Classic Debate: Subs vs Dubs

Wait.  What?  Are we seriously doing this?  Seriously?  Well, I guess.  Sort of.

See, this isn’t going to be a typical “which is better” post about the subject.  I don’t want to be the type of guy who makes decisions for people, art and quality being a subjective field and all.  Though, I guess you might base some decisions off this if you really wanted to for some reason.  What this will go into some of the differences between subs and dubs.  So, where do both of them have strengths and failures?  That sort of thing.

Brief History Lesson: Why Did We Start This?

So, the most common question I think is “why exactly did we start caring about who did the acting”?  Well, and this is mostly for younger readers (and I’d be extremely pleased if those who talks to younger anime fans pass this on), when anime was released on VHS, the translation company generally only ever did one language print.  And that, of course, meant that viewers couldn’t get their choice of what they wanted to see.  Either the fans of dubs or the fans of subs had to suck it up.  And losing your favourite show to shoddy subs or dubs only heightened the tensions.  As a quick example, I’d point to the Slayers franchise, which had seen a lot of heat on this in years past this from both ends.  Dubs have often seen as the money for companies, so it was often sub fans were on the short side (an oft quoted number was a 9-to-1 sales rate historically of dubs to subs).  And even if subs were released, the tapes came out as more expensive to recoup costs.  Oh, and I’d remiss to say that if you’re in a small town or something, you’d likely be out of luck getting a sub tape without a lengthy drive into larger markets.

In the years since, the rhetoric has dialed down somewhat.  With the advent of DVDs, neither side has to officially surrender territory, as it were,  So that took a lot of heat out of the debate.  But, as the fact that I’m writing this up alludes, it still exists today.  Though the reasons are much less rooted in accessibility and are much less personally vested in nature.  I might suggest the situation has reversed somewhat, as dubs tend to need to fight for survival these days, being less popular and less frequent than subs.

A Case for Subs

What exactly about the original language makes it better for viewers?  From a basic point of view, the culture is a huge sticking point.  Anime is written by Japanese writers, animated by Japanese artists, and voiced by Japanese voice actors.  In this line of thought, it’d be best to be see in its original creation.  This argument would be one of heritage.  A similar line of thought would be to have to see the Mona Lisa or Starry Night instead of seeing a repaint of it.  Along a similar opinion, one may be compelled to think that translators, as hard or lazy as the one in question is, may not be able to accurately translate everything.  The culture, the emotions, the jokes, the subtle motifs…all those could be lost with poor translators.  This was a much bigger issue historically as translators would often cut and paste things at will.  Compare Voltron to its original anime which spawned it, GoLion and DaiRugger XV.  Or Robotech to Macross.  Indeed, historically, this has been a huge issue.

The battles fought on this point are often much smaller in scope today, often being around language and use of it.  Subs don’t have the restriction of being tied to certain lip motions when the mouth is visible in a scene.  You can put whatever you want in text, as long as it’s legible.  This basically lets you do direct translations from one language to another.  Basic motifs and subtle wording can be translated much easier than having to go through a verbal language restriction.  There can be very minimal amounts of screwing around with the original intent, in the way the writer wanted you to see it.  To some viewers, this can become a strong influencing force.

But What About Dubs?

Dubs host a different territory, and most of the points for it often come off the back of comments made by subs.

A common point is to consider how difficult it is to translate some jokes.  I’m a Martian Successor Nadesico fan, so I’ll use the example of Izumi Maki.

Creepy stares and amusing remarks are about five seconds away.

In the show, Izumi takes the role of a joker – a person who lightens the mood quite often in stark contrast to her deep, reserved, and depressed look (though, I don’t blame her – some of the spoilered parts of her past tend to do that to you).  Anyways, Izumi’s jokes are often harboured in complex and unusual puns, at one point being so obscure, they make a fourth wall breaking joke just to explain what the heck she’s saying.  Have you ever tried to translate puns?  It just doesn’t work.  As a result, the subs could be considered less in the culture of the show because of the fact that you wouldn’t get part of Izumi’s character unless you’re fluently bilingual.

Another part of the culture aspect worth considering is how much the original director wanted it in a certain language.  This is a more fringe aspect, but some directors, Hayao Miyazaki being famous for this, will select the cast of the translated versions and try to work actively with the translation crew to ensure the original theme and emotion was kept.  In this sense, the concept of having seen it as the staff wanted you to is often nullified, as the crew explicitly wants you to see it in your language.

And, sometimes, the shows will just flat-out have a better cast.  Rarely are there people who won’t exude credit onto some dub casts, including Cowboy Bebop and Haibane Renmei (watch for it on this blog in the coming weeks!).  But we also have to consider then that rarely is it that people compliment train wreck dubs.  Love Hina in English is a particular disaster.

The Unknown – Unfamiliarity and Anime Viewing

Of course, one issue I’ve always had with anime dubs vs subs is the fact that, at its core, it’s often debated with limited knowledge.  I don’t mean this in an insulting or aggressive way…bear with me for a second.

I’ll ask some of the sub fans of Code Geass what they thought of Johnny Yong Bosch, the voice of Lelouche.  Well, the short answer is that many people thought he was terrible.  Now, let me ask some of the Japanese viewers what they thought of his Japanese analog, Jun Fukuyama.  This is where it gets weird with voices – Japanese fans thought Bosch did a superior job.  Now, this seems a bit contradictory on the surface, so let’s think about this.  What exactly could cause this?

I’d suggest that the issue is a lack of familiarity with language.  When we’re presented with a stilted presentation of something we’re not familiar with in a foreign language, we just sit back and think “Is that how it sounds?”.  I can pick out issues with my native languages just fine but if you speak to me in Spanish, I won’t be able to tell you what you’re saying, let alone decide if you provided me with a convincing performance.  You could just as well be saying “My hovercraft is full of eels” instead of “Welcome to my house” for all I know.  In fact, there are sometimes these bilingual jokes on television where writers intentionally place stupid sounding foreign language jokes for the few bilinguals in the audience to poke fun at.  And this, really, prevents us from giving an accurate evaluation of a performance.  Some things, like overall tone, yes, you might pick out.  But some problems, like subtle perpetual overacting, will be lost, giving an incorrect assumption on quality.

Worse yet, in my mind, is the assumption that subs are definitive.  In a basic example (I’m not 100% sure – I used to be Japanese fluent, but am 4 years removed), the translated version of daisuke can either go to “I like you” or “I love you”, simply stated (I’ll avoid using characters whenever possible – not all computers have the language installed to read it all).  In Japanese, the actual translation comes down to context.  The exact same phrase, used in two different scenarios, can have different meanings based on context.  This is a fairly easy to distinguish one (complicated romantic situations aside), but there are more ambiguous cases than that.  And it comes down to language barriers again.

And this I think makes the debate something that I can’t and won’t press a real opinion on.


Okay, so through all that, what do I really want to say to anybody out there?  Well first, make sure you consider the pros and cons of watching a show in a certain way.  There will always be advantages and disadvantages to certain viewing habits, even if you are fluent in both your dub language and Japanese.  Second, consider keeping your mind open to both possibilities.  Sometimes there are incredible dubs.  Sometimes, it’s better to read the script.  Third, you may consider learning Japanese.  If you’re a hardcore fan, making an informed decision on the actors and their quality can hugely impact your ability to watch.

Finally, there is no “right” answer for viewing subs or dubs.  Entertainment is a subjective medium.  Like there’s no right way to enjoy music or read books, there’s no right way to maximize anime (though there are correct ways to critically analyze them).  Other than the obvious “watch in whatever gives you the most enjoyment”.

3 responses to “Classic Debate: Subs vs Dubs

  1. The way i have heard it for me and friends (the young generation) is that the first time you hear an anime either dubbed or subbed is what you will prefer from then on, i first started watching in subbed and i can’t go over to dubbed without it just feeling wrong. Sometimes there are animations where i can’t watch it just because there is only a dubbed version available :<. You guys having to switch between subbed and dubbed makes me hold you lot in high regards 😀

    • That’s quite an Interesting theory. I’m an old fan who grew up in the days when Pokemon first aired. So I went easily 6+ years without ever hearing Japanese in any of my shows. While I certainly don’t think I hold a strict preference, I probably hold dubbed shows in a higher regard than other fans. At the same time though, I’ve certainly heard some older guys like myself become sub only fans and some of the younger crowd prefer dub. So it might not be a hard definition, but more of a rule of thumb if what you say is true.

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