Subs, Dubs, and Accessibility

I have long been an advocate for foreign films getting U.S. theatrical releases in their original form. For an incredibly long time, distributors have actively avoided releasing subtitled films to theatres. They often would choose to both dub and heavily recut the film into something that they believed would better connect with American audiences. Famously, after the Studio Ghibli film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, was heavily recut, Harvey Weinstein was mailed a katana, with an attached note reading ‘no cuts’, clearly as a threat in case he attempted to recut their other release, Princess Mononoke, prior to its U.S. theatrical run. In some extreme cases, production companies, rather than simply subtitling or dubbing, would acquire the rights to the films just to remake it with English speaking actors. The most famous cases of this are The Ring (2002), which was a remake of Ringu (1998), and The Grudge (2004), a remake of Ju-On: The Grudge (2002). This practice can be traced back quite some time, to Edmund Goldman acquiring the rights to Gojira (1954), and adding scenes with American actor, Raymond Burr, to create Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956). This is still happening today, as New Line recently acquired the rights to South Korean horror film, Train to Busan (2016), for an English language remake, which has confused many as a central plot element to that film is a high speed rail, something which doesn’t exist in the U.S.

Despite this, we are beginning to see a change with films like Parasite (2019) and Minari (2020) both getting full theatrical releases, subtitled with no plans of a dub for either in sight. For Minari, this is part of the film’s vision, as it was produced completely in America, telling the story of a family of South Korean immigrants in the 1980s. To alter this would be to ruin an essential piece of the film. Even beyond that, languages rarely translate perfectly and localizers have the unenviable job of ensuring a translation makes sense. Subtitles take a lot of the pressure off of localizers, as they only have to worry about portraying the dialogue as accurately as possible, rather than having to account for mouth movements and other complications that come with dubbing.

However, this isn’t to say that dubbing is no longer needed. Dubbing still serves an incredibly important function: Accessibility.

When one thinks about accessibility and film, they mainly think of closed captioning and subtitles. This is the most common form of accessibility we see in our lives. They aren’t just indispensable for the deaf and hard of hearing, but they equally serve a purpose to others who may simply be watching content in a loud area. Despite their commonality, there is no question that the captioning currently available is considerably sub-par. While some still take the time to manually caption their programming, many have begun to rely on questionable voice recognition software to create the captions. Some streaming services and TV channels still opt to have no captions at all. This past year, Google decided to remove the community captions feature on Youtube, no longer allowing captions to be crowdsourced rather than relying on a sole content creator to provide them. There is definitely a need for captioning to improve. However, we also must consider those who captions and subtitles are inaccessible to.

Individuals with disabilities like dyslexia can find foreign films completely inaccessible. In a thread on r/Dyslexia, people lament the difficulties with watching subtitled movies. Some report having to rewatch the entire movie multiple times in order to fully process what is happening. As far as my research could conclude, there is no singular standardized captioning format, so it is incredibly likely that many captioned films do not utilize dyslexic friendly fonts or text formatting. Some others in that same thread also talk about how individuals they know who have ADHD can read the subtitles just fine but cannot internalize and interpret the information.

This doesn’t even touch on the struggle for those who are blind or have impaired vision. According to the National Federation of the Blind, as of 2016, there are over seven million adults with a form of visual disability in the U.S. Obviously, captions do not assist these individuals. The majority of these people require audio description for the material they consume. This is nowhere near as common a practice as it should be. Even Netflix, which has a fairly broad selection of titles with audio descriptions, launched their Daredevil series, whose titular character is blind, with no audio description. Parasite currently only has English and Korean subtitles available on most streaming services, which I have seen a large amount of blind individuals lament. There are a large number of streaming services that do not offer Audio Description in any form. If you wish to see which services have and do not have audio descriptions, the American Council of the Blind was a database here.

This is not me calling to have every movie and TV show retroactively given subtitles, dubbed, and given an audio description. It would be amazing if we could do that, but it would truly be a herculean task that many could not imagine the scope of, as globally, thousands of films are made a year. This isn’t even a call for specific films to be given those accessibility tools. I want to just make people aware that these tools are needed and there are not enough available. Film is a wonderful collaborative artform, and everyone deserves to enjoy it. No one will ever truly watch movies the same way, but we should be doing our best to ensure that everyone can watch it in their own way.

Freelance Writer & Video Editor

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store