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Spain’s film dubbing: ghost of a fascist past must be laid to rest

Failure to use original sound in movies is bad for cinema fans and their language skills.


La Dama de hierro in action.

Most ex-patriots living and working in Spain will be all too aware of the Spanish penchant for dubbing foreign-language films. Whether Spanish-speaking or not, this is enormously irritating, particularly for those of us not living in more cosmopolitan cities like Madrid or Barcelona, with more cinemas showing films in original version.

The nearest big city to me is San Sebastián, which hosts an annual international film festival famed for its predilection for the avant-garde. Throughout the festival, all showings are in original version and San Sebastián is extremely proud of its cinematic culture. Yet after almost 60 years of hosting the event, there is still only one small, two-screen cinema in the whole city which shows all its films in original version.

There is a valid reason why dubbing is so popular in Spain (of which more later). It is also fair to say that dubbing is something at which the Spanish now excel. As Beatriz Maldivia points out in the blog Reflexiones de Cine: “In Spain the quality of cinema is very low, as are our musicals and televisual productions… but our dubbing actors and actresses are pretty good.”

Dubbing actors and actresses in Spain are frequently trained or experienced actors and not simply voice synchronizing artists. Certainly Spanish dubbing actors have a delivery and timbre that is often better than the actor they are doubling for.

As Maldivia also points out, however, the quality of the translation is another matter entirely and is often very poor. This is particularly noticeable in dialogue-heavy films and those which contain frequent jokes and plays on words.

In some cases they get it right. I’m told the dubbing actor who doubled for Brad Pitt in Snatch was superb. But that was thanks to a decision to portray Pitt’s pikey as an Andalusian gitano, a shrewd move that also factored in an important cultural interpretation, essential to Spanish viewers’ understanding of the character.

There is currently within certain Spanish circles an increasing demand for films in their original language. Most digital television systems now give you the option to choose whether to watch in dubbed or original version, and many of my contemporaries in Spain are keen to watch in English as long as Spanish subtitles are available.

Any reticence until now about watching films in their original version went hand-in-hand with a shamefully poor level of English. Shameful because it is something of which many Spaniards clearly feel embarrassed. The image of former Prime Minister Zapatero sitting apart from his European counterparts, a reflection of his inability to speak English, quite probably drew more comments from the Spanish themselves than any other nation.

One nation, one tongue

This inferiority complex when it comes to speaking foreign languages (particularly English) is due in no small part to Franco’s legacy. Franco policy was designed to keep Spain as uni-lingual as possible, essentially to eradicate the country’s three other main languages (Basque, Catalan and Galego) though ultimately to the detriment of all.

It was that same legacy that put Spaniards in a linguistic and cultural void when it came to the cinematic arts and what Iñaki Gauna  in Notas de Cine describes as “the deep rooted and culturally perverse custom of dubbing” films.

The practice of dubbing dates back to an order issued by the Caudillo on April 24 1941: “It is forbidden to project films in any language that is not Spanish”. In some cases this led to script changes (most famously to one line in Casablanca: “In 1936 he fought for the Republicans in Spain”) in essence turning dubbing into a tool for censorship.

Despite its fascist beginnings, however, the tendency among Spaniards to watch dubbed versions of films has become a hard habit to break. To some extent it has played a positive role. In part, because dubbing in Spain is now an art in its own right. But also because it makes potentially ‘cult’ films accessible to all audiences, something sadly not the case in English-speaking countries.

As anglophones we can hardly claim to be more cultured because of our snobbery towards dubbing. How much of the general British, Australian or Irish public can claim to watch foreign-language films on a regular basis? And why should they, when sooner or later Hollywood produces a remake in English? Films like Amelie are simply the exception that prove the rule.

Furthermore, foreign films with subtitles are completely inaccessible to a significant minority. Namely those with insufficient sight to read them.

Thatcher in Spanish

There are some films, however, that simply should not be viewed in any other than their original version. Walking past my local cinema the other day I noticed they were currently showing The Iron Lady – or rather ‘La dama de hierro’.

There is little doubt that Thatcher’s most famous characteristic, aside from her hairdo, was her voice. This is something even most Spaniards can appreciate, and for those who don’t, a loyal portrayal of the character (which Meryl Streep’s is said to be) will soon put that right.

So a dubbed version of a film about the former British PM is surely rather senseless. As is watching The King’s Speech – a film devoted to the subject of speaking – in any other but its original version. And the very existence of a dubbed version of a film that is multi-lingual by design (i.e. Inglourious Basterds) beggars belief.

Younger generations of Spaniards now have a better level of English than their predecessors. But full immersion in the language (or exposure to any language that is not Spanish) can only be achieved through a complete break with the past and a fascist legacy that paved the way for what is tantamount to a dependency on dubbed cinema.

The time has come for contemporary Spanish governments to take the bull by the horns. Just as Franco’s legislation of 70 years ago put the country in a linguistic quagmire, new legislation must now help to put the country on a cultural and linguist par with other European nations.

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Published: Feb 2 2012
Category: Culture, Featured, Films, IberoArts, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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19 Comments for “Spain’s film dubbing: ghost of a fascist past must be laid to rest”

  1. I remember one of our professors in the Master on dubbing and translation at the Universidad de Sevilla told us that dubbing did not start with Franco, but before, so if you surf the web, just a little, you will find lots of articles explaining that it was during the Second Republic that dubbing started in Spain. Of course, Franco insisted on dubbing in order to have everything controlled and to avoid foreign propaganda to enter the country (although, for example, censors were not able to notice the criticism to the regime in a Spanish film in which actors talked in Spanish as “Bienvenido Mr. Marshall”).
    I agree however with you that maybe our listening skills and our knowledge of English vocabulary would improve if we had films as they were originally made. However we cannot blame the dubbing industry for our backwardness in languages, but the education system.
    Here you can find a link to a website where the origins of dubbing in Spain are explained (although the website is in Spanish):

    • Thank you Alfonso. I stand corrected. I should have said that “the practice of consistently dubbing all foreign cinema” dates back to Franco’s order, not simply dubbing in itself, which is also a common practice in other countries.

  2. I find this article extremely patronising. “Younger generations of Spaniards now have a better level of English than their predecessors. But full immersion in the language.. can only be achieved through a complete break with the past and a fascist legacy that paved the way for what is tantamount to a dependency on dubbed cinema.” Really? Because English speakers are so fluent in languages other than English, I suppose. Please not that American audiences in particular are not that keen on watching films in non-English languages — hence the slew of unnecessary and usually inferior remakes.

  3. I agree. Subtitles are enough, dubbing removes big chunks of “the message”, and keeps us idiomatically isolated.

    • Subtitles removes big chunks of “the film”… Cinema is a visual art, much more visual than auditive… if someone says something but has the face of saying the complete opposite, you are going to be reading subtitles instead of watching what matters: EVERYTHING … or you though actors are absolutely everything in a film? There are whole teams of professionals making an effort to create a visual narrative for you to ignore it by reading yellow letters in front of their work… Yep, that’s appreciating cinema.

  4. And the British/Americans do not dub the movies that are not in English??? I’m sick and tired of watching Almodóvar films in English. Really, you have to be kidding me… and the English speaking are soooo fluent in other languages that they give lessons to other countries on how to be fluent in other languages that are not the national language. Really, before writing insulting articles like this, please first have a look at yourself!

    • I agree with hahaha and aa (however silly I feel saying that) on several points. Look at myself first? Well, I do… I’m a Brit who has mastered enough language Am I in a minority? Of course I am. Also, I have had the unrewarding task of trying to teach Spanish to English children who would say to my face: “what’s the point? everyone speaks English”. Also, few nations live in such a linguistic quagmire as the English. But this article is aimed at Anglophones living in Spain; the issue of how bad the English are at languages is for another audience.
      Also, I do make a mention of how few foreign films English-speakers watch and the fact that lots end up as remakes in Hollywood. I make it quite clearly in fact.

  5. Big, bad John Wayne getting off a horse and hearing him say in a squeaky geek’s voice: ” Hola, Yimmy, donde vas?” or the same old unnatural women’s voices pretending to speak like young girls gets called “pretty good” dubbing, when I find that nearly always it’s pretty execrable here with voices seldom matching a character and translation of dialogue on the atrocious side. Is Fuck Off really VAYA, HOMBRE? There seem to be a small club of only a handful of readers doing ALL of the voices, probably family of Network heavies, and it couldn’t get any worse. How Spaniards expect ever to learn another language properly I don’t know, but it won’t be through TV and Cinema in poorly produced adaptations. Well I gotta vaya off now…

  6. By the way, I don’t see what this has to do in any way with the suppression of local languages under Franco. Foreign films are also dubbed into Catalan.

  7. By the way, us Brits are ex-patriates, not former patriots!!

    • I was wondering who would notice! Although not a native English speaker, I am a certified translator of English into Spanish (and vice versa) and these things just punch me in the eye. This said, I live and work in Uruguay, and here the usual is subtitling, not dubbing. There are of course both versions available, but I hate the dubbed ones, mainly because of translation issues – you only need to look at some subtitles to start pulling your hair out in frustration – and also because they impress me as faintly ridiculous. And they deprive me of the enjoyment of listening to the Southern, or New York or Boston or West Coast or for that matter British accents, which certainly add to the story and sometimes prompt comments in the script which go largely unnoticed in the dubbed version.

  8. A favor del doblaje

    Es casi una obligación que los países hispanoparlantes y francoparlantes resistan al colonialismo linguístico del inglés. El español y el francés son dos lenguas tan importantes para la cultura occidental como el inglés y deberían defender sus posiciones frente a la homogeneización de la subcultura moderna en inglés.Los políticos franceses son mucho más beligerantes en esto que los españoles y hacen muy bien. Espero que no se caiga en el daño a la cultura de raíz latina que significaría lo que el articulista propone.Bastante doloroso es para mí ver la progresiva macarronización anglofílica del italiano como para ver lo mismo en el francés y el español.

    Observo que Franco es un recurso muy socorrido a la hora de realizar imposiciones de nuevo cuño. Está visto que si el general no hubiera existido, para apoyar las excusas y las estrategias de algunos, haría falta inventarlo.

  9. Estimado “A favor del doblaje”

    El doblaje no es una defensa frente a ningún “colonialismo”, si acaso todo lo contrario. Y si hay algún daño en la historia es el causado por el doblaje al limitar severamente la exposición a otras culturas, no solo la angloparlante!, y a favorecer un aislamiento cultural escandaloso.

    Por ejemplo, si el público español tuviese un poco más de exposición al exterior, el ‘pop’ comercial español no nos vendería como originales ciertos plagios escandalosos. Esto es una merma en la creación cultural, al favorecer de productos de bajo nivel.

    El daño a la cultura española lo hace la incultura española. Lo hace que solo se promueven obras de los hijos de “los de siempre”. Lo hace que no leemos, en ningún idioma, y que no escribimos, no hay más que ver la ortografía en los periódicos de mayor difusión (subvencionados por grupos de poder, claro). Lo hace el predominio de la telebasura (con honrosas excepciones). Y el dichoso tele-fútbol.

    Franco no es “un recurso muy socorrido”, es un asunto pendiente: cuarenta años después acarreamos la vergüenza internacional de no haber juzgado al régimen, y de seguir haciendo apología del mismo. Esta incoherencia es otro daño cultural grave, sobre todo en el plano de la política donde España ha tapado su ignorancia con auto-complacencia, ensalzando una “transición” que no fue más que una consolidación del poder en los que ya lo tenían.

    Dejemos ya de echar la culpa al empedrado y de defendernos de enemigos imaginarios. Tenemos un problema cultural “nuestrísimo”.

  10. Como decía mi abuela: a quién le arreglo lo suyo que para lo mío no tengo ganas… estos ingleses siempre teorizando a cerca de los errores ajenos con la larga lista de errores que tienen ellos mismos en su casa… pero claro, siempre queda mejor criticar al vecino: antes se ve la paja en el ojo ajeno que la viga en el propio.

  11. Problema 'suyísimo'

    Franco aburre. Y tampoco hemos juzgado las matanzas del Frente Popular, marioneta de la URSS. Si hubieran ganado ellos habríamos tenido otra dictadura criminal, pero de corte soviético. Mejor aplicamos lo de Azaña: Paz, Piedad, Perdón. Y pasamos de una maldita vez a otra cosa, que ya huele tanto frentismo.

    En cuanto al doblaje, francamente algunas películas quedan mejor dobladas que sin doblar. Los dobladores españoles son muy buenos y las películas en inglés están llenas de declamadores mediocres.

    En cualquier caso, las películas se seguirán doblando. Es una cuestión de negocio. El español es la segunda lengua del mundo occidental y la hablan como lengua materna 500 millones de personas. Un mercado enorme.

  12. Dubbing is not a fascist creation, it’s a Paramount’s creation. Films where dubbed in spanish, french, german and italian before Franco came to power. Others say that Franco copied dubbing from Mussolini, but I insist: it was Paramount and the Hollywood industry who created and support it.
    It isn’t a fad from spanish people to dub films, it’s Hollywood who pay for the films to be dubbed.
    I hope dubbing never cease to exist, because it is a service that I love… And I understand english perfectly.

  13. I have no time for dubbing in any language. Subtitles or nothing for me. When I first came to Spain 5 years ago, full of desire to learn Spanish quickly, I watched absolutely everything on TV in Spanish for the first few months, even original films and series. Yet something gnawed away at me all that time, like something wasn’t quite right with the experience. Once I figured out how to switch to the original version, I realized just how fake dubbing makes a movie or TV series sound by comparison. The original actors’ voices are not minor aspects of a movie that can simply be substituted no matter how good the dubbing “actors” supposedly are (I think they’re average at best personally and completely fake and nauseating at worst).

  14. En España se dobla muy bien. Además, la gente no quiere ver películas de leer y punto.

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