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When Is It OK To Adapt An Anime Dub Script?

by Justin Sevakis,

Brandon asked:

When dubbing an anime, there is the matter of the script. There are some anime that are nearly identical to the original with some changes, like Attack on Titan; and there are some that slightly change the dialogue while retaining the spirit of the anime, like Yū Yū Hakusho (pun can be intended). While recently watching a boxset of Lost Universe, I've noticed that the dialogue are almost completely different and laughably corny but maintained the true spirit of the story. And then, there are anime like Crayon Shin-chan and Ghost Stories where the dialogue, and possibly the story, is entirely different. My question is when is it acceptable to change the script from the original and does an anime exists where it follows the original script to a T?

First and foremost, you really need to stop thinking of the subtitle translation as the "original script." A subtitle script is an approximation of what's being said in Japanese. Japanese and English are very different languages, and the translators and editors who wrote that subtitle script have made all sorts of judgement calls, and thought of all manner of subjective solutions to various puzzles along the way. English is a very pliable language, and there are a boatload of different ways to say the almost anything, sometimes adding nuance or implying things that weren't possible in the original Japanese. Conversely, a lot of nuance can get lost just by transcribing the original Japanese dialogue into text form. There is no absolutely pure way of translating something, much as some of us might like to think otherwise.

Rewriting a translation for a dub is, frankly, a very necessary step. Subtitle translations are often pretty "raw" and literal -- most of the time, reading them out loud would sound awkward. The dialogue needs to fit the timing of the lip-flap on screen, the manner of speech needs to fit the character, and jokes need to be adapted to be funny in English without having to flood the screen with translation notes. That's not easy. There is definitely an art to it, and some writers go a little further in reworking things than is strictly necessary, but that's just how they work. In my opinion, this is absolutely the most important part in creating a good dub. Experienced voice actors usually don't need too much direction when they get a script that reads naturally -- they can get their emotional queues both from the script as well as from what happens on screen. On the other hand, if the script is clumsy, even a great actor can only bumble their way through.

There are a few dubs out there that come from the "print out the subtitle script and get in the booth" school of anime dubbing, but they're mostly old and pretty terrible dubs, such as Patlabor TV or the later Project A-ko OAVs from Central Park Media. You can tell because characters speak way too slowly, and the actors sound kind of lost and detached. When dubs like this got released on DVD, fans turned on the subtitle track, saw it matched the dub exactly, and accused the anime company of making "dubtitled" discs (i.e. captioning the adapted dub rather than providing faithful subtitles), when really it was the dubbing studio that just got lazy. Even though there are terrible dubs still being made, most studios at least TRY to adapt the scripts these days.

Full-out repurposings like Shinchan and Ghost Stories are few and far between. It's always a tricky judgement call when it's appropriate to completely "throw out the script" and rework a show, but my general criteria are:

  • The original producer/creator is OK with what you're doing
  • The show would make little sense, or be otherwise unappealing, if dubbed "straight"
  • You have a coherent method to make the show more appealing to more people than it would've been otherwise
  • You make the original subtitled version available, even if only online

Of course, any time you get creative, especially with another person's work, you're taking a risk. Just like with most attempts at comedy, anything can be excused as long as you're funny. The trouble is, a lot of people think they're much funnier than they actually are. And then you get horrors like the reworked ADV dub of Super Milk Chan. (shudder)

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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