terribly convinced by the "inflated superiority complex" argument, Soj. In fact I'm not even really sure what it means. Arguably the Brits have one of those too, but we don't dub. Hungarians, for example, have a fairly well developed sense of national pride (some might say overly developed), but not, I'd say, much of a superiority complex.

Anonymous said...

The amount of non-English media in either UK or USA is miniscule whereas countries like Hungary or Poland of course broadcast a great deal of foreign material.

Therefore comparing the odd subtitled film in UK to what's being shown in Sweden or Hungary is not a valid comparison.

People in countries such as Romania, Sweden, Portugal and the like really DO believe that learning and speaking a foreign language is extremely critical.

Whereas people in countries such as France, Hungary, Germany etc. do not.

Why is that? In either case the speaker in question is surrounded by millions of people in close proximity who speak other languaqes.

So why are some nations so "isolationist" linguistically speaking while others are not?

My supposition is it's based on a general feeling that your language (and culture, etc) is superior and hence you dub over the great majority of foreign visual media.

I could be wrong but that's certainly my impression.

What makes this whole thing so curious is that in all of these continental EU countries, dubbers or not, there's a great deal of English language pop and other forms of music that's quite popular and in its original format, i.e. untranslated.

So apparently it's ok to mumble along and guess at lyrics just not television dialogue :P


Gadjo Dilo said...

Interesting, and I'd join SOD right away. You'll be unsurprised to learn, Andy, that Romanians mock relentlessly the Hungarians' attempts to dub certain, very non-Hungarian characters - their attempts at John Wayne seems to come in for particular scorn.

dumneazu said...

The Hungarian dubbing industry lives off of subsidies paid to theaters who supply the voice actors, thus "saving the proper Hungarian language" from corruption by amature dubbers. The end result is that you have a relatively small pool of voices dubbing everything. All women sound like a whiney Buda Hills "Golden Girl" and all authopritative male voices are dubbed in "Army Officer" cadence. I stopped watching TV because of this a long time ago.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Dutchman and I can assure you we have a massively inflated superiority complex as well. We're just so confident about our superiority that we don't feel the need to advertise it.

Also, Andy, you have proven this cartoon to be indisputably wrong -- read the text that appears when you hover your mouse over the picture.

Anonymous said...


I hate dubbing. As an actor and director, I can say that performance is, in most cases, 90% voice. And dubbers, no matter how good, are never as good as the original actors, who were after all picked by the director for a reason.

Furthermore, the difference between how the lips are moving on the screen and what sounds are being produced subtly destroys the reality of the movie.

I think all of this contributes greatly to the arrogance of many "major" European countries when it comes to English and American movies. Most of them are absolutely terrible when dubbed, but considerably better in their original language.

Unknown said...

Italian dubbing is a bit different... their tradition is to even dub Italian in Italian, an acquired taste they had trouble getting over. It lends a surreal quality to their productions which one might argue is an artistic decision.

Hungarian dubbing is just lousy. It also hurts Hungarian youth - with so many young Hungarians studying English for business, dubbing makes them lazy and a bit disconnected from the real language. As we expats know, there's nothing like subtitles to help your bilingual skills in that second language.

Unknown said...

Is there subtitling for the hard of hearing on any Hungarian TV channels?

mediamovers said...

There is lot of history to Dubbing/Subtitling which was used by then leaders to ensure language loyalty is maintained.
The language localization method then adopted has been continued with marked improvisation.

The options were open then too & even now...consumption of dubbed/subbed products depend on a lot of factors which is essential for cultural transfer between countries/regions.

Media Movers, Inc.

michael farris said...

Let's hear it for dubbing!!!!!

When I go to Hungary (which I love doing, it's one of my favorite countries and I adore the language though I'm awful at it) I love the fact that I can turn on tv and hear Hungarian and not just the same old Anglo-American crap (or horrible voice overs - I live in Poland).

The idea that a society needs to make learning a particular foreign language such a central part of its existence as to completely restructure the television industry is just kind of .... creepy (self-colonization anyone?).

Hungarian dedication to dubbing really does seem like a kind of refreshing language loyalty in a Europe where first language loyalty is not cool. For very selfish reasons I hope it continues. (I also like listening to the Hungarian soundtrack which is often found on dvds in Poland).

Andy said...

Hi Michael

I know where you're coming from, and the rise of English as a global language is in many ways an unwelcome development, but I think these days learning English is almost important as learning maths for example. It's an essential tool for getting on in life. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn't.

Quite apart from this, the desire to "change" the original by dubbing is quite odd. And it's not like it would mean a lack of Hungarian on TV - there are still all the Hungarian programmes. Romania subtitles, but I don't lack opportunities to listen to Romanian on TV. Probably about 75% or more of the programming is still in Romanian. It's not like the entire TV schedules is taken up with Desperate Housewives and Steven Seagal movies.

Unknown said...

English Hungarian translation

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