Watching Star Wars with Subtitles

Happy New Year!
I hope you are having a restful winter break. I have been reveling in all the free time to spend with family, read books of my own choice, catch up on some television shows, and play lots of games.

Before we met up with my family in Switzerland, Josh and I had a chance to take a quick detour to Madrid, where two of our friends are living for the year. (Cami is doing her Master’s there at IE Business School.) The day we arrived also happened to be the day that the new Star Wars film, Rogue One, came out . . . so naturally the first order of business was to go see it. I have been particularly excited for Rogue One because Felicity Jones was cast as the lead. She has been one of my favorite actresses ever since I saw her in the indie film Like Crazy at Sundance several years ago. (She is also fantastic in The Theory of Everything, The Invisible Woman, and Breathe In).

Seeing Star Wars in Madrid in English, however, was easier said than done. Most movies in Spain are dubbed over in Spanish rather than being subtitled. To give you a sense of what that looks and sounds like, watch the Spanish language trailer for Rogue One:

Since my experience of foreign films is usually through English subtitles, I was quite intrigued by this practice–especially since the asynchrony between the original actress’ lips and the voice actress’ dub feels really distracting to me. Curious, I did some research and came upon this blog post entitled, “Subs or Dubs: Why some countries watch films dubbed (e.g. France, Spain, Italy) while others watch with subtitles“. He argues that the primary correlation with dubbing rather than subtitling is English proficiency, i.e. the Scandanavian countries and the Netherlands, which have high English proficiency, tend to prefer subtitles, while those with lower proficiency prefer dubbing. He also notes that dubbing is associated with countries that more consciously reject American culture. 

I came across similar answers on quite a few different blogs, but the conclusions felt too speculative so I dug a little deeper into the matter, focusing on the history of subtitling and dubbing in Western Europe. This is where things got very interesting. There is a long history, since the beginning of the 20th century, of each European country exploring the various options of how to distribute and present foreign-language films. Dubbing did not take off initially until various political regimes got involved. Miika Blinn, a German scholar, writes in his paper entitled “The Dubbing Standard: Its History and Efficiency Implications for Film Distributors in the German Film Market” that:

Nationalistic film policies and censorship encouraged the use of dubbing as a means to manipulate foreign films’ content and obtain favourable ratings by the Reichsfilmkammer: The “choice in favour of dubbing [was] influenced by nationalist considerations in many countries” (Dibbets, 1996). Nationalism perceives foreign-language films as offensive and threatening national identity and culture, which can be remedied by dubbing (Danan, 1991: 611-612). In 1929-1930 Mussolini prohibited all films with nonItalian dialogue tracks to foster Italian national unity; Franco pursued similar policies in Spain (Danan, 1991: 611).

These leaders consciously sought to minimize Hollywood and the English-language’s influence within each national culture, and, though political regimes have changed dramatically in Western Europe since then, because such practices were naturalized into standard cultural practice, they have remained habitual today. Of course, I am grossly simplifying the history of dubbing and subtitling, so if you find this subject fascinating, I encourage you to read more of Blinn’s essay and/or do some research of your own.

All that said, before we arrived in Spain, our friends had done reserved tickets at a theater that was supposedly screening an English language version. We arrived and quickly learned that was not the case. Thankfully they refunded our tickets, but it was back to the drawing board if we were to see Rogue One that evening. So we huddled over cafés con leche, armed with the cinema’s free wifi to develop Plan B. The trick to doing this in Spain is being able to read the code: VO, VOS, and VOSE. VO stands for versión original (original version), and it means that the film is being screened in its original language, whether that be English or French or Japanese. VOS and VOSE indicates subtítulos (subtitles). Those terms are usually synonymous, though the E explicitly designates the subtitles as being in Español. 

We managed to find a screening later in the evening that was VOSE, so we dashed over to procure seats. Once inside, we made another interesting discovery, confirmed by our friends, that one should never assume stadium seating in Spanish movie theaters. Our theater had a slight gradient, but I spent a good chunk of the film shifting back and forth in my seat to see the screen while the couple in front of me made out. 

Watching with Spanish subtitles was an interesting experience and ultimately, quite enjoyable. While my spoken Spanish is rusty, I’m fairly proficient reading the language, so I found myself using the subtitles to enhance my comprehension of the narrative. Even when lines were spoken quietly or out-of-sight of the camera, I knew what was being said–from the subtitles. And sometimes it was simply fascinating to juxtapose the Spanish interpretation of dialogue with that of the original English. 

All in all getting to experience the latest iteration of the Star Wars world outside of the U.S. was quite a treat. Seeing the excited faces in the packed theaters and hearing the cheers and laughs of the audience was a great reminder of the special way in which the Star Wars franchise has appealed to people around the world in such a fundamental way. And indeed, the recent Star Wars films have also consciously embraced more diverse casts, inviting a greater global audience to identify with the films’ characters. I have been concerned though that the financial factor involved in maintaining such a franchise will ultimately result in the dilution of narrative. For now, we seem to still be in good hands. And we only have another year before we get to follow up with the next one.

The featured image is courtesy of Pexels, made available for use through a CC0 license.

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