Sub VS Dub: A Close Look at the Age-Old Debate

Spoiler alert: This article contains minor “Free! Eternal Summer” spoilers.

My younger brother has a very narrow taste in anime. His first anime, like thousands of others, was “Naruto.” We would lie down and watch it on a tiny screen everyday after school, our favourite past time. From then on, he refused to watch anything but the action packed Shonen clichés. Another bullet point on his criteria list for anime was that any show he watched would have to be english-dubbed. When it came to the next item in the anime starter-pack, “One Piece,” I managed to convince him that he’d rather not hear the English version of the show, and he reluctantly complied. Since then, he’s never looked back, believing that the original Japanese voices should be given priority. However, he still enjoys the occasional English dub. As I mentioned earlier, his first anime was Naruto and that shaped his taste in shows. Similarly, I think that most viewers form their opinion about whether subbed or dubbed anime is preferable after just one experience. After becoming familiar with both sides of the story, I believe that it’s important to take a closer look, as both sub and dub fans have legitimate reasons for their preferences.

I must admit, I am often deterred by English dubbing and I almost always prefer the original Japanese acting. However, I can appreciate a dub that is done right.

A good English dub should:

  • Include well-written dialogue with minimal cheesiness
  • Feature talented voice actors
  • Be culturally respectful
  • Not interfere with the story’s integrity or divert the plotline in any way
  • Be well cast, with voice actors who suit their roles well

One of the main reasons that many viewers tend to avoid English dubbing is the cheese-factor. Whether it be poor voice acting or badly written lines, English dubbing is known to be fairly cringe-worthy.

I myself am painfully aware of this. I’ve explored countless English dubs and they’re almost always cheesy or just sound “not quite right.” It is hard to find an English dub that can be taken 100% seriously, and cheesiness is arguably the biggest problem with English dubbing. The key causes of this seem to be a combination of both bad voice acting and writing.

One of the worst things that an English dub can do is interfere with the integrity of the story. However, this unfortunately, is not an uncommon occurrence. I’m going to use “Free! Eternal Summer” as an example here. During episode thirteen of the smash-hit sports drama, swimmers Rin Matsuoka and Haruka Nanasae visit Australia where the former once trained. Upon his return to Australia, there’s a flashback in which Rin recalls the difficult language barrier he faced upon arriving in a foreign country. Standing in front of a classroom room full of people and barely able to communicate, Rin is devastated as he fails to introduce himself to his peers. At least, that’s how it is in the original episode.

In the English dub, instead of feeling flustered due to his inability to speak English, he’s just a little awkward. In the Japanese version, Rin goes on to describe to Haru how difficult it was for him learning a new language. However, in the dub, Rin simply says, “It was a hell of a thing getting past the accents, let me tell you.”

To me, this was a crucial scene because it highlighted the struggle that so many people have to face when they first come to a foreign country and tackle a new language. This element being taken away meant that the scene was far less powerful in the English version. Of course, it would’ve looked ridiculous for him to say “I didn’t speak any English,” in perfect English, so the storyline needed to be altered slightly. This is a perfect example of how sometimes it’s unavoidable for English dubbing to compromise the storyline.

Another thing that people are quick to point out is the limited pool of actors when it comes to English VA. In Japan, there is an abundance of talented voice actors. However, most English-dubbing studios tend to recycle their actors, leading us to hear the same familiar voices with every show. Many viewers don’t enjoy watching English dubs as they grow tired of hearing the same actors over and over again.

Brina Palencia is the English voice of One Piece’s Chopper, Fairy Tail’s Juvia and Tokyo Ghoul’s Touka.

White-washing is a huge problem, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Many English-dubbed shows have been called out for contributing to this problem. A lot of dubs even seem to go to great lengths to hide the fact that they are not set in the USA. It’s also not uncommon to see English-dubbed anime in which Japanese names have been changed to western ones.

The now dissolved “4Kids Productions” were notorious for white-washing popular anime.

Whilst many viewers see no problem with it, a lot of English dubs have been criticized for attempting to “Americanize” anime. There are many dubs in which traditional Japanese music, food, and dialogue have been altered in an attempt to satisfy a western audience. Despite claiming to have good intentions, this practice is immensely disrespectful to Japanese culture and is off-putting for many viewers.

Pronunciation is another point that commonly comes into the discussion. Many Japanese terms and names are often left in the script of English dubs, but sometimes Western actors pronounce them incorrectly. For viewers who wish to pick up the correct pronunciation of Japanese terms, English voice acting may be a problem.

Given its poor reputation, why do so many anime fans still favor English dub? Well, there are a number of reasons.

  1. They like to watch shows in their native language.
    Sometimes, the answer isn’t all that complicated. Many people just find shows easier to follow and enjoy in their native language.
  2. They don’t like to read subtitles.
    Many people hate reading subtitles for a number of reasons, whether it be translation issues or because they simply go too fast for viewers to keep up.
  3. It may be more suitable due to the themes of certain shows
    I recently saw a post regarding the show “Shimoneta,” a comedy show with some rather risque themes. The poster explained that whilst they almost always preferred subtitles, they had opted for the English dubbing of the show because “the jokes are better heard than read.”
  4. Japanese expressions may be lost in the translation
    Many subtitles leave Japanese expressions and honorifics untranslated. This can often lead to subtitles being unclear for non-speakers.
  5. Many English dub fans like having familiar voice talents 
    Although many consider the limited pool of English voice actors to be one of the flaws of English dub, many dub fans actually like this. Having grown familiar with big-name talents like Brina Palencia and Todd Haberkorn is a plus for many English dub fans, as they can get to know actors and anticipate casting decisions in advance. Furthermore, studios that produce English dubs tend to produce an abundance of behind the scenes content for fans and are skilled at promoting their shows to an international audience.
In a popular Funimation video, voice actor Todd Haberkorn gets a Fairy Tail tattoo.

I almost always favour subbing, simply because I consider the original voice acting and writing generally superior to that of English dubs.

A good English sub should:

  • Be properly translated with little to no mistakes
  • Feature visually appealing subtitles that are easy to read
  • Have well-timed subs
  • Make sense in regards to the storyline

Most people who favour subtitles over English dubbing tend to argue that the voice acting and writing is much better than that of English dubs. Japanese anime boasts a much wider variety of voice actors which tends to lead to better quality acting. Furthermore, due to directly translated dialogue, the writing tends to be more faithful to the original source material.

Many people watch anime as a tool for learning Japanese. Although the language used in anime is sometimes unrealistic, many people find anime helpful for absorbing new Japanese words and learning the language. This is often one of the reasons that people favour English subtitles, as dubbing would be useless for language learning purposes.

As mentioned earlier, there are a great many Japanese voice-actors when it comes to anime, which often leads to great casting. Given the large pool of voice talents, finding an actor well suited to each role is often effortless.

At the end of the day, both sub and dub fans have their reasons for why they watch what they do. My greatest problem with this entire discussion is that both sub and dub fans tend to develop elitist attitudes, constantly putting the other side down. However, people have the right to enjoy whatever form of entertainment they like without judgement. At the end of the day, sub or dub, it’s still the same beautiful stories that we all know and love.

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