Sub or Dub? Voice Acting and Authenticity
Do you watch the sub or the dub? It’s kind of a loaded question when it comes to anime. You’re never quite sure what the asker is trying to get at. Are they trying to assess how hardcore, how “real” an anime fan you are? How do you answer? If you say dub, will they tell you that you have no taste? That the dubs are offensively poor compared to the original Japanese – that you lose any and all cultural nuance? If you say sub, will they accuse you of being a pretentious weebo (a term I particularly hate). Or even a wannabe Asian? If you say both, will they believe you?
Firstly, for anyone who doesn’t know, let me clear up what a sub and a dub actually are. Anime mainly comes from Japan and so, obviously, it’s written and performed in Japanese. When it comes to showing anime in other territories though, production companies have to make a choice. Do they simply translate everything and subtitle the show/movie? Or do they spend the time and money hiring actors and a voice director to re-record (or dub) the dialogue into the new language? It used to be that fans of anime outside of Japan didn’t get much of a choice. Before anime had reached as big an international audience the companies that brought it over didn’t have the resources to do anything other than subtitle the works. As anime gained mainstream popularity, however, it was assumed that a dub could reach a wider audience. So in the days of VHS tapes, where you couldn’t pick between two versions on a menu, fans were stuck with often poor quality dubs whether they liked it or not. Bootleg, fan-subtitled versions were available to the resourceful however. Times have changed since then though, and dubs of even relatively obscure shows are becoming more common and better quality, both in terms of acting and translation. All the while, the age of the internet means that access to subtitled works is now also easier than ever, with many Anime studios in Japan even choosing to release subtitled versions of anime simultaneously with the Japanese language versions. With choice, however, comes conflict. The sub vs. dub debate has been argued between friends, at conventions and on internet message boards since anime first went overseas. It’s surprisingly enduring and what’s more, it can get surprisingly vicious.
Which is silly, because in reality most of us watch both, depending on what we can get our hands on. As I said our options are increasing but there are still practical limits. For example, I watched Spirited Away in the cinema and Howl’s Moving Castle on Film4, so the English dubs were my only option. All of us have a preference, though, one way or the other. Now, I don’t really mind which way you go, but what I find really interesting are the reasons that people give for their choices. In my experience, the standard response of people who prefer dubs is, “I don’t want to read a movie/TV show.” Fair enough, it can easily feel like you’re missing out on some beautiful animation if your gaze is focused on the bottom quarter of the screen. Another, more interesting, and probably more frank response that you hear occasionally is, “I can’t really understand the more subtle performances of the Japanese actors.” Or, at least, can’t understand them as well as the Western ones. This contrasts nicely with a favourite response of people who prefer subtitles (apart from “the acting/translation in the dubs are really bad”), “When you’re watching a sub, the experience is much more authentic.”
Let’s assume, for now, that the quality of acting in both the subtitled version of an anime and its dub are the same. Let’s assume that both translations are pretty much the same quality as well. Which version is more authentic? At first I was always tempted to say the sub – hearing the Japanese actors must obviously be the more authentic option. After all, they gave their performances first. But is that it? The order in which they were given doesn’t change anything inherently about either the Japanese or Western actors’ performance. Acting is an interpretative art form. Both the original Japanese and the subsequent dub’s actors were given a script that passed through many hands. Firstly the original writing team, which was probably at least two people, then multiple editors and then optionally a translator and then multiple editors again. A few more steps in the chain can’t really be seen to warp the original intention of the writer/director that much more. Perhaps even the idea of an “original intention” is confusing, since any kind of film and animation is such a collaborative art form, with big creative choices having to be made at every stage and at every level of the process. And so, why is the response of a Japanese actor necessarily more authentic than anybody else’s? Even if those responses are wildly different? The Japanese creators of El-Hazard: The Magnificent World, supposedly consider the portrayals by voice cast of the American dub the definitive versions of those characters. But can we really say that any actor, or set of actors are the “real”, “authentic” voices of the characters they play?
When we judge the quality of an actor’s performance, whether they’re speaking our own language or not, we should judge it on its own merits. We shouldn’t judge it on how similar or dissimilar it is to some idea of an “original” performance. A good example of this is the Japanese version of the (amazing) romantic comedy anime Ouran High School Host Club and its American dubbed version. There’s a major differences in the way the actors are directed in the sub and the dub. In the sub the Japanese actors all play their characters earnestly, with the humour coming from how seriously all the characters take the very ridiculous situations they’re placed in. In the dub the actors sell the lines just a little more, the voices are a bit sillier. It’s difficult to put your finger on it but basically the actors/characters seem to recognise they’re in a comedy. The humour comes from silly characters acting silly. Both interpretations are totally valid. I happen to think that the sub works much better, but that isn’t to say that the dub actors are “doing it wrong.” It seems to me that a dub, especially the performances of the actors in it, shouldn’t be considered a secondary thing, and shouldn’t be judged as good only as far it reproduces what was done in the original version. You can still think it’s worse, of course, but there isn’t anything inherently less valuable about a dubbed work.
My focus here is on voice acting but this idea factors into the translation of the anime too. Obviously certain words and expression from any one language won’t have direct translations into any other. They certainly won’t carry the same subtleties, especially when they don’t exist in the context of their original culture. But is that important? Does that de-value a dub in any way? Well it does, only if totally discount the translators creative input into the work. Only if we consider his job a tragically futile attempt to reproduce the original work – with all it’s contextual significance and linguistic flair – identically, but in a different langue. If we believe this then any translation, sub or dub, can never be anything other than an “inauthentic” distortion of some “true” original work. A work you will never be able to access unless you can speak the language. This doesn’t make sense though because, even if they don’t believe it themselves, a translator has to make a huge creative contribution to the work. They deciding what to try to convey and how to convey it! It doesn’t make sense to look at that as taking away from the original work, or even as adding to it. Why not look at the work of a translator, and of the dub actors, as transforming the work into something different? Not necessarily something better or worse than it was before they worked on it, just something different. Why not think of translators and dub actors as being just as much a part of the production team of the show/movie as the Japanese creators, rather than as people who’ve found a finished piece of art and “messed with it”?
I’m not saying you should only watch dubs from now on, by the way. Far from it. I’m saying don’t discount one or the other, especially on the pretence of authenticity. Atsuko Tanaka and Akio Ōtsuka’s performances in the Ghost in the Shell series are masterworks, but if you’re an English speaker and you watch the sub of Full Metal Alchemist, you miss out on Vic Mignogna as Edward Elric – whose performance isn’t just “good for an anime dub” but is an astonishing piece of acting in its own right. We’re normally only offered different actors’ interpretations for a few, very special roles – Hamlet, James Bond, Lady Macbeth etc. But in anime, we’re pretty lucky. We get the luxury of choice with almost every role. And when you think about it, that’s pretty amazing.
What do you think? Leave a comment.