The Great Subs vs. Dubs Debate

Chihiro faces the hotelIn the Great Audio Dubs Versus Subtitles Debate — whether a foreign movie or show is best watched with English-speaking actors reading translated lines over the original audio or with the English text written on the bottom of the screen — I’m firmly in the subtitle camp.  Maybe it’s because I’ve seen some terrible dubs in my day, but it just feels more authentic to watch something in its own language.  It’s much harder to feel the titular emotion in Spirited Away, for example, in Miyazaki’s fantasy-but-still-very-Japanese world, if everyone’s speaking in obvious American accents.

Studio Ghibli is the perfect example of my devotion to subtitles.  The last few Ghibli films have actually been released in American theaters, but despite the fact that I’m counting down days to a Ghibli movie’s American release, I don’t go to see them there.  That would mean I’d have to watch the movie with dubs and I’d rather wait for it to come out on DVD than do that.  I know I’ll have to get over my subtitle preferences at least a little bit if I ever want to have kids and show them Ponyo, but when choosing for myself I’ll always pick subtitles.

I’ve heard some arguments for dubs, though, and of those this is the best: sometimes you just want to unwind or to watch something while multitasking.  Subs require additional concentration from an already tired brain or are hard to follow if you want to keep half of your attention on something else.

Fight in the bambooMany people I know who have made these valid points often do so when explaining why they’d rather not watch something that’s in a different language.  I’d rather someone experience media from around the world, and do so with dubs, than to allow any potential snobbery I might have about subtitles discourage them from seeing Spirited Away or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Arguing only for subtitles, saying that they’re the only way to watch a foreign film and that dubs are just unacceptable, is also somewhat ethnocentric.  I tutor for the local literacy council so I encounter a lot of people learning English as a second language.  If they want to check out a movie from the library their only options are usually to watch it in English, which can be difficult for them to follow, or with dubs in their language.  Subtitles in other languages just aren’t common on American DVD’s.

It’s easy for us to argue only for subtitles, that we should only watch a movie in its original language, when we can so readily find English subs.  That’s not always the case for others, and we should remember not to get too virulent in our dissing of subs because sometimes dubs are the only option.  While I’ll choose subtitles if I can, I’ve never let dubs stop me from watching a movie.  I’ve seen anti-dub rants on the Internet so strong that you’d think the authors would rather pass up watching something entirely than have to see it with dubs.  If your interest in the film is casual that’s fine, but remember that others don’t always have that option.

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