Watching Anime: Subtitles vs. Dubbed

The rule of thumb always seems to be that original works will always be better than its altered or remade counterpart. The same can be applied to an anime that gets licensed for the U.S. market. Usually there are studios who dub over the Japanese voices with English ones. Luckily, if you are not a fan of the dubbed voices DVDs and Blurays offer the option to keep the Japanese track and turn on the subtitles. You can enjoy the anime as it was meant to be enjoyed.

When I started watching animes like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, I really enjoyed the dubbed voices. These particular animes were Americanized for an American audience by giving them American sounding names with a few exceptions like Sakura from CCS, but she did have an American sounding last name (Kinomoto became Avalon). I thought the English voice actors selected for their roles in either anime suited the character. It kind of gave you this, “What if Serena/Usagi had an American teenage girl voice?”

Serena – Terri Hawkes was the best Serena English voice actress out of the three who voiced her

I never had the chance to watch Sailor Moon in its original Japanese format with subtitles. I feel that if I started watching the anime with the original Japanese voice actors it wouldn’t feel right to me. I got so used to the dubbed, and in my mind the English voice actress for Serena was perfect. Or at least the English voice actress who took over as the voice of Serena, Terri Hawkes, was perfect for her. The voice actress for the first few episodes of Sailor Moon, Tracey Moore, was okay and Linda Ballantyne who took over voice acting Serena from Terri Hawkes in the last several episodes they ever translated of Sailor Moon wasn’t all that great in my opinion. Hawkes embodied the clumsy, hyper active, crybaby Serena to a T.

There are certain animes like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura that will make it difficult for me to watch them in its original form. Were the Americanized versions of these animes flawed? Yes. The studios skipped a lot of episodes for both animes which were considered controversial or too risque to air on syndicated television. They also Americanized these animes a lot and probably because the American studios thought kids wouldn’t understand the Japanese cultural references.

This is where I think they should have kept the Japanese cultural references at least. I suppose keeping the Japanese names of the characters would be too much of a stretch (maybe due to pronunciation issues for the kids), but the cultural references they should have tried to keep. Maybe the studios could have had a small segment at the end of each episode to explain some of the Japanese references to the kids watching. I think it would have been nice. I became fascinated with Japanese culture, the language, and the people after becoming acquainted with anime/manga.

These days I end up watching most animes with the Japanese track on and with subtitles. Sometimes I switch to the dub just to see how the English voice actors portray the characters. Almost 99% of the time, the Japanese voice actors are better than the English ones. Some English voice actors do a decent job on a character and other times they are absolutely horrible.

Miaka – I don’t know who the English voice actress was for her but I will never watch the English dub for Fushigi Yugi ever again

I watched both Fushigi Yugi and Ceres: Celestial Legend with the Japanese track and subtitles. The voices were great and I got into the animes easily. When I decided I wanted to try the dub on for size for both series, I could not watch one episode of either series for longer than five minutes. As soon as I heard the English dub voice actresses for Miaka of FY and Aya of Ceres open their mouths I cringed. They sounded irritating to listen to and the immersion into the story was broken for me because of their voices. These are two series where I will not under no circumstances watch the English dub. I rather listen to the original Japanese voice actors and read the subtitles over the English dub.

The subtitles vs. dub debate really depends on a fan’s preference. If you are too lazy to read subtitles and want to be able to sit back and enjoy the anime without rushing to read the subtitle before it moves on to the next translated dialogue then dubbed anime is for you. If you don’t mind reading the subtitles and are more of an anime purist, where the Japanese version is the way to go no matter what, then watch the original as intended. I already have a few anime series that will always have me attached to the dub and the rest I’m original all the way.

How about the rest of you? Which camp do you belong to? Dubbed? Subtitles? Both?

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17 thoughts on “Watching Anime: Subtitles vs. Dubbed

  1. I tend to like dubs, but I will say that most of my favorite dubs are from after the year 2003 – a lot of dubs were vastly improved by then – Full Metal Panic! and Death Note stand out as good dubs, and I think comedies work especially better as dubs (such as Azumanga Daioh). CCS and Sailor Moon are infamous for having butchered dubs and heavy editing; they’re not exactly representative of most anime dubs, especially since they were edited for American television (while 99% of anime released in America go straight to DVD and left unedited). Fushigi Yugi has horrible english voice-acting, but a lot of dubs from the 90s weren’t so great.

    1. I started watching Death Note, but not as dubbed. I should give it a try though. I agree with you though. I think the dubbing has gotten a lot better compared to the 90s ones. Hana Yori Dango’s dubbed was pretty good, but I also like the Japanese one too. Maybe a lot of the 90s dubbed anime had poor voice actor choices because anime was still kind of new in the U.S. market? That’s my guess anyway.

      1. I would say that was probably the case: they didn’t have a lot of money or access to actors, and American anime companies weren’t sure whether to leave any traces of series’ Japanese origins (which is why some companies dubbed the theme songs; a trend that hasn’t completely died). I thought I was in the minority about Hana Yori Dango’s dub – I always thought the english actors for Tsukushi and Tsukasa had much more energy than their Japanese counterparts and sounded really good together.

  2. I’m not a fan of dubs at all. I’m seriously NOT!! I feel the dubs take away that special thing (loss of words here) in anime(originality, emotions, love???) =( I watched the dubbed version of CCS(then I was a kid and I didn’t know it was originally japanese). Well growing up I knew it’s all happens in Japan, and watched it in Japanese 😮 it was like a revelation. Tooooo good!! I don’t mind subtitles. I know a little bit of Japanese now 😛 lol… I guess most of us anime lovers know(the geekiest reason to learn a language :P) I refuse to watch anything which is dubbed. I dunno.. I just can’t watch!! =(

    1. I like watching both the dubbed and subbed. I kind of like seeing how the voice acting was approached on both sides. There are very few animes I watch as dubbed these days. Usually I watch the anime as subbed first and then later rewatch the series as a dubbed to try it out.

      Yeah, I know some words in Japanese thanks to anime too. 🙂 Japanese is a hard language to learn, but if I had the opportunity to learn it fluently I definitely would.

      1. I don’t find Japanese that hard. Maybe because my mother tongue is similar to Japanese – pronounced the same way it’s written and have similar sentence formations. And we have complex syllables which I guess helps =)

        Yoiichinichiwo ^_^

    1. Yeah, there’s always bound to be something lost in translation. I definitely don’t watch dubs as much as I used to. I only have a soft spot for the dubs of Sailor Moon and CCS.

  3. I prefer subs (and I usually watch everything with subs on), but I’m with starsamaria, dub quality has improved vastly over the years. I watched Bleach and Naruto (yeah I know I know, they aren’t the best anime out there but I like some simple shounen from time to time) in both English and Japanese and I was really surprised how similar the voices for each version sounded. I would say Rukia (from Bleach) was the most different but even then the English voice actress captured the “essence” of the Japanese voice actress’ inflection and form of speech so she still felt like the same character in both English and Japanese.
    @Samar: but you aren’t really watching it in Japanese just with Japanese voices. Whatever is lost in translation is still lost in translation with the subtitles. Americanization hardly happens anymore, so the meaning is not changed in dubs any more than in subs. Unless you argue that honorifics matter (and in a few special cases they do), but I think in the vast majority nothing is lost by those being dropped as actions and context tell us everything and more about character relations.

  4. Lately I’ve been finding that I enjoy subs more, but it depends on the show and whether or not the character’s voices help immerse me in the story. Depending on which version I find more immersive, that’s the one I’ll watch, such as the Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood English dub. It’s easily one of my favorite dubs because the voice acting was engaging and didn’t distract from the story. What bothers me about this debate is when fans get in fights over dubs vs subs. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and because it’s a question of preference so much of the time, there’s no point in trying to decide which one is ultimately better. There’s never going to be an answer that everyone agrees on, so in the end it’s better to simply describe which one you individually prefer, because when fans try to convince the majority it doesn’t work. In a way, I like that this debate is individualized – so much of the time, debates like this are blown out of proportion, but I like that the dubs vs subs debate winds down to a question of preference. 😀

    1. I never understood the heated debate concerning dubs vs. subs. I have a cousin who frowns upon me watching some anime in dubs. His reaction is, “Why?! Subs are so much better!” I always thought dubs vs. subs is a matter of personal preference. Neither is better than the other, and I don’t prefer one over the other. Sometimes I like watching anime with subs and sometimes I don’t. It does really help that now the quality of dubs for a lot of animes have gotten a whole lot better. What it comes down to is which helps immerse you in the story best. 🙂

      1. My thoughts exactly. 🙂 I considered writing an article about this for ATB, but quickly realized it’s impossible to do because the debate stems from people simply trying to force their preferences on others. The important thing is whether or not the viewer feels engaged with the story and characters, and whether they find that in the English or Japanese voiced shows shouldn’t matter or cause arguments.

      2. It’s certainly about personal preference more than anything else. But if you did have more to say on the matter, you should write the article for ATB anyway. You might have a different perspective to offer that me or anyone else hasn’t thought of. I also like reading other people’s opinions in general, especially if it’s about topics and hobbies I personally love!

  5. I generally prefer to watch something as a sub first, partly for the aesthetic of the voice actor, and to start out with the closest facsimile of the “meaning” being expressed. In most cases dubs don’t bother me as a second viewing, though sometimes the voice actor feels like a bad match. For example, in Kino’s Journey the japanese voice actor for Hermes has a high, young voice, while the english voice actor sounds almost smoky to me, which doesn’t fit the character.
    I think the biggest problem is that some things cannot be easily translated into English. For example, in a Kino’s Journey movie, the name Kino is said with both a feminine and masculine emphasis, and for much of the story Kino only refers to himself as Kino (feminine), even saying “I don’t feel that I am Kino (male) yet.” That was a very interesting element of the narrative, and one that can’t really be replicated in English.

    1. These days I prefer the subs, but I have seen dubs getting much better with the voice acting quality as time wore on. It usually depends on what my mood is and how I want to experience the anime.

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