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To sub or to dub? A translator argues for dubbing

Sunday, March 2, 2014. By Maha ElNabawi

“I didn’t always have a passion,” said Zeinab Mobarak. “But I came to realize how vital translation is and how special dubbing is.”

This perhaps controversial belief, in the importance in dubbing, was returned to again and again in Mobarak’s fascinating talk last Tuesday about dubbing and subtitling, given as part of the AUC’s ongoing translation series.

Mobarak has translated films and TV for subtitling and dubbing, including Disney masterpieces such as “Cinderella,” “Pinocchio” and “The Princess and The Frog.” She’s worked in theater, translating “The Burglar,” by Tawfik al-Hakim, for example, from Modern Standard Arabic to both English and colloquial Arabic. She has also worked a lot with translation for education, compiling an English-Arabic dictionary for children in the 1990s.

Why dubbing?

Dubbing is her preferred mechanism, Mobarak said, because the film experience deals with the medium of spoken word. Subtitles convey the meaning of what’s happening or being said, but not the feeling, she argued.

She believes that viewers get the most enjoyable experience when scripts are dubbed using a translated text that is as close as possible to the original meaning, with all the nuances of the original language.

Mobarak made a strong case that dubbing is better than subtitling, specifically when the audience is young.

“Who of us has not gone to the movies with kids and there they are sitting all through the film asking, ‘What’s happening, what did he say?’,” she said. “You want to convey to the child what’s happening, but you can’t in the movie theater. So dubbing solves that — the child can follow — and if the dubbing is good, all ages can enjoy it.”

“It is dubbing that has really opened my eyes to a whole new world,” she added. “Sometimes people doubt dubbed productions, but I hope by the end of this talk I will at least have been able to change some people’s minds.”

The challenge of time and space

Mobarak had some surprising things to say about the challenges translators face when creating text for both subtitling and dubbing.

“It might sound weird, like we’re traveling into time and space,” she said, “But subtitling is really limited by space, because all I have is the space of two lines that are going to be typed on screen. And each line can only take six or seven words.”

If what’s being said makes for too many words on screen, the translator has to make cuts.

“If I try to fit in everything that is being said in proper Arabic — word for word — I might be able to fit it, but the speed in which the entries are going to be put on screen will not allow people enough time to read it. It will just be words flashing on a screen,” she said. “So the immense limitation of space in subtitling is really a challenge — how to get it across without losing any of the meaning.”

This problem only increases when the result is dubbed rather than subtitled.

“Each sentence spoken in English has a duration,” said Mobarak. “Whoever is working with that text or that film has to keep within that duration … because the actor is going to act the Arabic sentence to it.”

In order to assess sentence duration, Mobarak counts the syllables and then attempts to find an Arabic translation that fits the count. She thinks sentence duration is much more important than translating text verbatim.

Mobarak also offered insights into the visuals of speaking, and how the words have to fit them.

“Some vowels are very apparent: the ‘o’ the ‘a’ and also some consonants because they formulate specific movement in the lips,” she said. “So when I have a close up and the character is saying “so” I really can’t say ‘thoma’ because it doesn’t work.”

But phonetics adds a further challenge to the mix. She’s found that she has to speak translated dialogue out loud. If a sentence trips her up, she rewrites it.

“Sometimes we have a brilliant sentence, and it fits the duration and the sync and vowels but it sounds terrible, it’s a tongue twister — its very difficult for the talented actor to say it.”

For songs, the translation has to fit all the above points, while rhyming and adhering to a rhythmic pattern that fits the music.

Mobarak, meanwhile, has a particular passion for “easy words.”

“We have to always remember this is spoken word,” she said. “The characters are actually talking to each other. So if I use difficult words it will most certainly put the viewer off.”

This brings us to the colloquial vs. Modern Standard Arabic debate, which was discussed with intensity during question time.

According to Mobarak, until a few years ago, most Disney movies and cartoons were dubbed into colloquial Arabic, giving films a wider range of expressions.

“Colloquial is more colorful,” she said, before describing a move away from it with dismay.

“I don’t want to say that there’s a whole wave against translating colloquial Egyptian,” she explained, “but certainly, in the past few years, something has happened in distribution that made everything go towards translating everything into Modern Standard Arabic, to the extent that some Disney classics translated before for dubbing in colloquial Egyptian were redone — redubbed and re-acted into Modern Standard Arabic, to a saddening quality.”

I don’t want to talk about love

Mobarak recalled a sad episode when she was asked to redub both “Lady and the Tramp” films into Classical Arabic.

“One of the songs was about love between two puppies, and the producer called me about the song — called ‘I never knew I could feel this way’ — and she asked if I could redo it. The client ‘didn’t want to talk about love…’ And I brought out the lyrics and went through them as she was with me on the phone — she is brilliant and a brilliant friend — and I said, ‘look I’ve looked through it, the word love is nowhere there.’

“She said, ‘I know, but the client (Al Jazeera) said it implies that there is love.’ And that I should make the song about something else. So I made the song about something else, and said thank you — I’m never doing that again.”

Incidentally, Variety reported in March 2013 that Disney had inked a multi-year volume deal for TV series and Disney and Disney/Pixar movies with Al Jazeera Children’s Channel, a pan-Arab free-to-air network that reaches millions of Middle Eastern and North African homes.

Mobarak concluded with a tribute.

“As we know, the first animated film was Snow White, made in 1937,” she said. “It was created by brilliant artists — Walt Disney and his people — and it was all done by hand. They didn’t have the brilliant tech we have now.”

She showed us a small clip of the 1975 Arabic version. The adapters seem to have taken everything into account: duration, syncing, word choice. It’s spot on.

To dub or to sub?

Despite the many arguments for dubbing, voice overs come at a hefty price financially and culturally, points which came up during question time.

In some ways, dubbing gives the illusion that the film is a local product, because the actors seem to be speaking the same language as the viewers. Subtitles, on the other hand, are a form of translation that withholds the original to a more accurate degree. As TV Troupe points out, if a viewer is watching a subtitled film, and they take their eyes off the words, they are instantly reminded that the film is foreign.

For children in particular, dubbing also could do them a disservice: According to Lonely Translations, dubbing might reduce a viewer’s ability to acquire a new language.

Arguably, subtitling opens up young minds to alternative cultures and ways of thought as well as new languages. Dubbing, however, can shield young eyes from the limitless possibilities of the outside world — as in Mobarak’s “Lady and the Tramp” anecdote.

Although Mobarak set out to convince the unconvinced that dubbing is superior, I wasn’t convinced. On the one hand, dubbed films might be easier for children to digest and enjoy, which is particularly important when considering the lack of local productions for children here. But on the other hand, children grow up absorbing an adhoc culture that is neither Egyptian nor foreign, but an overpriced patchwork of both. There may never be an end to the dubbing versus subbing debate, but in an ideal world, filmgoers should at least have the choice. 


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