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Subtitled and Dub Basics

Used with permission of AnimeInfo.org.

With anime having the worldwide presence that it has, it is natural that there will be translations of the audio into other languages, in order to better facilitate an understanding of anime, without overcoming the obvious language barrier that exists. There are two schools of thought on translation, as most may or may not know. One is "subs", or subtitled anime, where original Japanese audio is preserved and translated into the native language that appears in the form of visual depictions on the screen. The other is "dubs", or "dubbed anime, where native language audio is matched with the mouth movements of the characters, to give the impression that the characters are speaking in the native language.

At first observation, the difference may be obvious, but there is definitely more to subs and dubs than one may think, especially in the anime community where the "sub vs. dub" debate is one of the most hotly argued topics today. How do each of the formats work, and how do fans figure into the process? Which format is ultimately the better one? Frank takes you through an explanation of both formats as they apply to the anime community and goes on to examine its significance in the anime fandom today.

The Two Languages of Anime
Part of the reason why the anime medium has been successful over the years is because it has become a phenomenon that has spread around the world. As with most popular things, worldwide, global recognition is a definite sign that something has been successful, and anime is no different. Its spreading out from its roots in Japan has shown that anime is well-loved by more than just the native people from which it comes.

Part of studying anime as a globalized item involves looking at how it gets ingrained or permeates into societies outside of its native sphere of influence. Looking at the factors that involve anime's globalization helps one understand better exactly how that globalization took place, and how it is progressing even today. This brings us to one of the most important parts of bringing anime to the worldwide audience - choosing the method by which the audio and language is presented.

The practice of "subs" (short for subtitled) and "dubs" (short for dubbed) is one that is older or at least as old as the medium itself. While subs and dubs are, in general, a separate point of discussion for not just anime, but films on the whole, it's a good idea to look at its relevance with regards to anime. The process of subtitling and dubbing, who does it, and what issues come up because of it are ones that are very close to the anime medium, especially in light of the fact that all the acting is, in effect, hidden behind the animated "mask" of a character (i.e. voice acting).

This course is going to focus on the basics of subs and dubs, with regards to their process as well as their relevance to anime and, of course, its fandom. Curiously enough, the language and audio aspect of anime is one of the most important things to many fans and potential novices when it comes to personal enjoyment of the medium. We'll look at both processes in detail and highlight advantages and weaknesses, and last but not least, we'll take a brief look at the hotly contested "sub vs. dub" debate and see if there has been a clear winner in the contest. Hopefully you should come away from this course with a better understanding of this part of anime linguistics, and how its importance has affected many fan perceptions of anime released worldwide.

Let's start out with the "sub", or subtitled anime, the "language" of anime that is closest to home, so to speak.

Subs: Reading Anime
The nature of the "sub" in anime is closest to what fans would call the "raw", or original version of the anime being watched. Short for "subtitled", subs in anime preserve the original Japanese audio format while at the same time translating it into the native language of the intended audience. Most of the time this language is English, but there are also European and Asian companies that release subbed anime as well, in their own respective languages.

Though one does not have to do anything with the audio track for an anime that is to be subbed, there is nevertheless still some complication involved in the process itself. The dialogue, songs, and on-screen Japanese characters (where applicable) are first translated into the language of the intended audience. While at times as little as one individual may work on a given translation or be the overseer in a group, there is also the possibility that teams of translators will work on a singular existing anime audio track. After this translation is finished, the translation must then be transformed into a "script" which outlines the timing of each piece of dialogue, song lyric, or translation that will appear on screen, usually in an easy to see font and on the bottom of the screen where it will not obstruct the action being shown. This script then becomes the basis of the computers and other technology used to create the subtitled version of an original anime show. Commercial distributors of anime usually purchase the license or rights to a particular series in order to acquire the originals (or "masters") needed to create subbed versions, which are then duplicated and sold to the general public.

Several advantages present themselves when one is thinking about subs. One, obviously, is the preservation of the original audio. With subs, one can hear exactly how the anime was originally created with regards to its Japanese voice actors. Oftentimes the emotions and feelings of the characters speaking, or the song being sung, can be best perceived when hearing how the original sounds. With subtitles, one gets this benefit while at the same time being privy to what exactly is being said. Another advantage of subs is listening to the Japanese language itself. If you are aspiring to speak Japanese or learn about the language in the future, watching subbed anime is a great asset to perceiving the verbal cues and nuances of the language. I myself took two semesters of Japanese when I was in college, and having watched so much subbed anime before taking the classes, I was more easily able to produce the desired cadence of the language a bit easier than my fellow classmates. Even if you are not aspiring to learn the language, being exposed to it is itself an educational experience, not only linguistically, but also with regards to how the Japanese do their voice acting. Lastly, there is a good chance that most of the preservation of the exact words being heard or sung is accurate. Being able to translate the original track dialogue without having to worry about timing (at least on character movement) frees up the potential for wrong translation into other languages.

Of course, disadvantages are present in subs as well. For one thing, one must become accustomed to the practice of "reading" anime - in essence, being able to quickly and accurately scan what is being said while being aware of the action that is happening. In order to watch subbed anime, this "reading" practice is a requirement (and this is why I call subs "reading anime"). Ability to perceive the fast, consistent timing of the words appearing on the screen is key to mastering this, and if you are unable to do so, you may not get full enjoyment out of what you are watching. It can even be said that the very presence of the words can be distracting, as they may possibly cover up some portion of the screen at an inopportune time or stand out too well. A second disadvantage lies in what was listed as an advantage - the freedom of translation. If you are not versed or fluent in the Japanese language, you are completely at the mercy of the translators to show you what exactly is being said or done. If there are liberties taken or things changed around to fit in grammar, content, and word structure (as may be the case with distributors), the translation on-screen may end up less-than-accurate to the original Japanese. The varying companies that do commercialized distribution do not help this case as their translators may or may not have their own personal ways of translating certain Japanese words. Also, there are just some things that do not translate well (even if accurately) over language barriers - an unavoidable fact. An accurate, but literal translation of certain aspects of the dialogue may lead to confusing text, leaving fans to wonder what exactly was so funny or significant about the last exchange.

Nevertheless, it seems that many anime fans prefer the sub format to the dub format, which we will look at next. We've already seen how translators can work to make a native-language script of the original Japanese dialogue. Now let's see them take it a step further an see how anime can be completely committed to the native language it is being translated for.

Dubs: Hearing Anime
The history of the "dub" (short for "dubbed") is one that stretches far beyond that of anime. The practice of dubbing - essentially, overlaying one's native language audio track over an original in another language, goes back quite far. Some of the earliest examples of dubbing as they related to Japanese original features can be found in the now-classic dubs of martial arts movies and Godzilla films, which made no effort to synchronize mouth movement with words. This resulted in some rather humorous (and poor) audio tracks that kept the person's mouth moving long after the dubbed audio track had finished speaking. Today, however, the dub format has made progress and more professional dubbing companies are making an effort to release high quality dubs that match character speech patterns. While professional companies in the anime medium have always made an effort to synchronize character mouth movement with dub audio tracks, dubbing has made its own progression in quality in anime, to what it is today.

Like its counterpart, the sub, a dub is done using a complicated process. It has a translation phase, where the original Japanese language is translated into the native language. There is an issue of timing, as with the sub; however, in this case it is a different sort of timing. Instead of timing when a certain phrase is to appear on a screen, dubbers time character mouth movement and attempt to match, as close as possible, their translation to these movements, in such a way as to create the illusion that the character is speaking normally in the native language, rather than in Japanese. In order to accomplish this, the translation may deviate slightly or radically (depending on the dubber's practice) from what is said in the original Japanese dialogue. This is done in part so that a natural feel is created when listening to the track and watching the action. After this is done, the voice actors for the native language are usually called in to do the actual audio track. Usually during these sessions, further trimming or editing may be done on the translation depending on audio cadences the voice actor may make when speaking from the script. Most studios will dub a track one character at a time, and therefore with one voice actor at a time alone in the recording booth (by contrast, the Japanese always have all their voice actors in the same recording room). Once this is done, songs that may be present are either subtitled in the native language, or dubbed (the former is more the case then the latter, as songs and music with regards to crossing languages is a very complicated matter). The individual overlays from all the dub voice actors are combined into one coherent audio track and finalized, and are then attached to the original animation.

There are some advantages to dubs. First of all, one can watch a dubbed version of an anime show as if they were watching anything else in their own language. There are no distractions to having to look at something else that translates the dialogue, and so one can enjoy the feature without the pressure of having to keep the mind in two places at once. In essence you are completely committed to the action on-screen, because you are able to "hear" the dialogue of the anime and understand it. Dubs also provide an easier way of introducing anime to someone, be it yourself or someone else. If someone hears something in their native language as part of what they are watching, it may make them feel a lot less intimidated about what is essentially a "foreign" product. "Hearing" anime downplays this fact and can possibly cause an easier acceptance of the medium. The importance of voice acting is also raised by the practice of dubs. Anime is different from more traditionally known forms of animation in that it has deeper characters, storyline, and structure. This calls for an equally deep ability for a voice actor to properly express one's voice with emotion and more functionality, and their significance is definitely raised in doing this, whether they do a dub badly or not.

But as quite a few anime fans may attest to, there are also disadvantages to dubs. One of these is a disadvantage that it shares with its counterpart the "sub" - the translations that are done are entirely at the mercy of the translators and companies themselves, especially to those who do not know the Japanese language. Dubbing philosophies differ radically between domestic companies, and some are willing to completely disregard the meaning of whole lines of original dialogue in order to match mouth movement. One example is Viz Video's "WordFit" system, which essentially inserts words (even if they may not be translated as such from the original dialogue) into the dialogue and songs in order to make them fit completely with the mouth movement of the characters. These radical changes to the original dialogue and its meaning have been a pariah for many anime fans around the globe. These fans feel that changing the very meaning of the words spoken can change the context of the original, and therefore dilute it. Another disadvantage is that dubs can come out choppy or forced in the dialogue that is spoken. Part of this is the fact that most studios record one character at a time - the voice actor has no existing audio or other voice actor to "play off of" in their recording session, and may therefore come out choppy sounding in the end result. The result is the possibility that a dub may come out perfectly synced but unnatural sounding to the ear of those of the native language. Yet another disadvantage is that cultural cues and particulars unique to Japanese society may be downplayed or entirely lost in a dub. The very nature of the dub, being a product that is supposed to make something easier to watch via native language tracks, does work against becoming aware of the aspects of Japanese culture.

While anime dubs in general may be held in low regard by anime fans, their place in anime linguistics is undeniable. They play just as important a part as the sub goes in watching the anime medium, and certainly help in getting more fans to watch certain anime series. Speaking of the fans - it is usually professional companies or distributors that do the arduous process of subbing or dubbing, and distributing to the general public. Some anime fans, however, have taken matters into their own hands, and have worked to do some of what the companies are doing in distributing anime to the public. We'll take a look at these ambitious and hard-working anime fans next.

The Fans: Making Their Own Sounds
The professional and commercial companies aren't the only ones who've experimented with the idea of subbing or dubbing anime. Some hard-working fans, regular people who love anime, have also tried their hand at the business, and some of them are definitely as talented as the companies are in subbing or dubbing anime. To differentiate these works from the commercial releases, these are often referred to as "fansubs" or "fandubs", and serve a few good functions, among them providing good translations and scripts of anime as well as raising awareness of anime that are not as well known outside of Japan, but which are still popular. These fan-made works also have their differences in and of themselves.

Fansubs are the more common among the fan-made works. These are fans who follow the subtitling process, using their own video capturing and computer equipment to subtitle works for distribution. Distribution is usually handled through websites which provide information on which works have been subbed and in which format they can be delivered. Usually, this is VHS tapes, though fansubs in digital video format are also around in a few places. The quality of these fansubs varies depending on equipment and copying, but the ultimate price of acquiring fansubs remains free, with the only charges being for tape cost and mailing. This is partly because of legality reasons, but also for ethical ones as well. Fansubbers on the whole are interested in raising awareness of a particular anime series or making a wider range of anime available to the fans. Their benevolent motivation has played a significant part in providing fans with anime they might otherwise not ever lay their eyes on. As far as legality goes, fansubs are in a relatively grey area at the moment. Technically, they are illegal - however, fansubbers have limited their scope of influence to works which have -not- been licensed by a company for commercial release. If a certain title is commercially released, fansubbers do not make fansubs of it. If a title that was previously fansubbed becomes licensed for commercial release, fansubbers will stop distributing the title in question. This is done so that fansubbers do not take away from profits the commercial companies may make, as well as avoid legal troubles regarding license. Incidentally, fansubs and their popularity have been in some instances noticed by the commercial companies, and some of them may even pick up a title to be commercially distributed in response to good fan opinion about it via fansubs.

For more information about changes that have occurred with Fansubs, please check out the Fansub information page on our site.

Fandubs are far less prominent and popular than their counterparts, the fansub. This is due to several factors, the most notable being that fandubbing requires some ability to voice act and match mouth movement. This is something a little bit harder to learn than the translation and technical ability needed to doa fansub. As a result, most fandubs are parodies done by anime fans who may want to make light of a certain series or provide their own comedic version of it. While fansubs stay away from commercially licensed titles, the very fact that fandubs sometimes look to parody certain series means that fandubs are less likely to stay away from commercial titles. This of course doesn't mean that there aren't any serious efforts at fandubs - but these are much less common even among fandubs themselves. Fandubs run into the same legal grey area as fansubs do, but their uncommon nature prevents them from being worth pursuing by commercial companies. And though it's on a lesser scale, fandubs, both of licensed and unlicensed anime, serve to provide an alternate view or increase awareness, albeit on a smaller scale than fansubs.

And so we see that even we, the fans themselves, play a part in the sub and dub process. While the same strengths and weaknesses are present in the fansubs and fandubs as in their commercially released brethren, they do provide a new spin on them, and show the commitment of the anime fandom worldwide to promoting the medium. Now that we've explored just about every area of the sub and dub processes, we'll be taking a look at the "sub vs. dub" debate, a hot topic in the fandom. Which one is better, and what are the supporting points of either "anime language"? Let's find out.

Sub vs. Dub: The Debate and Conclusion
We've seen both formats at the strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully I've made you more aware of the quirks that are unique to each of these anime "languages". The question is now begged - which format is ultimately better? The now-famous "sub vs. dub" debate is one of the most hotly contested arguments in the anime community, and it has raised much ire and resentment between fans in the time that it has been an issue. This war of words is one that gets as ugly as any fight between the two anime characters. Let's take a look at the main points of both sides.

Those who support subs, against dubs, maintain that dubs on the whole are grossly inaccurate in presenting what is being said in the original dialogue. Because dubs have to match mouth movement as well as content, sub-supporters say that this dilutes the anime's dialogue from the original. Some of those on the sub side disdain some of the more radical changes dubs make to the original script, saying that misrepresentations and misunderstandings can spring from this, especially in cases where dubs make changes to fit the native culture. Sub-supporters also point out the sometimes unnatural audio of dubs, as the natural cadence of speech is sometimes choppy and comes out forced at times (this of course depends on the dubbing company). This makes dubs harder to listen to and endure for some anime fans who prefer subs alone. Some of the most radical of sub-supporters go so far to say that the very practice of dubs is detrimental to the advancement of anime in general, saying that any deviation from the original dialogue destroys its value and enjoyment. These are sometimes the same anime "purists" who may also oppose the presence of anime on certain television channels, due to its necessary dilution and dubbed broadcasting.

Supporters of the dub format over the sub format point to the difficulty of viewing subs as a reason why dubs are preferred. The constant reading and looking up is something that takes away from the enjoyment of the feature, especially for those that do not want to miss any expression or movement from the characters. Dub-supporters also say that though there are changes in translations, dubs are more readily acceptable by a wider audience than subs are, due to the fact that dubs are tailored to their native culture. The Japanese language is something that can be very intimidating and unusual to listen to, and may even turn some people away from being able to watch anime. Though the subtitled format may be more technically sound than the dubbed format, it may not be easier for newer fans to take in. Some even say that dubs work just as well as subs, if not better, in bringing in new fans. The advantage of being in the native language makes it easier for it to be commercially broadcast as well, bringing certain anime titles to new heights in popularity and awareness.

As you can see, it's quite the hot topic. The ugliest arguments on this topic sometimes end up with the sub-supporters being called close-minded snobs and the dub-supporters being called "soft" anime fans who don't truly appreciate the medium. Typically if one prefers their own language to any others they will enjoy dubs more. If hearing natural speech or proper language is more important, they'll prefer subs. Both subs and dubs hold an essential place in the anime fandom, and that the elimination of one or the other would diminish the fandom in some way.

And that does it for subs and dubs, basically. Hopefully you've learned a little bit more about how the two formats work and how they apply to anime. These two anime "languages" are more important to the enjoyment of anime than someone might think, and each holds a respected place in anime society. Whether you enjoy "reading" or "hearing" your anime dialogue, keep in mind how the format works - it will definitely help you appreciate the process of releasing anime a bit more!