I think some of you may know my preference for watching anime subtitled. I think I’ve mentioned it a few times before. It’s not that I believe it to be a better experience or anything, I just happen to really enjoy the sound of Japanese as a language and also prefer Japanese acting trends. But I have absolutely no side in the sub vs dub debate.
Because of my marked preference, I have watched anime overwhelmingly subtitled. Even in the olden days when I had to seek out fan translations, they were always subs. However, I have recently gotten Funimation as a streaming service and that has changed everything.
Sidenote – So far, I don’t hate Funimation like some of my colleagues. I think their library is decent. I have not had any issues with loading or wait times at all. But man, their player is the absolute worse. I’m not sure I could get rid of the progress bar if I didn’t have a touchscreen and the next button only works on 10% of the shows. The preferences don’t stick. C’mon Sony, I bet you can give a high school student a couple of free games and a Crunchy/Funi membership to fix that thing right up for you…
Anyway, even though I have set my personal preferences to play anime in Japanese by default, the Funimation player doesn’t care. This means I regularly get to listen to 1 minute or so of a dub before changing it back to sub every single episode. Also, for some reason there are shows that will have extras or random episodes in English only.
What I’m saying is that I have listened to a lot more dubbed anime since getting Funimation and have even had the chance to compare the same show in both dubbed and subbed format. I gotta say, it makes an enormous difference!
The first thing I noticed is that localization is way more obvious and present in dubs. It is pretty much a given that the English translation of an anime will be noticeably different in the subtitled and dubbed versions. I use to think these cases were exceptions and that for the most part the English voice actors more or less read the subtitled lines but no. I would say 99% of the time they go off completely different translations.
When you think about it, it does make sense. There are some things that sound pretty awkward when you say them out loud but look fine written. I get that. I also once read that people that preferred subtitles tended to be much more insistent on minimizing localization. Also, there’s always the very small chance that someone who understands a little Japanese is watching it subtitled and if there’s too much of a difference between the speech and the subtitle, they will be able to tell immediately. Something that is simply not a consideration with dubs.
Not that differences in translation are always due to adapting texts to different cultures. Often but not always. Sometimes it’s a question of modernizing a text when dialogue has become obsolete or awkwardly dated. Other times it may be due to guidelines. Several countries do in fact have different standards for what you are allowed to say on film vs what you are allowed to write. And most of the time, it’s the purely practical consideration of trying to match speech to mouth movements. Something that is very difficult but crucial for suspension of disbelief. And once again, not a consideration for subs.
All of this said, to me what jumped out right away in the few dub moments and episodes I saw is that they were much more westernized. They traded traditional Japanese expressions or turns of phrase for the closest English equivalent and although it often preserved the meaning and context, it just didn’t have the same feel.
Modern English is in many ways much more casual than Japanese so the same characters saying essentially the same lines come off as friendlier and more outgoing in a lot of cases. It also makes it difficult to figure out why certain characters get embarrassed sometimes since they seemed to have had the same casual relationship the entire time.
See it’s the same anime and the same lines, no heavy editing or localization but they don’t hit the same way. And I’m not saying one is better than the other. Certainly part of my preference is merely a force of habit at this point. But hey, I like the influx of Japanese culture, I think it’s interesting so I like seeing it.
The other big factor is performance. I think English dub voice actors have come a really long way. There was a time when the job wasn’t really considered important and so distributors didn’t invest in dubs at all. You could certainly hear it. But that isn’t the case anymore. There are still a few duds but hey, there are some less than stellar Japanese voice actors as well. That’s just the way it goes.
Still, Seiyu in Japan have a much longer tradition and are generally way more recognized so the talent pool is bigger. I say that knowing full well I have fallen in love with countless English VAs based entirely on their voices so what am I even talking about? I have noticed though that voicing anime seems to be a niche or specialty. And there are a lot of prominent English voice actors who have no anime credits to their name for some reason.
Anyway, let’s just say there are talented voice actors in every language and move on. The point I actually want to make is that I don’t think even I realize just how much of an impact performance makes. I watched Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood in Japanese for the first time a few years ago. I’ll be straight with you, I thought Romi Park did an exceptional job and deserves a myriad of accolades.
However, I do have a lot of friends who had seen the series before me in English, telling me that Vic Mignogna was the ultimate Edward and a performance not to be missed. So I decided to watch a bunch of dub episodes to see what all the hoopla is about.
I’m not going to tell you who did a better job but I will tell you, those are two different Edward Elrics. No really, these two characters have different personalities with different interpretations and occasionally maybe even different motivations. And if I was asked to embody Edward Elric in a school play or something, I would need to know which one. I can even see someone being indifferent or even slightly disliking one version while adoring the other. Considering how important Edward Elric is to the story, it can mean that the difference between the sub and the dub for someone could be becoming a lifelong fan or considering FMA an overrated subpar series.
And I wonder if there are shows with very split viewer ratings that are actually just fans rating two completely different performances. I also wonder if there are shows I was indifferent to but that was loved by everyone else that I should rewatch in English. Maybe that’s what was missing, you know. In short, I still don’t think there’s a right answer in the sub vs dub debate but I do think most of us don’t realize how big a difference it makes.
For the record, when reading reviews on this site you can assume I’m talking about the subtitled version unless otherwise indicated.
Have you noticed the differences I’m talking about? Do you have a preference between subs and dubs?