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One of the oldest Internet Backdrafts for fans of imported foreign films and TV shows -- especially Anime fans -- is the argument over whether to subtitle the program or dub it into the audience's native language.

Subtitling has many advantages: It allows for an extremely accurate translation (including quirks of the original language that play a role in the plot), while allowing you to hear the original actors' performances. It renders the show accessible to the deaf or hard of hearing. People bilingual in or learning the original language will be able to benefit as well (although some dubbed shows offer dubtitles, which are subtitles of the dubbed version), since they can enjoy at least parts of the film/TV show in the original while their friends can still know what's going on.

In addition, it's much less expensive than creating a new Automated Dialogue Recording and dodges Lip Lock; fans have been capable of producing serviceable Fansubs using home computers for decades, and it's possible to subtitle a program with literally nothing more than a time-coded script. Hence, subtitled anime has a much wider potential reach simply because it is easier to produce and the licensor can turn a much larger profit on the smaller cost. Furthermore, in today's severely damaged anime market, more and more titles only come out subtitled because it's flat out the only way to release them to a profit in the first place.­­

On the other hand, dubbing a program means that the audience doesn't have to read the dialogue while watching the show. While this is frequently used as an insult to the intelligence of dub-watchers, subtitlers in some languages (including English) do trim dialogue due to subbing line-length restrictions. (This is not just a translation problem - turn on the native language subtitles for a DVD, and you'll often witness subtitle abbreviation, spanning from a noticeable to a horrendously significant degree. If an example is necessary, try Real Genius.) Additionally, bored fansubbers will occasionally decide to alter the script to make it more "adult" - resulting in the depressingly common phenomenon of a show that is ridiculously, blatantly Shoujo or Kodomomuke containing jarringly out-of-place sex jokes and/or profanity in its fansubs.

Viewers whose thought processes are more speech-oriented than word-oriented may simply find dubs easier to comprehend and process, especially when in works that are heavy on meaningful dialogue or exposition. (The opposite, of course, can be true for viewers who process information more easily through the written word than through speech.) For many viewers hearing the dialogue in their native language makes it easier to immerse themselves in the media and feel a sense of familiarity with the story and characters that is much harder to obtain when hearing dialogue in a foreign language while reading subtitles.

Hearing actors speaking one's native language also allows the audience to catch subtle non-verbal parts of a performance, which many times is part of the "authentic" viewing experience the original was shooting for. Subtitles can cover important parts of the image or switch too fast to be read by everyone, especially if the show is extremely fast-paced, dialogue and/or text-heavy, or aimed at younger audiences. (For example, go look up subtitled The Tatami Galaxy; many a You Tube commenter has complained that the subs are simply too fast to read... for the entire series.) In addition, subtitles are sometimes criticized for being too literal; a well-made dub can preserve the spirit of a joke or reference, even while replacing the actual line. Not to mention, some things that are cultural references that are not understood outside the native country (phrases, puns, etc) may wind up Lost in Translation if there's no explanation. This is much much easier to do in a comic because one can read at their own pace.

Occasionally, a dub may even have better actors, performances and/or writing than the original, though of course this is highly subjective. Commercially, dubs also have a much wider range and a foreign show or film without a dub has a significantly smaller reach despite being more expensive to produce simply because dubs have far more venues open to them. A dub can often make or break a show's success.

Although the debate is very heated for fans of foreign independent/art films, it's the American anime fan community that's made this debate infamous. This is because, in the days before DVDs, companies releasing translated anime could only release either a subtitled or a dubbed version of a program on a single VHS tape. Because the market for dubbed anime was larger than that for subtitled releases, sub tapes almost always cost twice as much as an equivalent dub tape--if a company ever released a subtitled version to begin with.

Furthermore, access to subtitled tapes was significantly limited and many anime fans in an era before e-commerce struggled to find retailers that carried any anime in the first place. And since this was also the era when Carl Macek made himself synonymous with rewritten dubs, the sub versus dub war often took on the appearance of a holy war in the eyes of more serious fans, with a surprising amount of Fan Dumb gathering on both sides of the debate. DVDs allowed companies to include multiple language and subtitle tracks on a single disc, and single-handedly took much of the fire out of the debate.

Nevertheless, pure aesthetic concerns, along with backlash against the airing of dubbed shows on analog cable TV, have kept the Sub vs. Dub debate simmering in the background of anime fandom. Its most prevalent present-day descendant replaces "subbing" with fansubs and "dubbing" with officially-translated subtitles. Under the frame of the new debate, fansubs take the role of the culturally pure/faithful version, with official subs being the Bowdlerized version watered-down for mass audiences.

One argument frequently made in favor of subs is from an artistic standpoint: since the director chose and directed the actors in the original work, those actors' performances are a vital part of it and to watch it without them is to watch it through means other than what the artist intended. The rebuttal for this argument would be that the director also intended for the dialogue to be experienced in the viewer's native language, and for them to be able to focus their attention on the film's visuals rather than having to divide it between the onscreen imagery and the subtitles. Also worth noting is that, for English dubs of anime and video games in particular, the original creators often provide some input to the dubbing studio, ranging from a general seal of approval to exhaustively editing the dub script to actually being physically present in the studio. Directors who have taken on this kind of involvement in dubs of their work include Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii, Hideaki Anno, Shinichi Watanabe, Shinichiro Watanabe, Kazuya Tsurumaki, and Michael Arias.

On a purely simplistic level, sometimes it just comes down to quality of casting. For example, Bandai's dub of Cowboy Bebop is frequently heralded as equal or superior to its Japanese production, and the Japanese producers of El Hazard have stated they prefer the English voices for the characters. On the other hand, the English dub of Love Hina, particularly the English performance of Su, Mitsune, and Motoko, is commonly derided.[1]

Of course, the fact that the vast majority of video games still choose to be dub only (for multiple reasons, most commonly space constraints) keeps this debate burning brightly now that so many of them are fully voiced. When you have the critically acclaimed dubs of the Metal Gear series and Final Fantasy XII on one side and the abysmally poor dubs of Chaos Wars and Baten Kaitos on the other, it's no wonder that this rages on. Furthermore, much as with anime dubs, some dubs get a following that perceives them as superior to the Japanese language version. However, even if a bilingual track is provided, flamewars will still erupt because the mere existence of a choice means that you can still choose wrong.

This also happens with language tracks in other games. Some of them have been subject to either some pretty lazy dubs to save money, or even lazier still, not even dubbing it at all and only translating the in-game text. This can't be any different than subbing, but sometimes, the subtitles aren't proofread before release. This is especially true in Europe, where there are far more widely spoken languages than in North America and especially Japan, so someone who speaks Greek or Polish may be lucky to see a game where they actually bothered to dub it so the subtitles match up to the in-game text.

More recently, the dire straits of the anime industry have forced several major licensors to no longer produce a dub track on titles that are perceived to sell to a niche audience, due to several companies taking heavy losses on titles like this (including Geneon and ADV Films; Geneon shut down, and ADV had to reorganize itself into smaller companies) and finding that the existence of a dub track is not enough of a sales boost to cover the cost of commissioning one. This has single-handedly lit the fire in the sub vs. dub wars all over again, though ironically it is now dub fans that are seeing a lack of releases instead. This has led to a strange reversal in the old debate - dub fans insist that all shows should have a dub or they will not support them, sub fans will tell them to either accept that shows with smaller appeal will get sub-only releases or they aren't going to be licensed at all.

Another interesting thing to note is that because a lot of fans from English and occasionally Spanish-speaking countries engage in the wars, if you were to look at other dubs that were produced, English and Latin Spanish speakers are actually better off than most of the world. Heck; even English speakers have it better than some of the dubs that air in Latin American TV; even though plenty of those latin dubs are very well done. The awful Swedish dub of Cyborg 009 is often used to illustrate this point, as the entire cast was played by one man, half the characters sound exactly the same (Which is incredibly awkward since other dubbers of Cyborg 009 at least think a female should be playing the female characters) and the translation sounds like it was done by someone who had a very elementary-level understanding of the Swedish language. And this isn't just limited to anime; there exist extremely low budget Spanish dubs of old shows produced in the U.S. or Canada where the characters compensate for the movement tailored to English by speaking extremely quickly or pausing mid-sentence. Of course, that doesn't also mean it can't work the other way. Walt Disney himself liked the 1959 Mexican Spanish dub of Sleeping Beauty better than the original version. This also has gotten a lot better in recent years; but you can still spot some low-budget dubs.

While this article was written with an western-centric point of view, do note that this debate can occur in Japan too -- just ask Japanese Modern Warfare 2 players, or ask Japanese Beast Wars fans. And to further confound the wars; some people who understand Japanese better points out that Japan has just as many "bad actors" as any other country does - it's been stated that the more you understand the language, the more you spot the mediocre or poor acting. It's been pointed out by some Japanese viewers that Johnny Yong Bosch's performance in Code Geass sounded more natural; whereas Jun Fukuyama's sounded more acted. When something sounds completely unfamiliar and viewers don't understand it, they tend to ignore what native speakers consider an average performance and they don't entirely get what might be a Blind Idiot Translation.

Funnily enough, this debate doesn't really arise in non-English speaking countries when it comes to English-language films. Mostly because of the omnipresence of Hollywood, one can easily assume that at least half the movies someone from Germany, Russia, France or French-Canada will see in a year are English-language movies. Thus, many countries have a well-implanted, very active dubbing industry with recognizable voice actors. In most case, one dubber is paired with one actor for the duration of the actor's career. In these countries, due to an enormous exposure to it, dubbing is seen much more positively than in the anime community.

The opposite can happen too. In some countries (I.E. Finland, the Netherlands, and Israel) dubbing is only done for works that are intended for children that are too young to read the subtitles fluently. Everything else is available with subtitles only. In these countries people would get much more distracted by the dubbing because they are not used to it. A major problem are works that appeal to both the children and the parents, the parents would prefer to hear the original actors performance, but can't get their hands on it because the only version in theaters is aimed for kids. Sometimes they can get lucky and the original audio track is included in the DVD release once (if ever) it happens.

Finally, it should be noted that for animation (including anime), the phrase 'subbed vs. dubbed', or just 'sub vs. dub', is a little misleading, since it suggests that the original wasn't dubbed. Dubbing (in a production context) refers to any process of laying audio (particularly voices) over video; vocaloids (possibly) excepted, this is quite obviously always the case for any sort of animation, regardless of what language, original included, the dubbing happens to be in. The ONE big exception to this is American animation, which typically uses a process known as "pre-lay" where the dialogue is recorded first and the animation is then created to fit it. And even in American cartoons, actors may be called back in after the animation is complete to record or rerecord lines, which is (obviously) dubbing. A more accurate term for the sort of dubbing that comes up in this debate, therefore, would be Redubbing. This is sometimes - and should more often be - brought up by dub - or rather, re-dub - fans as a counter-point to sub fans' arguments that all dubs are inherently flawed - but then, sub fans may bring up pre-laying as a counter-counter-example, making the false and ignorant assumption that the original was pre-laid.

Notes

  1. In fact, the anime adaptation of Love Hina is infamous between fans and voice actors around the world of being a real pain in the ass to translate, maybe even more than Evangelion! Not only the English dub suffered of this, also the German and Mexican Spanish dubs suffered of real bad dubs with that series.
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