Dubbing still reigns in Spanish cinemas

The dubbing tradition in  Spain goes back to 1927,  when films had sound  for the first time
The dubbing tradition in Spain goes back to 1927, when films had sound for the first time / BELÉN DÍAZ
  • In Spain, more people than ever before speak other languages. One in four say they speak English. So why don't they want to watch films in their original version?

  • Only four per cent of people who go to the cinema see Original Version films with subtitles

Although Spain is still among the worst countries in the European Union for learning foreign languages, there have never been more people who claim to be able to speak in another tongue.

Between 20 and 25 per cent of the population say they are able to get by in the mother tongue of J.K. Rowling and her young wizard. However, when there is a choice between hearing Darth Vader say “I am your father,” and listening to him admit “Yo soy tu padre,” barely four per cent of Spanish people choose to hear the best-kept secret of the galaxy through the voice of James Earl Jones in cinemas which show Original Version (OV) films or Original Version with subtitles. The remainder prefer it in Spanish, with the wonderful Constantino Romero.

Is there a correlation between the two? In other words, a relationship between what we listen to and our ability to express ourselves in other languages?

Guy Heath, who for many years has run the British Council's adult education centre in Madrid, is cautious about relating the two. “In countries where people often watch films or TV series with subtitles, such as Scandinavia or our neighbour, Portugal, they are normally better at learning other languages anyway. Nowadays, the fact that more people are starting to watch films in another language doesn't mean that they will be able to speak it overnight but, undoubtedly, it does give them an advantage in terms of understanding and the pronunciation of that language,” he says.

“We are lazy, nowadays”

In the city of Soria, in the province with the second lowest population in Spain (after Teruel) at just over 39,000 inhabitants, they have started their own experiment. In November, the Lara cinema began to include a weekly session of films in the original version with subtitles. This has been organised in conjunction with a cinema forum at the National Distance Learning University which shows full-length foreign films with no translation, and students at the city's Official Language School and the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting.

These films are shown on Thursdays at 8.15pm and are advertised as “Premieres in Original Version, the best way to learn languages”. The price is also attractive; instead of the normal 6.60 euros, the OV films cost 5.30 euros to watch.

So far, the results are uncertain. About a dozen films have been shown - all in English apart from two which were in French - and Murder on the Orient Express proved the most popular: 75 tickets were sold, whereas normally between 80 and 100 would be sold for any full-length film in Spanish on the same day of the week at the same time. None of the others have have attracted more than 50 people, and only 24 went to see Subicon.

“We have become lazy. We want everything done for us. People don't even come to see black and white films, simply because they're not in colour. The other reason that original version films are not as popular is that people don't understand English, let alone other languages. However, people who do speak the language will never go and see a dubbed film,” says the manager of the cinema complex, Mercedes Silva. Despite everything, she has no intention of giving up. “We consider we are providing this as a service and it gives us prestige,” she explains.

According to the most recent figures from the Cinema Federation of Spain, FECE, which are for 2015, there are just over 3,500 big screens in Spain but barely 200 of them show films from other countries in their original language. In terms of the business they generate, of the 94 million people who went to the cinema in 2015, only 3.8 million saw original language films with subtitles. These accounted for 24.5 of the 572 million euros taken by the ticket offices in total.

“Cultural inertia”

At A Contracorriente Films, the distributor which runs the 25 screens at the Verdi cinemas - 14 of them in Original Version with subtitles - there is a different perspective.

“If cinemas don't show original version films with subtitles then it is difficult for them to become more popular and today, instead of opening more cinemas, many are closing down because of lack of support from town halls,” says Adolfo Blanco, the founder and CEO of the firm.

He believes there are also other reasons to explain the lack of interest in untranslated foreign films. He says there is a “decades-long” cultural inertia about seeing films in the original language, and in Spain the dubbing industry is “powerful and extremely good,” he says. In his opinion, “all this means that a great many people, whom I consider very intelligent, prefer not to lose any detail by reading subtitles. They want to see the film with the original voice replaced by a good translation.”

Adolfo believes there is an additional reason: “We want to be comfortable when we go to the cinema. We don't want to have to make any effort, and reading subtitles takes effort,” he explains.

On the other hand, the general director of the Institute of Filmography and Audio-Visual Arts (ICAA), which is part of the Ministry of Culture, denies that this type of cinema lacks support.

“We have a line of assistance for independent Spanish companies who distribute European experimental films in the original version - we give them 2.5 million euros a year - and we take undubbed films to schools, via the network of film libraries, because we consider this to be a source of knowledge about cinema and a way of improving languages,” says Óscar Graefenhain.

Nor is that all. In his opinion, “we watch more films in their original languages than ever before”. He has no figures to support this and also admits that it is difficult to check. He also approves of the new audio-visual platforms “which more young people are joining every day; they are the ones who can speak other languages,” he points out.

Subtitles and illiteracy

Spain is not the only country which massively dubs films. France, Germany and the UK also tend to translate foreign films in a more or less systematic manner. In Belgium they are subtitled in French and Flemish, in Italy hardly any films are shown in the original version and in northern Europe and Portugal the films are shown in their original language and the only ones which are translated are those for young children.

Although Spain is not the only country to focus on its native language, dubbing has strong and deep roots here. Its origins go back to 1927, when sound first appeared in cinemas, a revolutionary technological advance which resulted in an avalanche of films in other languages.

In those years, when more than 44 per cent of the Spanish population was illiterate, there was little point in subtitling films to make them understandable.

Later, during the Franco era, dubbing was incorporated into Spanish law. In 1941 the Law of Defence of the Language (similar to one introduced in Italy by Mussolini) came into force with a dual purpose: to defend Spanish as a symbol of national identity, and also to enable the government to censor the content of the films.

This long tradition has earned Spain admiration for the quality of dubbing, but it has also attracted strong criticism. The latest was from American director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Phantom Thread was nominated for six Oscars: “Spain is the worst place for experimental film; the dubbing is ridiculous,” he said very recently.

The president of the Union of Dubbing Artists of Madrid (Adoma), Adolfo Moreno, is used to the debate. He points out that, thanks to his profession, “these works are available to the whole world”. With regard to those who criticise dubbing because it misses nuances in the original language, he recognises that an original film is not exactly the same as a dubbed one, but says the difference depends on the film. “A Woody Allen film, for example, is not the same as Armageddon,” he says.

“If we were to take notice of the purists, watching films would become something only for elitists. Dubbing is a way of transmitting culture, so it is socially beneficial. It is essential, so that more people can enjoy films. This is a business. The owners of the films and television series want as many people as possible to see them, and dubbing facilitates that. That's why more of them are being translated, and in more countries.”