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Discovering a whole new world of movies by comparing subtitled and dubbed films

By Kleona Amoyo Published Jan 30, 2020 6:00 am

Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Parasite director Bong Joon-ho said via an interpreter when he received the movie’s Golden Globe for Foreign Language Film. The audience cheered, film Twitter went wild, and I slow clapped in my bedroom. 

Parasite was excellent and mind-blowing. If you’ve watched it, you wouldn’t change a thing — which is why people went ballistic when news about a Parasite Hollywood remake circulated: “This is what Bong Joon-ho said NOT to do! Why is America ruining everything?!?”

To be clear, they’re not doing a remake but an HBO limited series that’s in its very early stages. And it’s not Parasite exactly, just an expanded world of it. “…I would like to actualize this attempt to expand this film and explore all the ideas that I’ve had from the scriptwriting stage from what could happen in between the scenes through the TV series,” Bong said. 

Why were we so agitated when news about a Hollywood Parasite remake arose? Why were we so proud when Bong Joon-ho’s interpreter dropped that sassy iconic line? I feel like it’s because we’re so fed up with people overlooking foreign films just because they’re made in a different language.

At first, it was hard to keep up with multi-tasking reading, watching, and understanding the storyline. But once I got a hold of it, I was watching K-dramas left and right.

My first exposure to foreign entertainment was through Filipino dubbed Korean dramas and Spanish dramas on TV. It was entertaining, up until one day when my mom brought home multiple K-drama DVDs for us to binge-watch. Then, my world changed. I was introduced to subtitles.

At first, it was hard to keep up with multi-tasking reading, watching, and understanding the storyline. But once I got a hold of it, I was watching K-dramas left and right. Later on, I started watching foreign films like Amelie, 3 Idiots, Bad Genius, and My Neighbor Totoro and even foreign shows like Money Heist. 

Once I got exposed to foreign films, watching dubbed shows didn’t give me the same satisfaction I once got. It felt different. I was watching the same thing, but the experience was different. 

We have to admit that translating foreign films into another language changes the context of some lines as there are parts that don’t have a direct translation or are misinterpreted. I believe that most foreign films and shows go through the first level of translating, which is English subtitles, followed by the possibility of being dubbed into another language.

For the Spanish TV series Money Heist, originally La Casa de Papel (“The House of Paper”), the name of the show itself already conveys a different meaning when presented to the English market. Comparing the original Spanish version with subtitles to the Netflix English dubbed version, you’ll notice that there are some differences.

Let’s take the character introduction scene for example:

*Introducing Moscow*

Subtitle: “Six fur shops, three clock shops, and the Caja Rural in Avilés.”

Dubbed: “Six fur shops, three watch shops, and the Rural Credit Union of Avilés.”

*Introducing Denver*

Subtitle: “He’s the king of fights in discos.”

Dubbed: “He’s the king of bar-brawling.”

A clock is different from a watch, discos and bars probably have a different context in Spain (and bar-brawling is arguably a very American thing), and Rural Credit Union is more understandable than Caja Rural but diminishes some cultural references. These are some of the differences I encountered when I watched this scene side-by-side. I may not speak Spanish, but who knows how far the meaning of the real lines are from its English translations. 

Sometimes, we have to admit that we cringe at some Filipino films that have English subtitles or foreign films dubbed in Tagalog when they don’t necessarily match the context of the scene. It’s funny how these translations adapt to the culture of the audience. 

Translations make a film more relatable. But there are things in one culture that are completely unique in one side of the world that it’s hard to express in another.

Translations make a film more relatable. But when you think about the creators and the thought they put into making a scene, I don’t think the translators give it justice. And it’s not their fault.

Sometimes, as frustrating as it is, there are things in one culture that are completely unique in one side of the world that it’s hard to express in another. 

For me, there are three versions of translated foreign films: subtitles, dubbed, and remakes. Subtitles will always be superior as it’s the least amount of cultural subtexts removed. And let’s face it, adaptations are hard to get right and hardly ever worth it, especially American ones. 

When you open up to foreign cinema, you’re also introduced to another’s culture. Being so, you have to take it as it is. Adapting it or making “palatable” changes such as setting Asian faces aside and bringing in more “familiar” actors to Western viewers is not how foreign cinema should be treated. 

Parasite is a well-deserved global blockbuster with its original storyline and amazing acting. For a foreign film to reach that level of Hollywood recognition is unprecedented.

The spotlight for foreign films is finally on us, but it shouldn’t have taken this long for the world to notice that we have outstanding stories to tell. And I think that people’s reluctance to read subtitles plays a role in the visibility of foreign films in mainstream media, which will hopefully no longer be the case.

There are a lot of great films beyond Hollywood walls — all you have to do is read subtitles.