In the 90’s, one of the most heated (and unconcluded) debates among anime fans was the issue of subtitled or dubbed anime. This mainly arose from the fact that the 1990s was a transition period for anime fans. A decade before, you got anime in one of two formats: it was either in raw Japanese, or adapted into your native language. And for all the possible errors the latter might have, no one really cared; people consumed the show without complaint (or if they did, it wasn’t necessarily because of the dubbing). But ten years later, there was more awareness (which I partly attribute to globalization) and the trend of subtitles caught on for anime. Since then, anime fans have been arguing which is better: subtitled or dubbed anime. Yet at the start of the new millennium, this conflict was cut short with the advent of DVDs, which gave both dubbed and subtitled anime in one neat little package. Yet perhaps it’s still too early to throw in the towel for technology hasn’t really caught up yet with a fan’s vision of an utopian anime culture.
While watching a show other than in the vernacular might be surprising to some people, I will explain how the subtitles vs. dubbing conflict developed, and why it’s become such an important matter to anime fans. For the Japanese, it’s not really much of a problem since anime were intended for a Japanese audience and so the language used was understandable. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the rest of the world. A lot of anime imported to other countries such as the US were dubbed and adapted for that audience. And while it produced a lot of cultural icons such as Speed Racer, Gigantor, and Astroboy, it also spawned a number of heavily edited and bastardized shows like Battle of the Planets (costumed heroes who uses science to defend the Earth against alien invaders became costumed heroes hopping from planet to planet to defeat the evil alien overlord… and get a robot sidekick to boot), Warriors of the Wind (a two-hour feature film by acclaimed Hayao Miyazaki loses half an hour of content and is transformed into an action/adventure story), and Robotech (three unrelated robot shows are combined to form one congruent cosmology). Of the latter three, perhaps it’s only Robotech that is perceived as redeemable (and some say superior to the original series it was based on) by anime fans. With the advent of the Internet and perhaps the breakthrough of certain cultural barriers, anime fans soon became aware of the inconsistencies between the anime they were watching locally and the anime that was being aired in Japan. While the commercial entities imported the shows and dubbed them before releasing them to the public, some anime fans decided to translate anime themselves and unleashed it to fan community. Except of course the latter didn’t have huge budgets and had to make do with what they had. Simply put, while subtitles were a good method of translation (hey, it works for foreign films), I think part of the reason why the fan community originally utilized subtitles was because it was way cheaper than dubbing the show itself (you only needed a translator, a timer, and an encoder to subtitle an anime).
The subtitling trend proved to be popular among the fans (who did it for free) and such projects would then be called fansubs. Unfortunately, fansubs were more or less a hit or miss. Some fansubbing groups were competent and produced good translations. Others, however, weren’t so fortunate (i.e. unreadable subtitles, terrible spelling and grammar, horrible translations, or simply bad timing). Meanwhile, on the commercial end, I think it’s safe to say that there were only few (if any) subtitled anime shown on local TV (mind you, local TV, since cable companies did offer subtitled anime sometimes). However, anime would make the transition from being available for free to a huge industry in itself. Companies started selling (and loaning via retail stores like Blockbuster Video) anime in video (at least in the US). While for the most part a big chunk of this market was comprised of dubbed anime, some companies listened to the fans and started releasing subtitled anime themselves. Unfortunately, the companies (whose businesses depended on being able to sell their product) soon realized that the anime fans who preferred subtitles weren’t necessarily the most profitable market. To make a long story short, dubbed anime was cheaper than their subtitle counterparts, even though it’s more expensive to produce the former (all of which is made possible by the law of supply and demand). It perhaps wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the existence of fansubbers, who made subtitled anime available in the market for free. Soon, anime fans belonged to one of two camps: those who supported subtitled anime, and those who didn’t.
While the advantages and disadvantages of each can be proven, neither camp has really given ground to the other. For example, dubbed anime has honestly had a bigger audience. Dubbed anime is the mass man’s main source of entertainment. Television, because of its sights and sounds, is a passive act. A person just needs to turn on the boob tube and everything passes by him whether he cooperates or not. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for subtitled anime, because you have to actually read in order to understand what’s happening. Simply put, the masses don’t really want to get into that situation; television has often been a means to relax your brain cells, not to strain them (if I wanted to read, I’d get a book). And if you’re suffering from dyslexia or an eye disease, it’s not in your best interest to struggle just to understand your favorite show. Did I mention the fact that with dubbed anime, you get to appreciate everything else better, such as the art, the music, and everything else modern TV has to offer?
On the side of subtitled anime, well, while any sort of translation is really a deviation (no matter how insignificant it might seem) from the original, a good subtitled anime is more faithful to the original than a good dub. And in a certain sense, translation isn’t compromised just to make sure the dialogue matches the movement of the character’s mouths. One also gets to appreciate the original voice actors and actresses (although for most people, they won’t understand half of what’s being said). To cut a long story short, my friend Dean said it best: it’s like watching your favorite art or foreign film (such as Amelie) dubbed. A lot is lost in the dubbing, not just because of the translation, but because the dub is the vision of a different director or actor/actress (although that’s not always true).
While all these are valid, there are some points I’d like to elaborate on. The first is the translation part. Let’s face it, whether it’s going to be subtitles or dubs, there will always be something lost in the translation. If you want a complete and accurate translation of the anime you’re watching, no amount of subtitles or dubbing will solve that. The only real way to do so would be to immerse yourself in Japanese culture and familiarize yourself with the language (much like any body of work, that’s not even a guarantee because the creator might have a different perspective from the society he or she is living in). There are also instances when some words, terms, or idioms can’t be explained quickly. It could come in the form of a joke, for example. The solution a subtitle provides is through the usage of footnotes, but footnotes detracts the experience. Where do you place it? If you place it during the gag, it takes too long to digest. If you place it at the start of the episode, you’re giving some spoilers. If you place it at the credits, it’s too late to appreciate the moment. A dub would tackle it in a different manner, such as altering the joke to suit the cultural taste of its audience. Is it a deviation from the original text? Yes. But that’s not really the issue. The issue is whether the altered segment carries on the spirit of the show. Whether it is or is not depends on the skill of the translator (and the voice actors/actresses and how they execute it). While there is a chance this could be the downfall of a dub, it is also an opportunity to be a strong point. When doing translations, we must remember that there is the possibility of improving the work of the previous product.
Another hotly-debated point is that of voice acting. More often than not, the zealous anime fan will claim that the original voice actors/actress’s voice is superior to that of the dub. Which isn’t necessarily true. I mean some Japanese voice actors/actress can’t sing (or at least not too well) for example. And there’s too many instances when female characters have high, squeaky voices when a lower, rougher voice would have suited the role better. Dubbing sometimes provides an opportunity to improve the original, and portray it in a manner that the local audience (i.e. the lingua franca) can understand. Either one is not necessarily better than the other, but simply different. The same can be extended to altered songs (hey, some of your favorite music artists have done their own versions of another artist’s songs… whether you like it or not depends on taste, but just because you redo another artist’s song doesn’t mean that your version is inferior or trashy).
Ultimately, I think the subtitled vs. dubbed debate is a flawed argument. Instead of asking whether a particular show is subtitled or dubbed, the question one should be asking is who’s doing the translations? I mean if you have a horrible translator, it won’t really matter if it’s subtitled or dubbed. The former just has better damage control because ignorant fans won’t really know if the translator screwed up or not unless they can actually understand Japanese (in which case, they didn’t need the subtitles to begin with). Or similarly, a bad company might release a show with horrible subtitles or timing. That makes watching the show just as annoying as a bad dub, and perhaps even less comprehensible. I remember watching Record of the Lodoss War DVD except the copy I borrowed was one of those bootleg copies from Hong Kong. The subtitles were probably done in Hong Kong as well since the English text was just plain horrible. I switched to the English dub, which was copied from the commercial company that released it in the US. While I tend to prefer subtitles to dub, in this case, I opted for the latter, simply because the latter was more comprehensible. A bad subtitle can ruin the anime experience just as much as a bad dub can. And like my scenario watching the bootleg DVD, you only get what you pay for.
So while the masses favors dubbed anime, the elite (and perhaps more knowledgeable) fan favors subtitles, but unfortunately technology hasn’t really caught up yet to reconcile the two. I mean while DVDs are indeed capable of storing good dubs and good subtitles, it’s still no guarantee that the company releasing the anime will do both (or would even provide the option to toggle between subs and dubs). The same goes for cable channels and local stations that could possibly offer the same benefits if the viewer had the right equipment, but it’s simply not being done (because it hasn’t reached the point where doing so would be that profitable). Right now, the demand for dubs overwhelms the demand for subtitles, not just due to their physical quantities but because of purchasing power as well. I mean those who favor subtitles would probably obtain their anime for fansubbers, which in turn don’t really financially compensate themselves or the creators of the work they just translated. And so the status quo is preserved, each side continuing the silent battle between subs and dubs, the former fighting with complaints, the latter with their wallets.
So which is better, subtitled or dubbed anime? Much like a lot of things, there’s no real universal answer. Just because you prefer dubs doesn’t make you less of an anime fan; it just means there’s a difference in preference. And as I said earlier, whether it’s subtitled or dubbed isn’t as important as who’s doing the translating if it’s authenticity you’re after. Of course for the purists out there who persists, all I can do is merely quote the words of Scott Frazier, an American who used to work for renowned animation company Production I.G.: “Learn Japanese, buy the original and ignore the English releases.”