Sometimes, there can be nothing more frustrating or irritating than having to read a video. No, you read that correctly. While videos are meant to be watched, if the work is in a foreign language, this typically means that you will be reading a lot of subtitles – not fully watching the video. Though far from the best solution, subtitles have always had the edge over dubbing, due to cost and speed, but a rising technology, machine dubbing, may soon change things.
First and foremost, examining the term itself, machine dubbing can be broken down into its component words. Coming directly from the Middle French machine but related back to the Latin machina and the Greek makhana (all of which mean ‘device, tool, or machine’), the word machine was first used to define a general instrument or device constructed to perform a task in 1648 and appears in the English newspaper The Moderate, writing (presumably of a balloon) that: “He hath brought from that Country the invention of a Machine, being Airie, & of a construction so light, nevertheless so sound and firm, that the same is able to bear two men, and hold them up in the Air.” Actually a shortening of the term double, from the Old French dobler and Latin duplare, meaning ‘to do or make twice’, the initial use of the term dubbing (as it relates to sound) comes, unsurprisingly, from the advent of “talkies,” with Walter B. Pitkin and William Moulton Marston in The Art of Sound Pictures noting: “Dubbing, a method of doubling the voice on the screen after the photographing of the picture.”
Traditionally, dubbing (outside of the technical/production aspects) has been – when compared with subtitling – an arduous process, requiring a rough speech translation, conversion into local language (to sound more natural), lip-syncing, with an additional focus on articulation/emphasis/intonation/etc., and, finally, recording. By employing and adapting recent advances in machine translation, machine learning, voice recognition, text-to-speech technology, as well as the use of natural voice readers, the time, effort, and cost of dubbing can be greatly reduced, thus making it more competitive with subtitling and allowing the viewers to actually watch – instead of read – the video.
Of course, this synergy of modern technology has yet to be perfected. Along with the subtle nuances of language or flexibility of meanings for a term/phrase, which machine translation (and potentially voice recognition) may miss, lip-syncing and timing continue to be an issue: though machine dubbing can most often replicate what is being said, mimicking the speed, tone, emphasis, etc. in order to match the individual speaking on the video still presents a challenge. Still, compared to the simpler and more labour-intensive subtitling, it’s a marked improvement over what seems like using your TV as a Kindle with a video in the background.