The Dub Question

The sub vs dub question is one that has been discussed over and over again in various fora. It even has its own TV Tropes page. I realise that everyone feels like this is a dead issue, however as I’ve mentioned, I work in a DVD rental shop, and one of the biggest anxieties of my life is when people bring films up to you, thinking the plot, the actors, the style look great, but the minute you point out the subtitled sticker to them the DVD gets returned to the shelf. Often with a mildly disgusted “Oh, no thanks”. Subtitles are definitely still a sticking point when it comes to cinema. And whilst, when it comes to live action films, I would fervently steer clear of dubbing, I’m often surprised to see people doing the same with Anime. The anime society at my University only showed subbed anime, which meant that the Sci-Fi society, if they watched anime, had to view it dubbed, by decree of Anime Soc.

The way I see it, it boils down to three main issues:
1) Voice quality
2) Translation
3) Script quality
But aren’t script quality and translation the same thing, you ask? Well, no, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

1) Voice Quality
One of the cliches I was aware of when I came into anime was that all the characters spoke in high pitched squeaky voices. Whilst I know this isn’t true, sometimes it is sadly the case. Take, for instance, the dub of the second Cardcaptor Sakura Movie. Novel as it was to hear Mona Marshall (That’s right, he of the beloved pineapple laptop) voicing everyone’s favourite grumpy pre-teen with a big-ass sword, the novelty was sadly lost because all the girl characters suddenly seemed to develop the lung capacity of asthmatic pigeons, barely able to squeeze out a word in their breathy, high-pitched voices.

This is sad, because I adored the voice actors who did the Cardcaptors series and the first film. The voices were normal, and for the most part easy to listen to as the studio showed a good deal of restraint when it came to the voices. I say the voices though, because as is I think well known, they didn’t show much more restraint elsewhere.
Other anime guilty of irritating dub-voices include (but not limited to): Sailor Moon, Princess Tutu (Why, ADV? Why?) and, Yu-Gi-Oh! (but in a very different way)
It can be done so well though – I hold up for your approval (again not limited to): Outlaw Star, any of the Ghibli dubs done by Pixar, Tenchi Muyo (yes, Ayeka is still annoying, but I’m fairly certain she’s meant to be) and Digimon Adventure 01 and 02.

2) Translation
This is where, sadly, even many of the well-voiced dubs fall down. Cuts the make the script suitable for difference ages or even anglicised name changes are not so common any more but, still, sometimes they manage to blunder their way across our screens. Yes, ADV, ‘Ahiru’ does mean duck. No, ADV, this doesn’t mean you should change a character’s name from ‘Ahiru’ to ‘Duck’ when you translate it. It. Doesn’t. Work.
Equally, I can see the link between Sailor Moon and Serena, very literary dubbers there, but was it really necessary to change the spelling from ‘Rei’ to ‘Raye’? It’s said the same anyway.
Returning to Cardcaptors, perhaps one of the more prolific examples of this being done badly. Cut from 70 episodes to 39, reordered and then chopped again from roughly half an hour to around 20 minutes per episode. What is left is barely a shell of the original, and liberties are certainly taken. Aside from the ‘cousins’ aspect (See also: Troy) which is thrown around by American translators of stories (No seriously, Troy), we also lose most of the character development, history and relationships. Bad dubbers. Bad.
I’m not asking necessarily for a word-for-word translation, I’m fairly certain that’s what you get with Gundam Wing, but much as I love it even I will admit that the script is not the smoothest in the world. Surprisingly, however, this is where Digimon Adventure actually stands up to scrutiny. I watched a couple of the episodes side-by-side both dub and sub, and the difference was mainly in the tweaking of cultural references and the addition of a smattering of very bad jokes. Others may disagree with me, but this transliteration, at least in 01, is a good deal more successful than others.
Pixar is of course well known for its transliterations rather than direct translations, and again TV Tropes has a section on it.
Which leads us nicely on to

3) Script Quality
Sometimes, you know, they can get it all right – the names, the translation, the music, and yet it still… doesn’t quite make it. Once again I refer you to Cardcaptor Sakura movie 2, which is near word-for-word on the original, but sometimes, just sometimes you wish they would hurry up and say what they meant to say, rather than faffing around with the clunkery that comes from direct translation. This doesn’t happen often mind, but you still get the occasional fail.
Hayao Miyazaki himself (yes, he of Ghibli), believes that people should enjoy a film in their native language in order to get the full effect. This is all very well if you have people like Neil Gaiman writing your translations, but sadly some of them don’t quite make it.
Gundam Wing, I love you dearly, but sadly you fall into this category. So too, in my opinion, does Rayearth (but that could largely be because it’s Rayearth).

I asked this question on livejournal’s questionclub, the responses can be found here.
For the most part, the answer was ‘sub’. There is a theme though, in that the first anime you watched, the ones which brought you into this weird and wonderful world, were watched dubbed and you will always watch them dubbed. This is true for me of Gundam Wing, of Digimon and, yes, even of Pokemon. But dubs shouldn’t necessarily be written off immediately for the sake of them being dubs. If you’ve not seen Outlaw Star before, get it on its re-release and try the dub. Watch a Ghibli film dubbed instead of subbed. Miyazaki likes them, you might too. After all, variety is the spice of life.

One Response to “The Dub Question”
  1. t0mnomnom says:

    I find the Ghibli films I watched dubbed, and the Outlaw Star dub all merge together with their subs in my memory…So they must have been done reasonably well. And The Girl Who Leapt Through Time…

    Personally, I prefer to avoid dubs if they have to edit cultural references, which is why Gundam tends to suit the concept of dubbing quite well! 🙂 Long live the dub. 😀

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