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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 February, 2005, 11:38 GMT
Are news reports dubbing down?
By Ian Jolly
Series Producer, NewsWatch

Why does BBC News dub foreign-language speakers when subtitles would be a better option, a viewer asks. Here is his argument and the BBC response.

Jacques Chirac
Are subtitles better than voicing over foreign-language speakers?

David Holdsworth was sitting in a hotel room in China when he heard a rare English voice coming from the TV. As he started to listen, the words were replaced by a Chinese translation.

He realised then how others must feel to hear a language they speak obliterated.

"There does tend to be a presumption that English is understood by everybody and that in Britain English is the only language understood by most of the people," he says.

"I think it's rather impolite to voice over an interviewee who is speaking a language which viewers could well understand. Fluent speakers probably find this to be particularly annoying."

Mr Holdsworth points out that when domestic items or programmes are also broadcast on BBC World, viewers in other countries can end up watching reports where their own native tongue is translated into English.

"Another issue with subtitles is that if you actually understand the language being spoken you can be confident in the quality of the translation or you can see errors if the translation is not very good," says Mr Holdsworth.

"In some parts of the world where free and open media are less common, it may be quite important for the viewer to have that confidence in the translation."

Viewer David Holdsworth
Is there much surprise that we are famously reluctant to learn other languages because our media tend to isolate us from ever encountering them?
BBC News viewer David Holdsworth

And it's not just what interviewees have to say, but how they say it. Newsnight recently broadcast a lengthy interview with Jacques Chirac with subtitles. Mr Holdsworth says that makes a lot of difference.

"When you are actually watching Chirac and listening to his voice and seeing the subtitles you get a much better feeling that you are really listening to the French president," he argues.

"You get his emphasis, his tone of voice - it's far, far better than having a translator voice over the top."

While he appreciates that news reports are compiled under time pressures, Mr Holdsworth believes there must be technology which would enable subtitles to be added to items relatively quickly.

"Is there much surprise that we are famously reluctant to learn other languages because our media tend to isolate us from ever encountering them?" he says.

The BBC's deputy director of news, Adrian Van Klaveren, provided this response.

"We take the decision on whether to voice over a comment or to use subtitles on a case by case basis.

"We know that some people actively dislike having to read subtitles or may find it difficult to read them whilst others prefer us to use them rather than voiceovers.

"When we choose to use a voice-over, it is generally because we feel it will be easier for our audience to follow the flow of a piece if they actually hear the words spoken - this is particularly the case in short news clips.

"In longer interviews, where the nuances are more important, we do tend to use subtitles more often."


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