Subtitles vs. Dubbing

Many forms of foreign media have boundaries of not only nations, but barriers of language as well. This is certainly true for anime, native to Japan. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, popularity of foreign entertainment is growing. But the language barrier remains. There are methods of overcoming this include:

  1. Learn the language
  2. The film is subtitled
  3. The film is dubbed

Perhaps learning a language is overkill, although you might be surprised how many people take up Japanese just to watch anime. Subtitles offer an easier bridge to content, and is the most common method in film, due to simplicity and cost effectiveness. Most exported American films are subtitled, and many people in foreign countries enjoy such films. For some reason the reverse isn't true, as Americans rarely watch anything subtitled. Is it because foreign languages sound strange to Americans, or because Americans don't like to read, or because they simply don't watch foreign films? There's many factors involved, but every time I've asked this question it comes down to dislike of reading text on the screen. Subtitles are considered the realm of fanatics and connoisseurs of film in America.

Coincidentally, anime probably has a large following of fanatics, putting anime in a bit of a bind. It's not popular enough to be considered mainstream, yet too popular to ignore. As most American viewers dislike subtitles, anime distributors have taken to dubbing many titles, despite the additional effort and cost required to produce them. Although with recent pressures of profitability in anime, distributors are becoming picky about which titles they think will reach a popularity threshold if dubbed. Anime fans are an odd bunch however, with many insisting on the purity of subtitles, and some vehemently opposing dubs.

The most common argument against subtitles is losing focus while reading. As someone preferring subtitles, I admit I sometimes miss action too (rare, but it happens), but I can find irritating dubbing equally distracting. Some argue about tragedy of covering beautiful artwork with text; also a valid point. But in anime, voice acting is also very important. It seems equally bad that exalted Japanese voice actors meticulously chosen for their part, have their talents replaced by a third rate English voice actor, with bad direction. (In fairness many English voice actors are very good and quite talented - but sometimes companies seemingly pull random people off the street for the job).

Even subtitle supporters admit dubbing has a place in introducing people to anime if nothing else, and for some it's the only way they'll watch it. Currently there's enough (quality) dubbed content, that an anime fan can watch plenty of shows and never need bother with subtitles. But sooner or later they'll run into a situation where no dub is available, and perhaps never will be.

This became my introduction to subtitles, and I recall my hesitation watching them. I found it hard to follow at first, but adjusted within a minute or two and got good at keeping track of action and text at the same time. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it, something I credit to the Japanese voice cast who would have been covered up in a dub. Listening to characters speak, and reading the meaning on the screen was the same as if the character said it in English to me. I found this far more appealing than the poorly acted dubbed versions typical for the time. Soon I found myself seeking out the subtitled films specifically.

You can't dub culture

You can dub words, but you can't necessarily graft in a cultural context. Subtitles have a slight advantage here. If the context is simple to explain, added small notes can offer an explanation for things like coined phrases, and culturally related jokes. Dubbing typically ignores or substitutes equivalent jokes. Fan subs are traditionally the most uncompromising in staying true to the intent, even if we don't get the joke.

A related problem in anime comes with familiarity. In Japan people usually refer to each other by their family (last) names, unless they have a close(er) relationship. It can also reveal a shift in closeness when someone begins using the first name, as in newly formed friendships or romances. Politeness creates a slew of problems, as the Japanese language has an entire structure built around politeness, and the tone of words used. Sentences can have the same literal meaning, but drastically different interpretations depending upon politeness. In English we use intentionally rude phrases or swear words to approximate that, but this at the discretion of the translator, and opinions vary at the intended meaning. Both subs and dubs struggle with this but subtitles give us the option of on screen notes, or hearing the words with a vague understanding of what it means - even if lacking fluency in the language itself.

Recently I discovered unintentional side effect of subtitles. On a whim I watched the climax of a favorite show dubbed for the first time. I found it hard to like due to the end dialog sounding really cheesy. Perhaps I could pin this on a bad script, but I realized there was no way it couldn't sound cheesy in English. I'm not familiar enough with Japanese to know if dialogs are corny or not, so I'm willing to accept a much larger spectrum of dialog. It's another form of culture clash. While dubs often skirt these problems, sometimes they can't and translations sound a bit silly.

Voice Fatigue

Anime is an industry with many titles funneled through a small number of animation distributors / dubbing studios in America. This leads to relatively a small voice actors pool used for a large number of titles, which can lead to "voice actor fatigue". By this I mean a person can tire of hearing the same voice used in many titles. Worse still, a voice may be associated with a particular character, and can carry over to other series where it no longer seems like a good fit. A distinct voice can be a curse in easily identifying a voice actor through multiple titles, even if they do a good job.

Subtitle Challenges

Subtitles seem very simple, but there are odd nuances to doing them well. There's more to a script than the translation. Compact phrasing can get the point across while allowing the viewer to quickly return their attention to the show. In extended dialogues this can be tricky. Do you put a lot of text on the screen for the person to read, or do you show parts of the dialog in succession?

Subtitles are expected to be on the screen roughly at the same time spoken dialog. Again this can emphasize compactness of the text, although viewers typically expect roughly as much text as what's spoken - sometimes requiring crafty wordiness. Occasionally linguistic and cultural factors make this impossible. Another challenge is that subtitles shouldn't cross scene change boundaries. If the camera view flips to another scene or person, the dialog needs to be contained within the scene or it looks out of place. This creates even more pressure on the dialog.

Dubbing Challenges

Matching spoken dialog is obviously challenging, but thankfully the nature of anime makes dubbing far easier. Mouth movements in anime are generally a matter of open and closed states; a simple problem to tackle compared compared to matching lip movements in live action. Typically the focus isn't on the mouth itself, so voices can be pretty sloppy matching sounds to lip movement.

While subtitles need to be attentive to keeping text with a scene, dubbing can get away with spilling over if the camera view changes. These techniques have been honed over the years, making modern anime sound fairly natural compared to earlier dub efforts. Even so, sometimes words simply won't fit in a dub, requiring points of conversation are dropped in some cases. (With subtitles, jamming too much text on the screen is at least an option).

Historical Note

You might be surprised at how polarized the two camps supporting dubs and subs once were. During the reign of VHS tapes, there was the choice of one or the other. Adding fuel to the fire was a worst of both worlds situation. On one side, the anime industry did a poor job at dubbing and released them much later. Yet subtitled versions were priced higher, despite taking far less effort to produce. This caused some heated arguments among anime fans until DVD brought salvation to anime fandom in America. Unsurprisingly, the anime industry dropped VHS quickly, becoming one of the first segments in the home video market to adopt DVD.

Final Words

When I got into anime, dubbing was in its infancy, and the results were terrible. Years later, I've found studios good enough with dubbing, that I can watch them either way. These days it's preference in the voice cast, meaning either someone in the English cast is good, or someone in the Japanese cast is really bad (often an super squeaky voiced Japanese girl). I also live next to a busy street, making subtitles the better choice since I don't have to rewind to hear the words each time a noisy vehicle drives by. If I feel indifferent, I occasionally watch the version I haven't seen yet. All things being equal, I still prefer subtitles because I think of the Japanese voices matching the intent of the original creators. That philosophy has carried over to how I watch all foreign cinema, not just anime. I still hope that some day I'll be able to watch anime raw, but until then I'll always have subtitles as a crutch.

Example Voice Performances

A big part of the argument these days (assuming no preference) comes down to voice actor performance. Here are a few memorable samples.

[+] sample [+] sample
Voice: Brandon Potter [En] -:- Male
Role: Kenji Harima (School Rumble)

Even among a good dubbing cast, Brandon Potter was able to distinguish himself with the right balance of a gruff voice and pulling off the antics of a character like Harima. One of the few times a "delinquent" seemed to have a voice that was just right.

Voice: Jennifer Earnheart [En] -:- Female
Role: Yurika Misumaru (Martian Successor Nadesico)
[+] sample

I might take a lot of flack for this, but I submit the dub of Yurika as food for thought. This is an earlier dub, and an example a voice role that was slightly overacted, but unintentionally fit the character.

Voice: Naoko Watanabe [Ja] -:- Female
Role: Miyu (Vampire Princess Miyu - OVA)
[+] sample [+] sample

One of those performances that would be hard to top in any language, Watanabe was so good she earned a loyal following among fans of Vampire Miyu. This caused some controversy when she wasn't chosen to play Miyu in the TV series years later.

Voice: Makio Inoue [Ja] -:- Male
Role: Harlock (Captain Harlock)
[+] sample [+] sample

While typical of classic anime, Inoue became a benchmark for voices in this style. As someone well suited for the brooding yet often passionate character, many fans such as myself always thought of him as the true voice of Harlock.


Example Subtitles: Tenchi Muyo

So lets give this a shot: actual content. It's basically a collection of still images and therefore misses the nuance of tracking dialog with high movement, but you get the idea.

This is among my favorite voice performances in both languages. The Tenchi Muyo OVA had a very good dub for its day, although Petrea Buchard had such a strange voice for her part - which I grew to like for just that reason. Recently the series was re-released by Funimation with a great looking Bluray, although I noticed this segment (included in the extras) didn't have the dub version.

Sorry about the subtitles being small (and slightly mis-timed). I'm trying to fix that. And no, the still images are not from Tenchi Muyo (White Album 2 actually)

English: Petrea Buchard

Japanese: Ai Orikasa




© 1999