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“Do You Want That Subbed or Dubbed?”

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"Letters from the New York Otaku"

By David Cabrera


#48 - “Do You Want That Subbed or Dubbed?”

“Subtitled or dubbed?” used to be an anime fan status-making question. If you said one or the other, other American otaku might just look at you differently. It's a bit of an old story, but the effects are still felt today.

Here's the root of the conflict: to get anime to the masses, especially on television, an English dub is expected. Programs in foreign languages with subtitles don't get on TV here. Foreign films are treated differently, but the established wisdom with TV is that the average American isn't used to it and they don't like it.

Meanwhile, anime fans are not the average American. We are, after all, a small group of fanatics, and many of us want our anime as close as possible to when it was first brought into the world. We want the original Japanese-language series with English subtitles. If it's not made available-- as with TV broadcasts and some early anime video releases-- we are upset.

Obviously, there is a conflict. This was still the VHS era-- laserdisc existed, but it never got big, and the selection of anime wasn't wide-- so most anime companies actually released two versions of every tape. One was dubbed into English, and the other was in Japanese with subtitles. Typically a dubbed tape was $20 and a subtitled tape was $30. After all, if the fan was so dedicated to getting the show in its original language, certainly they were willing to pay a little bit extra.

Thankfully, this weird situation was eventually ended with DVDs and their multiple audio tracks... but the question remains. Dubbed or subtitled?

People get really passionate about this, in either direction. People who like subtitled anime look down on people who like dubbed anime as illiterate, and for not watching the “real show”. People who like dubbed anime look down on people who like subbed anime as snobs. Anime dub voice actors have big fan followings, particularly the English-language stars of major shows.

If you run a showing at an anime convention, be absolutely sure you let your attendees know whether the show will be subtitled or dubbed: otherwise you'll have people yelling at you to change the audio to one or the other track when the characters start talking. Sometimes even if you say the showing is dubbed, someone will still yell, “Turn this dub crap off!”

These days the US anime industry has fallen on hard times, and due to the costs of dubbing and slim sales margins of DVDs, it's not guaranteed that a title that gets dubbed will even make enough money to cover the cost of having dubbed it! As such, there's been a move in the business to release less popular series in subtitled versions only.

The distributor Nozomi, for example, sells subtitled-only box sets of series with small but proven cult fan bases in the States. Some of their releases include Maria Watches Over Us (Maria-sama ga Miteru), the anime version of Kaoru Mori's Emma, and the Dirty Pair series.

Personally, I don't watch an English dub unless I hear it's exceptional, and even then rarely. I'm much more likely to watch a show as it airs, after all, and dubs aren't done for quite some time after a show finishes in Japan.

That, and there's no replacing Norio Wakamoto.
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