Are you a Sub or a Dub?
Translating any anime is always a difficult task because a translation is not a traditional art form. A lot of people believe that any translated anime should just be a one to one direct translation, but as anyone who is multilingual would surely explain to any monolingual individuals, translations cannot always be handled that way. This is due to certain words and ideas not existing in other languages. A direct one to one translation is nearly impossible no matter the language. That is why translators are a truly unique artist. They do not get to create art like a traditional artist does, due to having to maintain a delicate balance between interpretation and representation.
On one end translators, must try to respect the artist’s original vision. While on another make it understandable to a new audience. This is why the debate over subbed versus dubbed becomes a heated discussion at times in the anime community. Purist will say that the dubbing is always inferior to the original. That no matter how well it is dubbed it will always be a misrepresentation of the original. This is due to the fact that there will be a different director, who is interpreting a different script, with a different set of voice actors. Cultural ideas in the original product may be removed, changing the context of a scene. Not only that but the audio syncing may not sync properly with the animation.
Despite what purist may believe these changes do not automatically take away from the original message. In fact, many times when a dubbing is done properly it can actually improve a product. A good example of this is with Code Geass. Some Japanese viewers believed that Johnny Young Bosch’s ( the English voice actor) performance as Lelouch Vi Britannia/Lamperouge was superior to Jun Fukuyama’s (the Japanese voice actor). This should not be much of surprise as Bosch has more experience playing leading role’s. He has also played a lot of characters who were more serious and less comedic when compared to the roles taken by Fukuyama. This shows that voicing a role is not something that is limited to the role’s country of origin, but proper casting. Despite that people still, believe that a subbed version of the show is inherently superior to a dubbed one. But subbing has its own problems.
Subbed versions of anime are often deified in anime communities, due to the fact that they are believed to be the best way to understand an anime’s original message. They are treated as if they have no shortcoming when that could not be further from the truth.The first being that the viewer has to spend the entire anime reading. This is counter-intuitive to a visual format. Not only that but if a character is speaking really fast or characters are speaking simultaneously it may become hard for the reader to keep up with what is being said and they may miss jokes or important plot points. That or the jokes may not work in the context of the new language or culture. Subbing maybe a closer reading to what the original production said, but that does not really offer any enhancements for foreign viewers. Also according to director Hayao Miyazaki subtitles can detract from the original message of the show. This is why he never wanted his films to ever be read. He felt they distracted from a lot of the visual messages that he put in his films and made it harder to become immersed. This is part of the reason why he supports the dubbing of his films. He believed that when properly supported, studios doing the dubbing could capture the message of his films even with different dialogue or actors. With that being said which one is the truly superior format for watching an anime?
The simple answer to this question is that neither is inherently superior to the other. Neither one will give the viewer a pure experience. Short of learning a foreign language there is no true way of watching a translated product in a pure form. Any translated production should be interpreted as a retelling of a story. This due to the fact that it is being retold in a different language and that should not be treated as a bad trait. The problem here is that there is a perception that different is inherently bad. This could not be further from the truth as both styles of translating can add to the subjects they are translating. What both groups should be concerned with is not the fact that a product is being subbed or dubbed, but the quality of the localization of it.
Localization is taking anything that is foreign and making it local in character. Localization includes many parts such as dubbing, marketing, sound, censorship, casting etc., This is part of the reason that some animes will have different soundtracks or be censored differently depending on the region. The best example of this can be seen in anime of the early 2000s localized by 4Kids TV. Often times the dialogue would be changed, so many foreign ideas, foods, etc., from the Japanese version would not be present in the American version. This can be seen in the Pokémon series. Rice balls in Pokémon would be turned into donuts or sandwiches. Also, animes localized by 4Kids TV would sometimes change character names so they would appear more western (i.e. Yu-Gi-oh’s Anzu Mazaki becoming Tea Gardner). Content that had a sexual nature would be toned down or completely removed. An example of this would be when a female character that showed a lot of cleavage would have her bust size reduced. These changes mainly occur when a show is being broadcast on a cable network. This is usually due to cable productions content being held to a certain standard and this is where the debate gets interesting.
When cable networks would go about localizing foreign shows for their network they often times had only two real concerns. The first was turning a profit and the second was not getting sued by either the company that they are licensing’s show or the FCC (at least here in America). This is part of the reason companies like 4Kids TV went out of their way to censor anything that could be questionable with the FCC or cause viewers to not watch their show. It is also important to note that most of these changes that are made, are often times cleared by the original rights holder of the show. So these changes are approved by multiple sources. This is what leads to a lot of early dubbed animes suffering in cut content. This also applies to Japanese broadcasting as well. Japanese broadcasting companies will often times cut violent scenes both in western shows and Japanese ones.
This can be seen in how Tera Formars was heavily censored when it broadcast in Japan, but the western audience’s got an uncensored version. When content was cut from these anime’s it was almost always done as some form of censorship and once again 4Kids TV was one of the biggest practitioners of this. Some defend these cuts believing that it is okay so long as it does not change the message of the show. Though this could be debated as well because shows like Sailor Moon that had gay and gender-ambiguous characters (or characters that cross-dressed) had their gender and dialogue changed to fall more in line with the norms of society. Another argument that is made is that it is okay because the censored versions are for kids and adults can go watch the uncensored version somewhere else, but that is not always the case. Especially when looking at early anime as it was not popular or profitable enough where there would always be an uncensored dubbed version. It is also part of the reason that some animes are only subbed and never dubbed. Because if they are not popular enough were they can guarantee that they will turn a profit outside their country of origin, licensing companies will not spend money on getting them dubbed. As once again some licensing companies are usually doing this to turn a profit. One of the most notable examples of an anime being localized with the idea profit before proper production is Robotech the Macross Saga.
Many fans often blame Carl Macek for the questionable decisions made with localization of the Macross series. They hate the merging of three separate anime series (Macross, Super Dimension Calvary Southern Cross and Genesis Climber M.O.S.P.E.A.D.A) into one continuous story known in North America as Robotech, which premiered in America in 1985. Macross purists often claim Macek and Harmony Gold ruined the American dubbing by mixing it with two unrelated animes. The 85 episode series has a completely different plot line and content due to the inclusion of unrelated events and is cash grab according to Macek himself.
In a 2007 interview Macek did with Noziement Macek, he admits that his boss at Harmony Gold was simply trying to promote the model kit line they had been licensed to sell. They did not care if the anime succeeded or was an accurate depiction of the original so long as it led to them selling models. They even laughed at Macek’s belief that they were watching the birth of a new franchise in the west. For Macek, it was the start of anime getting serious attention in America. According to him the only reason he merged the three series into one was due to the fact that for any of these series to get produced they needed at least 65 episodes. That way the series could be continually running on the weekdays. Neither series met the requirement so he adapted all three as if they were one series at the request of Harmony Gold. He was completely willing to sacrifice the original story because he felt it would be a missed opportunity. Carl Macek went onto localize many other shows besides Robotech. He also helped localize Bleach and Naruto until he passed away on April 17, 2010, due to a heart attack. But due to his work on Robotech, he helped bring anime into the mainstream media in the west. His work on Robotech was one of the earliest examples of dubbing and helped people become aware of the problems with it and the benefits of it much like Ted Woolsey.
Ted Woolsey is one of gaming’s earliest localizers. His first project was subbing the game Final Fantasy 6. It was known at the time as Final Fantasy 3 due to the fact that western audiences had not received certain games in the series yet. So this was the third installment to be localized for the west and it was not an easy task due to how poorly localization was handled in the past. It was seen as something not important by foreign developers at the time. According to Woolsey in his 2007 interview with Player One Podcast localization was not taken seriously. This was due to the fact that the target audience was children. That is why when foreign games being localized, the original developers believed all they needed was someone who could translate the language in the game, but that was not the case. Woolsey knew that there were several technical and cultural limitations that would prevent that from being the case. Games being created on cartridges did not have the space for memory that games being created on Blu-ray disc do now. So when someone was translating a language like Japanese into English it usually did not work, as English uses more characters than Japanese. It was also a difficult task because the system that he was using was optimized for the Japanese version of the game.
This led to Woolsey doing something that many fans both hate and love him for. He completely rewrote a lot of the script. This led to the character of Kefka who originally was a sadist in the Japanese release being more of a man-child in the American one. An idea that Squaresoft found so favorable that it was later kept and expanded upon with all of Kefka’s future appearances. This is not to say that Woolsey did not make any mistakes, as he often assigned the wrong gender to characters in the game. This was largely due to the translations that were given to him not having an assigned gender for the characters. This is due to the Japanese language not using gender in its speech. It is usually inferred based off who is speaking or being spoken to, but his work on Final Fantasy 6 lead to an industry standard being set for the localization process. This lead to Squaresoft (now Square Enix) assigning more people to help him with the localization process for their later games and that is what fans should be judging foreign content by, as a localizer typically has no reason to cut content or change characters. Woolsey only did what he did to make the game playable in English. He had no plans to change the way Kefka was perceived. The same could be said of Macek. Despite changing the Macross series storyline he had the best of intentions, as Macek was a huge anime fan and only wanted it to get it proper exposure. Which is why it is not uncommon to see localizers take certain liberties with the story of animes when being localized in the west (for better or worst)
Without anime being marketed on major cable networks they probably would not have the same massive appeal in the west that they do today. Things like anime probably would continue to have a limited fan base outside of Japan. This is the same for games and movies. Major broadcasting networks played an important role in getting content that would otherwise go unnoticed. It is true that they suffered during the 1950-2000’s for one reason or another. Some had poor voice acting. Others had inaccurate translations. Some do not even follow their original storyline like Robotech, but that’s changing now.
Due to the rise of streaming sites like Netflix, Crunchyroll, and Hulu on the internet, foreign films and shows are more easily accessible. They are also now free of a lot of the restrictions that government broadcasting companies like the FCC set of networks. This allows them to be released closer to their original form leading to a boom in their popularity. With that, there has been an increased budget for the dubbing and subbing of these animes. Space Dandy despite being a Japanese series was dubbed at the same time for America. Its episodes also aired in the United States one day before its Japanese release. Anime has an actual serious following in the west now. So much so that children shows like Codename Kids Next Door, The Amazing World of Gumball and Adventure Time can make anime references and their fans would recognize them. What has been achieved may not be a perfect understanding of another culture, but that does not mean it is worthless.
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