It’s a debate that has raged for years. Which is better: subs or dubs? Just in case you’re new to these terms, “subs” refers to when a series retains its original voice acting and provides subtitles for translation, and “dubs” is when the series is voiced again (voice over) in the language for release. In the anime realm specifically, it is often highly contested which is better. Fans of subs make claims such as more accurate translations and better voice acting, while fans of dubs point out the ease of watching in your native language and distinct voices. So, which of these is better? I believe the definitive answer to this is… it depends.
Wait, wait, hold on a second. Put away your pitch forks and torches for a minute and let me explain. I do have an opinion (I’m personally in the “subs” camp) but I’m also not close-minded enough to think that my preferred method is the only way. Not everyone wants to read subtitles for one reason or another, and that’s fine. I am aware of the advantages and disadvantages both have. Not convinced? That’s fine, I came prepared.
I’ll start with subs first (naturally, given they are my preference). On average, I’ve found that subs usually allow for a more accurate translation. Japanese has a lot of nuance, and so direct translations don’t always work well. Whether it’s jokes and puns that cannot be translated, references to honorifics that don’t exist in English, or terms that are fairly common such as “youkai” (which I just ran into recently given the holiday), translation while retaining meaning is often difficult. Sure, you might miss it when it’s subbed anyway, as you can’t give a detailed explanation in the margin like with a manga, but you do begin to pick up on some of these subtle terms after watching enough anime.
This point will likely be controversial, but typically I find the Japanese voice actors do a better job. Voice acting is more than just reading lines, it is acting. Even without seeing the voice actor, how engaged the actor is in the lines and emotions behind the words comes through. Is this always the case that English voice actors aren’t as good? No, and I’ll elaborate on that later, but this seems more common in series that never reach the status of being mainstream. Additionally, I’ve encountered numerous series where the voice selected for a given character misses the mark for the character’s personality. For example, I always found the English voice for Haruhi Suzumiya, from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, always sounded more… bitchy? It’s hard to explain, but that’s the best way I can contrast it with the Japanese voice. Based on what I gathered from the series, that’s not quite right for her character. Actually, I’d say that stands for a lot of the characters in that series, where it just feels like something is missing from the English voices. I’d chalk it up to not understanding a character’s design, and thus casting the role poorly. Think like Aang in the live action The Last Airbender film (I know it’s taboo to bring it up, so let’s just leave it at that).
This point may matter less than others, but by listening to anime in Japanese you can pick up some expressions. Even before I learned Japanese formally (wanted to watch anime without subs, but let’s not add raw to this debate), I was recognizing common terms or phrases. I bet if you’ve watched even a handful of series with subs, you’ve picked up a couple like “thank you” or “please”, “mom” or “dad”, etc. And, if you’ve taken the step to learn the language like myself, it serves as a great way to practice listening comprehension, if you can break the habit of just blindly reading the subs. You might be surprised how much you really grasp.
Now, dub fans, I haven’t forgotten about you. This was a bit trickier for me given my preferences, but I did gather some info from those I know who prefer dubs, as well as consider some of my occasional difficulties with subs. I think I can advocate a bit for your cause.
One of the prevailing reasons I heard from dub fans is they want to watch the show. Subtitles are presented at the bottom of the screen, thus forcing you to look away from the action. While I’ve gotten accustomed to reading the subtitles while watching the action with my peripheral vision, it is a valid argument. There’s no doubt I’ve missed out on some more subtle pieces that were woven in by the art team. Additionally, some series have beautiful art. As an example, some of the scenes in Demon Slayer are gorgeous, and would really diminish a strong point of the series if you missed it.
Another thing to consider is the level of attention required. I know I give anime my full attention while watching, but I know several people who prefer to multitask while watching. As such, having the audio be in your native language helps tremendously. People lead busy lives (especially as they get older), so not everyone has the time to dedicate to watching an anime. If the only way they can partake of what they enjoy watching is to watch it dubbed while doing something else, then I’m absolutely in favor.
For my final point, let me ask: have you ever watched a series that dumps a ton of exposition on you really fast? Maybe the subtitles fly off the screen before you even have a chance to get through it all, and you end up having to rewind it. Honestly, this has happened to me. At least a few times… And it annoys me. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Bakemonogatari! Interesting story, but slow the fuck down if you want me to understand anything. … Ehem. Sorry about that. Fact is, we’ve all been there. While this isn’t really a “pro” for dubs as much as it is a “con” for subs, the fact remains that this issue is typically nonexistent for dubs. While someone talking really fast can be tricky, namely when their words begin to sound like one crazy long word, our brains are used to processing sound faster than it processes written words. So, technically a victory for dubs here?
Now, there were a few points I felt I needed to address further. These are largely considered on a per-series basis, so I figured I should separate it from the other sections. I guess you could call them outliers? Exceptions? I don’t know. Let me just explain.
I did comment that typically I found the Japanese voice actors do a better job “acting” the role. Well, that’s not always the case. There’s a handful of English voice actors that I think are absolutely fantastic. Take, for instance, Steve Blum. His voice is iconic. If you’ve seen Cowboy Bebop (and if you haven’t go watch it!), he’s the voice of Spike. Now, being able to pick his voice out in anything he does isn’t why I’m referencing him here. It’s because of how into it he gets. Every time I hear his voice, you can feel how into it he is. And that’s what you want to see in a voice actor. Who the voice actors are in a given series can certainly be a consideration, for either subs or dubs.
To continue with the voice acting side of it, the content of the anime can be a consideration as well. Sometimes a certain character just feels right when played by a given actor. A recent example for me was in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Golden Wind, the voice for the main antagonist in English blew me away. His voice just does a great job of carrying sinister intent. Compare that with the Japanese voice, which, not to discredit his voice, sounds a bit too much like a cliché villain’s voice. Similarly, if there’s a tsundere character in the series that is played by the Queen of Tsundere, Rie Kugimiya, it would feel wrong to NOT watch it subbed. Her voice just fits the tsundere archetype so well, though this may just be because she does it so often. Either way, this is all very subjective, but everyone will have an opinion about which voice actor fits a given character better, and it’s okay to go with a series dubbed or subbed because you think one is better acted.
So, Which is the Right Way?
As I said at the start of this very long-winded, and yet arguably still incomplete, discussion, it largely depends. There’s a multitude of personal factors to consider, and what you consider important. It’s all up to the viewer. At the end of the day, we’re all watching anime regardless, and that’s never a bad thing. With that said… GO SUBS! Okay, now you can commence with the torches and pitchforks.