The never ending flamewar of dubs vs subs has been going on for ages. With the way things are with them, it seems like you can only watch one or the other. "Sub people are pretentious purists", "dub people are too stupid to keep up with watching something with subtitles". What about the group that watches both? Sadly they're ignored.
The problem with this flamewar is that, it's mostly opinion based. While there are some facts to support both sides, it still mostly boils down to opinion for which is better. This article is to give details on the pros and cons for dubbing and subbing. This is not to tell you which is better, nor is this for people to engage in the flamewar.
Let's start with Dubbing:
I'm sure most of our first experience with anime is from TV, so it's safe to say that we all have experience with dubs. Dubs, in a commercial sense, appeal to more people as it's easier to market something that's in the native language of who you're trying to sell the show to. Also the shows that are really popular in Japan also tend to get dubbed in English and the most popular of those get shown on TV.
Dubbing is helpful for those whose thought process focuses more on speech, as it is much easier for them to comprehend what's going on instead of trying to watch and read at the same time. Anti-dubbers seem to use this as an excuse that pro-dubs are too stupid to read, but having a different thought process isn't an indicator that someone is smarter or dumber than you.
Dubs also help people immerse themselves into a show, since for some, it's much easier for them to have a sense of familiarity with a show that's in their native language. This immersion is difficult if you're trying to watch a show that's in an unfamiliar language where you're supposed to multitask at how things are said and reading what's being said.
With that in mind, it's also easier to pick up on non-verbal aspects of the dialog when it's in your native tongue. So in a sense, not only knowing what's being said, but how it's being said is more authentic than watching it in a foreign language where you're unfamiliar with the language quirks or things like accents or dialects. Especially in a language like Japanese where you can't effectively show the different speech levels in subtitles. With the different speech levels, sometimes it's as simple as just the verbs being conjugated different, but then there's times where you're using a different set of words.
So in a well written dub, they tend to do their best to try and keep accurate to the non-verbal aspects, or certain speech patterns. Sometimes in a fashion that's more familiar to the dubbed audience. Like many school animes, a common trope is that there's one rich snobby girl that the main character(s) hates. They almost always have her speak in a heightened speech level where she's placing herself above her peers just with her vocabulary. This is known as keigo. This isn't really translated well in subtitles, since while in keigo she is still technically saying a phrase like "place your eyes on me" the fact she's saying it in keigo instead of standard Japanese gives it more of a pretentious tone. While keigo itself is used by people in service industries, or when talking to the president of your company and is supposed to be one of the most polite levels of speech, using it with people that are the same "level" as you, like classmates, gives it a snobbish attitude.
In a well written dub, with a character like that, they tend to try and give the girl our image of how a pretentious rich girl would talk with the tone of her voice. While you can pick out in subs that the girl is supposed to be a prude, not knowing the language lets you miss out on the actual punch.
One of the most common anti-dub arguments are on the quality of the voice actors. The problem is, this varies a lot. While there is no denying that there are terrible dubs around like Love Hina, there are critically acclaimed dubs like every Studio Ghibli movie where only the most anal of anti-dubbers will refuse to consider watchable.
One aspect that sub-only people tend to ignore is the quality of the Japanese cast. There is a massive double standard that the Japanese cast is neither ever casted badly, or the voice actor is never subjected to either poor acting, or overacting. While this is something that nobody will willingly admit to, you'll see it in several reviews or discussions where they say "the voices are in Japanese, that means it's good" in such a way that just because it's in Japanese, it's impossible for the voice acting to be bad. This is something that you have to be really naive to believe in any language. I'm sure if you went to those same people and said "Hannah Montana is very well acted because it's in English" people will laugh at you; so why should Japanese shows be excused?
The reason why such a double standard exists, is because, like picking up on non-verbal accents, picking up on whether or not someone is a good or bad actor is difficult if you don't know the language, especially with Japanese being vastly different from English down to the core. While some people may be able to notice from exposure to a bunch of anime, there are also just as many, if not more, that fooled themselves into thinking they can tell.
Case in point: the Russian dub of Haruhi Suzumiya:
There are two reasons why I picked the Russian version of Haruhi Suzumiya, one reason is that it's a fairly popular show and this scene is one of the most well known, so a lot of us are already familiar with the scene. Second reason is that Russian is a fairly obscure language when it comes to entertainment in the English speaking world, especially with anime. While the German dub of K-on would most likely suffice just as well, English is a Germanic language which means it shares lots of non-verbal similarities because they're in the same language tree. Russian is perfect because it's not only different from English, it's also very different from Japanese. (Do NOT pull the "Russian and German are both Indoeuropean" which means jack shit if you're actually familiar with the concept of Indoeuropean)
With a language so vastly different, and most of you have probably never been exposed to Russian, or in minuscule doses, you will not be able to point out who's a bad actor or not due to your lack of exposure to the language. Anyone who does is talking out of their ass (unless you actually do know Russian).
Though people will still say the voices are bad on the sole basis that it's not the original. Though unless you're a hardened purist, original doesn't always mean better. There have also been several cases where the English dub is considered better than the Japanese voices. Cowboy Bebop's English cast is so well casted that even the Japanese voice actors have given applaud that the English cast's performance was superior to theirs. Especially when an actor like Megumi Hayashibara is someone that is not easily outperformed. Even Jonny Yong Bosche is considered by the Japanese to be a better fit for his character Lelouche Lamperogue than the Japanese actor.
While some people hate on the voices because they feel it doesn't do justice to the original cast because the original author had a say in the original cast, you should take note that several English dub casts are also
approved by the same author. While this is a positive with Studio Ghibli productions, this isn't always the case.
There's also shows like Dragon Ball where the English version has voice actors that are cast for the appropriate sounding age for the characters. Most people unfamiliar with the original voices will find it really weird that Goku is a grown man and still has the voice of a child, even more so that his voice hasn't changed since he was a child in the show. There's also other cases where the female characters have voice actors that sound much older than the age of the girl. Though there are several times where the English dub is also just as guilty as Japan is.
There are also situations where the anime makes more sense to actually have the voices in English. With the movie Steam Boy taking place in England, it's more accurate to have them actually speaking with English accents. Others shows taking place in Western type settings would be D. Gray Man, Full Metal Alchemist, and Fairy Tail.
"Well Grungie, if an anime takes place in Japan, shouldn't it be more accurate to have it in Japanese?" This definitely is fairly good reasoning and you're more than welcome to think that because K-on takes place in Japan, it should be in Japanese; there are shows like Accel World that takes place in Japan, but there's either so much English terminology (or in Accel World's case where ALL of the terminology is in English) it's a situation where you think "well if there's so much English in the show, they might as well speak it". It also seems a bit awkward hearing a show in one language that relies heavily on another. While native English speakers will easily know the terminology, it's something that can be difficult or sometimes counter-productive to the Japanese audience.
Another similar "might as well be in English" show would be something like the A Certain Series (Toaru series) where even though Acadamy City is a section of Tokyo, there's tons of English and other western inspiried characters (especially with famous people like ) and all these church, magic, and science terminology, some will sit there wondering "why do all these people from the Church of England know Japanese?" It's also the case in other shows that depicts an international cast that somehow magically knows perfect Japanese. While some will use that against English, you should take note that English is a more global language where it's understood in several countries, while Japanese is only spoken widely in Japan and almost nowhere else.
There are a lot of criticisms where some fans who saw the subs first feel that the dubs changed the characters. In shows like Naruto, and Haruhi Suzumiya where they felt that characters like Naruto and Mikuru were changed to be more annoying or bratty. While in some cases this is true, sadly in the ones mentioned, and many more, if you really paid as much attention to the original as you say you did, characters like Mikuru and Naruto are supposed to be more or less annoying or bratty characters.
A similar complaint is that people feel the dubs are "too cartoony" or the dialog is "too corny". The problem here is that if you're familiar with a bunch of other Japanese media, you'll realize that these voices are just as cartoony in Japanese as they are in America. The corny factor is also pretty much similar since many people will notice that you can make any cheesy line sound really awesome by putting it in another language. Hence the comedy sketches making fun of Mexican Soap Operas using random simple Spanish words and sentences can make things sound more dramatic because it's in another language.
There are also times when the dubs made some changes to the scrip to make the show, more or less interesting. Many fans of Yuyu Hakusho find the additions to the script added more depth to some of the characters, and even made characters like Yusuke and Hiei to be more interesting and fun with their wise cracking. Some of the script made the dialog more fun and even hinted at some events that the Japanese anime didn't mention that was in the manga. For every show that gains from the altered scripts, there are shows like Duel Masters where it was more or less a gag dub where much of it didn't even closely resemble the original. While Duel Masters did have some bits of comedy here and there in the original Japanese, the English dub turned it into a full out comedy where it was more or less a parody of card game shows and was mostly despised by many.
Now for subs
Outside of the voices, one of the biggest draws to subs is that well done sub is more accurate to the original Japanese script than the dub. This is mostly because the English dub has to deal with matching the speaking times with the original voices. This means that the speaking lines have to sometimes be either trimmed or altered to have it fit in speaking times. Subtitles aren't subject to this and you can fit the entire dialog easily. Though Japanese is not an easy language to translate, by looking at various fansub groups, you'll notice varying differences in the dialog with the same episodes. While some of this is due to the nature of Japanese being very different from English, sometimes it can be intentional from the fansub group.
There are issues with subtitles, sometimes the dialog can be too literal. A bad example would be an English phrase like "this is bullshit". That's a case where literal meaning and the actual meaning are completely different. While not every translation that is too literal is that extreme or awkward, a person who knows both English and Japanese would notice and think "well they're kind of right, but that's not what it really means".
Another translation issue is that sometimes they add in more swearing that actually exists in the original script. This tends to be more common in fansubs, and causes a misconception when they see the English dub and they feel that it's too censored. This is largely false accusations. Japanese doesn't really have a concept of swear words like English does, they have the difference between polite, and impolite, with varying degrees for both.
There's also problems in the translation of the word "kuso". While it definitely means poop, it largely depends on the context of how it's used to how severe it really is. Especially since it's kind of the catch-all "swear word" where it's easily applied several levels of (im)politeness. So in minor cases, it'll mean ''crap'' or ''shoot'' ranging up to spouting ''shit'' or ''fuck'' Many are either confused at the various meanings of the word, or many just feel that it's more fun to add "raunchier" dialog to the show. Something that even fan-translated video games add (SNES Tales of Phantasia anyone?)
Another drawback to subs is that it can be difficult to read when multiple people are talking at once. While some subs try to differentiate different people with having one in parenthesis or in a different color, but it can still be difficult to keep track of two different sets of dialog flashing at you.
Some shows also end up having the dialog going by too fast. Especially if you're watching Tatami Galaxy where most people have difficulty knowing what's going on since the subtitles seem to fly by so fast. There's also other problems with this with shows from Shaft like Bakemonogatari and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei where they quickly flash in words on blackboards, or black screens with text where the subtitles fly by too fast. They frequently do this in scenes when there's lots of dialog, so not only did you have to read the regular dialog, you have to pause to read what the flashing words are being said.
While I mostly seem to be making it look like the only positives to subs is that it's more accurate to the script, that's not the only case. The subs also tend to leave little cultural notes for those unfamiliar with what's going on. While most common for fansubs, these notes will explain a certain pun that didn't translate in English, or a pop culture reference. Especially when they're referencing celebrities that are known only in Japan, or it's a dated reference. It's also used to mention the reference to vintage anime that's not very well known in the US.
With the notes in mind, some shows are really difficult to translate into English, especially if you're trying to dub it. A show like Crayon Shin Chan where the comedy is heavily focused on puns and wordplay wouldn't work well in English. This is partially why Funimation reworked a lot of the script. There's also shows like Gintama where there's jokes that they had to even explain in Japanese for it to make sense, it would be practically impossible to have it make sense in a dub.
There's also the point of you just watching the original version. While the original version may or not be the best version you're watching, many feel that because this was the way it was originally released, they feel that this is the most accurate way of seeing it. Kind of in a way that some people prefer the original release of an album or movie than the remastered version despite the remastered version might actually sound or look better.
Subtitled shows are also cheaper to produce since all you need to do is hire people to translate the show, and sync up the subtitles. This is why fansubs and Crunchyroll work so fast. With dubs, you have to not only record the entire voices, you have to spend time looking for the cast. Commercially it's also cheaper to release. This is typically why anime that has a more niche appeal tends to be sub only as they can't really afford to dub a show that only appeals to a small audience.
There you have it, the pros and cons for dubbing and subbing. Much of this was opinion based, and you're more than welcome to not change your opinion on this. Because you should enjoy your hobby the way you find it more fun. The whole argument is opinion based, but when you do use facts, make sure you take the time to research into actual facts. Because the problem with much of this never ending argument is the usage of regurgitated phrases that sound like they hold ground, but in actually mean jack shit.
Enjoy your anime.
Thanks for allowing me to put this up on our blog