One of my all-time favourite movies is without a doubt the Studio Ghibli anime Spirited Away. With unforgettable characters, a vibrant story and some of the greatest animated visuals ever, it’s easily top five material. But whenever I try to introduce the film to somebody they always seem stubbornly passionate on whether they want subtitles or the English dubbed version, a debate many of us will have had at one point or another.
The argument often occurs in the anime sphere but mainstream cinema hasn’t been excused from the debate either. Whether annoyed that they have to read during a visual medium or upset because the English voice actor sounds nothing like the original, people apparently have to take one over the other according to the usual angsty internet comments. As such the dub vs sub debate is one that continues to plague us all.
Let’s analyse these mediums, starting with dubbing. This is when a film or show has its audio replaced with new dialogue, spoken in the language native to where the film is playing rather than the language it was made in. Typically non-English films (notably Japanese anime) have their audio replaced with known English voice actors. This is something that many of us have actually been more exposed to than we realise. Some of our childhood TV shows like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! were dubbed over and many of us will have watched at least a few of Disney’s dubbings on Studio Ghibli films. There are benefits to this: sometimes when a film becomes too reliant on subtitles the words used for translation can block over smaller details within the film and those who don’t have a firm grasp on languages other than their first one might find a dubbed version easier to get engaged with. Disney’s dubbings of Studio Ghibli films vary in quality but some of the dubbing work is really good, with the English version of Kiki’s Delivery Service a particular highlight.
That being said there’s an unfortunate abundance of issues surrounding voice dubbing. While animations can get away with dubbing, live-action absolutely cannot. An Argentinean soap opera, Violetta, played on the Disney channel for a short while with its native Spanish dubbed over. On top of having a mountain of infuriating romance clichés in it (don’t ask how I came across it) the dubbing is pretty horrendous. Because the actors’ mouths aren’t matching with what the English voice actors are saying it creates an uncanny effect on screen that shatters the illusion of audience disbelief. Plus it means we may not be able to appreciate cultural aspects or in-jokes within as changes in dialogue between the original and dubbings are commonplace. Some have said that other European dubbings of Harry Potter are tough on the character of Snape since the actors voicing over him don’t have the same gravitas that Alan Rickman did. Even with Studio Ghibli the English version of Ponyo isn’t that good. These examples show that dubbing can be as big a hindrance as it is a benefit.
Which brings us to the other side of the debate – subtitles. A problem subtitles face is that they can be distracting as the viewer may spend their attention reading them rather than getting absorbed by the film. However, the best kind of subtitles are the ones that can seamlessly merge with the film. A good example is, coincidentally, another one of my all-time favourite films – Pan’s Labyrinth. Despite being in Spanish, the English subtitles are so well rendered that you feel as though you can understand what the characters are saying without them. You feel like the translated words are actually being spoken. Also, since there’s no voiceovers we can appreciate the performances of those on screen more, such as Sergi Lopez’s terrifying portrayal of Captain Vidal. There’s just something about watching a film as it was originally intended that feels so much purer.
It’s easy to tell where I personally stand in this argument. I like both the English and Japanese versions of Spirited Away but I prefer the original Japanese, and in most cases I prefer subtitles as it allows me to appreciate the film in its unsullied state. However while live-action shouldn’t go anywhere near dubbing there are some animations, mainly anime, with good English versions including Full Metal Alchemist, Hellsing Ultimate, Code Geass and many of Disney’s dubbings on Studio Ghibli. It honestly comes down to preference more than anything else here and while I think subtitles make for a more immersive experience there’s definitely a crowd out there for dubbing. Perhaps the English version of Your Name will alter my personal stance, but on the whole when making your own choice on the matter it’s better just to go with your gut.