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The Dub Track
English Dubs, not Inferior

by Ryan Mathews,
A bit of a change of pace this month: Rather than a review, I'll be using this column to express an opinion I need to get off my chest.

This is, in my opinion, a "golden age" of anime dubbing, or at least as close as we are ever likely to get to one. The bigger anime gets in the U.S., the more seriously dub creators take their work, and the better the dubs get. Whereas anime dubbing used to be the realm of directors and actors who didn't understand, much less care, about anime, these days dubs are crafted by highly skilled professionals who specialize in the artform. Many dub directors and actors make a sizable portion (in a few rare cases, all) of their living from doing anime.

And they've been rewarded with increased popularity. For proof, just attend Anime Central, probably the nation's premiere convention for American voice-acting guests. Actresses such as Wendee Lee (Faye Valentine, Cowboy Bebop) and Melissa Williamson (Nuriko, Fushigi Yugi) have packed panel rooms with throngs of enthusiastic fans, most of whom wanted autographs. When Brad Swaile (Quatre, Gundam Wing) appeared at his panel last year, the shrieking of his female fans was so loud it drowned out the panel next door.

But despite that, dubbing still gets little respect among many, if not most "hard-core" fans. I should know — many of my friends are in this group, and they tend to be dumbfounded when they learn that I prefer dubs. How can any anime fan be as involved as Ryan is, they wonder, and not prefer subtitles? Dubs are considered a lesser way of viewing anime. It's for casual fans, lazy fans, fans who can't be bothered to read subs, fans that don't really care about anime.

It's not true. And quite frankly, I'm sick of hearing it.

I'd like to go through some of the arguments put forth for dubs' obvious inferiority. They'll be familiar to you. If you're a dub-hater, you've likely made these arguments yourself, and if you like dubs, your fellow fans throw them in your face at least several times a year.

Subtitles are superior to dubs, because the translation is more accurate.

I'm starting with this argument, because it's the only one which holds even a drop of water. It's true — the compromises needed to adapt a translated script for dubbing are greater than those needed for subtitling. However, you're fooling yourself if you think subtitling doesn't involve any compromises at all. A good subtitle script adapts the dialogue into subtitles that can be easily read in the time available. Occasionally, this can mean tightening things up a bit, shortening a sentence so that it fits on one screen. And let's face it; some lines simply don't translate well, period. Subtitles don't change that.

Admittedly, it's rare, but a good dub can provide a better interpretation of the script than the sub. Take, for example, Aeka from Tenchi Muyo!. Her character's nobility and formality are expressed by having her speak in an outlandishly formal dialect of Japanese. Unless you speak Japanese, this nuance will be lost on you, and there's no elegant way of expressing it in a subtitle. In the English dub, however, Jennifer Darling solves the problem with her delivery, giving Aeka a "noble" accent.

So yes, subtitles provide a superior translation to dubs. But the gap isn't as big as some would make it.

I only watch subtitles because I want the same original experience the Japanese viewers received.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but you're not getting it. Unless you speak Japanese and can watch the anime raw, you can never have the same experience as the Japanese viewers. The amazing truth is that watching a good dub brings you much closer to the original experience than a subtitle.

Don't buy it? Then answer this: Do you really think the director intended his work to be viewed with yellow letters pasted over it? Given that anime is a visual artform, it's amazing to me that dub-haters can watch anime obscured by subtitles and think they're receiving a superior experience. Subtitles obscure the artwork, and they take your eyes away from where the director intended for you to look. Unless you have amazing peripheral vision, you have to flick your eyes to the bottom of the screen every few seconds to read the next title. This is most certainly not the "original experience".

Subtitles are annoying. If you don't believe me, try watching a DVD of an American movie with the Spanish or French subtitles turned on. (Assuming you speak neither of those languages.) See how long you last before you reach for the remote. As anime fans, we have merely gotten used to them, so much so that we think of them as "not really there". The most striking illustration of this occurred when ADV released the first DVD of Evangelion, in which they used digital text overlays to translate signs. This was a brilliant solution. The Japanese text, and only the Japanese text, was removed and replaced by English. The hard-core fans howled with rage! How dare they alter the precious artwork! So for subsequent DVDs, ADV went back to the traditional method of placing the sign translation next to the sign, which obscures just as much artwork, if not more. But this quieted the fans, because those translations "aren't really there".

Subtitles are superior because you get to hear the original voices.

I love this argument, because then I can ask the fan if he prefers to watch Tenchi Muyo! In Love in English. After all, the English voices were recorded first. Then I get to watch the fun as he backtracks, usually by redefining "original". But whatever. I could care less about "original" voices. I'd rather hear the "best" voices, or rather, the voices that give me the most enjoyable overall experience.

I think the problem here is that some people equate animation dubs with live-action dubs. In the latter, hearing the original voices is very important, since those voices belong to the human actors you see on the screen. In contrast, animation cels have no voice of their own. (As has been said, "All animation is dubbed.") So saying one vocal track is superior to another simply because it was recorded first is a spurious argument.

The Japanese voice acting is always better than the English voice acting.

Ha. No, seriously. Ha.

Once Upon a Time, you could say this and know it to be true, not because you knew anything about the Japanese acting, but because the English dub acting was so absolutely amateurishly awful. These days, it's rare for a dub to not be at least passable, and several studios consistently produce very good dubs. So to continue to make this argument, you have to be able to describe just how good the Japanese acting is.

That's where the argument breaks down. If you don't speak Japanese, you cannot determine with any degree of accuracy whether the acting is any good. And please, spare me the hooie about how you can just tell by how well the actors emote. Any actor can emote. Emoting is one part of acting. There's timing, enunciation, and all kinds of nuances that go into delivering a good line, all of which is lost on you if you don't speak the language. Scott Frazier tells a funny story about how he learned one of his favorite anime (Dirty Pair) was horribly acted, once he became fluent in Japanese.

The sad truth of the matter is that most Japanese anime voice acting is of average quality. This is not to impugn the Japanese; it's merely Sturgeon's Law at work. For every Akira Kamiya and Megumi Hayashibara, there are scores of actors giving uninspired, cookie-cutter performances.

I don't want to sound like I'm putting down subtitled anime. There are several anime titles I'm in the middle of watching subtitled right now, because I don't care for the dub. (That's the wonderful thing about being open-minded: there's always a back-up plan.) A friend of mine who is vehemently sub-only says he watches subtitled anime for cultural reasons. Anime is a Japanese artform, he argues, so it only makes sense to watch it in Japanese. I can buy that argument, if such cultural issues are important to you. Personally, such issues just get in the way of my enjoyment of the anime, which is, after all, the point of being an anime fan, at least in my case.

Whatever your preference, more power to you. Just remember this: You're no less a "true" anime fan if you choose to watch anime in your own language. Hold your heads up high, dub fans. And keep packing those panel rooms at Anime Central.

Agree? Disagree? Have a comment about a dub, or just about dubbing in general? Let me know! (mathews1 at ix.netcom.com)

The views and opinions expressed in The Dub Track are solely those of Ryan Mathews and do not necessarily represent the views of Anime News Network or its sponsors.

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