We often hear about the argument about whether anime is better dubbed or subbed. First thing I want to establish is that this is entirely, 100%, undeniably a matter of preference and that people will have their preferences for one way or the other and that I am neither establishing a truth nor expecting to “convert” anyone since in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter how you enjoy your media so long as you enjoy it. Now that we’ve gotten our disclaimer and clickbait title out of the way, let’s establish some context for this article.
1) We’ll just keep this specifically to anime because this is where the argument seems most common (though it does appear in other situations).
2) Being an English speaker I’m going to largely rely more on English dubs as opposed to other dubs because it is easier to demonstrate my points.
3) We will assume that the viewer in question is not familiar with the Japanese lanaguage and has, at best, a basic understanding of Japanese. If the viewer is proficient or fluent in Japanese then they wouldn’t need subs.
4) The show in question has an English dub. If the show doesn’t have an English dub then the viewer isn’t watching the show because the Japanese audio and English subs are better but because it’s the only choice.
5) There are incredibly bad dubs, like many of the 90s dubs (see Sailor Moon). A bad dub is a bad dub no matter what language it’s in (see scream.boredandsimple.com).
6) The article title is not a rule, it’s an opinion and generalized statement.
Hopefully I did my job right and I properly explained the context you should view the rest of the article with, and without further ado let’s get into the real meat of this article with our first topic, accents and dialects. I’m going to go with a really unorthodox example as an opener; Infinite Stratos. (NSFW tag just in case, Japanese video and the English video )
Before arguing about whether or not the scene I link to warrants a NSFW tag I put it as a courtesy for those that would rather see awkward scenes in a more private situation. Elaborating on the videos I want to touch on why I use Infinite Stratos as my example; it’s an anime (of the harem variety) that revolves around a school with international students. Admittedly I only chose the tea scene because it was the first scene I could find an English dub and Japanese dub for but it demonstrates my base point. In the Japanese dub I, personally, cannot tell if she is supposed to have an accent or not as all I can hear is a Japanese person speaking Japanese. Being unfamiliar with the language I cannot tell where she is putting her emphasis, which sounds she’s stressing or how the words should be pronounced. I also cannot pick up on any accent that makes her sound different from Ichika, there’s no audio cue I can pick up telling me whether one is from Edo and the other Osaka or both are next door neighbors (for that matter, I don’t even know what Japanese in a French accent would sound like so if she -does- have a French accent it’s completely lost on me). Now if you go to the English dub you can tell that there is a difference because Ichika has an American accent, which serves as the “base” or “local” accent in the show (replacing Japanese) while Charl does not; there are certain words that she mechanically pronounces differently and with a different tone that makes it clear that she is not (meant to be) an American. Before you assume that I’m praising the voice acting for having a great French accent I want to stop you right there and say that’s not what I’m doing at all. What I -am- doing is pointing out how, through audio alone that I can pick up on her accent without being told that s he is a foreigner and that throughout the show her voice serves as a constant implicit reminder that she’s a foreigner as opposed to having a constant explicit reminder by having people say she’s French or having her hold a baguette every scene while wearing the French flag (read: I’m constantly reminded she’s French without the show being horribly offensive). Meanwhile in the Japanese dub Charl just sounds Japanese to me and I’m actually curious if Japanese Charl even has an accent, and if she does, if it is even remotely French. While Infinite Stratos is by no means a good anime and the accents aren’t great they did their jobs well and are a mechanical piece of the dub that gave people a reason to like the dub and argue that the dub is better than the sub (that general theme that spawned that this article). To quote someone from MyAnimeList.net: “If it’s going to be involving multiple countries, we need sexy accents, damnit.”
Before making Leo any more uncomfortable as he peer reviews this article, let’s focus a bit more on stress and phrasing and switch over to GaoGaiGar with this delightful, seizure inducing clip (Because, you know, HIKARI NI NARE).
This should be a quick example as we’re basing it -entirely- off of three words. If you can’t guess Guy Shishio is shouting his iconic “Hikari ni nare!” line (or is it “Hikari ni nara”? Even the subs can’t seem to decide which it is), which in the English dub was translated into “Transform into Light!” If you assumed that hikari ni nare literally translated into Transform into light word for word (Hikari = Transform, ni = into, nare = light) then you would assume that the emphasis in that video would be on “light,” like it is in English and how it is in the subs (You’ll see “BECOME LIGHT!” in the subtitles) and you would be wrong. From what little research I did I learned that hikari means light and nare can mean “become,” “be composed of,” or to “change into,” with ni being the craziest filler word ever. Going with a weird literal translation you could get something like “Light into becoming!” or “Light change into!” which somehow fails to be far less weird than Google Translate’s “Nostril of Light ni!” Being a little more liberal we can see that “change into” can also be “transformed” in English, meaning we could translate it more directly into “Light transformation!” With this translation we now have an interesting difference if we consistently stress the end of the shout; with “Transform into Light” you would stress light, which would be the result, while with “Light Transformation” you would be stressing the action. Not knowing what hikari ni nare is you can’t actually tell which of the two Guy is stressing when he uses the Goldion Hammer; which may seem completely trivial but keep in mind that this actually is a trivial example using 2/3 words.
Imagine if we applied this to a sentence that had more flexibility and potential meaning, let’s go with “Because he defeated me!” because I can. If we change the stress we can change what is important in that sentence, if we go with “-Because- he defeated me” then we’re implying that the important thing is the motivation. On the other hand, if we change the stress to “Because -he- defeated me!” then what is emphasized as important is the other character, in a way there’s an implication that if it was anyone else it wouldn’t really be as big a deal. It’s not just one word stressing, we could go with “Because -he- defeated -me-!” which gives you lots of interpretations including rivalry, hatred, self importance, arrogance, a view of superiority or inferiority, and you could pick up which ideas to go with based on the context of the scene. If we don’t understand what is being stressed by something simple like “Light transformation!” or “Transform into light!” then would we even understand what is being stressed in a phrase we don’t know any of the words, like “Kare wa watashi o yabuttanode!” (Courtesy of Google Translate).
Since I don’t want to drag things too much longer, let’s go to my final example: JOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO JO!
So first thing you’ll notice is the phrasing in both versions is drastically different. Speedwagon’s opening line helps showcase the difference in phrasing right off the bat; in the Japanese version he says “He’s expelling the vampire extract! Mister Joestar hasn’t given up yet!” while in the English dub he says “The vampire essence! He squeezed it out! He’s not done! Jonathan won’t give up!” This one line shows a problem that dubs can have; when they try to write English lines with the intention of lip syncing for mouth movements designed for another language you can get odd pacing. The subs are quicker paced and more fluid while the English dub is almost like a telegram message (The vampire essence, stop. He squeezed it out, stop. He’s not done, stop. Jonathan won’t give up, stop.). That said, I am a little more partial towards how the English dub has Speedwagon call him “Jonathan” instead of the Japanese dub’s “Mister Joestar” because, being a British street thug and at this point companion, it just feels like it would make more sense for him to refer to Jonathan by first name instead of by his title.
But enough making mountains out of molehills. In case you thought it was Speedwagon we would focus on you are mistaken, for it was actually him, Dio, who is the focus of this example!
Dio is a good example of where preference applies more because you end up with two very different characters. The Japanese audio has Dio come off as a bit flamboyant and very mocking, which can be picked up in the way Dio questions Jonathan’s resolve as if he were treating the fight as a childish game. The subtitles help demonstrate this as well with lines like “Why so tense? Are you seriously going to keep fighting?” Even the way Dio asks Jonathan “Could a monkey fight a man?” showcase that Dio is just toying with Jonathan and assumes he has already won but is inviting him to try. The way Dio talks and matching it up with the subtitles you can kind of hear that mocking tone of amusement in Dio’s voice, the idea that Jonathan wants to fight is something is nothing more than entertaining to him. It also feels like he is very much drunk with power, and in some ways literally as it sounds like (to me) that he’s almost slurring some of his words, which can be a bit of a nice touch even if that isn’t what they weren’t going for (but at this point, Dio very much is drunk with power).
English Dio sounds like a villain who is vain and fake by demonstrating class, arrogance and sophistication. Like his Japanese counterpart he is also mocking, but it is less because the fight is just a game to him and more that he views Jonathan as something far beneath him and it shows in the phrasing; instead of using the sub’s line “No matter how hard you struggle, human effort has its limits.” the English dub says “No matter how much you prepare, human ability is extremely limited and finite.” The English script has him come off as more sophisticated and matter of factly even though he is saying the same thing. Dio was very much concerned with his station and being superior to those around him and the English line helps make him seem like a common person and more like someone who is educated. The English script chooses to make him more regal than “playful” by having him declare that “A monkey can never defeat a Lion!” Since both characters are English and the Lion is symbolic of English monarchy, the comparison makes it clear that Dio believes himself a King and regal like a lion and that something far beneath him, like a monkey, has no hope of defeating him.
While we’ve gone a bit into both versions already, it’s obvious I can’t stop comparing this scene without answering the big question: Muda or useless? There’s a certain charm to “MUDA MUDA MUDA MUDA MUDA MUDA MUDA MUDA MUDA MUDA!” Mechanically though, I feel USELESS does a better job conveying what is going on to an English speaker. Consider everything that I built up Dio to be in the English dub; he’s regal, sophisticated, classy, and in control. Then he shouts “USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS!” and shows that underneath that mask (guffaw) is an unstable and irrational person that he tries so desperately to disassociate himself with. More importantly though, I also feel that USELESS resonates a lot more with an English audience because it is a word that actually has meaning to English viewers and thus can strike a strong reaction. On top of that, reading “useless” a hundred times pales in comparison to someone just shouting it to you maniacally seven times because it lacks the bone chilling bite. Meanwhile, MUDA doesn’t mean anything directly and is practically internet popular -because- of how over the top and goofy it is.
So what should you take away from this article? That English dubbing is superior to Japanese dubbing? Not really, no. If anything what you should be taking away from this is that you -can’t- really compare the two unless you know each language intimately (which I don’t). What you -should- be taking away from this is that if you understand one language and not another then there are just so many mechanical advantages to having a dub in your own language. I feel English Dio is a far more interesting villain to me because I understand -exactly- what he is saying whereas with Japanese Dio I have to be told what he is saying. With English Charl I -understand- that she is a foreigner whereas with Japanese Charl I have to be told and just remember it. It really shows with useless versus muda; when English Dio shouts at the camera you understand -exactly- what he is saying and what he is thinking, your mind is able to react instinctively without any real aid. When Japanese Dio shouts at the camera you’ll end up reading the subtitles (unless you already know what muda means) and you have to go through the process of associating what he is saying with what is being said. It might not seem like a big deal but it can cost a significant loss of impact that can really change how a scene plays out. Mechanically a dub in your own language is far easier to consume than one that isn’t.