Sub vs. Dub: one of the oldest and most intense debates among anime fans. Which is better? The original Japanese? Or the English dub? Localization is a hot button topic. No matter who you talk to, if they watch anime you can bet they have an opinion on it.
In this article Miso is going to dive a bit deeper into why viewers may feel so strongly about it on either side, and explore just how localization works in the anime industry.
So What is Localization?
Localization is the process of adapting something to suit a specific audience, like for example, English speaking countries. It’s also an intrinsic part of translating one language to another, because literal translations can get a bit weird. Some changes have to be made for it to make any sense! And that goes for both subbing and dubbing.
For this article, we’ll be looking specifically at English translations and since I am based in the USA we’ll also mainly be focused on North American localization; however, if you have some funny or interesting notes about how anime has been translated into other languages we’d love to hear about them!
Now onto some common arguments you may have heard…
“The English Voice Acting is So Bad”
Many sub fans say the acting in dubs is just flat out bad. A number of reasons like stiffness, weird accents, and both under and overacting alike have been quoted. Does this mean less effort is put into the English voice acting? Or that these voice actors are simply less talented than the originals? After all, just as in Japan, there are several core names you will see pop up again and again in the credits—voice actors being rehired into different anime is more common than seeing a new talent appear. So if so many English versions not only give out the same cringe-worthy impression but share in this same pool of popular VAs then surely there must be some correlation, right?
But as we know, correlation does not always mean causation. There are a couple things that could be behind these issues, and they don’t actually have to do with a voice actor’s skill but rather the limitations put upon them.
Matching the Animation
In our previous article about sound, Miso took a brief look at the recording process for the original Japanese and learned that voice acting and animation are typically done alongside each other. This means the seiyuu don’t have to stress about matching a scene’s animation to a T. Things like mouths or even larger gestures and movements can be finalized after the recording’s already all done!
English voice actors don’t usually have that same freedom. Lines are recorded to match the mouth movements used for the original Japanese audio. Many times these dub VAs will be watching the scene as they record too, trying to get the timing perfect. “Close enough” doesn’t seem to cut it. So while most anime animate mouths quite simply, these timing constraints can still cause some odd inflection compared to natural English.
There have been rare occasions where the mouths have actually been reanimated for the English dub. It can certainly give actors more leeway.
But as nice as that is it’s also undeniably a more expensive and time consuming route, making it understandably the lesser used method.
Japanese vs English Expression
English voice actors don’t always try to mimic a character’s original voice. This is likely for the better. A cutesy voice in Japanese can turn annoying and downright chipmunkish when imitated in English. And it’s not because they “can’t compare,” only a difference in languages and how they sound.
A person’s voice will almost always sound different when they speak another language, lowering or raising their pitch without even thinking. What may sound natural in one language could sound entirely bizarre in another. That includes even whacky cartoon voices you wouldn’t hear in real life because, at the end of the day, most of those voices are still based in a natural speaking tone.
However, it’s not just the voices themselves that work this way. If dub doesn’t try to voice match exactly that doesn’t mean they won’t try to match delivery. Sometimes this works totally well. There are several expressions and reactions Japanese people use that are similar to ones I myself and the people around me use.
For example: a casual yes (un) and a casual no (un-n) in Japanese is actually pretty close to the English mm/mhm and nn/uh-uh. They’re basically universal noises for nodding and shaking your head.
But for each of those examples there’s a pile of sounds and expressions they use that just don’t fit very well to what the English reaction would be. Some people prefer dubs because Japanese is a more monotone language than English. Even something seemingly straightforward, like yelling, can sound totally off if a dub too carefully copies the inflection and take away the emotion many dub viewers watch for.
“Subtitles are Distracting”
The biggest reason a lot of dub fans have for preferring English is that subtitles are distracting. Subtitles have you looking back and forth from the bottom of the screen to wherever the actual focal point is in a scene. If you’re not a particularly fast reader that distraction doubles. And since animation itself can play such a big role, that distraction is not a welcome one by far.
Subtitles can be especially overwhelming in scenes with a lot of dialogue or when two characters are speaking at the same time—and definitely when a character is speaking really fast. The lines get swapped out so quickly for new ones it’s near impossible to keep up sometimes. Imagine trying to read along to some of the panicked rambles in comedies! They’re hard enough to decipher as is even in English shows.
Not to mention that from time to time translations will need additional explanations which means there’s yet another thing to look at. Sometimes signs will also be translated and, whether you really need to look at it or not to understand what’s going on, our eyes are immediately drawn to it. Now, these things are admittedly more common to fan subs, but they are not unheard of in official translations either.
“They Changed Too Much!”
Another major upset for sub fans are changes being made to the source material. Like we said before, change is a part of translation in both subbing and dubbing. But, dubs tend to switch things up a bit more drastically.
Names are one of the smaller and more common changes. But way more changes than just that have happened. From characters designs to major plot points, nothing is completely off the table.
4KIDS & Censorship
Japan tends to have a different mindset about censorship than North America and many European countries. This can result in quite a few changes when an anime crosses borders. Overseas audiences simply considered some jokes and designs too offensive. This is especially true for kids’ anime.
Even if something isn’t entirely banned or offensive to a whole country, it might still get the axe if an anime wants to keep its all-ages sticker. Other times it’s because a company wants to add that same sticker onto an anime that didn’t originally have it. This is why in the 4Kids edit of One Piece, Sanji’s cigarettes have mysteriously turned into lollipops.
4Kids is an infamous name in the world of anime dubs. And it’s not just because of smoking lollipops.
4Kids Entertainment was a company that specialized in anime localization for the U.S. Though they weren’t the only ones to do it, they are a perfect emblem for over censorship—specifically cultural censorship.
In their short lived Pokemon dub, 4Kids replaced the common Japanese food onigiri with an array of more stereotypical American food. Suddenly Brock’s favorite food was now “jelly doughnuts” instead. I guess they didn’t think American kids could fathom balls of rice? Whatever the case, their Americanization of this and other series spawned a crowd of fan-hate (along with several memes).
Change For The Better?
Still, dramatic changes might’ve actually made a dub better than the original in some cases. In extreme cases these changes have created something entirely different.
The Voltron series started as a localization of the anime Beast King GoLion. However, there we no real means for the staff to translate the Japanese to English. So they ended up writing completely new dialogue all based around only what they could assume was the plot, essentially creating a new show out of the puzzle pieces.
Despite winging all that, Voltron was a huge hit in the U.S. So much so that they pulled another anime, unrelated to GoLion, into the franchise for a second series. The original show eventually got a sequel and reboot that weren’t dubs at all. Reception to those new shows were mixed, but the fact that an American localization of an anime spawned a franchise popular enough in the states to warrant original content is still pretty impressive.
The English dub of Ghost Stories is not dissimilar from GoLion‘s in that the writers did not have strict translations to follow. However, the Ghost Stories crew actually did have those translations. It just wasn’t worth it to use them.
Ghost Stories bombed during its original air time in Japan, so when it came to the dub Animax basically just said “do whatever you want.” And the staff definitely did. Surprisingly, the dub still keeps true to a lot of the storyline and plot points. But it’s also chock full of jokes about sex, stereotypes, and making fun of the anime itself.
Ghost Stories eventually earned cult classic status thanks to the dub, and it’s hailed as both one of the best and worst English dubs of all time.
“I’m Just More Used To…”
“I just like ___ better” or “___ sounds weird” are reasons you will hear on both sides of the debates. They aren’t the most fancy reasons, but at least they’re honest.
If you watch in Japanese of course English voices are going to sound off. If you watch it in English, Japanese voices will sound wrong. First listen bias and nostalgia bias have powerful effects. This goes for individual series and movies, but it’s true for overall preference too. The more you stick to one thing, the weirder the other becomes.
That wraps up our look at localization in anime. So, where do you stand? Are you strictly team subs, dubs, or somewhere in between? Let us know in the comments!