Sunday, June 28, 2009

Are British Media Racist?

Now, that is a bold question, you might think. Racist, xenophobic or misguided?

How good is your best foreign language, I wonder? Many Brits would confess to being lousy second-language speakers. A common argument for not learning another language if you were born with English, is that the rest of the world speaks English anyway, so what's the point? You get by with English anywhere in the world, and most other nationalities are often keen to try out their English, be it British or American English.

So here is the old joke: What language is the most commonly spoken in the world today? Bad English! But I say, they are at least trying, not like some other people! And most blogs out there are written in English, not always grammatically correct or without spelling mistakes, but it is probably the best way to communicate with a greater audience. Also many expat bloggers I know write extensively about their adopted countries and their languages, and how they try to integrate in every manner possible.

Some of us started learning English at school and then went on to university, like I did. When I moved to London in 1987 I got the chance to further improve my English. I actually worked hard at it. I always say it is like acting; you have to pretend you are English and act it out. I even talked to myself in the bathroom mirror! Now you might start thinking that I am mad, but no, I was just very determined.

These days nobody can detect that my mother tongue is not English, not my words, many people have said it in the past. I sound British. Am I now getting too full of myself? No, on the contrary, I do not consider myself being perfect or unique. There must be others, not born with the golden language, whom could be mistaken for first-language speakers of English.

Are you now thinking, where is he going with this? What about the British media? Exactly, this is where they come in, and I will begin in Sweden to get to the point.

When I grew up with cinema and television, and that's many years ago, we always had the subtitles when it was "in foreign". We listened to English, or French etc., but we could read the words at the bottom of the screen and get the meaning. This approach to translation is of course based on the assumption that most people are literate. (OK, do not get too offended now if you are from a country with "the dreaded dubbing". Hear me out.) In many well-developed countries, with a high literacy rate, you still find voice-overs and dubbing, so the literacy level is perhaps not the single reason for voicing it over or not. (You see, I can almost make up new words in English. It's a wonderful language, very flexible. You can twist and bend it to your heart's content.)

Does size matter? Could it be that smaller countries (as in population) are more prone to subtitling? You decide. All I know is that I was born in a small country, and we always had subtitles. I even worked one summer in the nineties subtitling TV programmes for Swedish consumption. Not easy getting the whole meaning into a limited number of seconds on screen, but it can be done. (Unless it's an auctioneer at an auction!)

So, there are two types. One is a dubbing. Like when my teenage friend went to Hamburg in the sixties with his parents and saw Help, the Beatles film, in German! John, Paul, George and Ringo spoke German! How bad is that, uh? Liverpudlians speaking German, I say! When he told us we nearly wet ourselves. A great bonus when you listen to a foreign language is of course the possibility that you might improve both your own vocabulary and pronunciation. But this is not the kind of translation that I have an issue with. No, it's the other one, voice-over.

I cannot for the life of me understand why even the flagship of broadcasters, the BBC, the most respected (?) broadcasting corporation in the world, uses voice-overs when they, for instance, interview people from other countries. And in what way do they do that, you may wonder? I'd say, in a bad and insulting way!

If, on a news programme for instance, a person from a rather foreign country is being interviewed in his/her own language, you hear this voice-over in heavily-accented English. There are no subtitles, just this voice speaking in the way the producer assumes the interviewee would speak, could he/she speak English. How insulting is that! They sometimes go to great lengths trying to find somebody with a voice similar to the poor foreigner, and then the voice-over artist/translator makes sure you understand that he/she is from a funny country somewhere far away where they do not know how to speak the Queen's English properly! The nerve! They are just adding to prejudice, pushing another wedge between cultures, languages and people. It is also very often difficult to hear/understand the voice-over.

Would it be better to have a native English speaker do the voice-over? Would they then have to find somebody with a suitable dialect/regional accent? Suitable educational level? Even more questions would perhaps be asked, but there is the obvious solution, SUBTITLING.

The people who did the voice-overs would perhaps be qualified to translate and subtitle the text instead. It might even create more jobs for educated people, both native English speakers and some of these peculiar people from Farawayistan or wherever.

Is it not about time (British) broadcasters show some faith in people's ability to read and stop using voice-overs, which only perpetuate popular prejudice?

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6 comments:

Protege said...

A very interesting issue that you bring up here, so very close to my heart as you can imagine.

I grew up in the the former Czech republic where all foreign movies were dubbed. We got very little of the American or English movies, most were French and Italian. The dubbing was at that time of absolutely high standard and the voices used were very similar to the actual actors. At one point, we identify each French or Italian actor with a particular Czech voice.
I recall our incredible frustration upon arriving Sweden, realizing everything had subtitles. We hated it with all our heart initially. It was complicated and close to impossible to follow the movies and to read the subtitles at the same time.
But, in a few years we would not have it any other way. Not did it only improve our English, but it also brought back some sort of genuine feel to have the actors speak with their native tongue.

Today my parents live back in Czech republic where the majority of all movies, this time as well American, are dubbed. The dubbing is terrible and they hate it. They never watch TV and only see the original subtitled movies in the cinema.

So I guess, it is all a matter what ones has grown up with and gotten used to as well.

Sorry for this somewhat long comment.;))

matthew_in_ham said...

I'd certainly vote for subtitling for several reasons. I would prefer to hear the original words and voice as you can tell a lot from this irrespective of how much of the language you know. My favourite films are spoken in Chinese with English subtitles and the sound of the Chinese language adds to the atmosphere, which dubbing would destroy.

swenglishexpat said...

Protege - Thanks for your long answer, no, not too long. ;-)
I can understand your struggle when you first arrived in Sweden; who wouldn't struggle? Very interesting what you say about both your parents and yourself.

Matthew - I totally agree with what you say about the atmosphere, or lack of it.

mediamovers said...

History of dubbing/subtitling didnt depend only on factors of "large & small countries" ....the rulers/key decision makers of few countries ensured 100% implementation of dubbing...which over a period of time has become so called national habit.

Dubbing/Subtitling are integral part of cultural transfer between all countries/regions.
Though the debate is always between preference of dubbing/subtitling.. each of it requires high level of artistic/technical input to ensure the final output is more local in every sense.

Dubbing brings more life to characters of a film than subtitles...though a bad dubbed film can be a nightmare to watch.

Media Movers, Inc.

LadyFi said...

Subtitling is a great way to learn a language. My first Swedish word was mordbrand (arson) - learnt it from reading the subtitles to a Beck film.

swenglishexpat said...

LadyFi - I hope you never thought that word was representative of Swedish society as a whole! ;-)