Watching Anime: The Sub-Dub debate

The anime for this week – AKIRA – would certainly spark multiple conversations in different topics but one issue that is personal and intriguing for me is the preference between subtitles and the English dub.

Apart from learning about the Asian culture, I also have a chance to understand and practice Autoethnography, an approach that analyses personal experiences in order to make sense of the cultural phenomenon (Ellis et al. 2011). If an ethnographer were to ‘connect the personal life of the observed with their social context and their culture without ever becoming an insider herself’ (Alsop, 2002), then Ellis et al. suggest that documenting and analyzing your own, personal experience would require the acknowledgment of your own bias, emotion (2011). So this would be what I attempt to do in this particular subject.

In order to do an autoethnography, where culturally related practices such as common values, beliefs, shared experience are analyzed (Ellis et al. 2011), it is important to understand the background knowledge of the observer (me, myself and I), and why watching an English dubbed anime is an “intense situation” to be negotiated.

I was born and raised in Vietnam and ever since I could read Vietnamese fluently and know about the existence of foreign channels, almost all the shows, movies that I have watched were subtitled. The accessibility of dubbed programs wasn’t at all common apart from classic, extremely long, Asian dramas that aired on the national TV channels. My experience with online platforms was also similar, the most up-to-date films or series would be available with subtitles only.

Before I could make sense of my own preference, I found dubbed programs extremely odd and awkward as if the characters have lost parts of their identities and become more… Vietnamese. Consequently, I consciously choose subtitled programs and rarely do I compromise with the dubbed versions. Watching Akira in dub for this week wasn’t an exception, the characters’ personalities and a part of their identities are compromised, and I would watch the film again, with subtitles.

However, instead of remaining biased,  I attempted to understand the reasons behind the preference for English dubbed anime and to compare with ones of my own. And I have found one thing that is fundamentally important when ‘debating’ about these two preferences:

In the making of the voiceover, not only do scriptwriters have to know the language but they also have a clear understanding of the cultural origin. However, it’s not their purpose to strictly maintain that origin, but rather to find common ground, and to adapt that culture into the one that would better appeal towards English-audience. Sometimes, the Japanese creators demand such compromisations, in order to ‘expand the show’s marketability‘ – Debs, 2019 (2)

Some of my classmates found the English dubbed version didn’t ‘scream’ Japanese or the characters appeared ‘less Japanese’ which I could not agree more. Watching anime with subtitles, or any filmographic productions that are not Vietnamese for me is a way to informally learn a language, and how the characters use the language to express themselves. Subtitles, then, act as supportive means in this learning process, the moments of realization like: ‘Ohhhhh so that’s how they say ‘stupid’, Bakayaro’ excites me incredibly. With this unspoken purpose of mine when approaching foreign films, I can only be content with the subtitled versions.

It’s rather incorrect to say sub is better than dub or vice versa because they serve different purposes. While subtitles provide translation, giving the audience a chance to learn about culture via the language and the lingual expressions made by characters, dub can help the audience forget about having to catch up with the language difference and entirely focus on the story. On the other hand, watching with subtitles also demand the audience to put more effort into catching up with the story whereas the process of making the voice over, from the beginning. is deemed to alter the cultural context, so with each preference comes with implications.

I’m always here for a constructive discussion about everything, after all, we’re here to share our thoughts and what we’ve learned (or just to get credit points maybe???).

so follow through my social media or comment down below for a chat :).


One comment

  1. Your autoethnographic account was extremely enlightening. Culturally, we clearly have massive differences, however, the reflexive nature of your post really made me think about the way primarily ‘Western’ audiences prefer dubbed films over their subtitled counterparts. Personally, I find it far more engaging and easier to follow when it is in English, however, your personal cultural reflection and preference for subtitles is really interesting. Our cultural backgrounds have significantly impacted our screening preference; thus, our interpretation of the film will somewhat differ, yet this difference is what makes autoethnographical research so unique and entertaining. The adaptation of culturally driven Asian films to suit a ‘Western’ English speaking audience is common, however, I had never really delved into what this meant for the originality of the film. In respect to the topic of globalisation, it is clear that the global flow of culture and media is lucrative if one is willing to adapt language and therefore exert influence on a global scale.

    Liked by 1 person

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