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Dubs and Subs, a Translator’s Perspective

Note: This is a repost of a series of an article I originally wrote for Crunchyroll. Check my writer profile to see my latest articles.


Take note: this article is not about “subs versus dubs.” It’s not a competition. I’m sure that everyone has their own preferences, but in the end it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Dubbing involves a different set of skills, resources, and priorities than subtitling does. Even the scriptwriting process for a dub is very different from writing a subtitle script. (I’ll write more about this in a future column, perhaps.)

It’s a pity that conversations around the subject tend to revolve around how the voices sound rather than the translation issues involved. From the perspective of a translator, what’s interesting about subs and dubs is that they strive in different ways to bring the viewer as close to the experience of watching a Japanese anime as possible. With a subtitled anime, the original audio is retained. On the surface, this seems like a preferable format for language purists. On the other hand, Japanese speakers don’t need to read subtitles to understand the audio, so a dub might actually come closer to capturing the experience of watching anime as a native Japanese speaker.

As we’ll see in today’s column, however, “the experience of watching anime as a native speaker” is an extremely difficult thing to quantify, let alone replicate. When you look at the matter in perspective, the “subs versus dubs” debate misses the point.

Watching Anime as a Non-Native Japanese Speaker

I am not a native Japanese speaker. No matter how much I study the language, I cannot tell you how a native speaker would perceive the lines in an anime. For one thing, native speakers can come up with wildly differing interpretations of the same line. Given that every single person has a different perspective, this is bound to happen in any language. For another thing, I didn’t grow up in a Japanese household, and so my knowledge of Japanese culture is obviously quite different from that of a native speaker. I learned most of my knowledge in my teens or adulthood; it’s not joushiki (common sense) to me even when I experience it for myself.

hijoushiki

This might sound counterintuitive, but even watching anime in Japanese without the subtitles involves a translation process of some sort. When you reach a certain degree of proficiency in a second language, you may start thinking in your second language instead of understanding words in terms of how they translate into your first language. Even then, however, your understanding is filtered through your cultural biases. The closer you get to the original experience, I find, the more elusive it becomes.

One could say that any act of communication involves translation and that an “original experience” doesn’t exist to begin with, although this is getting quite philosophical… The point is that there’s really no such thing as a translation that captures exactly how it feels to experience the original as a native speaker. Even if you learn to speak Japanese fluently as a second language, you don’t get the same experience.

Fortunately, the point of a translation is not to achieve 1:1 equivalence but simply a reasonable approximation. It’s also a matter of prioritization. You can’t capture everything, so you focus on what you think is most important.

It should go without saying, but dubbing and subtitling have different priorities. Dubs generally (but not always) take a more liberal approach to translation and aim to be more accessible to casual viewers, while subtitled releases retain more of the Japanese flavor. However, if you’re trying to get as close to the Japanese viewing experience as possible, the script itself is only one factor involved.

Replicating the Japanese Viewing Experience: Some Practical Considerations

One benefit of dubs is that they can allow you to understand the dialogue without the visuals. You can watch the anime without keeping your eyes on the screen at all times and you can still understand what is being said. This would allow you to watch anime in a similar way to how they are watched by prime time television audiences—not entirely attentively but more or less understanding what’s going on. Long-running classics like Chibi Maruko-chan and Sazae-san would fall into this category.

chibi maruko-chan

This factor wouldn’t apply to most shows on CR’s catalog, however. Most television anime airs late at night, and often on cable channels to boot. It’s common for Japanese anime fans to tape the episodes and watch them at less ungodly hours. These viewers are generally more attentive than prime time TV viewers because they have to actively seek out the anime they want to watch.

It has also become very commonplace to watch anime on Nico Nico Douga, the popular Japanese video streaming website. The experience is fairly similar to watching shows on CR, although there are some key differences—for example, Nico Nico viewers can watch videos as live reactions from other viewers scroll across the screen.

This particular practice hasn’t caught on with English viewers, but I mention it because it indicates that Japanese viewers are comfortable with reading text as they watch television. (Not to mention that it’s extremely commonplace in Japanese television shows to see writing pop up onscreen, usually for emphasis.) Watching anime with English subtitles isn’t too different from Japanese viewing practices in this regard.

Still, this doesn’t negate the fact that Japanese viewers don’t generally watch anime with subtitles (although Japanese subtitles are included on some home video releases). And it’s worth bearing in mind that subtitles physically take up space on the screen. If you’re trying to appreciate an anime with particularly stunning visuals, you might want to consider watching it dubbed or without the subtitle track if this option is available to you. For what it’s worth, it can also be easier to follow a show’s comedic timing when you’re not reading subtitles.

mob psycho

Mob Psycho 100 is a prime choice for a dub.

Finally, there are technological factors to consider: what device are you watching anime on? What kind of speakers are you using? Japanese audio mixes for broadcast TV have only two channels (generally speaking), whereas English dub tracks these days are recorded in 5.1 surround sound. On the other hand, if you’re watching anime on your phone in a train, the audio quality will probably not matter so much. And so on.

At the end of the day, very few international anime fans will watch anime on television during the timeslot the show is originally broadcast. Nor will they watch the Japanese Bluray or DVDs. Regardless of whether you watch a dub or a sub, you’re probably watching anime far differently than Japanese fans typically do. At the same time, it’s also important to note that the Japanese viewing experience is changing because of the proliferation of online streaming and mobile phones. This only makes it even harder to pin down how a Japanese person would experience an anime.

While I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a purist when it comes to anime, I think it’s important to consider the translations and technologies we use and how they may affect our own viewing experiences. Instead of taking subs or dubs for granted, consider how they may influence your perception of the anime itself.

Personal Thoughts

Personally speaking, I enjoy English dubs. I think that English dubbing has come a long way since the early days, and I love seeing my favorite anime interpreted in a new way. Even if a particular dub doesn’t work for me, I can always enjoy the original.

From the perspective of a non-native Japanese speaker, subtitles are a light annoyance, but I still enjoy watching subtitled releases because it’s fun to compare a translation to the original. It’s also easier to quote or share screencaps of a particular line from a subtitled script. In my opinion, half the fun of anime comes from the ridiculous things the characters say at times.

wise thoughts

 

In the end, there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy an anime, so pick the approach that best suits you. There will never be a definitive answer to the question of how to experience anime like a Japanese native speaker, so it’s probably not worth worrying about too much. It can only be a good thing that subs and dubs are both becoming more accessible to anime fans across the world.

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Posted on June 21, 2017, in Editorials and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I like subtitles for a few reasons. The biggest is probably just an appreciation for how anime sounds in Japanese. I know that’s the boring answer, but I’m not a translator and the debate about subs versus dubs got boring for me years ago. There’s something about the range of emotion with Japanese voice work that clicks with me that doesn’t click with English dubbed anime. Perhaps something along the lines of paying more attention to the nuance in Japanese voice than I need to do with English, odd as that might sound. I’m not entirely sure why myself.

    One big reason I like subtitles, and a reason you might find more interesting, is that I’m not entirely at the mercy of the translators to do a good job. With a dub I have one source of information for what the characters are saying or thinking. With a subtitled released I have two. I can both listen to the Japanese and then read what’s hopefully a close approximation in English. Between the two I get a much clearer picture of what’s going on, maybe even a clearer picture than the original Japanese audience gets? Even if the localization effort is amazing I want both. I’ll even typically turn subtitles on in English language games. I find it easier to process what’s going on when I have both text and voice. I appreciate the extra flexibility it allows me. I haven’t head anyone else describe their enjoyment of subtitles that way, but talking with other long time anime fans I often get a sense they get something similar out of the experience.

  2. Interesting post. I gotta admit I’ve fallen into the trap of preferring subs because they seem closer to the original Japanese experience somehow. Especially in shows like Steins;Gate that were full of Japanese internet memes, and learning about them through the subs was almost half the fun.

    Lately though I’ve been rewatching some of my favorite comedy shows dubbed (like Lucky Star), and the comedic timing tends to feel much better in my opinion. Although it takes some time to get used to the different voices. Especially Kagami’s biting tone of voice in her retorts.

    Nowadays I don’t have enough time to sit down and concentrate on subbed anime as much as I could in the past, so I’ve been getting into dubs more and more as I play the episodes while working out or cook. I have been enjoying them a lot to be honest. The only kind of show that’s hard to stomach is waifu shows. It just isn’t the same without my Japanese high pitched voices maybe.

    Then again I am an ESL person, so my perspective might be extremely removed from native english speakers in this case, hahaha.

  3. I remember that screenshot, lol.
    But yeah, the dub vs sub thing is really hard to pin down. The scrolling text is interesting though, because I have seen japanese variety shows unsubbed, and holy sh*t, it’ll assault you with so many things.
    Also, what’s up with having actors occupy a space on the screen just watching what the audience is also watching? That irritates me more than the explosive texts that re-tells what the commentators are already saying.
    I’m a sub guy though, and it’s mostly because I do know how hard translating japanese is so I want to understand the story better. Also, you can appreciate sakuga moments or visual porn moments even with subs. I think you kinda get used to that.
    Then again, you can understand the story in the dubs too. So it really is a personal thing.

    • Also, what’s up with having actors occupy a space on the screen just watching what the audience is also watching? That irritates me more than the explosive texts that re-tells what the commentators are already saying.

      The whole tarento culture is something I haven’t wrapped my head around either… but I suppose since variety shows are light viewing, they show the audience how they’re supposed to react.

      Also, you can appreciate sakuga moments or visual porn moments even with subs. I think you kinda get used to that.

      You might find this post interesting if you haven’t seen it before: https://frogkun.com/2013/12/06/even-if-you-cant-speak-japanese-you-should-try-watching-anime-without-subtitles/

      I think that you do get used to subs to a degree that you can easily appreciate the visuals even with the subs on, but you can still find yourself paying attention to different things when you turn the subs off.

      Having said all that, I am speaking from a culture where foreign-language movies and shows are niche, and subtitles are not otherwise used often except for closed captions. I didn’t grow up with subtitles, so they tend to distract me more. In some countries, subtitles are ubiquitous, and that’s how people learn their second or even third languages. So it really depends.

      • I read your post about not watching subs. I actually do that when I was watch random things on tv. We have Wowow, and it airs anime I nver really bother checking out. One time, It was actualyl Mayoiga. And it’s really the same to me, subtitled or not. I didn’t understand a thing of what they’re saying but I am attentive to the details. Maybe it’s because I am a reviewer now more than just a casual audience, but I don’t really want to own up to that.

        I do think you have a personal beef with subs, from the post I just read, but you were just being polite about it. So, what’s up? Personally, I never learn jap cause I prefer fandubs. It’s pathetic right. But maybe your appreciation for the language is also a factor. I’m not accusing you of stuff though. This is just something I noticed. So fess up, froppy.

        Also, I do understand where you’re coming from. I come from a country that pirates a lot of stuff, and most of them are american shows with chinese dubs in them or vietnamese. I love watching Law and Order even if its hardsubbed with a german subtitle, so I kinda got used to moving my eyes around and catching everything without paying attention to a sub. I even rewind at things I know makes for a perfect screenshot. It’s interesting how different our background is. But, aren’t you half-fil or something?

        “how they are supposed to react”? Seriously, are we like herded sheeps or something? It’s a culture thing though, but I do love how perverted scenes get the same uncomfortable weirded out reaction from the hosts.

        • I do think you have a personal beef with subs, from the post I just read, but you were just being polite about it. So, what’s up? Personally, I never learn jap cause I prefer fandubs. It’s pathetic right. But maybe your appreciation for the language is also a factor. I’m not accusing you of stuff though. This is just something I noticed. So fess up, froppy.

          Nah, I don’t have anything against subs. Where would we be without them? I do think that there are other ways to appreciate anime without them, though. And I do get annoyed when people make out that they’re the only way to appreciate everything that’s going on in an anime. For example, how would a blind anime fan watch anime? Or people with hearing problems who require closed caption subs? In short, subs are great, but everyone watches anime a little differently.

          And yeah, I’m half-Filipino, but it’s not like I grew up in the Philippines. I can’t even speak Tagalog…

          “how they are supposed to react”? Seriously, are we like herded sheeps or something? It’s a culture thing though, but I do love how perverted scenes get the same uncomfortable weirded out reaction from the hosts.

          I think it’s pretty much equivalent to a canned laughter track in a sitcom. They tell the viewer when they’re supposed to laugh. It can be annoying at times but I get the point of it. It’s not that audiences are stupid but they’re not always going to watch TV with their full attention, ya know?

  4. It does get to a philosophical debate on what the “original experience” is, doesn’t it? As you mentioned, even if you learn JP you may not experience the same cultural context: and that makes me wonder how extreme you can take the “cultural adaptation” route–for example, in Pokemon, changing all the Pokémon and character names to English, and replacing onigiri with Jelly Donuts =P

  5. The statement about watching as Japanese people do is a good one. Actually because Japanese viewers are a lot smaller group, and a lot more homogeneous, it’s easy to understand what Japanese anime otaku typically do. It’s much harder to put a finger on what fans around the world do. I have no idea if people are still sitting in front of their PC to watch their anime, or via some home theater, or on their tablets and phones, and this will vary country by country.

    The most telling thing is actually that a lot of otaku are technically uh, forward, younger folks who embrace streaming and other new media distribution/viewing modes more readily. Especially since the lot of them have to timeshift to watch the late night shows they watch anyway, using a streaming service make a lot of sense. In that sense we, otaku around the world, are actually converging… It reminds me the one time when I was in a commuter train going to Machida from central Tokyo, and the guy standing next to me was watching fansub anime on his iPad, despite him seemingly 100% Japanese. Probably because it’s a lot easier to pirate anime fansubs than raws!

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful look at experiencing anime. I hadn’t considered the impact of the viewing medium on the experience. That was a cool addition to think about!

    I have always preferred subs to dubs because I feel like overall, subbing doesn’t have as many translation limitations as dubbing. With dubbing, a translator faces the challenge of making the dialogue match the visual timing of the mouth. This often leads to awkwardly worded phrases or complete changes to what was said. (Granted, it is fun to look at dubs and see the choices that were made both for timing and cultural relevancy purposes. Especially with older anime, where entire scenes may have changed for comedic impact based on the perception in the United States that cartoons were meant to be funny).

    Subs allow for more wiggle room in that the translation doesn’t have to match the animation. This gives the translator more space to create long or short sentences that are truer to the original wording and meaning. Granted, this depends, as you mentioned, on the interpretation of the words. To me, this is such a cool element of subs. It’s fun to listen to the words as I read and see where different interpretations could have been made, and consider the implications of what was ultimately written in the subtitle.

  7. Great article. :)

    I like that you point out how the whole subs versus dubs doesn’t really get to the crux of the argument about actual translation. As you say, personal preference in terms of voice acting tends to be what gets emphasised there – and I’ve never really understood what point there is in debating that particular issue, since it ultimately comes down to saying “my taste is better than yours, let me tell you why.”

  1. Pingback: AniWeekly 126: Off the HIDIVE And On to the Expo - Anime Herald

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