Have you ever flicked on the latest critically acclaimed foreign show on Netflix or Amazon, only to be surprised that our Danish heroes or German villains are all speaking perfect English? Did that scenario then lead to the thought that, rather than helping us to learn more about new cultures, the rise of global streaming has meant the world has simply become a homogenised culture in which speaking English is the only way to cut through the noise?
Thankfully not. Netflix in particular has an interest, bordering on obsession, with what it calls "localisation" of content. This is what we used to call "dubbing". In practice this means that, by default, if your preferred language is set to English and you watch the Spanish crime drama Money Heist or the Arabic paranormal drama Jinn, or any other show on the platform that has an English version available, you will automatically be shown the English-language dubbed version. The same thing will happen if your account is set to any one of the 31 languages Netflix currently dubs content into. You can switch to the original language of the film or show and choose subtitles if you wish, but research carried out by the streaming platform last year suggested that most customers prefer to watch dubbed versions.
A history of dubbing
Dubbing used to be largely associated with low-budget martial arts films you'd find in the bargain bin of your local video shop – cheesy, badly put together and usually pretty terribly translated for good measure. These films, along with poorly dubbed spaghetti Westerns and South American soaps, gave rise to the term "too dubby", which quickly became a derogatory expression, and the practice fell out of favour in the 1990s.
But with the rise of global streaming services, dubbing (or localisation as we now call it, to steer clear of those negative connotations) has been given a new lease of life. Netflix, Amazon and the rest want to captivate audiences all over the world and that's a lot easier if you speak to them in their native language.
The 31 languages Netflix now dubs into is an increase of about 30 per cent in only two years, while the streaming service says consumption of dubbed content on its platform is rising at a rate of 120 per cent annually.
Although the exact figures are not available, Amazon also provides specific instructions for producers on how to label and deliver audio files in alternative languages, and strongly encourages it.
Netflix's vice president for international originals, Kelly Luegenbiehl, said at the Berlin Film Festival in February that while most viewers say they prefer to watch shows in the original languages with subtitles, in reality, if they are given the choice they will choose to watch the dubbed versions. That is perhaps an indication that while we all like to talk about ourselves as cultured souls who watch films with subtitles, we really prefer the easy option.
That default language setting could account for some of this data – if we're offered the show or movie in our native language automatically, why would we seek to change it? But again, the research suggests there's more to it. Last year, Netflix streamed dubbed and subtitled versions of the French drama Marseilles to two controlled groups of viewers. The company said those who watched the dubbed version proved "far more likely" to finish the series.
It seems the all-powerful algorithms of the digital age know us better than we know ourselves, for all our protestations of loving subtitles. Globally, the German drama Dark was watched in its dubbed version by 81 per cent of audiences in English-speaking countries.
Of course, in the digital world, the process has become much more high tech and far less sloppy looking, and sounding, than the whoops and yelps of those martial arts films of old, fun though they were (and where would Wu-Tang Clan's sample library be without them?). While previously dubbing was simply a question of getting a voice actor into a studio for an afternoon and then overlaying the new soundtrack, modern dubbing is a different beast. The plan these days is to do it so that viewers don't even realise a show has been dubbed.
How dubbing actually works
Deeny Kaplan, executive vice president of Miami dubbing house The Kitchen, describes the process as painstaking work, going from breaking down the original script by syllable and delivering a translation in a metre and structure as close as possible to the original. Actors are used who have carefully studied the tone and tempo of the original speech, with intricate time coding also a feature of the process, while video is slowed down or sped up to correctly lip sync speech on occasions when an appropriate translation can't help by itself.
The key to a successful dub, she says, lies in "using native speakers, correct casting and proper adaption". "There's no room for mistakes today," she says. "You have several levels of quality checks, for everything from sound checks to music and mixing. All of it is scrutinised."
The resurgence of dubbing in prime time shows and movies has even led to a new category of localised celebrities – Isabelle Cunha, the Brazilian voice of Millie Bobby Brown's Eleven in Stranger Things, has amassed a YouTube following of 24,000 people who tune in to watch her talk about life as a dubbing artist.
Meanwhile, Tatyana Shitov, the Russian voice of Natasha Lyonne's character Nadia Vulvokov in Russian Doll, revealed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter this month that she sometimes gets more credit for her voice work than she does for her roles as a regular actor. "I was on stage performing, I was the lead. I went through every possible emotion. I took my bow," she said. "Then a young man gave me flowers and said: 'You voiced …' and named a part and a movie. I was baffled and shocked. I was recognised not for my talent on stage but for my talent in dubbing."
The trend seems unlikely to go away. Netflix currently works with about 125 facilities worldwide to meet the demand for localised content. Two years ago the company appointed a director of international dubbing, Debra Chinn, a move that seems likely to have led to the increase in languages made available on the platform over that period. In April, Netflix also created the position of creative manager for English dubbing. Similar positions for other languages seem sure to follow.
With the rise of global streaming, not only have audiences been offered a vastly increased selection of shows and movies to watch from every corner of the globe, but an entire industry has been given a shot in the arm that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. And the best thing is, if it’s done well, we don’t even know it’s been done at all.