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[ the editorials ]

Notes from the coffee mill...

June 2001

The Sub Dub Debate Revisited...

Subs, dubs. What's the difference? Most people have a preference of one over the other, but is one better than the other? Why do some people prefer subs and others prefer dubs? Why are some people rabid over their choice? And does it really matter anymore?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...(1) (okay wrong universe but it gives you the idea), there was a lot of debate over this issue. With titles like Robotech, Warriors of the Wind and Battle of the Planets, this isn't all that surprising. Story lines were completely changed in the English version, and rather than being a dub of the program, the stories were adapted from the Japanese anime. While I won't say this doesn't happen at all anymore, it certainly isn't as common, let alone to the same degree as before. And with some directors (a la Miyazaki) having very tight control over the conversion process of Japanese to English versions, the faithfulness to the original intent of an anime is much more strongly maintained.

So why the sub-dub debate? Let's face it, some people just want their anime in its original format. I'm one of them, but then, I'm also more interested in maintaining my current level of Japanese, so I don't even have the subs to interfere with my viewing pleasure... unless there's some bizarre Japanese that I just don't understand that is. In these cases, I often wish I had subs to rely on to catch the gist of the conversation. In any case, subs have their use, as do dubs. It's easy to sit back and relax and enjoy the program in a dub. And if the picture has been done over to remove Japanese script for the North American audience, hey, no problems in reading and assimilating what's in the picture either, as long as there are no clear landmarks that give things away. As far as total viewing pleasure and ease of viewing, for the average English speaker, dubs are the way to go. Let's face it, you don't have to struggle to read the subtitles let alone speed-read them, and then try to catch whatever's happening on the screen. It's all there for you in English already.

The average anime fan may or may not care about that aspect however. Much of the appeal of Japanese anime is that it's not North American or English. It's foreign. It has a slightly different look at things, it has a different sense of humour sometimes, and it also deals with subject matters that are not always dealt with in North American society; it's just different. These differences are more clearly demonstrated and comprehensible in the subbed versions. Afterall, the language is foreign, and often, culturally obscure points may be explained in liner notes in subs, while dubs may not keep the references in the dialogue. Which brings about the sub-dub debate to the Cafe again.

What are the pros and cons of subs and dubs again? While it's in the original sub-dub-original essay, here's a quick run-down again.

In the original language version, you have the advantages of:

  • No lines of text to obscure the view.
  • Often done in wide screen format so while you have some black bars, you get the *whole* picture.
  • You see the *entire* production in exactly the manner the director intended.

English Subtitled

  • Original dialogue is usually left intact. Great if you either understand or are learning the language.
  • Often there is minimal editing of the original version (why bother?), so you can see the *whole* movie without any creative... errr... omissions.
  • If there are any "technical" problems with the original, this can be fixed with the new release.
  • Despite the fact that most anime movies are released in wide screen format, very few subbed versions take advantage of the black space and would rather reformat the picture, cut out the sides, and put print in the middle of the picture.

English Dubbed

  • Ideally the director and the actors/actresses would have an idea of the original concept and should therefore be able to eliminate any weaknesses in the original version.
  • No annoying subtitles cutting out part of the picture. You just have to sit back, relax, and enjoy.
  • If there are any "technical" problems with the original, this can be fixed with the new release (eg. Tonari no Totoro.)

There are also the following disadvantages to each:


  • You must be literate and sometimes must be able to read at fairly high speeds. Therefore, it's not a good medium especially for younger children who have yet to, or are in the process of developing their reading skills.
  • Often because a large part of one's concentration is taken up by the subtitles, one usually isn't fully aware of the actual program so much as reading.
  • Text obscures part of the picture
  • With multiple people speaking, the amount of text becomes overwhelming with regards to volume, speed and picture coverage.
  • Often cultural liner notes are needed to explain certain jokes in the video which can't be covered in the text/sub. (is this good or bad?!)
  • Sometimes companies use "dub-titles" rather than true sub-titles. (They use the dub script). These looser translations may thus cause some confusion for those who are trying to learn the language. Many people who buy the sub are also interested in a more accurate translation rather than idiomatic language which is more important in dubbed videos.


  • Scripts are often re-written for the target audience's culture therefore losing out on the video's value as a "cultural bridge".
  • Voice acting in North America isn't as highly developed as a career as it is in Japan so the quality of voice acting may not be as good (it's improving though). Also, studios in Japan usually have all the voice actors together to get a sense of interaction and timing. This is not always the case in North America.
  • Stories may be edited/re-written for the target market regardless of the original target audience (see Oct 2000 editorial). Editing can sometimes be inconsistent creating storyline problems later or creating the need for more editing.
  • Also, edited/re-written stories are usually not as strong as the original. However, "what the dub audience doesn't know can't hurt them", except when the edited dub is not available or not clearly distinct from the sub. In this case (unpleasant or otherwise) surprises can result should the sub be purchased accidentally.
  • (This one's fairly title specific) but those people who are going from the sub to the dub version (because they want to show it to young kids or they are tired of reading their shows) may discover (unpleasant or otherwise) edits in the dubbed version which weren't present in the sub. Dog of Flanders dub story was changed to have a "happy ending". The only way to get the original story is to buy the sub VHS as the DVD has the edited version.
  • If it's a show which has been released on TV, one must sometimes be aware that a cut/edited and uncut/unedited version may exist for the title. ex. Dragonball, Escaflowne, Gundam, Tenchi Muyo, Cardcaptors...


  • Original Japanese versions may or may not be released with English subtitles, the quality of which...?? I can't actually comment not having seen any subbed Japanese works beyond Blood The Last Vampire.
  • Japanese releases are very expensive compared to North American releases
  • More obscure cultural references and vocabulary could be misunderstood or missed by the viewer
  • Often Japanese releases have one to two episodes per volume, although three is becoming more common and four most common for very long TV series.

What gets interesting is that some people are intolerant of other formats. The idea that dubs are bad because English voice acting isn't as developed as Japanese, so it's going to interfere with viewing pleasure just doesn't wash. If people don't mind the voice acting, that's their decision. Inaccuracies or personal style in sub translation is a more difficult factor however. If you're working on your Japanese comprehension, accurate subtitles are very important and errors could either confuse or perpetuate the error for the learner. But is the sub-dub debate so central to anime anymore?

These days, there's been a major move towards the DVD format. With DVD, unless you're buying an edited version of a program, both the sub and dub versions are available on the one disc. This in turn makes the whole debate a null issue. You don't like the dub? No problems, just switch language tracks to the Japanese. If you don't like subtitles, you can either switch to the dub format, or if the disc is done properly, turn off all subtitles completely and just listen to the original Japanese. But how popular is DVD and is it that different?

Quite frankly, here at the Cafe, we buy almost all our anime on DVD now. The question is whether it's encoded for North America, i.e., region 1 (R1) or for Japan - R2. The picture quality in DVD releases is incredible. So much sharper and intense than VHS, once you get used to DVD picture quality, it's hard to go back. If we can't get DVD, we'll go LD, and only if that isn't available either will we try for a VHS copy.

But North American distributors always screw up the translations! Well, personally I wouldn't go so far as saying that, but, translation is still very much an art. One person will translate something one way, while another will translate it somewhat differently. If you're really that against commercially translated anime, there's always the possibility that the R2 release will have an English subtitle track. This has been happening more often recently, although it's not the norm by any stretch. Quite frankly, if a viewer is this particular over the translations, it's probably just as well to learn the language and not rely on the translations at all. Afterall, you've only yourself to blame for misunderstandings which would arise thereafter. (What are the differences between anata, anta, otaku, kimi, temee, kisama etc., etc.? They all mean "you" don't they?!). Translations, when all is said and done, are to convey the meaning of what is said. Whether it is conveyed in a manner which preserves the denotative meanings (literal meanings - assuming it's even possible) or in a way to convey the connotative meanings (implied or suggested meanings) is up to the translator.

But DVDs are so expensive! Yes, DVDs are more expensive than VHS copies that's true. Personally, I'll spend the extra money for the picture and sound quality. However, more to the point is that, for those of us who prefer subs already, the price difference between sub VHS and DVD if any isn't as substantial as the difference between dub and DVD. This is of course, assuming that a subbed VHS is even available anymore. (For those people who can't afford this difference, it becomes a more difficult trade-off, and the sub-dub debate is still a major reality).

These days, most companies have been changing their releases such that they release dub VHS or hybrid DVD. Why? Market of course. The dub video market has always been more successful than the sub market and as a result, producing a sub VHS is more costly overall compared to expected returns for the company. Hence, subtitles are quickly only becoming available on DVD, the new video standard. From the latest Cafe Poll, we asked our readers how many people own DVD and for which region it was coded. Most people indicated that they had a region 1 player (those who didn't know what region was, were assumed to be encoded for the region local to their address) while a few individuals had either R2 or multi-region players. Of our readers who entered the contest, 43% had a DVD player. Not bad for a format which became truly accessible to the general populace in the last few years, let alone something that is replacing the previous standard of more than 15 years. Think about all the headaches and arguments about changing from LP to CD formats for music, especially given the sound quality differences at the beginning.

However, DVD has the advantage of not only being smaller and more compact than VHS, but also (in contrast to CDs) has better picture and sound quality than VHS. The same arguments couldn't be said about CDs compared to LPs. I won't say that DVD is completely wonderful and without problem though. There are still many problems with DVD releases especially in North America. From hard picture overlays for sign translations, to inaccuracies in translations, and using the original inaccurate translations for older titles, DVD has a ways to go before fans are going to be willing to accept the format wholeheartedly. Some arguments are minor annoyances such as the use of Scanavo DVD cases compared to the seemingly most common (in Japan) Amarays. Other grievances are much worse especially the more technical problems of language track switching and simply not playing on some players. As with any (relatively) new technology, there are always growing pains and mistakes. Of course, I've received one possible problem DVD so far (had problems reading the disc first time, but haven't seen the problem since), compared to how many VHS tapes with poor transfers? Of course we have many more VHS tapes than DVD discs.

So for those people who aren't in a position to get DVDs, the sub dub debate is still very much an issue, assuming they can even get sub VHS anymore. However, for those with DVD, except for those instances where the DVD version is edited and the unedited version is only available on VHS, the sub-dub debate is quickly becoming a null issue. Except for instances where quality of translation actually is sufficient to affect the viewing experience, there is little to affect one's purchasing habits. As for actually enjoying one over the other, personally, unless the voice acting is relatively on par with the Japanese, (Gundam Wing, Totoro, Cagliostro), I'll stick to the Japanese track.

ja ne,

Jane Nagatomi, 2001.06.05

(1) Quoted from Star Wars © George Lucas 1976.

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