Translation: Lost or Found?


The first time I watched the classic American 90s sitcom The Nanny, I wasn’t in America. I was twelve years old, staying with my grandparents in Croatia for the summer. Back home in Nashville, I didn’t have cable, which meant no Nick at Nite and no Fran Drescher for me. In Croatia, it played every morning, along with Full House, Step by Step, and a show I still don’t know the real name of—in Croatian, it was called Rat u Kući, which translates to War at Home. Though the titles were translated into Croatian, the shows themselves were not dubbed over—instead, they had subtitles, which I would sometimes attempt to read just for the sake of improving my fluency. Usually, though, I’d slip into watching the show without translation, only stopping to notice the subtitles when they blocked my view of something or were incorrect.

America is the land of television. Since its invention, the TV has been a staple of American daily life in a major way. It makes sense, then, that many of the most well-known shows worldwide were developed in America. Which means they’re (mostly) in English. Non-English speakers are an audience that many TV producers tend not to take into account, but they make up a significant portion of viewers of American shows, both old and new.

In Europe, the way that countries deal with American and other foreign TV shows varies. In Croatia, as I said, the vast majority of what plays on TV was created in a different language and is subtitled. In Germany, there are not nearly as many foreign shows available: instead, they have shows like Germany’s Next Top Model, Kiss Bang Love (similar to the Bachelor), and of course some original German content mixed in with the sparse foreign productions. In Austria, the availability of American TV shows is again enormous, but the shows are not subtitled—instead, they are dubbed over in German. This somewhat changes the experience for the viewer. Fran Drescher’s distinctive voice, for example, would be replaced by that of a German-speaking voice actress.

Maybe they’d choose a voice actress with a similarly distinct voice, or maybe they wouldn’t and as a result some of the show’s jokes simply wouldn’t make sense.

I first noticed this distinction between subtitled vs. dubbed over while staying with some friends in Austria, so I asked them what they thought of Austria’s dubbing practice. The reviews were not as positive as I’d expected; apparently, the same voice actor was sometimes used for different actors in different shows or movies, creating connections between movies that didn’t previously exist. They also commented on how Austrian peers were not very good at English, since they didn’t regularly hear it.

And there lies the biggest question: is that a good thing or a bad thing? In today’s world, speaking English is useful, and in fact the inability to speak English can sometimes hinder careers or make traveling much more of a struggle. On the other hand, English is, for many, a language of oppression. Globalization mixed with a history of colonialism by the Brits (and, later, Americans too) has spread English everywhere, even wiping out some other languages in the process. According to the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, 43% of all languages are currently endangered. In the last forty years, 141 languages have become extinct, and there are 335 languages with less than ten speakers. Many non-English speaking countries have reacted to the loss of language diversity with a governmental insistence on preserving the native language, France (though also heavily involved in that colonial history) being the most active: they have put into place laws about how many English words may be on billboards, how many songs in English may play on the radio.

I spoke to Chester Lee, the director of academics at Kasteel Well and professor of Intercultural Communications. Lee speaks Dutch, German, Chinese, English, and those are only the languages he mentioned in our short conversation. He was able to give me some insight on the reasons behind the choices countries make between dubbing and subtitles.

"In some European countries, like France and Germany, they have content restrictions about how much American content can be allowed to be brought across, and that dictates how often which country can have the original sound.” Those restrictions, as previously mentioned, are part of a reaction to globalization and the death of smaller languages, but it's interesting that places with more commonly spoken languages, such as France and Germany, are the ones with the power to preserve their language.

It isn't only English that dominates a large part of the world, of course. "In Spain, you have the Catalan (language), Galicia at the top - that area. And they are pretty much - or Basque, for example, you know. They have very much a strong identity. But think about a national Spanish TV channel. It would never allow a Basque or Catalan or Galician dialect on the Spanish channel, for example,” explains Lee. “If you have a dominant language (on TV) which has been controlled by state media, and that doesn't allow the diversity to come on, that is not going to help that minor language or identity to continue, to flourish. But I think that what is important, when you look at countries as big as France, or Spain for example, that national identity has to be coherent.”

He makes a good point. In Catalonian Barcelona, signs are in Catalán and Spanish. Most people speak Catalán and Spanish (though usually not English). Spanish is enough of a dominant language that Spain doesn't need to worry as much about preserving it. There is a lot of media in Spanish available for consumption: TV, movies, music. Much of it is even popular in parts of America. So Spanish speaking countries don't always need to look to American TV and movies. It makes sense, then, that so few people in Spain speak English. It simply isn't a necessity for them as much as it is for others.

Unlike my friends in Austria, Lee is more supportive of dubbing over than subtitling - he believes that the main goal with dubbing TV or a movie is to give the audience the main gist of what's happening. Subtitles, he says, are often incorrect or weirdly translated so that the real meaning does not come through. I can vouch for this, as someone who has mentally corrected Croatian subtitles many a time. He does not feel that either has a major effect on national identity. So what does, in his opinion? Reboots in different languages.“"I like the fact that the country uses that format, but has its own language and its own characteristics in the show. Say, for example, you talk about - what is it? - American...Idol. Or the Voice, for example. I like the fact that they respect their own country's specificities. They will allow contestants to sing, for example, Croatian songs, instead of everybody going on to sing American or English songs. I think that that is a better way to connect the audience, and also to widen the perspective: this is not an American show recycled. This is our show, with our characteristics, using our own language. I like that better.”

Also worth considering are the economic abilities of a country to use all dubbed over media. Sometimes the choice has nothing to do with national identity, but instead is all about money. Countries have different levels of concern for protecting their languages and identities, and different perspectives on how to do that.

“I think that you can understand that why French and German and Italians are so adamant about any foreign content program being dubbed into their language, so that they can preserve,” Says Lee. “We can let the generation know that speaking German is more important than knowing English. Whereas smaller countries, like (the Netherlands), we are totally not dubbing it. Because we know that such little population in the world speaks our language (Dutch). And also, we understand that to be able to speak other people's languages, it helps us to survive as a singular group. ”

This debate is one that probably won't ever end, and all these different techniques for translation will likely remain in use. For smaller languages and dialects, there is often no useful translation, which forces many speakers of minor languages to also learn dominant languages. This does help us all communicate with each other, but it's important to remember that no language is without value and no language should be forgotten.

Illustration by Allaire Conte