How Much Control Do Japanese Producers Have Over Dubs and Subtitles?

by Justin Sevakis,

Bill asked:

There have been a lot of people talking about translation differences in the Netflix version of Evangelion, with both the dub and the subtitles. How much control does Japan have when American companies make the translations and the dubs?

As much as they want. Typically, that's not a ton. But sometimes it can be TOTAL AND COMPLETE DOMINATION.

Every company that acts as a licensor for anime has a legal and moral obligation to be a good "custodian" to that anime. That means three things: first, making sure it's not used and abused in ways that its creators and producers would not approve of; second, making sure that every legal and logistical element of its sale is done correctly; and third, doing things that will make money for the property, and thereby, its investors and creators.

Larger anime producers that act as licensors on a lot of shows have a dedicated International Sales department. While the sizes of these departments vary, their tasks generally involve doing all of those three things. However, these teams are usually way too small for the ridiculous amount of anime properties they manage, and as a result they try to streamline things as much as possible. The only way to make that sort of workload managable is to have procedures in place for every show they deal with, that flex based on how demanding the original creator and producers are.

These procedures vary wildly from publisher to publisher. Some demand approval over subtitle scripts as a matter of course. Some demand approval over casting decisions for dubs. Some need to check every line of an adapted dub script before it can move forward. Often, there's a bit of a language barrier here: while most people working in international licensing at anime companies can speak English, sometimes fluently, it's almost always their second language, and they may not immediately grasp certain turns of phrase or cultural references that make their way into an adapted translation.

Almost every licensor demands SOME level of oversight over parts of the process, and as technology evolves, it's gotten easier for them to ask to see something and sign off on it. While, contractually, they may have limits to this power (such as a certain amount of time they're allowed to comment before an overseas publisher can just proceed as-is), those limits are usually ignored. Because, if you don't follow a licensor's instructions, they get angry. And when they get angry, you're probably never going to get anything approved by them again, and may not be able to license anything they're involved with ever again.

The real limit to how much oversight a licensor can have over a show's translation and adaptation is simply how much time and energy they're willing to devote to it. Older shows, or certain shows with easy going creators, often don't need much oversight. High profile shows from powerful creators usually requite a TON. It all comes down to power dynamics behind the scenes in Japan, which we're usually not privy to. And when it comes to smaller companies that really only control a handful of shows, they usually don't even have a dedicated person in charge of it all, so if they want to have oversight, things are just going to move VERY, VERY slowly.

Occasionally you get creators who care TOO much about how their shows are experienced in other languages, and want to be REALLY, REALLY involved, dictating which translators they can use, and sometimes even overseeing dubbing. It's happened where these creators get hung up on using specific English words that don't really work for native speakers, Japanese mispronunciations for Western names, and other such things. A creator's influence on a dub or translation is usually not made public, and their involvement can go well, or things can get contentious. The dubbing studio or overseas publisher can try to fight this outside control, but they're going to lose. The anime business is too small to burn bridges like that.

As for what happened with Evangelion, I honestly think that a lot of complaints about the final product are rooted in nostalgia for previous translations, and a lack of understanding of linguistic subtleties. But that said, there are definitely some choices made in the Netflix versions that no native English speaker would make. We can't know what happened behind the scenes, but according to the director of the new dub (and Neo-Misato) Carrie Keranen, they definitely called the shots when it came to casting, if nothing else.

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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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