Pablo Romero-Fresco (UVigo, GALMA)

Elena Di Giovanni (University of Macerata)


Despite being probably the most criticised (and even vilified) audiovisual translation mode, there is little doubt that, generally speaking and from different viewpoints, dubbing works. It is still the preferred form of access to foreign language audiovisual content for millions of viewers in countries such as Spain, Italy, France and Germany and the preferred choice to translate cartoons and children’s films in subtitling countries. Its success is not only commercial, as recent research shows that dubbing is also a very effective translation mode from a cognitive point of view. Despite the artifice involved in replacing the original actors’ voices for other voices in another language, it seems that (habitual) dubbing viewers still manage to suspend disbelief and become immersed in the fiction of film. Research in audiovisual translation has devoted a great deal of attention to explore how the professionals in the dubbing industry, such as translators, dialogue writers, actors and directors, make dubbing work. However, very little has been written from the point of view of the dubbing viewers. How do we watch a dubbed film? How do we manage to suspend disbelief without being distracted by its artificial nature and by the mismatch between audio and visual elements? In short, what mechanisms do we activate to make dubbing work?

The aim of this project is to answer some of these questions by analysing, with the help of eye-tracking technology, the viewing patterns of spectators watching dubbed and original films. This analysis is complemented by a discussion on other aspects that may be relevant to the perception and overall reception of dubbing, including cultural arguments on habituation, psychological and cognitive notions of suspension of disbelief and perceptual phenomena such as the McGurk effect.

The results obtained so far in the project suggest that, when first exposed to dubbed films at an early age, viewers may feel a sense of wonder that leads to habituation and to an automatic and unconscious engagement with the dubbed fiction, facilitated by their ability to suspend disbelief, their interest in the story, some degree of comprehension of the plot and a sense of immersion that involves feelings of flow, transportation and presence. This process of engagement is not affected by the discovery, years later, of the prefabricated nature of dubbing, since by then this path to engagement has already been unconsciously internalized. Getting used to dubbing, when it happens at an early age, is simply part of the (unconscious) process of getting used to film.

Yet, the question remains as to how dubbing viewers can manage to switch off the powerful McGurk effect and thus avoid being confused or distracted by the mismatch between lips and audio. A potential answer may lie in the results of the eye-tracking study conducted here, which show that the Spanish participants watching a dubbed scene from Casablanca have an extreme negative mouth bias, with 95% of attention on the characters’ eyes and only 5% on their mouths. This is in sharp contrast with their perception of how they watched this scene (58% on eyes vs 42% on mouths), with their own viewing patterns watching a comparable scene in Spanish (76% vs 34%), with the viewing patterns of the English participants watching the same scene from Casablanca (76% vs 34%) and with the data obtained so far in the literature for both film and real-life scenes.

Although in need of further research with larger and different samples, these results, similar to those obtained in Di Giovanni and Romero with Italian participants, point to the potential existence of a dubbing effect, an unconscious eye movement strategy performed by dubbing viewers to avoid looking at mouths in dubbing, which prevails over the natural and idiosyncratic way in which they watch original films and real-life scenes, and which allows them to suspend disbelief and be transported into the fictional world. Although not conscious, this mechanism seems to be activated only with dubbed films and is then turned off when watching an original film, where the viewing pattern is aligned with eye movements in real life. From this point of view, there is a quasi-Darwinian quality to this effect, which enables viewers to adapt their viewing patterns in order to “survive” in the dubbing environment, that is, in order to overcome the danger of being put off by the asynchronous nature of dubbing, and thus achieve the ultimate goal of being engaged with the fictional story.


Presentation at “Linguistic and cultural representation in audiovisual translation International Conference”, Sapienza Università di Roma & Università degli Studi di Roma Tre, 11-13 February 2016:

Universidade de VigoXunta de GaliciaMinisterio de EconomíaEuropean Union

Universidade de Vigo Facultade de Filoloxía e Tradución | Despacho Newton 5 | Campus de Vigo As Lagoas | Ctra. de Marcosende | 36310 Vigo (España)
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