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Anime: English Dubbing vs. Japanese with Subtitles

This is one topic sure to start a flame war on any anime Internet discussion group. It's become as much of a religious issue as Mac vs. PC, or Ah! My Goddess vs. Oh! My Goddess. But it never hurts to at least know what the issues are on either side, so here's my take. (And just to get everything up front, yes, I'm prejudiced too; I prefer subtitles. But not always.) Of course, the arguments pro/con English dubbing apply just as well to French dubs, or German dubs, or Swahili dubs...

Advantages to Japanese with Subtitles Advantages to English Dubbing
Authentic voices (what was originally intended). Virtually no anime is produced with the intention of export to the U.S.; we are a miniscule market compared to the Japanese one. Familiar voices (i.e., the unfamiliar language is not a distraction from the story line).
Better voices. Japanese seiyuu (voice actors) are celebrities in their own right, often making public appearances, recordings, etc. English dubs very rarely use the cream of the crop, to put it politely. More importantly, rehearsal time for English dubs is often limited or nonexistent. There are a few English voices I wouldn't want to part with: for example, Petrea Burchard (in Tenchi Muyo!) simply is Ryoko, with her classic bad-girl characterization.
More accurate translations. Usually the subtitled translations are as close to the original Japanese as possible, though certain distributors are notorious for "sensationalizing" them by adding profanity not actually present in the Japanese, etc. The English dubs are usually freer, partly to make matching the mouth movements easier, and partly because the English dub is the one expected to be bought by the general public. Uniquely Japanese concepts are often edited out or glossed over in English dubs. Without subtitles, the entire picture is always available for viewing, rather than having parts frequently covered by subtitles.
If necessary, you can pause subtitles to more clearly understand what a character is saying. In some cases more than one person may be talking at once, and the better-subtitled issues will set off the different characters' dialogue by using different colors, etc. With rapid-fire dialogue you may have only a moment to read a long and complex subtitle. If you're not a speed reader this can be a distraction, to put it mildly.

Well, there you have the most common arguments you're likely to encounter for one side or the other. I have to personally say that with a few exceptions (Blue Seed, Tenchi Muyo!, and Maison Ikokku among the most notable), I find the American voice actors to present the worst kind of "Saturday morning cartoon" characterizations, with frequently terrible dialogue resulting from the dumbed-down translations. But that's something you'll have to decide for yourself.

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This page last updated 2/5/2010.