SUBTITLING vs. DUBBING: THE GREAT DEBATE
Anyone who delves into the world of anime will eventually run across the most divisive issue in fandom: the “sub vs. dub” debate, which is about whether anime is best viewed in Japanese with subtitles or in an English-dubbed version. Here I will lay out the basic arguments of each side, examine their merits, and state my own position on this issue.
Those American fans who exclusively watch anime subtitled, even if an English dub is available, are called purists in the fan community. They are most commonly diehard otaku, although I do sometimes run into even casual fans that proscribe to the purist philosophy. This philosophy is based on three statements:
1) Anime is a distinct art form.
2) Because it is an art form, any alteration to the original anime is an unacceptable compromise of artistic integrity.
3) Because dubbing into a different language compromises the artistic integrity of the anime, the only proper way to view anime is in the original unedited Japanese version with subtitles based on a literal English translation.
It is irrefutable that
Americanizing anime titles via English dubbing and editing has, on some
occasions in the past, led to true travesties. One needs only consider the case
of the series known in the
Another common complaint by purists is that the exact context and meaning intended by the original creator can be altered or obscured when an anime title is dubbed into English. These discrepancies crop up because using the literal English translation often isn’t possible if one wants to have the words synch with the mouth flaps of the characters - and that is something that American audiences value highly in their animation.
Two particularly difficult cases to dub are songs and children’s rhymes, which are virtually impossible to translate literally and still keep a proper rhythm. (That’s why songs imbedded in anime sometimes are not dubbed and often sound clumsy if they are.) Other difficult cases include insults and humor based on honorifics or homophone-derived double-meanings. These often do not translate well and their meaning can be lost on an American viewer even if they do translate, which is why such humor and insults are usually replaced rather than translated for an English dub. It is also important to note that outright changes are sometimes done deliberately for the English dub to better explain things for an American viewer, use terminology that an American viewer would be more familiar with, or put something into a context that an American viewer would more easily understand.
No matter the reason for the changes done for an English, the argument that meaning can be lost or altered in the process has considerable merit. I have personally run across several cases where characters say significantly different things in the subtitled and dubbed versions of the same scene and the difference distinctly changes the meaning of what is being said, so much so that the scene does not make proper sense until you see a more literal translation. Claiming that this is a prevalent problem with English dubs is ridiculous, however. Out of an entire 26-episode series, this might be a problem in one or two scenes at most if the English dub has been done responsibly.
Another argument sometime voiced in favor of only subtitling anime is that it forces viewers to learn more about Japanese culture and language if they want to fully understand what they are watching, and that expanding one’s cultural vistas through this impetus is a Good Thing. Although this argument does, in my opinion, have merit, a counter-argument with equal merit is that sometimes you just want to sit down and be entertained rather than be forced to think about or figure out what you’re seeing. In these cases English dubs are vastly preferable.
The Other Side
In the non-purist view, some will argue that dubbed anime is preferable while others will argue that they don’t care which way they get their anime as long as they can get it. For both groups the whole sub vs. dub debate comes down to a matter of accessibility. Dubbed anime is (usually) easier to understand for an American viewer and allows the viewer to fully concentrate on the imagery rather than having to split attention towards the subtitles at the bottom of the screen; as some have put it, dubbing allows for “a more immersive experience.” Dubbed anime is also much easier to view in a large convention viewing room that lacks tiered seating, where the heads of those in front of you can frequently get in the way of seeing all the subtitled text. And, as has been pointed out above, dubbing does put some things that an uninformed viewer might not completely understand in contexts that make more sense to an American viewer. This is very beneficial to those who are new to anime.
While I can appreciate the arguments of purists about protecting artistic integrity, and I do acknowledge the problems that can arise from dubbing, I feel that most purists are short-sighted in their insistence on watching only subtitled content. American companies that dub and distribute anime have become increasingly sensitive to remaining as faithful to the original product as possible, and so their dubbing efforts have generally become more responsible over the last few years. I also feel that sticking absolutely to the “artistic integrity” viewpoint denies the reality that English dubs can achieve their own equally worthy artistic merit (even if it is a different interpretation), or in some cases even improve on the original Japanese voice work. As two examples of this, I point to Hellsing and Neon Genesis Evangelion. I challenge anyone to watch both the subbed and dubbed versions of the former series and offer me a convincing argument that the English dub is not the superior version, and I challenge anyone to watch the dubbed version of the latter and deny that the incredible English voice work heard there is at least as worthy of praise as the original Japanese performances.
I also feel that purists sometimes nitpick too much on minor details that are changed for an English dub. So what if the English dub for Spirited Away uses “spirits” instead of “gods?” Does that really make so much of a difference that the exceptional English vocal performances aren’t worth watching? That’s like the many little quibblings ardent Lord of the Rings fans have made about the first two movies. Yes, some things were changed, but the spirit of the original novels remained intact and they were still excellent movies, right? The same applies to many English dubs.
There’s also practical matters to consider. Anime is dubbed into English for the American market because American production companies know that it will sell better that way. They know that they can’t make enough of a profit for the enterprise to be worthwhile just by catering to the relatively small hard-core fan community. Hence dubbing becomes an economic reality if anime is to be legally available here in the States or aired on American TV. The purist who doesn’t have access to anime through other means must decide for himself whether some harm to the “artistic integrity” of the original series is acceptable for the right to see it at all.
It can argued, too, that the whole insistence that anime is an art form is a load of bunk. Anime is first and foremost a commercial product; ask anyone who actually works in the Japanese anime industry. That some anime titles do ascend to the level of genuine art, or use genuine art in their production, is incidental. It can also be argued that part of the reason why purists are upset with dubs is that it transforms anime from something that was just “theirs” to something that is accessible to the general populace. A similar attitude of exclusivity can also be seen in the realm of underground music, where bands that break out and achieve name status are often thereafter shunned by their original fans who feel that the band has “sold out.”
The advent of DVDs makes much of the sub vs. dub argument a moot point, however. No type or genre of filmed entertainment benefits more from DVDs than anime, since they make it possible for both purists and non-purists to watch the same anime the way they prefer without production companies having to market two separate disks. Much more cost-effective for the company, and it gives fans more options! Some DVDs even have language tracks beyond English and Japanese – I’ve seen as many as four different ones on one DVD - and the best-designed DVDs are set up so that one can watch the anime dubbed but with the subtitles turned on. (I highly recommend doing this in any case where you can, since it can be quite interesting to observe where the literal translation and dubbed script differ.) DVDs allow a viewer to watch a title both ways - subbed and dubbed - and decide on a case-by-case basis which way is better. That’s what I do, and that’s what I encourage all those new to the world of anime to get into the habit of doing.
As a rule I generally prefer dubs to subtitles, although I freely acknowledge that there are some cases where the subtitled version is distinctly preferable (Excel Saga being one example). I also freely acknowledge that there are some truly crappy dub jobs out there, which is why I always give a rating on the English dub in my reviews. I am not a purist, however, and I utterly oppose any suggestion that anime can only properly be watched subtitled.
- Master T