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.

this is meta, why is Zombieland showing me watching the show?

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…

teenagers…get it

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.

wait, isn’t this Italian? I’m sure it will be fine!

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.

apparently this is an illustration of “feeling”

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.

some are absolutely amazing

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 mean… wow

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?

29 thoughts

  1. my fav anime is Danberu Nan-Kiro Moteru. I recently re-watched it but this time I watched the dub version and BRO it’s literally a completely different script.

    I honestly can’t believe how different it is. It’s really not the same show. It’s no fault of the voice actors whatsoever, i think most of them sounded like I would’ve imagined them sounding in English. Especially love whoever did the voice for Hibiki. However, when I watch a dub I want it to be as though I’m watching an anime with Japanese characters that just so happen to all speak English… I don’t want it to seem as though the show is set in USA…

  2. I prefer subs because I am really into Japanese speaking quirkd Degosaru! It just sounds much cuter, Desu Ne.

    However if for some reason there are lot of localisation changes, like with Pokemon, and the other media supports that localisation, I go with Dub.

    Pokemon is an example and basically everything that starts as a game with different names.

    In general since I like the weird stuff more though I feel like Japanese fits it more, at least anime Japanese, it can be pushed a bit more extreme in emotional range, for Example Yunko from Danganronpa or Dio. Sub Japanese is fairly different from actual Japanese and as such much more tailoured to anime itself , unlike sub.

    It also helps that I have more trouble discovering which voice actor is behind something
    I still dont know Goku’s VA in Japanese.. so the voice is Goku, while in the Sub I know Sean Shemmel is behind it.
    I appreciate Dub more as a craft and Sub more for immersion, but both can be good , just with one I am less likely to notice flaws so thats my favourite

  3. I don’t mind either way although I watch almost exclusively in subbed because I feel like I don’t miss out on anything because it is the original language and so was kinda made to be viewed like that. In all honesty I do this for pretty much anything even if the original is in French or Chinese.

    What I would say however is that whilst I watch dubbed for anime that I know aren’t that long, not heavily invested in or simply sounds better to me in dubbed (Dragon Ball Z, pokemon etc) Dubbed versions do make changes to the show that isn’t in the subbed version. For instance, I may be wrong but I remember reading and watching that the dubbed version (4kids) which had Sanji with a lollipop instead of a cigarette

    1. 4kids is pretty notorious about it, there’s nothing quite so extreme these days but the differences are still striking in my opinion.

  4. Subs all the way! It’s the complete authentic experience or nothing for me. I won’t post a full rant but suffice to say I have always objected to dubbing going way back to seeing foreign language and kung fu films dubbed as a kid.

  5. As someone who is taking classes to try and learn some conversational Japanese, I am acutely aware of how difficult Japanese is to translate into English. Apparently, the contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (whose work I love) has told his translators to not try for a literal translation but to capture the essence of what is said in the Japanese original and use that as their translation. If so, it is a genius strategy, as the English translation of his work flows beautifully, whereas the translation of other Japanese works tends to be stiff and stilted.

    I don’t mind either subs or dubs. The only problem with subs is when the language is dense or fast-flowing, and there are so many words on the screen you can’t read them before they’re gone again. You have to freeze, rewind, then read the sub while the screen remains frozen before proceeding. Also, when there’s multiple dialogue and/or subtitles happening at the same time – then subs can be problematic.

    I love listening to the rhythm and cadence of spoken Japanese. Being a tonal language, it works differently from the syllabic patterns of English (Japanese doesn’t have syllables, it has “morae” – singular, “mora” – a linguistic term meaning the stress or emphasis placed on a character or group of characters). That’s why it’s interesting to compare the difference in expression between Japanese and English voice actors. Also, I’ve noticed that when there are differences between the Japanese original and the subtitling, it’s less a matter of “meaning” than of “efficiency” – the sub captures the gist of what is said rather than spelling out the whole phrase, which would be cumbersome.

    1. I know what you mean about fast paced. It took me three episodes to practice my speed reading so I could watch Saiki K. properly.

  6. I have found that most of the time I’m reading the subtitles for the literal content and listening to the voices for the emotional content if that makes sense. A lot of time, English speakers just don’t have the inflections right. This is especially true if the anime is trying to do something subtle or a scene where meaning is carried by inflection and not literal wording.

    1. I agree – the inflections do make me a little crazy in Japanese. Some exceptions exist. I found xxxHOLiC fantastically dubbed and that’s the only one I can think of. But then again, I don,t have much experience with dubs

  7. I default to subs not only in anime but also in live action movies and other cartoons. It’s a big part of how I learned English. One of the few movie series they were consistently showing in the orignal were the Marx Brothers’ films. I’ve seen them all both in the original English and in their German dubs by the time I was six or seven. My father tells me I watched La Strada in the Itanlian original before I could read; it’s not what I remember; I remember reading subs, but who knows – it’s possible. When Stereo TVs became a thing, some shows had dual audio (one for original language and one for the German dub), so I often watched the original English without subs then. I once watched a Japanese film in the original Japanese without speaking the language (all I understood was numbers and stuff like “sayonara”) and without sub, only because I was curious how the language sounds. (I wouldn’t have done that back then for, say, French – which I would have understood just a little more of, but which I also knew the sound of well enough, because subtitled French films weren’t rare). Basically, for me watching films in the original language has been a fascinatian from childhood on, and I think I got that from my father (who has no problem watching English films dubbed, but can’t stand French or Italian films dubbed, because the language doesn’t match the how he sees the gestures).

    So, in my first two decades of watching anime, only dubs were available, but because English speaking countries got more anime than German speaking ones, I’d occasionally get treated to an anime that was dubbed into English and then subbed German. I didn’t really need the subs because my English was good enough, but it’s just not what people expect to hear. These days most Japanese games include the Japanese language track (though Tales games only started with Zestiria). Now it’s rare for games to be dubbed into German, so most of the times we get the English track, too. That means, the game’s subbed either way, and we can choose the original language, or the other foreign language we’re much more likely to speak. Many people need the subs for the English track anyway.

    My Dvds of Haruhi Suzumiya contain a German dub as well as the Japanese track, and I can choose between German and Polish subs (I assume it’s sold in Poland?). I’ve toyed with the idea of watching an episode in German with Polish subs, just so I can say I watched an anime dubbed into my native language, and I was reading subs in a language I don’t understand. I don’t think many people would expect that. As it is, I haven’t done that… yet.

    My first Japanese language/German subbed anime was Silent Möbius. I recognised certain tropes but was surprised how much sense they suddenly made. Characters would often act surprised at something obvious; they invariably came off as a little dense or naive in German; not so in Japanese – I suddenly realised that those are social niceties. I mean, I must have suspected something along the lines subconsiously, or this wouldn’t have worked. But hearing the Japanese language track made the penny drop. It’s just not true that there’s nothing in a language you don’t speak that you can pick up on. I mean, after a few years of watching anime in Japanese I started to be able to tell where one word stops and another begins… That’s progress, right?

    (I did later take a two semester course at University, but I wasn’t focussing on speaking/listening. I was trying to get familiar with a non-indo-germanic grammar system, and I picked Japanese because I had some sort of familiarity with the sound and some interest in the culture.)

    The subs vs. dubs debate has become a non-issue with the advent of DVDs, since most films released on that medium had the original track included by default, but before that you had to be vocal about liking subbed movies so the smaller cinemas would order original language films, too. These days, not being able to see an anime in the original Japanese makes me feel deprived, but back then being able to find a subbed anime was something to celebrate (by watching the thing, of course!). You bet I was a little more opiniated back then.

    1. Oddly, I remember in France most anime being dubbed in Italian and subbed in French. I was too young to understand any of that but years later I looked it up and it was apparently rather common. Something about Japanese being much easier to translate into Italian than into French?

  8. I prefer subbed and my preference on animelab is subbed over dubbed. That said I do watch dubbed fairly regularly with others because friends who aren’t as into anime usualky agree to watch if I don’t make the read subs. It means I have watched both forms of s lot of anime. Most of the time I prefer the sound and feel of the original but dubs have come a long way from the 90’s era and most of them provide an entertaining form of the story. This one is purely individual preference at this point. Sure they change things in translation: sometimes gor good and practical reasons and other times just because or the more nefarious deliberate decision to change the meaning of an exchange, but ultimately if that’s hiw someone prefers to enjoy anime at least they can access in a form they enjoy.

    1. So far everyone here loves the subs so I’m glad to have someone who has a bit more experience with both sides. My one anime friend likes subs as well and knows more Japanese than I do

  9. For me it will always be subs. Watching anime in English seems very awkward, and it’s something that has lingered since the days of 4KidsTV. The authenticity of the Japanese VAs and the preservation of the original meaning and context of the series is what seals the deal for me.

    It reminds me of something folks on the Traditionalist Catholic anime side of Twitter say: “The Latin Mass is basically the Mass with subtitles”.

  10. I haven’t watched too many things from Funimation besides some anime they rescued or the occasional recent-ish work they’ve licensed. There are times where I’ve heard some dubs from that company besides the DBZ stuff that I thought was good. I’m not sure if they do this as much as they used to, bust some of the dubbed themes actually had better singers than the original Japanese version like Yu Yu Hakusho and their dub of One Piece (the Japanese version of Believe is way too pitchy and sharp). In general, I prefer the subs, but there are anime I will watch either version of and some series have better dubs. Also, not every Japanese VA does a great job. While I’m not fluent in Japanese as much as I used to be during my later high school years, I can still tell good Japanese acting from bad.

    1. Funimation is Sony and I think they have 3 or 4 studios and a slew of dubding providers so their dubs are pretty much the same (come from the same place) as a lot of non funimation shows. Notably now they are the same as Crunchyroll shows but I want to say Netflix originals (as opposed to licensed anime) have in-house voicing.

      1. Sony did buy them out. I know Funimation for years had their own in-house staff, but also hired some freelancers to the best of my knowledge. They used some former ADV/Sentai people later on when you consider how both companies are based in Texas. Some companies do use the same dubbing studios like Bang Zoom and Ocean Group to name a few. Not too sure about Netflix. They could be in-house, but I’ve noticed some more famous voice actors here and there for some of their dubs.

  11. The one that always sticks in my head is Erina from Food Wars. In the sub her VA has this very regal air about her, but in the dub she sounds more like a stereotypical high school mean girl and it was not the performance I was expecting at all. I do enjoy the dub, but it took me a long while to get used to Erina’s voice.

    1. Interesting. I actually do hear the mean girl/valley girl performance quite a bit in dubs and I don,t think I have ever heard the equivalent in Japanese.

  12. I totally come down on the subs side of this debate, largely for the reasons you brought up. I feel the same way about any movie or show at all, no matter what the original language is — I prefer to hear the original performance in full. But you’re right that Japanese has a lot of nuance that doesn’t translate into English. Even watching subs without knowing Japanese, as you suggest, you won’t pick up on it, but I’ve learned just enough to get some of it and you really can tell the difference at that point.

    I just wish people didn’t get so heated over this, like it’s something worth fighting over. I don’t care if someone prefers dubs. We should just be happy that we have both options available now more often than we ever had before.

    1. Definitely. I might not watch dubs but I think it’s awesome that English voice actors have more chances for employment

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