Discussions Dubs > Subs

Anime Subs Suck and Here's Why

Dubs are superior to Subs in almost every way, but no one likes to admit it.

“Real fans always go with subs.” This, ironically, is a line from the dub of D-Frag. Indeed, many otherwise rational people have a remarkable tendency to make hysterical and fallacious statements like that when it comes to the subject of English dubbed anime. No true Scotsman fallacies abound: I myself have been informed that I am not a true Naruto fan because I only watch the dubbed version. Many people seem quite prepared to die in a ditch over the proposition that "subs are better than dubs". I, in contrast, always find dubs to be superior to subs.

The reason is simple. I can understand what the characters are saying in dubbed anime, but not in subbed anime. In that regard, dubs are inherently superior to subs. It is just common sense that one ought to consume any form of entertainment in a language that one actually understands, where possible. After all, the very purpose of language is to enable us to understand one another by conveying meaning through words. Hearing words I understand, and seamlessly matching those words to what is taking place on screen, provides a much more immersive viewing experience.

The response is obvious: “one can understand what they are saying, because the subtitles translate the words”. This, however, is an oversimplification. Meaning is conveyed, but one does not understand the words themselves. Apart from a few simple, frequently repeated, words like ‘hai’, ‘baka’, ‘desu’, and so forth, what conveys meaning are the subtitles. Taken out of their context, without the help of subtitles, Japanese words are meaningless to the English speaker unless a) the words are translated or b) one also speaks Japanese.

While meaning is conveyed, it is also less memorable and (working backwards from that premise) less meaningful. Communications theory tells us that one remembers considerably more of what one hears than what one sees. A stirring speech or clever turn of phrase will ring in my ears for far longer than subtitles coupled with some meaningless ‘bar-bar’ sounds.

Indeed, meaning is conveyed by more than just the words themselves. Tone and emphasis convey meaning also, but one needs to understand how they relate to the words to understand that meaning. Accent is an obvious example. The emphasis or stress characters place on words and syllables has meaning, but this cannot be conveyed if one does not first know the meaning of the words. For instance, I cannot discern the difference between rural and urban Japanese accents. I can discern basic emotions like happiness, sadness, and anger from hearing Japanese voices, but not much more. For a fuller understanding, I would need to speak the language. One needs to know how a word would ordinarily be pronounced, enunciated, and inflected in order to discern the meaning conveyed by any variation on the ordinary pronunciation. There are all sorts of subtle linguistic cues one misses out on if one does not understand the language. 

Syntax and grammar convey meaning too. Again, however, one needs to understand the language for that meaning to come across properly. One could say that the subtitles convey syntax and grammar. Yet there is no relationship between the grammatical and syntactical meaning of the subtitles and the words one is actually hearing. Indeed, given the differences between English and Japanese grammar, trying to figure out how the subtitles relate to the voices is an exercise in futility. Often, when the characters say a Japanese word (usually a name) that I do recognise, it will be in a different part of the sentence from where I would expect it to be in English. If anything, the process just adds needless complexity.

Of course, anime use visuals to convey meaning. Yet subtitles obscure part of the screen and thus part of the the meaning (and the beauty). Furthermore, one ends up focusing on the part of the screen that contains the subtitles. This is to the detriment of the meaning (and again, the beauty) conveyed by the rest of the screen.

The case against dubs is frequently summed up in the well-reasoned and insightful phrase “dubs suck”. This is a hopelessly broad, yet at the same time narrow-minded, generalisation. Basically, people seem to mean by it that the quality of English voices is bad. This is a rather difficult argument to sustain. It strikes me as inherently implausible that an entire nation could have superior voice acting than another. Indeed, most sub-watchers I have encountered will admit that there are some English dubs that are better than the Japanese dubs (Dragon Ball is frequently mentioned, as are Black Butler and other anime where the characters are meant to have accents). The reality is that English voice actors are simply actors speaking a language that the viewer/listener understands. One can only imagine the difficulties people who make this argument have watching Western cartoons, live-action films and television. Not to mention how painful they must find simply interacting with other English-speakers in their daily lives.

In truth, voice acting has come a long way since the 1970s, when no one took it seriously. Today’s voice actors care about their jobs, and they are good at them. Having had the pleasure of meeting many of them in person, I can attest to this. They are mostly professional actors who have a particular talent for conveying meaning through their voices. Regular actors pale in comparison. As Paul Eiding once said, voice actors have the advantage of not being judged based on their appearance: it is purely about the talent.

It is sometimes said that Japanese voice actors are superior. Having watched a number of anime both subbed and dubbed, I categorically deny this. Moreover, I recall an occasion on which a sub-watcher accidentally dealt this argument a fatal blow. He pointed out that he preferred subs precisely because, as an English-speaker, he had no way of assessing the quality of Japanese voice acting. Well, precisely. The English-speaker cannot tell whether the voice acting is appropriate to the circumstances (aside from 'universal' emotional cues), because he or she has so little appreciation of the context. One would need to understand the words, and the way they are usually used, to appreciate whether the tones or the emotions used were appropriate. To the extent that the sub-watcher prefers Japanese voice acting, it is based on an illusion. Another thing Eiding said was that a voice actor's job is to give effect to the will of the director, who can be very specific about the kind of voice he or she wants. Incidentally, this lack of freedom is why Joshua Seth left voice acting to pursue hypnotism (but that is a story for another day).

I suspect that similar reasoning applies to the oft-repeated claim that Japanese voice actors are more emotional. One response to this is to say that Japanese voice acting is often too emotional, in that it is exaggerated. If we think a little more, however, we might consider that, perhaps, the reason one notices the emotions more is precisely because one cannot understand the words. Since meaning is not conveyed by the words, one automatically focuses more intently on the tone in an attempt to discern meaning from it. Again, it is just an illusion. Further, as we saw above, trying to derive meaning from other linguistic cues is a fool’s errand without a proper understanding of the language.

Besides which, the idea that English voice actors put no emotions into their voices is patently false. They do. One would have to be quite tone death seriously to maintain otherwise.

Obviously, I do not expect this to change any hearts or minds. The dub-bashing bandwagon cannot be stopped so easily. However, if I am going to write for a site called ‘WonderfulSubs’, I thought I had best put all my cards on the table upfront. For me, subtitled anime are a necessary evil when there is no dub available (and especially where there is no likelihood of a dub ever being made). In all other circumstances, I watch wonderful dubs.

Do you watch English dubbed anime? Why or why not?