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To Dub or Not To Dub: Rethinking the cineaste's aversion to dubbing

Updated: Jun 20

by Dianne Bennett


Coliseum, Gigi Proietti
The prestige of Italian dubbers is obvious in this projection on Rome's Coliseum of dubber Gigi Proietti the day after his death at 80 in 2020. Proietti "voiced" Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando.




To dub or not to dub; that is…not a silly question. Italians especially have taught us the value of a dubber (doppiatore, literally a “doubler”), make that “voice actor,” a valued profession in Italy.




The value Italians give to the craft is exhibited by what is sometimes known as the “Italian Oscars”—The International Grand Prize of Dubbing, il Gran Premio Internazionale del Doppiaggio. The 14th annual prizes were handed out at this year’s March ceremonies. Italians’ attraction to dubbed films was underscored in February, when the dubbers went on strike for 3 weeks, protesting a contract that expired 12 years ago. As a consequence, no dubbing took place; no shows were aired dubbed. When, during the strike, Sky TV streamed the 7th episode of HBO’s smash hit “The Last of Us” in its original language, English, Italian audiences reportedly were disoriented.




Right, Chiara Colizzi, who won this

year's jury award at the International

Grand Prize for Dubbing (the "Italian Oscars")

for "Best Female Voice" for her dubbing

of Michele Williams in "The Fablemans."

She's also been the voice of Nicole Kidman

and Kate Winslet.



Unlike most Italians, Americans generally devalue dubbed films. For those of us who were introduced to “foreign films” in church basements or tiny art houses, “dubbed” films were considered vastly inferior to subtitled ones. We might not have known one word in Swedish, but we considered it critical to hear the sounds of the original actors in those Ingmar Bergman films. Were we wrong?


Netflix thinks so. A 2019 headline in the Hollywood Reporter blared, “Netflix’s Global Reach Sparks Dubbing Debate: ‘The Public Demands It.’” One of their VP’s explained, “People say they prefer the original, but our figures show they watch the dubbed version.” Netflix now works with more than 100 facilities worldwide to meet increasing demand for dubbed content. It has 7 dubbing-approved studios in Italy, 6 of those in Rome.


As the Netflix experience indicates, dubbing may be coming more into its own internationally with streaming. The film that won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Germany’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” was offered (on Netflix) in several versions, including a dubbed English version. A non-German speaker can choose to watch it either dubbed or subtitled. Streaming at home would seem to encourage this multiplicity of versions.


This map of dubbing and subtitling depicts in red the countries where dubbing is used exclusively in film and TV; in blue, the countries where dubbing is exclusively for children's fare and all else is subtitled. Orange are countries that use dubbing occasionally, but otherwise only subtitling.






Italians’ attraction to dubbing means that Italy is one of the world’s premier dubbing countries. Along with France and Germany, it historically resisted subtitling on the grounds that dubbing would better promote the country’s native language. A perhaps unintended consequence is that people in Northern European countries (like the Scandinavian ones) speak English more readily, because they’ve been hearing the original more often. In 2018, 570,000 minutes were dubbed by professionals in Italy, and likely even more are being dubbed today.

By now the Italian public is accustomed to dubbing, a practice dating back to Fascist-era restrictions. Under a 1934 law, films were required to be dubbed in Italy by Italians to obtain screening permits. The first dubbing facility opened in Rome in 1932. Other reasons given for the more expensive practice of dubbing, over subtitling, is that Italy had a relatively high illiteracy rate in that era, 21% in 1931, and that standard Italian did not start to become widespread until the 1950s (helped by dubbers). Apparently part of the Marshall Plan money after World War II also went into dubbing so that American movies could be popularized in the Italian market. Dubbing (as well as subtitling) also allowed a kind of stealth censorship. In 1943’s “Casablanca,” Rick helped the Ethiopians against the Italian Army; in the Italian dubbed version, there’s no mention of this; instead Rick fought with Spaniards against the Fascists.


Above, the dubbers at left of three leads in "The Godfather." From the top,

Giancarlo Giannini (a famous actor in his own right) for Al Pacino, Leo Gullotta

for Joe Pesci, and Stefano De Santo for Robert De Niro.


There are schools and programs in Italy today dedicated to dubbing. It’s considered a high art form there, equivalent to regular acting. The voice actors, as they prefer to be called, are famous throughout the country, as the “Italian Oscars” demonstrate. Roman Gigi Proietti, who died in 2020 at age 80, began as a stage and film actor, but was most famous for his voice acting. As with many other voice actors, Proietti was the voice of multiple stars, among them Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando. When Hoffman, De Niro or Stallone make new films, Italians will have a tough adjustment to make.


Left, Claudio Sorrentino, top,

has been the voice of Tom

Hanks, John Travolta,

and Bruce Willis, among others.





Italians like dubbed films, says Edward Lynch, who created a website for Romans who want to see films in their original language, because “they can recognize all the dubbed voices. It’s something that the Italian audience gets used to, these actors who dub and always dub the same actors.”


Dubbing schools are also big business in Europe. The longest standing program of its type in Italy was founded some 20 years ago by Sergio Patou Patucchi, a scholar of the subject who was the voice of, among others, Yogi Bear and also his companion Boo-Boo. Professor Massimo Vizzaccaro explains his university requires a (minimum) 3-year undergraduate degree to apply for this program, an intensive 12-month Master di Primo Livello (“Master’s first level”; the full name is Master in traduzione e adattamento delle opere audiovisivi e multimediali per il doppiaggio e il sottotitolo - “Master’s in translation and adaptation of audiovisual and multimedia works for dubbing and subtitling” or Master TEA for short).



Left, Simone D'Andrea, who won the jury prize for "Best Male Voice" this year for his dubbing of Colin Farrell in "The Banshees of Inishirin." He's also known for anime voicing.





“It’s a hands-on course,” says Vizzaccaro, “because these students are physically taken into dubbing studios; so they see how you need to work.” The program provides a number of different courses, including Vizzaccaro’s own “British and American Civilizations.” His course is essential, the Roman professor points out, because to be good at their trade, dubbers need to understand the culture that produces the content they are dubbing.


Schools notwithstanding, a lot of the business in Italy is passed through the family, like many other Italian professions (e.g. notaries, a much more important position there than in the U.S.), Vizzaccaro notes. (“Nepo babies” are also common in Hollywood, as we know.) Carlo Valli, the voice of Robin Williams among many others, and Cristina Giachero (voice of Scarlett Johanssen and Laura Dern among dozens) are the parents of two voice actors, Ruggero and Arturo, both of whom got their start as voices of children or animated figures (for Arturo as the young Andy in “Toy Story”). Ferruccio Amendola, considered the “king” of voice actors (before his 2001 death, he voiced De Niro, Stallone and Hoffman), was married to voice actress Rita Savignone (Vanessa Redgrave, Whoopi Goldberg).



Carlo Valli, right, the voice of Robin Williams

for more than 25 years, is married to a voice actress, and their 2 children are both voice

actors. It's a family business.



Dubbing, as well as subtitling, raises fascinating issues of cultural exchange and transmission, as does any translation. Decisions have to be made about everything from titles of films (“Scandalo a Filidelfia” [“Scandal in Philadelphia”] instead of “Philadelphia Story” [1940]) to names of characters (Rosella O’Hara instead of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” [1939]), from regional accents to puns.


The subtleties in translation arise, for example, between the French “vous” and “tu” —that is the “formal” forms of “you” contrasted with the more personal and informal ones. “There are nuances of this evolving and complex pronoun use,” comments Leslie Boldt, Professor Emerita of Modern European Studies at Canada’s Brock University, about Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece, “Rules of the Game.” These nuances, Boldt says, “mirror the shifting and evolving relationships between characters. As a French speaker, I have the benefit of tracking these shifts.” The English speaker cannot easily access these nuances, because English doesn’t distinguish between these forms of “you.” As Boldt explains, “Therefore, the translator of the original English pronoun (appearing in an English-language film) would have to decide which register of pronoun use is appropriate when choosing a French pronoun for the subtitle, or for the dubbed word in French ("tu" or "vous"?)—a challenge that shouldn't be underestimated! And, in a sense, this is an example of poetic license.”




Right, Ferruccio Amendola, top,

the "king" of voice actors before

his 2001 death, shown

with some of the many actors

he "voiced."





“Translating” regional accents into dubbed foreign language versions can be a challenge as well. In the TV show “The Simpsons,” the Protestant Reverend Lovejoy has a Southern accent. In Italian, points out Italian language and cultural educator Valeria Mancuso, his dubber speaks with a Sicilian or Calabrian accent. Apu, the Indian proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart in that series, in Italian speaks with a sing-song cadence and grammatical errors, both indicating he’s an immigrant.


The dubber also has to provide content that at least minimally resembles the words coming out of the actor’s mouth, a kind of lip-synching. Except in one anomalous case. Vizzaccaro pointed out Scarlett Johansson was an awards nominee for Best Actress for 2013’s “Her,” in which only her voice is present. In Italy, the dubbed version obviously featured someone else; so Italian audiences had no chance to witness the award-winning performance. We might think it strange to have the same voice coming out of the mouths of Dustin Hoffman and Marlon Brando, but the Italians don’t. The “famous” quality of voice actors may have its counterpart in American animated features that often employ Hollywood stars, like Tom Hanks playing Woody in the “Toy Story” series.


Lynch also notes that some Italian films in the past were dubbed—Italian into Italian—because the dubbers have better voices. Elsa Martinelli won best actress at the 1956 Berlin film festival for her role in Mario Monicelli’s “Donatella,” even though her voice in the film is that of another actress. The Italian Wikipedia lists the doppiatori (the dubbers)—there were at least 9—for the film (https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donatella_(film)). This point evokes the transition in American films from silents to talkies, which, it’s generally agreed, ended the career of some of those whose voices didn’t match their screen personas.



Left, the beloved Proietti was recently

honored with an enormous mural

on a wall in the Tufello quarter

of Rome, the working class area

where he was born and raised.





Local theaters in Buffalo, New York, reflect the old school philosophy that dubbing is not ideal. Ray Barker, Program Director for the independent North Park Theater in Buffalo, says he can’t imagine showing “All Quiet” dubbed. “No way,” he commented, “only in German with subtitles.” Both Barker and the manager of another independent small chain in Rochester and Buffalo, NY, the Dipson Theaters, report their audiences—and film companies—prefer subtitles to dubbing, except for Japanese anime. North Park’s Barker also says some theatergoers won’t see subtitled offerings because they feel they can’t keep up with the reading required, or that it takes them “out of the film.”


Another exception to subtitled foreign films, according to Barker, is family fare. Children might not be able to read quickly enough, or not at all, he says, and therefore dubbed versions are better for family movies not originally in English. He praised the French-language “Belle and Sebastian” (2013) as “a great family film.” The theater showed it dubbed so children could appreciate it. Unfortunately, he adds, dubbing by small, independent producers that don’t have big budgets results in uneven quality.


In Rome, one also has some of the choice between dubbing and subtitles at Director Nanni Moretti’s “Nuovo Sacher” theater in Trastevere where he alternates showing a film one night dubbed in Italian and another in “v.o.”, versione originale (original version, i.e. with subtitles). Lynch asked the Nuovo Sacher box office whether one version was more popular than the other, and they responded that each attracted about the same number of viewers. Bear in mind, Nuovo Sacher is essentially an art house, attracting a clientele that might lean more towards subtitles than would the general public.


Lynch, a dual citizen and multi-lingual professor in Rome, seems to be the perfect person to defend subtitles since he created his versione originale website. But, like us, he’s modified his views somewhat over the years. “I used to see dubbing as something really bad. But maybe it’s not all that bad. The problem in Italy was that there wasn’t much of a choice in the past. All films were dubbed.”


Lynch points to “Parasite,” the 2019 Korean movie that went on to win the Oscar for Best Film, one of the few foreign films to do so. He saw it with subtitles, and says that by spending time focusing on reading the words, “I think I missed a lot.” He adds, “Even if it’s in a language I don’t know, I want to see it in the original with subtitles. But maybe I’m being too stubborn. I think I would have liked to have seen ‘Parasite’ dubbed.”


The prestige of dubbing over subtitling is reflected not only in the economic and artistic commitment Italians have to the craft, but also in some cartoons. We end these ruminations on dubbing with one.




The top figure is labeled "Italian Dubbing"

and the bottom, "Subtitled Original"

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2 Comments


A. K.
A. K.
Aug 27, 2023

This map of dubbing and subtitling depicts in red the countries where dubbing is used exclusively in film and TV; in blue, the countries where dubbing is exclusively for children's fare.


This tells me that in the blue countries, people are probably better educated, hence better at reading.

The other aspect of this is, yes no doubt, dubbing can be a profession hard to master, but reducing Richard Burton to a silent movie actor is nothing more than a "criminal offense". Mimicing Burtons voice is impossible! The point of hiring an actor is to get the whole of them, not just the body! It completely removes all authenticity of the actors’/actresses’ performances, and how the film was intended to …


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Claire Kahane
Claire Kahane
Jun 25, 2023

interesting piece on the status of dubbing in Italy and elsewhere. Me, I can't stand seeing a dubbed film since I think that since talkies arrived, "acting" depends upon the voice of the actor and its nuances. Splitting a character between 2 "actors" -voice and image- subverts each.But then, I'm less interested in what appeals to more people, and more old fashioned in relation to film as an art. But this article is an eyeopener to what's happening elsewhere. thanks.

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