Lost in Translation: Tips for Enjoying TV Shows & Movies in Their Native Tongue

Carolina

Carolina

Argentinian Carolina has an extensive movie background in the cinematic universe. She is our resident TV analyst and a seasoned expert in global streaming platforms. She showcases her comprehensive knowledge through her love for Netflix 'Originals', Frozen, The Good Place, and The Dragon Prince.

In 2020, shortly before the world went into shutting down because of the pandemic, the South-Korean film Parasite made history at the Oscars by winning in the category of Best Picture.

Parasite was the first foreign language film to win an Academy Award in this category, and it opened the Pandora’s box of the old as old as time debate of ‘subs vs dubs‘.

After winning the Golden Globe for Best Picture in Foreign Language, Parasite’s director Bong Joon-Ho said in his acceptance speech that “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

And let me tell you that he’s right.

Once you get used to reading subtitles, you’ll probably never be back to dubbed films or TV shows.

The reason is that any media in its original language provides a wholesome experience even when you don’t understand said language.

When you travel abroad, you immerse yourself in the native language of the country, and you don’t have dubs or subs to help you. Well, watching a foreign film or TV show is like a journey, where you can experience a whole new culture for two hours.

As a person living in a non-English speaking country, watching foreign language films and TV shows is the norm for me. So, through this article, I’m going to give you some tips to enjoy TV shows and movies in their native tongue.

Also, I’m going to show you how dubbing and subtitles are done, with some insider views thanks to my experience as a translator.

Let’s get lost in translation together and start enjoying new films and TV shows like never before.

1. The ‘sub’ vs ‘dub’ war

Two men in a studio doing dubbing and subtitles.

Before diving into the waters of foreign language films and how to enjoy them in their native tongue, I’m going to explain the sub vs dub war.

First of all, this isn’t new. These opposite views have existed since sound films were created.

1.1.  A little bit of history

Since the beginning of cinema, Hollywood has been the main film producer, exporting movies to the whole world.

In the era of silent films, it was easy to translate a movie. With no dialogues, the only translating parts were the intertitles, consisting of frames of text inserted between the scenes to fill different functions.

Sometimes the intertitles provided dialogue while others enhanced the narration by displaying extra information.

Intertitle example

An example of intertitles.

Intertitles were easy to translate into any foreign language because they only had to replace the cards with the translated text. This can be considered the first instance of subtitles.

However, when sound films appeared in 1920, intertitles were no longer used. Now, foreign audiences could hear the actors, but sadly, they couldn’t understand what they said.

A couple of solutions were tried, like shooting the film in different languages, which proved to be expensive and time-consuming.

Also, dubbing was considered, with a single person speaking in sync with the characters in the film. This method was also complicated and expensive.

So, producers brought back intertitles, but instead of being cards between the scenes, they placed the text in the frame, commonly at the bottom, so this is the reason why they’re called subtitles.

1.2. Dub as a form of nationalism

When dictatorships arose in Europe in the shape of fascism in Italy under Mussolini’s regime, Nazism in Germany with Hitler, and the authoritarian Franco’s regime in Spain, dubs were the only way American films could be released in these countries.

The reasons these governments expressed were a strong nationalist feeling and protection of their native tongues. However, the real purpose of dubbing under these regimes was censorship and manipulation of content.

1.3. Present time

Over time, the sub vs dub war became something ideologic, creating stereotypes such as people liking subtitles are snobs and people preferring dubs are lazy to read or racist.

Since English-speaking films are commonplace around the world, thanks to Hollywood’s dominance of the market, the concept of foreign film changes from one country to another as the translating method of preference.

European countries, where fascism in its many forms ruled in the past, still keep dubbing as the mainstream translating method for films and TV shows. The American audience is used to consuming their own films, and they’re wary of watching foreign films with subtitles.

Latin American countries consume both methods, with a strong subtitles culture depending on the country.

Several European countries consume films and TV shows only with subtitles.

As you can see, the option depends not directly on the people but on the culture and policies of each country.

In the 80s and 90s, when anime began its journey to the West, thanks to fans, the whole debate reached another level. But we’ll discuss this phenomenon later.

1.4. Verdict

Even now streaming platforms have made available both systems to the audience, and now it could be considered a matter of personal preferences, the war has not ended.

The Parasite incident, Netflix’s Squid Game bad subtitling, and many other examples ignite the fire to a never-ending debate.

The truth is subtitles are the only way to enjoy a film or TV show in its purest form. Some can argue reading text doesn’t allow an immersive experience, while others say that it’s tiresome to read while watching a film.

Everything is a matter of training and learning.

However, dubs are necessary in certain circumstances, like making some content available for little children or short-sighted people who can’t read subtitles properly.

2. The Beauty of Native Tongues

An image depicting Global languages

I have always had a passion for languages, and I’m pretty sure that it started thanks to films and TV shows. Living in a country where most films are foreign, and with a scarce national production, I’ve been exposed to listening to a tongue different from mine since I was a kid.

When I discovered anime, I immediately fell in love with the sound of the Japanese language. Till today, I consider Japanese my favourite language.

Of course, I’ve studied it for seven years, and although I don’t have native fluency, I reached my goal of watching Japanese films and TV shows almost without the help of subs.

When you watch a film or a TV show in its native tongue, you enjoy it as it was conceived. Even if you don’t understand a word of what the characters are saying, you’re receiving feelings, tone, and expressions that are purely part of the language and culture from where the film was made.

Let’s analyse some of the benefits of watching movies and series in their original language.

2.1. Emotional Resonance

When sound films began a century ago, one of the significant changes, besides the sound itself, was the possibility to convey emotions through dialogues.

During the silent film era, actors depended on physical overacting to transmit emotions and feelings.

The voice conforms to 90% of the acting, and through different tones, nuances, volume, etc, you can tell if someone is angry, sad, happy, or telling a joke, even if you don’t understand what they’re saying.

Human emotions are universal.

When you watch a film or a TV show in its original language, you experience the whole acting that in most cases a dub destroys. Also, you learn to identify different emotions in other languages, and how they’re expressed.

Since you’re listening and watching, you can retrieve anything you miss from the sound from the queues in the body language and surroundings.

2.2. Authenticity

A film in its original language is a guarantee of authenticity. It’s not only a matter of sound, but also of respect for the source: script, and directing.

Subtitles are the most faithful method for translating audiovisual content. Even when the subtitles tend to economise ideas and text, they can resume faithfully what the characters are saying.

When you watch a dubbed film, this authenticity is lost to different degrees. Even if the dub translation tries to be faithful, there are going always to be changes for the sake of timing, synchronisation, etc.

Plus, sometimes the changes are with a hidden intention like censorship or manipulation.

For this reason, if you want to experience a film or a TV show as purest as it can be, the best way is to watch it in its original language. Not only are you going to listen to the actors for real, but also to access the whole work as it was meant to be.

Contrary to popular opinion, watching a foreign film with subtitles is the most immersive experience.

2.3. Appreciating Language Diversity

Once you are exposed to different languages through films and TV shows, you learn to appreciate language diversity.

Also, you get used to telling the difference between languages, even without having a deep knowledge.

For example, I don’t speak French, Italian or Korean, but thanks to films and TV shows from these countries, I can identify the languages and even know some expressions and short phrases.

3. Common Pitfalls of Dubbing

An illustration showing dubbing related material

As I briefly mentioned in a section before, dubbing has a dark origin. However, nowadays, it is a valid translation method for audiovisual content. But, it comes with several pitfalls regarding translation and how the audience experiences a film or a TV show.

3.1. Lost Nuances

Translation is not an easy job, and when it comes to dubbing, the difficulty is even harder. Even when the dubbing could be faithful to the source to some degree, several types of nuances are lost in the process.

Different shades of meaning, expressions that haven’t an equal form in the target language, etc.

However, the types of nuances that are totally lost in a dubbed film are the ones related to sound, like voice tones, pronunciations, dialects, and even feelings and emotions that are conveyed through dialogue and are ruined with a bad dub.

Humour, word plays, and jokes are other instances hard to translate properly in a dub and most of the time, they’re lost due to adaptation.

3.2. Mismatched Voice Acting

This is another pitfall very common in dubbing. The mismatch could be because the voice actor didn’t suit the character or actor they’re dubbing. There are tons of examples of annoying voices that have ended up ruining great characters.

This also links with bad acting. A bad dub acting ruins the original actor’s acting.

Also, a bad choice of a dubbing actor can lead to misrepresenting a character’s age, gender, or personality. Sometimes this can be done on purpose with censorship as a goal.

In the 90s, Sailor Moon anime was butchered in the American dub, and one of the big changes was giving a female voice to a male gay character, with the intention of erasing the LGBT content and making it “suitable” for children.

All of this can lead to a bad experience while watching a foreign film or TV show.

3.3. Timing and Pacing Issues

As I already said, dubbing is hard, and one of the hardest parts is the timing and pacing.

The timing is the duration of each dialogue line, and depending on the source language and the target one, it could be complicated.

Why?

For example, dialogues in English tend to be shorter than in Spanish, so when an English-speaking film is dubbed in Spanish, translators must reduce the amount of words, or use similar ones to express the same idea.

Also, the issue of lip-synch must be added, so sometimes, in the translation there are words used to match the mouth movement of the actor on the screen.

What does this mean?

Those words are not always faithful to what the actor is saying in their native language.

Although subtitles look for economy of words for the sake of time too, the ideas remain faithful to the original script and doesn.’t require such radical changes.

Pacing is another issue because it’s about speaking speed.

This is very important and, at the same time, difficult. Sometimes for a matter of timing, as I already said, you can’t respect the pacing of the original, so the voice-over actor must talk quickly or slowly, which can lead to not being fully understood.

Also, the pacing can be crucial for engaging the audience into the story.

3.4. Dubbing as a tool for censorship or alteration of the source

Dubbing has a dark origin and fame since it was the obligatory translation method in European countries with fascist regimes.

Although the reason behind this choice was nationalism and the preservation of the native tongue, the real intention was censorship and manipulation of the content.

In Franco’s Spain, there was a committee in charge of approving foreign films and of course censorship and manipulating dialogues and scenes. This committee was formed by militaries and priests who addressed anything that could be harmful to their interests.

However, this practice was still alive in the 80s and the 90s in the US, Europe and some Latin American countries, with Asian productions as the target, like anime, Korean and Japanese TV shows and films.

But to fully understand why this happened, let’s analyse some details in the following sections.

4. How dubbing and subbing dominate the world

A large globe in the center, with various countries highlighted. From each country, visual streams flow out, representing dubbed and subtitled films and TV shows.

Let’s take a look at how dubbing and subbing are distributed around the world.

4.1. The Kingdom of dub

Germany and the German-speaking countries are the kingdom of dubbing. This is the traditional translation method for films in these countries, making the Germanophone dubbing market the largest in Europe.

This practice that was installed previous to WWII still remains the default, with subtitles not getting acceptance at all.

However, this crown is shared with other countries. Italy and Spain also systematically dubbed all foreign films and TV shows. Like Germany, they inherited this from their past regimes and have become the norm until today.

Other countries where dubbing is the rule are China and India.

In China, the reason is the dictatorship communist regime that has control over anything coming from outside. So, besides dubbing, foreign films go under heavy censorship and content manipulation.

India is a different case. A huge country with different languages and dialects.

Dubbing of foreign films is done in three Indian languages: Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Dubbing is not common in other languages like Bengali or Malayalam due to the high literacy rate in the population who speak them.

Interested in Indian film? Our guide ‘From Bollywood to Nollywood: The Rise of Non-Hollywood‘ covers everything you want to know.

4.2. The US and the fear for subs

The US is a special case.

Most important awards, like The Academy Awards and The Golden Globes, include in their nomination categories, foreign language films. However, these films have little exposure besides film festivals or limited releases. They are mostly relegated to streaming services.

One of the reasons is the lack of interest by the American audience in consuming subbed media. Most of these films are distributed by independent companies that cannot invest in an expensive process like dubbing, so this ends up being a never-ending story.

Lack of interest in subbed media leads to a lack of distribution of foreign films.

The war between sub and dubs is legendary in the US, and if you’re into anime, you know what I’m talking about.

We’ll explore that topic later.

The Statista website did research in 2020, after Parasite was released, and the results were interesting.

The research was about the preferences of subbed or dubbed foreign films in the adult audience in the US according to their ethnicity

The overall result was that 59% of US adults prefer watching foreign films dubbed instead of subbed.

However, this figure was quite different among the surveyed Hispanic adults, where 57% affirmed to prefer watching foreign media subbed.

Also, it’s worth noting that Hispanics were more likely to know more than one language, which made them more receptive to foreign language films in their original tongue.

However, lately, in the US there has been a rise in the popularity of subs, mostly close captions. New generations prefer to watch TikTok and YouTube videos with subs even if they’re in the same language.

This tendency is because young people have new consuming habits including watching media on any device in public. For this, watching with subs allow them to keep the volume low or mute, or to understand better in a noisy environment.

Although we’re talking about close captions or English subtitles for English-speaking content, this could be a good sign in the future to open the other languages to a new audience trained in reading while watching a film or a video.

The website Preply did a survey about the use of subtitles in America with really interesting results.

4.3. Subs rule

There are several countries where subtitles are the norm and dubbing is only for children’s films and TV shows.

The Netherlands and the Nordic countries consume all the foreign media subbed, with dubbing only for children’s content.

Something similar happens in Japan, Arabic-speaking countries and Israel.

4.4. Latin America and the control of the media

Latin America is a complex case. Ten years ago, subtitles ruled over films that were released in cinema and cable networks. Dubbing was only for air TV and children’s films.

This also applied to Brazil, even though they speak Portuguese instead of Spanish.

However, around ten years ago, some normative coming from different countries, combined with major media outlets’ decisions, drastically changed this scenario.

Currently, most major cable networks offer their content dubbed with the excuse that you can use SAP (Secon Audio Program). But this option is only available in digital packages and works in new TV sets.

Just to clarify, Latin America has a high rate of CRT TV sets in use due to the cost of new technology. So people who prefer subs but can’t afford a new TV or pay for the expensive digital HD packages are left out of options.

Regarding films released in cinemas, for example in my country, Argentina, there’s a norm that demands equal copies, dubbed and subbed, to be released.

As you can imagine, the equal part only remains in the words, because dubbed copies are always more available than the subbed ones. Depending on the theatre chain and what type of audience they have in mind as the target, subbed copies are nonexistent.

But the question here is, does this represent people’s preferences? No.

When Warner Channel LatAm decided from one day to another to air their content only dubbed, the complaints from the audience were immediate. Warner’s reply was “People asked for this!” but we as an audience asked them back “Who?”.

With movies in theatres the situation is something similar, and when blockbusters are released, the subbed screenings are the first ones to be sold out.

The excuse for equality is just that, an excuse. I’m in favour of real equality where we can have the freedom to choose how to see our media for real.

4.5. Is AI the future of dubbing?

Flawless AI, a pioneering startup, is revolutionising the way viewers experience dubbed films.

Co-founded by film director Scott Mann, the company is addressing a common issue in the film industry: the distracting mismatch between an actor’s mouth movements and the dubbed dialogue.

Traditional dubbing often disrupts the viewing experience, as the actors’ lip movements do not align with the spoken words in different languages. Flawless AI’s innovative solution meticulously studies and replicates these movements, ensuring they sync perfectly with the dubbed audio.

This technology not only enhances the realism of foreign-language films but also promises to make the global film industry more immersive and inclusive.

Mann, driven by his dissatisfaction with existing dubbing methods, envisions a future where films are more accessible and engaging for international audiences.

Currently, Flawless AI is collaborating with various producers and studios to integrate this technology into their post-production processes. The most famous recently being the Netflix movie, Fall.

The technology behind Flawless AI is based on advanced research, including a white paper by Christian Theobolt from the Max Planck Institute for Informatics.

Leveraging machine learning, the AI is adept at recognising and mimicking human pronunciation and mouth movements accurately.

Beyond its technical brilliance, Flawless AI aspires to have a profound cultural impact, potentially eliminating the need for foreign language categories at award shows, thereby fostering a more unified and inclusive film industry.

5. The Anime Phenomenon

a colorful collage featuring iconic elements of anime: distinctive character designs with large, expressive eyes and exaggerated facial expressions, scenes from popular genres like mecha, fantasy, and school life, and a mixture of traditional and futuristic settings.

We can’t deny that anime has been a worldwide social and cultural phenomenon since it became massive in the Western world.

5.1. The beginnings and evolution

Long before anime became a massive product, it belonged to a cult niche eager for more content and fascinated by Japanese culture and language. Been there, done that.

In the 80s and 90s, legal anime distribution was almost non-existent, with only a few series syndicated for TV, most of them butchered with a poor dub. This situation was common around the world.

At the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, the boom of DVD distribution made anime available to a wider audience, and more licences were acquired. This also meant the legal discovery of anime in its original language with subs.

However, hardcore fans were already used to this, thanks to fansubs and online distribution, which, of course, was not so legal.

Something interesting to point out is that fansubs contributed to the spread of Japanese films and series that otherwise would not have been known, creating a fandom strong enough to keep growing until it caught the attention of Japanese companies.

This was a pivotal moment because, after around 15 years of a worldwide fandom learning the Japanese language and immersing themselves in the Japanese culture thanks to the anime explosion, Japanese anime companies realised that there was a foreign audience for their products.

Fast forward to the present time, and you have anime on almost every streaming service including Disney+.

5.2. The sub vs dub war: the anime version

The anime fandom is where the war sub vs dub has been more active and extremist.

With purist fans whose main outlet has been fansubs with a clear preference for subs, and fans who first get used to DVD distribution and cable TV, and then streaming, preferring dubbing versions.

The Truth is that subbed anime has opened the door for many people to learn a complex language like Japanese, and many of them have their lives changed thanks to opportunities like scholarships and jobs abroad.

Many of my friends are currently living in Japan, with amazing jobs in design, translation, or game development, and it all started because we want to watch the Sailor Moon anime in its original language.

A good example of the differences between dubbing and subs can be seen here:

Anime and animated content has the ability to not fall foul of lip-syncing issues so is somewhat better than actual filmed movies.

What do you think?

Is the original Japanese audio with subtitles better than the dubbed version? Let me know in the comments section.

5.3. Fansubs

If we make a historical timeline, we can trace the origin of fansubs back to the 70s.

However, formerly they started as we know them now in the 80s. Fansubs are subtitles translations made by fans and were born due to the lack of anime officially licensed in the US.

Back then, TV stations looked for animated shows aimed at children, but the average anime was and still is for a mature audience.

The first steps of fansubbing were in science fiction clubs where they screened anime films and some episodes of anime series. The technology of the time was limiting and the process was expensive.

In the 90s and early 2000s, before the high-speed internet era, most fansubbing was done with VHS and Betamax as sources and distributed through CD-R or DVD-R.

With the arrival of high-speed internet and open-source subtitling software, the whole fansubbing process became easier and cheaper.

Fansubs are still alive and although most anime series are available on different streaming services, not all people can afford to pay for them.

Screenshot of the MyAnimeList forum.

MyAnimeList: Anime forums are awash with users discussing the best sources of fansubs.

Besides the legal and moral issues that always have surrounded fansubbing, there’s the quality department. Since this type of translation is not made by professionals, the translation quality is sometimes dubious.

On the other hand, fansubbers put a lot of work, effort and energy into bringing to the audience a wholesome and immersive experience.

How is this?

By explaining cultural details in the translator’s notes, and respecting the use of surnames and suffixes, which in Japanese goes beyond the linguistic field and is tied to cultural and social behaviour.

Sadly, all these details are skipped in official translations, both sub and dub.

It’s interesting to point out that although fansubs are generally associated with anime and East Asian media, in countries like China and Italy, where dubbing is the only translation method for foreign content, fansubs are an alternative for American films and TV shows as well.

China has a very strict policy regarding internet access and strong censorship when it comes to foreign audiovisual content due to its dictatorship communist government.

5.4. Online distribution

Online distribution made fansubbing available for anyone with an internet connection. This also changed the rules of the game. Because the wider the audience, the more widely known they became.

With such exposure, they were in the eye of Japanese companies that saw in fansubs a threat to licensing their series.

However, from the early 2000s till the end of 2010s, licensed anime wasn’t available worldwide, leaving people in some regions only relying on fansubs as the only way to access anime.

Also, official DVD distribution, both subbed and dubbed, was available in big markets, like the US, Australia and Europe. Latin American countries relied on anime aired on cable networks or on piracy.

5.5. Streaming services

The arrival of streaming services was another game changer in general terms and for anime and fansubbing in particular.

Crunchyroll, today’s biggest anime streaming service around the world, has its origin in distributing fansubbed content along with some licences they picked back in the day.

Of course, this wasn’t seen with good eyes by anime companies, so Crunchyroll had to remove all fansubbed content and focus only on licences. Currently, they are owned by Sony and can be considered the biggest anime distribution company in the Western world.

However, streaming provides a vehicle for anime to be available virtually everywhere. Besides Crunchyroll, major streaming platforms have an anime section in their catalogues. The most recent case is Disney+ with the exclusivity of Bleach.

Netflix has been producing original anime series and even has simulcast with Japan some series.

Streaming offers both subbed and dubbed versions, somehow trying to put an end to the never-ending battle of sub vs dub, giving the audience the freedom of choice.

5.6. Current status

Since the massiveness of streaming platforms, fansubs have lost the spotlight in the anime realm.

However, they’re still active as an alternative for those who can’t afford to pay for streaming services or people who are looking for rare or old series that can’t be found anywhere.

The subbed version of anime on the streaming platforms is made by professional translators.

This supposedly must be a good thing, however, some translators aren’t fans or don’t know all the popular culture nuances, and the final result is an average translation without the details fansubbers used to enrich the experience.

However, platforms like Crunchyroll know about this, so several of their translators come from the fansub world.

Streaming platforms and entertainment companies learn a lot from the shady online world of fansubbing because evidently, fans were seeking something that official releases weren’t giving them.

Right now, if you ask me what I choose, I’ll tell you the official release on streaming. I’m a former fansubber, but also I’m a full flesh professional translator now, so supporting my profession is my main goal.

However, I’m not ashamed of saying that my first steps into audiovisual translation were as a fansubber, because that was where I found my true calling.

6. Translation, localization, and adaptation

Illustration of elements like dictionaries and language guides, people working on computers with translation software, and editing film or audio for localization

The translation of audiovisual content, whether subbed or dubbed, implies a complex process that involves a lot of people. However, there are different paths depending if the film is going to be subbed or dubbed.

6.1. Translation stages

Overall, there are three instances: translation, localization, and adaptation.

Translation is the first step. The film or TV series script is translated into the target language. Generally, this first translation is more or less literal.

Localization is when the translated script is adapted to a certain culture, region, or language variant to make the product more close and relatable to the audience.

Adaptation looks similar to localization but it’s quite different. Generally, adaptation happens when something that’s said in the original language doesn’t have an equivalent meaning in the target, so the translator must look for something that makes sense to the audience.

This happens at a cultural level instead of a linguistic one. In these cases, a literal translation means not reaching the audience because there isn’t a common cultural background.

So, now I clarify the different instances of translation, let’s see how each method works.

6.2. What is the process of subtitling?

Subtitling is easier and cheaper than dubbing because it implies fewer people and fewer technological resources.

Everything starts with the transcription of the script.

Sometimes distribution companies provide the original script to the subbing companies, but commonly this must be transcripted from the audio of the film or TV series.

The transcription is done by a person who specialises in this, who must be a native speaker or have advanced listening skills in the original language to transcribe not only dialogues or narration but any other important sound or on-screen information that must be translated.

Once the transcription is done, the translation is the next step.

A qualified translator does this clearly and faithfully to the original, also following some specific rules like only two text lines and a specific amount of characters per line. Also, there are linguistic rules such as which type of words must be at the end of a line break.

The finished translation, which includes any instance of localization or adaptation and proofreading, is sent for time coding.

The person in charge of doing this must establish the time for the beginning and end of each line of dialogue and make sure they’re synchronised with the audio in the video.

After this, the subtitle is created with specialised software where the typesetting is done, e.g. font, size, colour, styles, placement of subtitles, etc.

The final stage is quality control, where everything is checked: translation, timing, and typesetting. And if everything is correct, the subtitles are delivered to the studio or distribution company.

6.3. What is the process to dub a film or a series?

Dubbing is a more complex process than subbing with a budget that can be 15 times more expensive.

This is one of the reasons why depending on the country and the film or show, subs are a better option.

Besides the financial issue, dubbing requires more people involved and more steps to be done.

The beginning is the same as in subtitling: the transcription of the script is made by a native speaker or a translator with advanced listening skills.

After this, comes the translation, which also includes localization. In dubbing it is very common to do an adaptation, meaning that certain parts of the script are totally changed to be adapted to the culture and sensitivity of the target audience.

This happens often with idioms, jokes, religious and political issues. However, not always it’s a matter of sensitivity, but to be sure the utterance makes sense to the target audience.

Once the script is translated, the search for voice talent casting begins. This is one of the hardest parts of the whole process. Generally, this step is done by the dubbing company, which is not related to the translation team.

With the voice cast complete, the recording script begins. This is a technical stage that reunites both the translation team with the recording team including voice coaches, and directors. Here, besides the recording itself, the most important goal is lip synchronisation.

The final state is mixing, in which editors and sound experts mix the recorded dub with the video.

7. Foreign films as a learning tool

A classroom setting where students are watching a foreign film, with subtitles on the screen, and taking notes. Include a teacher pointing out cultural and linguistic elements from the film on a blackboard.

Foreign films and TV shows can be a powerful tool when it comes to learning a foreign language. They provide not only the listening material inserted in a precise visual context, but also with the use of subtitles you can reach a whole new level of learning.

Several studies have been conducted regarding the use of subtitles as a learning tool. Probably you think that the only way of watching a foreign film or show is in its original language with subs in your tongue.

Although this is the more common way, there’s other combinations that can help you to improve learning any language.

For example, if you already have a basic or intermediate knowledge of a certain language, you can watch a film or TV show in this language with subs in the same tongue. This way, you’ll be listening and reading in the same language, practising the pronunciation and the spelling at the same time.

Also, this way, makes you understand grammar and syntax easily while you naturally absorb it.

At college, while I was studying to be a translator, our professors told us that the best way to improve our pronunciation and listening skills was consuming audiovisual media in its original language with subs in the same language.

I can assure you that it is a great method to practise and learn while you enjoy your favourite TV shows and films.

There is also a third method, which implies practising two foreign languages at the same time, if you have an intermediate level at least in one.

I’ll give you an example: when I was studying Japanese, I used to watch anime with Japanese audio and English subs (my mother tongue is Spanish). By doing this, I learn a lot of Japanese vocabulary and grammar while my English reading speed and comprehension increased.

In 2011, a report requested by the European Commission was published, “Study on the use of subtitling: The potential of subtitling to encourage foreign language learning and improve the mastery of foreign languages“.

This study, although it took place more than 10 years ago, never gets old. Europe is known for its multilingualism and this study put emphasis on how audiovisual media plays a key role in spreading and helping learn languages.

One of the sections of the report shows the figures for one of the surveys:

“According to the survey results, in countries with a tradition of subtitling, the majority of respondents state that their language level (particularly in English) is close to mother-tongue level, i.e. a level of 4 or 5 on a scale of 5, whereas in countries with a tradition of dubbing, the majority of respondents evaluate their level at 3 on a scale of 5.”

8. Tips for Watching films and shows in the Original Language

An illustration depicting a cozy living room setting for watching films and shows in their original language.

8.1. Rely on Context

If you ask a translator to quickly translate something on the fly, they will ask you “context?”. Understanding a language is always about context.

Words, phrases, and sentences by themselves can’t convey a complete meaning if they aren’t in a concrete context.

In a film or TV show, the context is there both visually and in sound. The character’s expressions, voice tone, scenarios, and even music are cues to better understand the narrative.

So, if you don’t grasp everything that’s said, you have tools to rely on for a better understanding.

8.2. Use Subtitles Effectively

Maybe this sounds like an obvious statement, but you may not know that there are different ways of using subtitles.

The standard way is with the subs in your language. If you’re an English native speaker, the best way to watch foreign content is with English subs. This way, you’re exposed to a foreign tongue while you get reading practice in your own language. The same applies to any language.

But also you can put the subs in the same language as the film, so you can practise reading and learn to associate the sound with the written form.

Another useful way is watching with closed captions in the same language as the film. This type of subtitle is aimed at hearing-impaired people, but since besides the dialogues, they also include descriptions of sounds, it’s a great tool for learning new vocabulary.

And finally, you can watch content in your language with subs in your language too as a means to practise the reading speed, and also to be able to watch content in places where you can’t listen at all.

On the AI Media website, they say in an article that “Whether you’re watching content in your own language or a language you’re learning, studies have shown that captions facilitate the mapping of content between sound, meaning and text, oiling the wheels for comprehension – and stimulating your brain!”

The article quotes a couple of studies about how captions and subs help to a better and complete understanding of visual content.

The website TurnOnTheSubtitles.org spreads the word about how important are subs for children when they’re learning to read.

On their home page, they affirm: “Turning on the subtitles while children are watching television can double the chances of a child becoming good at reading. It’s so brilliantly simple and can help children’s literacy so much that we want to shout it from the rooftops!”

8.3. Learn Basic Phrases

Learning basic phrases can be useful to start identifying words in specific situations. Phrases like greetings, cordial exchanges, etc., are useful not only for watching films, but also as general knowledge in case you have to travel.

Also, learning these basic phrases it’s a great way of enhancing the watching experience. There’s nothing more rewarding than understanding phrases and words in a foreign language.

8.4. Pause and Rewind

If you missed some phrase or a subtitle line, or you didn’t understand something because the subtitles were too fast, you can always pause and rewind. Maybe it could take more watching time, but it assures you understand everything.

8.5. Cultural Research

You can do cultural research before watching a film, so you can have a general idea of the country and culture where it was made. And of course, after watching, it’s advisable to do research to fully grasp the details you may have missed.

Also, it’s a good idea to research the film crew to know about their other works, how popular they are in their native country and the impact they have in their popular culture.

8.6. Watch with Bilingual Friends

Watching foreign films with bilingual friends is a great experience. I remember when I used to watch Japanese dramas with my Japanese friends, and they explained all those little details that for a foreign person like me sometimes made no sense.

Also, they can explain anything related to the language easily, and you can have an exchange with them on the fly.

Not only is it a great idea to learn more about the background of a film or a TV show, but to practise the language you’re learning.

9. Supplementary Tools and Resources

Lady in a yellow cardigan using language learn apps on her tablet.

9.1. Language Learning Apps

When you’re on the journey of learning a new language, technology can be a great ally. Language Learning Apps have revolutionised the foreign language acquisition department for decades.

They come in all shapes and colours, focusing on different aspects of language learning. However, you must keep in mind that these apps don’t replace the immersive experience of taking in-person lessons, talking with native speakers, or watching films and TV shows.

A review made by Columbia University in the USA acknowledges the importance of language learning apps but also points out their pitfalls such as “apps tend to teach vocabulary in isolated units rather than in relevant contexts; second, apps minimally adapt to suit the skill sets of individual learners; and third, apps rarely offer explanatory corrective feedback to learners.”

So, are they handy? Of course, but just as a companion to help you in the learning process, not as the only way to do it.

One of the most popular language learning apps is Duolingo, which is engaging with its game-like mechanism.

However, you must keep in mind a couple of things: it works fine to learn vocabulary and common phrases and have an approach to a language you’re interested in. Also, you must be consistent with the use, otherwise, it is very easy to lose track of what you have learned.

In case you want to know what other language learning apps are available, the magazine Condé Nast Traveler made a selection of the best language learning apps, and I couldn’t agree more!

9.2. Annotated Subtitles

Annotated Subtitles are not so widely known as the average subtitles, but are useful when it comes to better understanding a video in a foreign language.

Annotations are very common in YouTube videos, they’re textual effects added to the video. Their function is to explain what’s happening, what is being said or sung.

Besides its original goal, annotated subtitles are helpful for foreign speakers to grasp more context or understand jokes or song lyrics because they’re displayed as part of the video design.

9.3. Viewer Forums

In the social media era, forums seem to be something from the past. However, they still exist and are an excellent option to exchange and meet new people with common hobbies and likes.

The main difference with social media is forums are focused on a topic, fandom, or hobby, so you can join a forum about foreign films or certain TV shows. You can discuss content, and depending on the forum language, you can practise your writing skills.

10. My experience watching foreign films and TV shows

Rear view of a female pointing a TV remote at a TV.

10.1. My first experiences

My first subbed film at the movies was a French comedy, Trois hommes et un couffin, that two years later was adapted by Hollywood as Three Men and a Baby, starring Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, and Ted Danson.

I was 8 years old and my mom took me because she loved French films.

The following year, I asked her to watch a King Kong film with subs. I grew up in the 80s when subbed movies were only shown in cinemas, and on TV they were only dubbed.

When my dad bought a VCR, I started watching a lot of subbed films, which was a huge practice for my reading speed and my exposure to English and other languages.

10.2. Films serve as a learning tool

Once my brain got used to reading and comprehending while paying attention to all the action on the screen, I couldn’t go back to dubs, except animated films.

I self-taught English, with no formal teaching. My English tutors were films, TV shows, music, comics, Harry Potter books, and, of course, a good dictionary.

When I was confident enough, I dared to read more complicated books.

When anime made me want to learn Japanese, I watched anime with English subs. I was processing two foreign languages at the same time. Anime also made me discover what later would become my true calling: being a multimedia translator.

My first steps? Fansubbing.

So, when I decided to study to be an English translator, I passed the admission exam at college with a high mark, and all my training was basically films and TV shows.

I know that dubbing is necessary in some circumstances, like vision-impaired people who can’t read subs or children. But watching foreign films in their native tongue is an open door not only to another culture and language but to opportunities as well.

You don’t know how a language can spark your curiosity and to what kind of path this curiosity can take you.

10.3. My top piece of advice

I know people who refuse to watch foreign films because of the subs. Their argument is they can’t enjoy the whole action if they have to read at the bottom of the screen.

Other people have told me they don’t like to listen to a language they can’t understand, so they prefer to watch everything dubbed.

I can be empathic with people who actually have a problem, like a vision-impaired person, old people, little children, or any other issue that prevents them from reading properly at a fast speed.

But if your only excuse is not enjoying the whole picture, or don’t like hearing another language except yours, you may not like what I think.

So, here is a list with my advice regarding how to enjoy foreign languages films and TV shows:

Practice.

If you aren’t used to watching films with subs, you need to practise. How? Watching everything with subs!

Yes, even content in your language. Reading at a fast pace is possible, and it’s only a matter of doing it regularly. Once your brain gets used, you’ll be enjoying the whole action AND reading without even noticing it.

Start with TV shows.

Maybe a film could be daunting at the beginning because you must be reading subs for two hours. But if you start watching TV shows with an average running time per episode of 20 or 30 minutes, it will be easier to follow.

Also, TV series have the hooking factor, and you may end up bingeing a whole series without noticing it.

Choose films and TV shows from countries and languages you are interested in.

This may sound like an obvious statement, but if you’re new to watching foreign films, the best is to start with something you already know or feel comfortable with.

When I started consuming Asian entertainment, my first step was Japanese media because I was already familiar with anime. However, once I got used to it, I jumped to South Korean, Chinese and Thai films and TV shows.

11. TV Series

Let’s take a look at a bunch of international TV shows you can find currently on streaming platforms that are worth a binge for their entertainment value and their language diversity.

Squid Game (Ojing-eo geim – South Korea)

This South Korean series consisting of 10 episodes is available on Netflix worldwide.

The premise? 456 contestants agree to be part of a survival game based on children’s games to win 45.600 million won and leave poverty behind. However, the games aren’t so innocent and the whole event becomes a deadly battle for survival.

Sacred Games (India)

This thriller is the first Indian TV series produced for Netflix. With a total run of 16 episodes, Sacred Games follows a police officer who receives a cryptic warning from a mob member and now is involved in a race to save Mumbai from a disaster.

You can find Sacred Games on Netflix worldwide.

The Boss (El Encargado – Argentina)

The Spanish language has 32 variants, the one spoken in Argentina is unique. I’m not saying this because I’m Argentinian, but if you listen to us talking you won’t identify the common features of standard Spanish.

So, The Boss, it’s a great way to experience the Argentinian variant before visiting Buenos Aires. The Boss follows Eliseo, the manager of a luxury apartment building in Buenos Aires, who uses his knowledge and access to manipulate the lives of the tenants.

This series is available on Disney+ in selected countries.

Dark (Germany)

This German TV series consists of 3 seasons and a total of 26 episodes.

Set in a German city, the series follows a family through the years with supernatural elements, where after the disappearance of two children, the relationship between four families got exposed.

The series is available worldwide on Netflix.

Lupin (France)

A modern take on the French classic character Arsene Lupin, a white-collar criminal and master of disguise. The series has three seasons and a total of 17 episodes.

It’s available on Netflix worldwide.

Beforeigners (Norway)

This Norwegian series produced for HBO Max Nordic is an amazing mix of Sci-Fi, action, and drama.

With two seasons and 12 episodes in total, Beforeigners is set in the near future where strange phenomena are happening. One of these events includes people from different periods appearing in the present time.

The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House (Maiko-san chi no makanai-san – Japan)

Based on the manga of the same name, this is the first TV show for Netflix directed by acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda (Afterlife, Shoplifters).

The story follows two friends who decide to go to Kyoto to pursue a career as maiko, a geisha apprentice. However, one of them will take a different path and will find her true calling in cooking.

This series is available on Netflix worldwide.

Black Moon (Luna Nera – Italy)

Set in the XVII century in Italy, a group of women is suspected of witchcraft and are pursued by a group that call themselves the Benandanti.

The series has 6 episodes, and it’s available on Netflix worldwide.

Spectros (Brazil)

A good way of approaching Brazil’s Portuguese language is with this series that combines the best of Brazilian folklore with Japanese ghost stories. And maybe you’re wondering what the Japanese have to do with this.

Well, Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside Japan, and they’re mostly located in the Liberdade district in Sao Paulo city.

This series is set in Liberdade and follows a group of teenagers who see themselves in the middle of a conflict between Japanese ghosts and Brazilian witchcraft.

I’ve been to Sao Paulo, and believe me, Liberdade is like a little piece of Japan in the heart of Brazil. You can watch Spectros on Netflix worldwide.

Our Story (Bizim Hikaye – Turkey)

This is the Turkish adaptation of the British drama Shameless. The series has two seasons and 70 episodes with an average duration of 90 min each.

The story centres around a teenage girl who is in charge of her five siblings after their mother left them and their father became an alcoholic.

Our Story is available on Disney+ in selected countries.

12. Films

On this list, I gathered ten films from different countries. A mix of genres, the important thing here is you can grasp at the cultures where they were made and enjoy the language diversity.

Parasite (Gisaengchung – 2019 – South Korea)

The parasite was unstoppable at the awards season at the beginning of 2020. It was the first foreign film to win Best Picture in the Academy Awards, opening the whole debate about subs vs dubs again.

Parasite is a drama, suspense and dark comedy that portrays with a critical eye the social classes struggle in South Korea.

The Ki-take family is unemployed and gets into an incident with the rich family Parks.

The Clan (El Clan – 2015 – Argentina)

Based on real events, The Clan follows the Argentinian infamous Puccio family who on the surface look like a model family, but they hide a nefarious secret: they kidnap people to torture them, ask for ransom and once they get the money, they kill them.

The Puccio family and their crimes were discovered in the 80s and their case shook the Argentine society.

Drive My Car (2021 – Japan)

Based on the short story by Haruki Murakami, this film follows a theatre director who is assigned to direct a multilingual production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, while he’s still dealing with the loss of his wife.

Drive My Car won as Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 2022.

The Worst Person in the World (Verdens verste menneske – 2021 – Norway)

This film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in the same year Drive My Car won.

The story follows Julie, a young woman living in Oslo and dealing with the trials and tribulations of love, relationships and career.

Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain – 2001 – France)

Amélie can be considered a classic of worldwide cinema. It was critically acclaimed and a huge success at the global box office.

The story follows the titular character, an innocent Parisian girl, with a strong sense of justice and a willingness to help others.

18 Presents (18 regali – 2020 – Italy)

Based on a true story, this emotional and dramatic story centres on Elisa, a woman who is about to give birth to her daughter and finds out she has terminal breast cancer.

In the remaining days of her life, she gathers 18 presents for her daughter so somehow, she can be part of her life for the next 18 years.

Phoenix (2014 – Germany)

Set in Germany after World War II, Phoenix follows a Jewish woman survivor of the Holocaust, who has to undergo a face reconstruction surgery due to a bullet wound, and when she’s back in Berlin, her husband doesn’t recognise her.

The film has been considered one of the best foreign films of the decade.

Parallel Mothers (Madres Paralelas – 2021 – Spain)

Written and directed by acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almódovar, Parallel Mothers follows two women who gave birth on the same day in the same hospital and how their lives get interconnected.

Lunana (2019 – Bhutan)

This beautiful Bhutanese film follows Ugyen, a soon-to-be teacher who is assigned to make his last assignment in the remote mountain village of Lunana.

However, Ugyen’s true dream is to go to Australia to become a singer.

Ida (2013 – Poland)

Set in the 60s in the communist era in Poland, the story follows the titular character who is about to become a nun, but before taking her votes, she’s asked to pay a visit to her aunt, her only surviving relative in Warsaw.

There, Ida finds out her parents were Jews who were killed in a concentration camp, and after being orphaned, she was raised by the nuns.

Conclusion

Foreign films and TV shows are an amazing door to the world. Enjoying them in their native tongue is the key to exposing yourself to another culture and language without having to travel around.

Currently, we live in a globalised world with the necessary tools to access any content from anywhere. So, we have no excuses to leave our comfort zone and dare to experience something new and different.

Watching foreign content in their original language is an immersive journey that enriches your entertainment experience, providing you with cultural and language knowledge just at the palm of your hand.

Don’t be afraid of getting lost in translation and broaden your horizons by just watching films that are in another tongue, but at the bottom speak with the universal language of feelings.

Do you prefer subs or dubs? I would love to know your thoughts on watching films in another language so pop me a comment below so we can continue this discussion.

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