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Explained: France's passion for dubbing films

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Explained: France's passion for dubbing films
France is historically known for dubbing movies. Photo: AFP

Historically France has been known for its enthusiastic dubbing of movies, but times are changing and streaming has led to more people watching subtitled original versions - although it might be too early to say adieu to French dubbing stars.


In amongst the tributes pouring in for the American actor Matthew Perry was one that might have surprised non-French people.

"It is an immense sadness" - the emotion of Emmanuel Curtil, French voice of Matthew Perry. 

While hardly a household name, Emmanuel Curtil has a voice familiar to any French fan of Friends - as he dubbed Mathhew Perry's Chandler Bing into French. 

You can check out his work here.


In fact, as is common in the dubbing industry, Curtil voiced all of Perry's roles in their French translation.

Likewise when voice actor Patrick Poivey died in 2020, social media overflowed with tributes. 


While those who aren't French might think "Poivey who?", to French audiences he was a superstar - dubbing iconic actors such as Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Kevin Costner.

The reaction might seem peculiar to foreigners, but the dubbing tradition has long been firmly rooted in France's cinema culture.

But as streaming platforms take over more and more of the screen time in France, some fear the curtain will fall over the French dubbing industry as more people get used to watching subtitled versions of films rather than the dubbed VF (version française).


Dubbing is the norm

France, along with Spain, Italy and Germany, is one of the EU countries that dubs the most of its foreign programmes. 

Reader Question: Can you avoid seeing a dubbed film in French cinemas?

With streaming making it easier to watch a show in its original language and sometimes allowing early access to new releases that haven't been translated yet, will it mean the end of the dubbing industry? 

"I don't think there is a debate," Anthony Panetto, a dubbing artist and secretary of the ATAA (association of translators/adapters of the audio-visual), told The Local.

"In fact, multi-lingual versions on TV have been available for 15 years in France, and more recently on platforms, and the dubbing industry is still strong."

During the pandemic, Netflix France considered it was important to explain to the French public why dubbed versions of several of its programmes were missing. 

In a tweet, the company explained that dubbing companies were closed due to the Covid-19 crisis, and that it chose to offer the possibility to watch the shows and films with subtitles rather "than nothing at all". 

"We want you to know that as soon as we'll be able to add the missing VF, we will do it," tweeted the company. 


Dubbing does seem popular, yet as of today, there haven't been any official surveys on the number of viewers who choose to watch the dubbed version over the original version.

“We are trying to organise with other bodies to ask for a study with numbers regarding the relation between the original version and the dubbed version,” said Panetto.

“Until recently, it was considered that 90 percent of the population watched a show in French, but that subtitled original versions were becoming more popular,” he said.

And while many actors remain in the shadows, some have been gaining more and more esteem with the ATAA’s Award Ceremony, which acknowledges the work of these behind the scenes translators and voice actors, with Manga or TV show fairs where voice actors can meet the public.


“With the internet and social media, voice actors are coming into the limelight because the ‘voxophile’ community (voice actor fans) can reach out to them more easily,” said Panetto.


If many people in France prefer watching movies in French rather than English today, it is also a product of a deliberate government policy that sought to challenge the United State's post-war cultural hegemony.

"In 1949, to face Hollywood’s power and to boost its movie industry, France implemented a law which required a foreign movie to be dubbed in studios located in France in order to be released,” wrote filmmaker Thierry Le Nouvel in the book Le Doublage et ses métiers (Dubbing and its jobs) in 2007. 

For decades, watching a movie in its original language was impossible in France.

“Over the years, our country became an expert with a unique savoir-faire, with the use of the rhythm band, which can be considered as ‘the expression of a real cultural exception’,” Le Nouvel wrote. 

English skills at fault?

One reason the French still prefer dubbing today is linked to France's relatively weak English skills. According to the EF English Proficiency Index, France ranked 23rd out of the 33 European countries included in 2019.

Charlotte, 31, who used to watch her movies in French, recently decided to switch to original versions. “I realised that I was missing the emotions and that I wasn’t getting as much into the movie with the French versions,” she told The Local.

“I always watch a foreign programme in French and when it hasn’t been dubbed I watch it with subtitles,” Melina, 25, told The Local.

"I am not fluent enough in English to watch shows exclusively in English and it may be lame, but we don’t all have the chance to speak fluent English," she said.

A 2007 study showed that a programme aired with subtitles could result in a 30 percent decrease in audience numbers.

But even if someone's English is good enough, many French people still prefer to watch programmes in their mother tongue rather than in the original language.

“Some watch a programme in the original language because they think it’s cooler, but honestly watching it in French allows me to really look at the images instead of watching the subtitles, and to better immerse myself in the movie’s atmosphere,” Raphaël, 35, told The Local.

Paris vs. Regions

For years now, there has been a strong divide in France between those promoting movies in their original language and others promoting films dubbed in French. 

In fact, people who watch a film dubbed in French are often considered as being lazy because they don’t want to read the subtitles or listen to a foreign language, while people who prefer movies in their original language consider subtitles or dubbing as being un-artistic.


“In the 1930s, it was really difficult to watch subtitled movies outside of Paris, because of an official regulation which drastically limited the number of movie theatres that could show subtitled versions,” according to French audiovisual translator Jean-François Cornu in La Revue des médias.

“This is why films dubbed in French have long been associated with the regional public, while films in their original language are supposedly meant for people living in Paris or in important French cities,” wrote Cornu.   

Today this situation still lives on with a clear predominance of films in their original language in Paris, while the split between those in favour and against the French language versions remains strong. 

“People who say watching a movie dubbed in French is cheesy are snobs,” said Panetto. "This amounts to trashing any foreign art that is translated.

“People think reading a text on a rhythm band is easy but in fact voice artists are real actors, who often play in theatres or do voice over,” he added.

“Some people are really attached to the voices, there is an intimate relationship with the voice,” Panetto told The Local. 

By Olivia Sorrel Dejerine  

French vocab

If you want to know whether the film at the cinema will be dubbed or subtitled, it's all in the acronyms.

If you're watching a foreign film, its listing will include either VF, VSOT or VO.

VF - Version française - this film will be dubbed into French

VSOT - Version Originale Sous-Titrée - the screening has the original soundtrack and (French) subtitles.

VO - Version Originale - in its original language with no French subtitles




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