Dubs vs Subs: Yeah, That Old Debate

dubbingThis is one of the oldest and fiercest debates in film history: how does one choose to watch their foreign films?  Dubbed into their native language, or with subtitles?

You might wonder why I’m writing about this old topic.  Well, because it’s much more multifaceted than people realize, and the rise in popularity of anime and foreign animation has escalated it more than ever before.  Don’t believe me?  Watch this skit:

What is my position?  With live-action films, I am on Team Subs.  With animation, I don’t think it matters.  Let’s dive in.


Most film purists will agree with me in preferring subtitles from an artistic standpoint. We appreciate hearing the original performance and observing its subtleties, allowing for a fuller experience.  Reading the dialog can actually make it sound “nicer” and more “poetic” in our heads than hearing it, giving the film a lyrical quality.  It’s also cheaper to produce.  It feels like you are getting the full original film with just a small little supplement added to translate it for you, while dubbing seems to completely alter, distort, or possibly even censor the original film.  If they’re altering the film’s soundtrack, what other things are they adding?  Are they changing the musical score as well?  There’s also a sort of “dishonest” quality to dubbing; as if it’s trying to trick you into thinking “This story is actually set in your country and the characters are really speaking your language.  If we fool you, you won’t be able to tell.”  Then there’s the issue of the quality of the dub.  Nothing is more jarring than seeing mouth movements that are out of sync with dialogue.  And even if it’s an excellent quality dub, the whole thing stills make the characters sound awkward or stilted (more on that later).  Part of the reason the old GODZILLA movies became popular was for their camp value, provided in part by the English dub.  Add to this the fact that sometimes the same voiceover actor is reused, causing many of the different characters in the movie to sound the same.  Or one dubbed movie you see today uses the same voice as a cartoon you saw years ago.  Subconsciously, your brain tells you there’s a disconnect between what you’re seeing and hearing.

Here is a scene from one of my favorite movies.  The fact you are reading the dialog adds to the fairytale presentation of the film: it feels more cerebral, fantastical, and heightened.


Despite my position, I do acknowledge that dubbing has its purpose and a few arguments that deserve to be shared.  Everything I said in the previous paragraph may hold true for film enthusiasts, but the vast majority of audiences aren’t going to the movies to appreciate works of art; they just want to be entertained and not have to “read the whole movie.”  Film should be a visual experience, and if you’re telling a story that relies so heavily on dialogue that this is an issue, then it was a bad film in the first place.  The more visual the film is, the more annoying it can be to have to look at subtitles.  Having made two films myself that have subtitled scenes, I’ve seen for myself how it causes audiences to look at the bottom of the screen and miss other things going on.  Furthermore, what about people with bad eyesight?  My father is someone who has struggled with poor vision for many years, and thus cannot always see subtitles.  Dubbing allows him to still enjoy foreign films, and since he can’t see the mouth movements very well, the dialogue being out-of-sync is a non-issue for him.


So why is dubbing more popular in other countries?  Much of Europe relies on dubbing, with Germany having one of the largest dub studios in the world.  And Italy has a long history of post-dubbing even their own films.  Most of Fellini‘s films were shot without audio, and of course there’s the long tradition of spaghetti westerns.  I had never really thought of this until a friend of mine pointed something out to me that I’d never thought of: some languages just dub better than others.  Spanish and Italian have a quality that just syncs more naturally.  Watch this clip and see for yourself:

Something about the English language just plain doesn’t dub well and has a jarring, distancing effect.  And I’m not talking about the mouth-movements being in-sync; even in a great-quality dub, the result can be awkward.  To quote Mr. Plinkett, you may not think you notice there’s something wrong, but your brain does.  If you want to see dubbing at its worst, check out this clip:

After hearing about this, I started researching the practices of other countries and found that it varies.  Some have a tradition of dubs while others use subs.  But I was not surprised to discover that every single English-speaking country prefers subs.

Here is a clip from the Mexican film SANTA CLAUS (1959).  This is often considered one of the weirdest films ever made, but the fact it’s been dubbed in English adds to the effect:

And so, that’s the debate in a nutshell as far as live-action films go, and up until the mid-1990’s, this was pretty much a moot issue.  If you were an English-speaking filmgoer who wanted to watch a foreign film, you watched it with subs.  If you didn’t like subs, you could try out the dub, but it would usually be a campy experience enjoyable more for mockery.  Otherwise, you simply didn’t watch foreign films at all, and to this day, most American audiences don’t.  But then something happened.


Of course there have always been animation-enthusiasts, as well as animators themselves, who made a hobby of viewing foreign animated films, but the ’90’s marked an explosion.  The medium of anime broke into the American mainstream.  Suddenly foreign films were being viewed on a grand scale, and the audience was not your elite film snob but young people and fanboys.  As AKIRA, GHOST IN THE SHELL, and COWBOY BEBOP became popular, suddenly dubbing didn’t seem so evil.

Animation is a whole different ballgame than live action; it takes naturally to dubbing like a fish to water.  That stilted, distancing effect is completely gone.  Mouth movements are much less precise, and when we are hearing voices while seeing illustrated characters, our brain naturally connects them rather than picks up on discrepancies.  The performances delivered by the voiceover actors do not feel like something at odds with the on-screen performance, but rather enhance it.

How effective is dubbing in animation?  I later discovered a lot of cartoons I grew up with had been foreign.  I had never realized that KATY CATERPILLAR, which I had watched in English, had originally been a Mexican cartoon in Spanish:

In my article on the NARNIA films, I mentioned having grown up with the American dub of the 1979 cartoon, unaware that it had originally had British voices.  I always cite PRINCESS MONONOKE as the film that convinced me of the power of dubbing in foreign animation.  The story, which is very dense, came much more alive when I experienced it in my native language, and proved more accessible.  For example, in Japanese folklore, dogs always have male voices while cats always have female voices.  Because of this, the character of Moro, the wolf who is San’s “mother,” has a man’s voice in the original Japanese version of the film.  If you watch the film without any foreknowledge of this custom, as I initially did, you will be beyond confused.  The English dub gives this character a female voice (courtesy of Gillian Anderson) and not only did this clarify the narrative a bit, it also made the character come alive a lot more.

So in end, which is better?

Anime fans love to get into hardcore debates over this, but, well, I like both equally.  Or to put it another way, I like having the choice available to me, and feel everyone should be entitled to both choices.  While I acknowledge that the sub-version is the “real” version and probably the one most fitting to the director’s vision, I think a great-quality dub can make that film more accessible to a wider audience, and if they love the work and become fans, then they have the option of watching both versions.  I recently went through all the Miyazaki films, and I found the English dubs to be just as great as the subs.

Let’s not forget that the purpose of storytelling is to communicate a message to an audience.  The audience may like that message or not like that message, but what’s important is that they’re able to say “I hear your message.”  As storytellers, we should make use of every tool we can to communicate globally.


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