One of the oldest debates for fans of imported foreign films and TV shows — in America, especially anime fans — is the argument over subbing, the act of displaying the translated dialogue on the bottom of the screen, or dubbing, the act of replacing the original actors' voices with new ones speaking the viewer's language.
Subtitling has many advantages: It allows for an extremely accurate translation, including quirks of the original language that play a role in the plot, while allowing you to hear the original actors' performances. It renders the show accessible to the deaf or hard of hearing and people with learning disabilities. People bilingual in or learning the original language will be able to benefit as well, since they can enjoy at least parts of the film/TV show in the original while their friends can still know what's going on.note Some fansubbers even include notes in the subtitles that help explain certain cultural references or jokes that might not otherwise be properly understood by a non-native audience.
For live-action, dialogue also sounds a lot cleaner in the original language, since most of it is recorded live on-set by the actors, so it moves around the viewer's sound system in relation to the actors. Unless the sound mixing team behind the dub gets creative with filters such as reverb effects, this results in the dubbed dialogue sounding a lot more in the foreground compared to the original.
In addition, it's much less expensive than creating a new Automated Dialogue Recording and dodging Lip Lock. Fans have been capable of producing serviceable Fansubs using home computers since the late '80s, and it's possible to subtitle a program with literally nothing more than a time-coded script. Hence, subtitled anime has a much wider potential reach simply because it is easier to produce and the licensor can turn a much larger profit on the smaller cost. Furthermore, in the early 21st century's severely-damaged anime market, more and more titles only come out subtitled because it's flat-out the only way to release them to a profit in the first place.
On the other hand, dubbing a program means that the audience doesn't have to read the dialogue while watching the show. While this is frequently used as an insult to the intelligence of dub watchers, subtitlers will often trim dialogue due to subtitle line-length restrictions. Additionally, bored fansubbers will occasionally decide to alter the script to make it more "adult", resulting in the common phenomenon of a series that is ridiculously, blatantly kodomomuke (i.e., "for kids") containing jarringly out-of-place sex jokes and profanity in its fansubs. This becomes a problem when there are people who genuinely believe that this is the way the series is "supposed" to be, and go berserk when said series receives a more faithful official translation that doesn't have all the profanity.
A common argument viewers of subs espouse is the justification that familiarity with the original spoken language helps non-native readers comprehend specific vocabulary and quirks. While there is something to be said for this method as at least popular informal-spoken media can give a basic primer in what the language sounds like, as this article points out, the differences can be quite large between say, formal and informal Japanese in anime. Being staged and pre-recorded, the dialogue is artificially more deliberate and sharp than what you'll hear on the street, comparing the difference between a professional work environment and a group of teenagers speaking in fast slang in school.
Viewers whose thought processes are more speech-oriented than word-oriented also may simply find dubs easier to comprehend and process, especially in works that are heavy on meaningful dialogue or exposition. This is, naturally, also very applicable to those with visual impairment, or other disabilities such as dyslexia. The opposite, of course, can be true for viewers who process information more easily through the written word than through speech, and particularly for those with hearing impairment. For many viewers, hearing the dialogue in their native language makes it easier to immerse themselves in the media and feel a sense of familiarity with the story and characters that is much harder to obtain while trying to hear dialogue in a foreign language and simultaneously read subtitles. Hayao Miyazaki has said several times that he always intended his films to be watched, not read, which is why he supports them being dubbed into other languages.
Hearing actors speaking one's native language also allows the audience to catch subtle non-verbal parts of a performance, such as which parts of a sentence the speaker stresses, which many times is part of the "authentic" viewing experience the original was shooting for. Subtitles can cover up important parts of the image or switch too quickly to be read by everyone, especially for languages where short sentences have much longer English translations and also if the series is extremely fast-paced, dialogue and/or text-heavy, or aimed at younger audiences. For example, go look up the subtitled Tatami Galaxy; many YouTube comments have complained that the subs are simply too fast to read for the entire series. In addition, subtitles, particularly for unofficial fansubs, are sometimes criticized for being too literal, resulting in sentences that, while accurate to the original, would not really be said by a native speaker of the sub language; a well-made dub can preserve the spirit of a joke or reference, even while replacing the actual line. Not to mention all the cultural references that are not understood outside the native country may wind up Lost in Translation if there's no explanation. This is much much easier to work around in a print work, because one can read at their own pace.
Occasionally, a dub may even have better actors, performances, and/or writing than the original, though of course this is highly subjective. Commercially, dubs also have a much wider actual reach despite being more expensive to produce simply because dubs have far more venues open to them. A dub can often make or break a series' success.note
Although the debate is very heated for fans of foreign independent/art films, it's the American anime fan community that's made this debate infamous. This is because in the days before LaserDisc, which often used the analog tracks for Japanese and digital PCM tracks for English, and DVD made multiple audio streams standard, companies releasing translated anime could only release either a subtitled or a dubbed version of a program on a single VHS tape. Because the market for dubbed anime was considerably larger than that for subtitled releases,note sub tapes often cost much more than an equivalent dub tape if the company ever released a subtitled version to begin with.
Furthermore, access to subtitled tapes was significantly limited outside large cities, and many anime fans in an era before e-commerce struggled to find retailers that carried any anime in the first place. And since this was also the era when Carl Macek made himself synonymous with rewritten dubs, the sub versus dub war often took on the appearance of a holy war in the eyes of more serious fans. DVDs allowed companies to include multiple language and subtitle tracks on a single disc, and singlehandedly took much of the fire out of the debate.
Nevertheless, pure aesthetic concerns, along with backlash against the airing of dubbed series on analog cable TV, have kept the debate simmering in the background of anime fandom. Its most prevalent present-day descendant replaces "subbing" with fansubs and "dubbing" with officially-translated subtitles. Under the frame of the new debate, fansubs take the role of the culturally-pure/faithful version, with official subs being the culturally translated version watered-down for mass audiences.
One argument frequently made in favor of subs is from an artistic standpoint: since the director chose and directed the actors in the original work, those actors' performances are a vital part of it and to watch it without them is to watch it through means other than what the artist intended. The rebuttal for this argument would be that the director also intended for the dialogue to be experienced in the viewer's native language, and for them to be able to focus their attention on the work's visuals rather than having to divide it between the onscreen imagery and the subtitles. Also worth noting is that, for English dubs of anime and video games in particular, the original creator(s) often provide some input to the dubbing studio, ranging from a general seal of approval to exhaustively editing the dub script to actually being physically present in the studio. Directors who have taken on this kind of involvement in dubs of their work include Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii, Hideaki Anno, Shinichi Watanabe, Shinichiro Watanabe, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Michael Arias, and Naoko Takeuchi.
On a purely simplistic level, sometimes it just comes down to quality of casting. For example, Bandai's dub of Cowboy Bebop is frequently heralded as Superlative Dubbing, and the Japanese producers of El-Hazard: The Magnificent World have stated they prefer the English voices for the characters. On the other hand, the English dub of Love Hina, particularly the performances of Suu, Mitsune, and Motoko, is commonly derided as one of the worst non-Macekres in existence.note
Of course, the fact that the vast majority of video games still choose to be dub only keeps this debate burning brightly now that so many games are fully voiced. When you have the critically acclaimed dubs of the Metal Gear series and Final Fantasy XII on one side and the abysmally poor dubs of Chaos Wars and Baten Kaitos on the other, it's no wonder that this rages on. Furthermore, much as with anime dubs, some video game dubs get a following that perceives them as being superior to the Japanese version. However, even if a bilingual track is provided, flame wars will still erupt because the mere existence of a choice means that you can still choose wrong.
This also happens with language tracks in other games. Some of them have been subject to either some pretty lazy dubs to save money or, even lazier still, not even dubbing it at all and only translating the in-game text. This can't be any different than subbing, but sometimes, the subtitles aren't proofread before release. This is especially true in Europe, where there are far more widely-spoken languages than in North America and Japan, so someone who speaks Greek or Polish may be lucky to see a game where they actually bothered to dub it so the subtitles match up to the in-game text.
The dire straits of the anime industry in North America have forced most licensors to no longer produce dub tracks for titles that are perceived to sell to a niche audience due to several companies taking heavy losses on titles like this after finding that the existence of a dub track is not enough of a sales boost to cover the cost of commissioning one. The textbook examples are Geneon and ADV; Geneon shut down completely, while ADV had to reorganize itself into smaller companies. This has managed to light the fire in the sub vs. dub wars all over again, though nowadays it is dub fans that are seeing a lack of content. This has led to a strange reversal in the old debate. Hardcore dub fans insist that all series should have a dub or they will not support them, while sub fans will tell them to either accept that series with less appeal will get sub-only releases or they aren't going to be licensed at all.
Another interesting thing to note is that because a lot of fans from English and occasionally Spanish-speaking countries engage in the wars, if one were to look at other dubs that were produced, English and Latin Spanish speakers are actually better off than most of the world. Heck, even English speakers have it better than some of the dubs that air on Latin American TV, even though plenty of those New-World Spanish dubs are very well done. The awful Swedish dub of Cyborg 009 is often used to illustrate this point, as the entire cast was played by one man, half the characters sound exactly the same, and the translation sounds like it was done by someone who had a very elementary-level understanding of the Swedish language. And this isn't just limited to anime; there exist extremely low-budget Spanish dubs of old shows produced in the USA or Canada where the characters compensate for the movement tailored to English by speaking extremely quickly or pausing mid-sentence. Of course, that doesn't also mean it can't work the other way. Walt Disney himself is said to have liked the 1959 Mexican Spanish dub of Sleeping Beauty better than the original English version.
While this article was written with a Western-centric point of view, do note that this debate can occur in Japan too – just ask Japanese Modern Warfare 2 players, or ask Japanese Beast Wars fans. To further confound the wars, some people who understand Japanese better point out that Japan has just as many "bad actors" as any other country does – it's something of a truism that the more you understand a language, the more you spot its mediocre or poor acting. Some Japanese viewers have contended that Johnny Yong Bosch's performance in Code Geass sounded more natural whereas Jun Fukuyama's sounded more acted. When something sounds completely unfamiliar and viewers don't understand it, they tend to ignore what native speakers consider an average performance and they don't entirely get what might be a "Blind Idiot" Translation. Japanese LaserDiscs of non-Japanese films were almost always subbed (this even extends to children's films like Mary Poppins), while the dubs were usually VHS-only.note
Funnily enough, this debate doesn't really arise in non-English speaking countries when it comes to English language films. Mostly because of the omnipresence of Hollywood, one can easily assume that at least half the movies someone from Germany, Russia, Spain, Italy, or Latin America will see in a year are English language movies. Thus, many countries have a well-entrenched, very active dubbing industry with recognizable voice actors. In most cases for dubs, one voice actor is paired with one physical actor for the duration of the latter's career, with a few similar-sounding voice actors being assigned as secondaries in case the main one is unavailable to dub. In these countries, due to enormous exposure to it, dubbing is seen much more positively than in the anime community. However, at least in Brazil, the debate can get heated, particularly regarding movies, as one generation grew up watching subbed theatrical releases and VHS tapes, the other dubbed television broadcasts - and distributors started catering more to the latter. France has a niche cinephile community that prefers subtitled films and anime, but dubs are more popular there.
The opposite can happen, too. In some countries (such as The Netherlands, the Nordics, former Yugoslavia, and Israel), dubbing is either done for works that are intended for children who are too young to read the subtitles fluently or animated works in general. Everything else is available with subtitles only. In these countries, people would get much more distracted by the dubbing because they are not used to it. This pattern is particularly common where a substantial chunk of the population in the country is fluent or at least proficient in English – which is incidentally true in the Netherlands as well as the Nordic countries and Israel.note A major problem are works that appeal to both the children and the parents, the parents would prefer to hear the original actors' performances, but can't get their hands on it because the only version in theaters is aimed at kids.note Sometimes they can get lucky and the original audio track is included in the DVD release once (if ever) it happens.
Interesting to note, though, is that French productions (such as Fort Boyard) still get a dub in The Netherlands.
Finally, it should be noted that for animation — including anime — the phrase "subbed vs. dubbed", or just "sub vs. dub", is a little misleading since it suggests that the original wasn't dubbed. Dubbing in a production context refers to any process of laying audio, particularly voices, over video. Vocaloids (possibly) excepted. This is quite obviously always the case for any sort of animation, regardless of what language the dubbing happens to be in, original included.Exception A more accurate term for the sort of dubbing that comes up in this debate, therefore, should be "re-dubbing". This is sometimes – and should more often be – brought up by dub (or rather, re-dub) fans as a counterpoint to sub fans' arguments that all dubs are inherently flawed.
Of course, some fans prefer to stay out of the sub vs. dub debate altogether by choosing to just watch the raw production – with the original language audio and without the subtitles. But since this requires complete fluency in the other language, it isn't an option for 99% of whatever fandom. Some of this group are on the extreme end of the "sub" side, insisting that you can only truly appreciate foreign language media by achieving said fluency in their original languages. Then again, some fans watch raw productions because they just don't care if they can or can't understand what's being said.
Due to the nature of this topic, please refrain from adding any examples here.