Dubbing vs. Subtitles

One of the things movie snobs often complain about is dubbing, and when it comes to your typical live action foreign language films, I’m pretty firmly entrenched in the snob camp. However, animation is different, as it doesn’t suffer as badly from unsynchronized lip movement. Most humans find the human face engaging and are wired, seemingly from birth (faces are among the first things babies are thought to recognize), to read facial expressions and movements. So we’re very good at recognizing when someone’s voice doesn’t match their lip movements. Again, in a dubbed live action film, this produces a sort of cognitive dissonance. Animated films always have to deal with this (even when animation is matched to the voiceover, the fidelity of animation prevents an exact match), so it would make sense that a dubbed animated film would probably not be as jarring as a dubbed live action film. In short, I’m already accustomed to the cognitive dissonance caused by animated films, so dubbing should theoretically be fine. Beckonking Chasm recenty wrote about his adventures in Anime, and makes an interesting case:

I always watch the English dub versions. Not to disrespect the Japanese or their language, far from it, but I have absolutely no facility with foreign languages. (My abilities in English are bad enough.) Yes, one can read subtitles, and that’s how I always watch live-action foreign films. An actor’s voice is just as much a part of his performance as his face and the way he chooses to move.

However, when watching Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson argue about who gets to commit suicide first, I can see them in a familiar environment—I don’t have to wonder what the fantastical device is that they’re sitting on, I know it’s called a “couch.” Even in futuristic live-action films, I can still key in on what the environment represents to the characters and I don’t have to watch it continuously to figure out its nature.

In animation, however, everything is brand new. It’s all been designed deliberately from the blank page up—everything has a choice behind it. It’s also frequently imaginative and beautiful. I don’t like taking my eyes away from it in order to read subtitles—I’d much rather hear the dialogue so I can keep watching.

I’ve recently been watching more Anime, and the question of whether to use dubbing or subtitles is still up in the air for me. My live action snobbery has leaked over to animated films, so I’ve watched most everything with the original audio and subtitles, but I’ve also recently tried giving the dubs a shot as well (with varying results). However, I think Beckoning Chasm makes some interesting points. So when I started watching Ghost in the Shell, I decided that I’d give the dubbing a try. Bad move. The english voice acting was so bad that I couldn’t stand it and had to switch to subtitles. Then I noticed something interesting. The translations were completely different.

The opening scene in the movie features the Major on a rooftop, eavesdropping on some diplomatic meeting. The dubbed version goes like this:

BATOU: Major Kusanagi, Section 6 is in position and ready to move in.

BATOU: Major, are you there?

THE MAJOR: Yeah, I heard you.

BATOU: I’m surprised you could hear anything. What’s with all the noise in your brain today?

THE MAJOR: Must be a loose wire.

And the subtitled version was this:

BATOU: Major Kusanagi, Section 6 is ready to move in.

BATOU: Major!

THE MAJOR: I hear you.

BATOU: There’s a lot of static in your brain.

THE MAJOR: It’s that time of the month.

Quite a difference, and, um, a little sexist? Even disregarding that, it appears that the dubbing is a more natural translation, even if the voice actors can’t emote to save their lives. I finished the movie with subtitles on, then went back and turned on the english language audio with the english subtitles. It’s a bizzarre experience.

I didn’t watch the whole thing like that, as it’s a little distracting to be reading and hearing similar, but different text (talk about your cognitive dissonance). Oddly enough, even though I think the dubbed translation is better, I still think subtitles work reasonably well too. Some of the dialogue sounds ridiculous when voiced out loud, but reading it gives a different experience. Also, it makes sense that the subtitles would be different, as there is a limited amount of space to communicate the same information (apparently there is less space in subtitles than in the audio).

One of the problems with adapting books to movies is that an exact translation is nearly always doomed to failure. You can’t typically use the same dialogue as the book, for instance. It will sound stunted and out of place. No one talks they way people talk in books. Hell, no one talks the way they do in movies. That’s because the dialogue is adapted to the medium. You can get away with a lot more in prose, but movies need to convey a lot of the same information visually. This is why adaptations are so difficult. However, when I watched the subtitled version of Ghost in the Shell, the dialogue seemed much better when reading it than when listening to it (even though I liked the dubbed translation better). It’s almost like an accidental middle ground between a book a movie. It’s an interesting dynamic, and I’m not sure what to make of it. In the mean time, I’m going to have to experiment with dubbed versions of stuff that I’ve already seen. I wonder what Haibane Renmei is like dubbed? Is the translation different? Why do I have the feeling I’m going to spend my Christmas holiday watching anime with the audio and subtitles set to english (then again, December 25 is Anime Day, so perhaps this is appropriate)?

10 thoughts on “Dubbing vs. Subtitles”

  1. The “that time of the month” joke is supposed to be an ironic one that the audience only gets later: the Major is a full-replacement cyborg. The only thing original in what we see is part of her brain. She doesn’t have “times of the month”; she has the form of a female but for all practical purposes the only thing female about her is her memories of when she still had her body. She isn’t a woman, she’s a sexless being who plays the role of a woman.

    Equally, Batou isn’t a man any longer. He’s a full-replacement cyborg, too. Which is why their relationship is an odd one: I suspect he loves her, but neither of them is a sexual being, and romantic love would pretty much be unfulfillable. (And in any case, neither of them gets horny any longer; another thing they lost with their bodies.)

  2. Steven beat me to that particular punch, so, on that point, I’ll just say, I think he’s nailed it.

    As far as the sub/dub debate, I generally fall on the sub side, because I find that many, many titles simply have voice-work that can only be described as “abysmal.”

    There are a few titles I’ll watch dubbed- Cowboy Bebop, for example, I’m hooked on the dub. The subtitles may or may not be more accurate, but the character’s voices have become so ingrained to me, and the voicework is so well done there, that I can’t watch the sub anymore. That’s one of the only ones, though.

    I think that one of the reasons why anime fans prefer subs- and I’ve actually come to the conclusion that this is why a lot of film snobs prefer the subs to dubs in general (myself included)- is this: If you don’t speak a language, it’s harder to know how well they’re delivering the dialogue. When I’m watching something like Ghost in the Shell with the subtitles on, I can’t tell whether the actress reading the Major’s lines is really hamming it up or not. I can tell if she’s shouting, and I can get the emotions, but I can’t tell how well her pacing is, or any of the nuances regarding how she’s saying the words. Even mediocre voice-work is going to sound good if you don’t know the language.

    That’s my current hypothesis, at least.

  3. Steven, Yes, that makes perfect sense, but it is a bit odd that the translation is so different.

    Batou clearly has a cyber-crush on the Major, but as I mentioned in the extended part of my review, the fact that they’re cyborgs does give them an interesting dynamic.

    Roy, Yeah, I cought the Cowboy Bebop movie on Starz a while back and it was dubbed (and it seemed like a good dubbing). I’ve seen an episode or two on adult swim, and when I actually get around to watching the series, I’ll probably watch the dub first (though I may check out the sub, just to see how different it is)

  4. Dubbing/Subtitling are integral part of cultural transfer between all countries.

    Though the debate is always between preference of dubbing or subtitling each of it requires high level of artistic/technical input to ensure the final output is more local in every sense.

    Dubbing brings more life to characters of a film than subtitles though a bad dubbed film can be a nightmare to watch.

    Most Scandivian countries prefer subtitling over dubbing but now it is most preferred also for Deaf community.Same language subtitling(SLS) is one of essential way to educate people.

    Lawrence Vishnu


    Media Movers, Inc.

  5. Indeed, hehehe.

    It’s funny, because I am beginning to see the value in both. Like I mentioned, I think the translation of the dubbing for GitS was spot on… it’s just that the voice acting was bad. I don’t think the sub was bad though, it’s just different, and I never realized how different they could be. I have to wonder how many movies we’re missing out on because of poor translations…

  6. I’ll admit–the dub on “Ghost in the Shell” was pretty bland, though half the cast sounded like Peter Bergman of the Firesign Theatre, giving it a kind of unwarrented comic undertone. (I do think comedy is slightly better appreciated in one’s native tongue.)

    “Ghost in the Shell 2” was what sparked my idea of not wanting to take my eyes off the screen. The film is gorgeous and impressive, but the dialogue is dull and full of itself.

    I’m sure at some point I’ll watch subs, but that point isn’t just yet.

  7. Well, there is a mild argument that could be made regarding the monotone nature of the GitS dubbing – after all, the characters delivering the dialogue are cyborgs and thus it could make sense that they don’t show as much emotion.

    I’ve only ever seen the first movie, but will eventually be taking a look at the second movie and possibly the SAC series…

  8. Personally I strongly prefer my anime subbed, and in many cases I find the dubbed version intolerable. And I fully agree that this is odd, since the original soundtrack is itself basically a dub. In principle there is no reason they couldn’t do an English dub that is just as good.

    I think the problem is mostly that the Japanese voice actors are usually better (often vastly better) than their American counterparts. This is probably due to the fact that they have more experience and better training, and because the competition for these parts is much fiercer in Japan.

  9. “In principle there is no reason they couldn’t do an English dub that is just as good.”

    Some of the Miyazaki movies have decent dubbing, but I agree that most of the stuff I’ve watched doesn’t.

    Really, I have no idea how good Japanese voice actors are. I’m willing to bet that they are better than their American counterparts, but that’s only based on the assumption that they’re much more experienced…

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