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In Praise of Watching Movies Dubbed into Spanish


A radical but apparently effective solution for improving your viewing enjoyment of gorgeous but poorly-written films...

Makes more sense in a foreign language...?

Round about the summer of 2003, I was scrolling through the on-screen channel listings and saw that Spider-Man 2 was about half-way through. Being that nothing else of interest was on, I hit the enter button on the remote and the scene of Spidey fighting Doc Ock on the train was just getting started. Smacking each other around, trading quips, it occurred to me immediately that I had accidentally selected HBO Español. Now, like any average American, I only fluently speak our bastard flavor of English, albeit peppered with Yiddish learned from my family and British- and Scottishisms gleaned by repeatedly reading Trainspotting, so I obviously only knew what the adversaries were saying as far as I could remember from a DVD viewing several months earlier.

But as I sat there, listening to the web-slinger and his immediate nemesis, I was kind of amused by it. It wasn’t “ha-ha” funny, but it was interesting in a way I couldn’t’ve anticipated. Without subtitles, I didn’t know exactly what they were saying, but having seen the movie a couple times, I knew the gist of it. After a few minutes, I flipped a channel back to the English version but only saw another few minutes of it before turning the TV off to read a book.

A couple of weeks later, I accidentally did the same thing again, only this time it was with the execrable Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones. It was the scene where Obi-Wan is getting ambushed by the Separatist bots while giving a report to the folks back home. The sound of Yoda’s grunty little voice in Spanish was just too much fun to turn away from, and I settled in to watch a movie I intensely disliked. Suddenly, the beauty of it struck me: if I didn’t know what they were saying, I didn’t have to be pissed off by how bad the writing was.

I waited a couple hours until the movie started over on HBO Español West and watched it from the beginning. Not only was the dialogue in Spanish, but all the on-screen text (including the crawl-up) was too! I didn’t have to listen to Manaquin Skywalker whine all over my movie, I didn’t have to hear Natalie Portman bleat out Lucas’ terrifying “romantic” dialogue and I could pretend they were talking about something else when he tells her that he’s just killed women and children and wants more power which somehow doesn’t keep her from “falling in love” with him. All I had now were the great visuals without all that pesky story getting in the way, the way Lucas intended!

"Suddenly, the beauty of it struck me: if I didn’t know what they were saying, I didn’t have to be pissed off by how bad the writing was."

When it was over, I sat back and thought, “Man... I can’t wait til Episode III comes out - in Spanish!” In the meantime, I contented myself with rewatching Episode I and other movies that were obviously beautiful and well-made, but sucked because whenever a character opened their mouth, my brain began to contract. I started watching movies I swore I’d never see because I knew they would hurt to watch and lamenting shitty, pretty flicks whose DVD didn’t come with a Spanish language track, like The Cell or The Crow: City of Angels.

It spilled over into other languages, too. For example, The Last Samurai was exceptionally well shot with incredible costumes designed in a subtle, mournful color palette. However, the fact that it was actually the French who came over to teach the Japanese how to war and the nut-shrinking Dances with Wolves-ishness that Tom Cruise’s character represents lead me to try the film with the French track, which worked out pretty well for me.

There are movies now, like Twilight, that I’ve never seen in English, and I never will: movies whose subject matter repels, but whose cinematography and music compels. This simple, alternate way to watch movies saved me from the nightmare of sitting through Avatar and put a special shine on things that are already awesome, like watching Deadwood in French. Before, I would shudder when forcing myself to watch a Star Wars prequel to see the spiffy sights and hear the ginchy sounds. Now, sometimes I watch A New Hope and occasionally The Empire Strikes Back in Spanish and smile broadly when “Hace mucho tiempo, en una galaxia muy, muy lejana...” appears on the screen.

Every time.

See also:

Lost in translation: the fallacy of dubbing and subtitling

10 actors who got dubbed out of their movies

The loneliness of the long-distance 'B'-movie fan


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#1 Telemundo forever! Sarah 2011-03-30 23:52
I love flipping through Univision or Telemundo and catching snippets of over-the-top martial arts movies dubbed in Spanish. There's something about the addition of the Spanish language that makes even the most tepid Jean-Claude Van Damme flick seem entertaining.

In fact, Spanish-language television is how I discovered one of my favorite so-bad-it's-good films, "La venganza del ninja" -- "Revenge of the Ninja," in English.

Read more at my blog:
#2 A A 2011-05-30 17:41
You are right. In Spain, dubbing is an art.

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