Whenever I travel outside of my usual milieu, I like to buy local newspapers and watch at least a bit of local TV, just for the fun of it. These are some of the best tools to immerse yourself in the day-to-day life of locals and to see exactly how insane the place you are visiting can be. It was during such travels that I discovered the immense gap in the way different countries treat their movie and TV audiences. Greek televisions use subtitles (which makes it really easy for English-speaking foreigners to watch and understand things), while their Spanish counterparts dub absolutely everything into submission. Americans make fun of subtitles (even when they find themselves in need of them in order to watch the latest foreign-language indie critics gush over or, even better, anime), while Singaporeans cannot live without them (due to the number of different languages spoken per square meter).
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, subtitling (or subbing) and dubbing are two different techniques that have more or less the same objective: crossing language barriers and making content available to all. Dubbing involves translations read by voice actors (and you will find that in Japan, for example, the same voice actor may end up dubbing both a Ninja Turtle and Donald Trump), while subbing is limited to the on screen printed translation of the ongoing dialogue.
For a while, it seemed that dubbing got the upper hand, as most Western entertainment conglomerates employ it endlessly. However, the revolution ignited by the streaming services changed the industry in more ways than one. Since they are not limited to geographical or political borders, streaming services have begun looking for content in unusual places and have discovered actual gems. Starting off with some local movies and going as far as producing entire series, they proved that they mean serious business and that their audiences should not be underestimated, regardless of all the moaning caused by the appearance of subtitles during festival screenings.
For example, Netflix invested serious amounts of money in Spanish dramas, German thrillers and Japanese anime, making them available with subtitles instead of dubs. And it paid off, because younger audiences tend not to be so aggressively bothered by the need to watch video content and read text at the same time. After all, people in other parts of the world have been doing it for decades… Even Youtube has taken a similar path, allowing creators to crowdsource subtitles made by fans (“fansubs”) in order to make their content available to (almost) all viewers.
And even our very serious industry (the one dealing with non-entertainment related translations) has reacted to this situation, by giving a hand to those in need. For example, Wordbee has announced the release of the first professional video subtitle translation tool, which will be integrated directly in a CAT tool provided with various video editing and preview features. Obviously, the people at Wordbee weren’t necessarily thinking of our next Marvel fix when they came up with this idea, but rather at the large companies that have offices all over the world and that need to make available the same video content to all their employees.
Therefore, it would seem that subbing has taken a leap forward and is currently running ahead in terms of popularity and usefulness. But you never know what kind of Internet-inspired way of dealing with our linguistic differences will show up in the future, especially with the involvement of the really big players in this field of work. Maybe Elon Musk will soon make it possible for us to dream our quarterly financial reports, instead of going to all the trouble of preparing, translating and presenting them.