This is something I’ve been meaning to get to for a while but with Funimation’s recent broadcast dub initiative rolling out in full force, this seems as good a time as any to address this. It’s time to talk about what elements make a dub work and where English dubbing is in general right now. Without any further ado let’s jump right in
Dubs v.s. Subs
Okay I’m pretty sure everyone can agree this is a really tired and worn out argument so I’m not going to go too much in detail on this one but it needs to be addressed right off the bat. While preference does play a large factor in which kind of audio you’re likely to listen to on a regular basis, from a technical standpoint, “subs” or the Japanese side of the voice acting industry is generally superior. Even speaking as a hardcore dub fan there are only really about 6 or 7 dubs I’ve seen that I would really proclaim as the definitive version of a series and the absolute best way to watch it.
There are a few factors as to why but it mostly comes down to the fact that the Japanese voice acting industry is a much more well oiled machine and said industry is much larger and a lot more rigid when it comes to expectations. Plus it doesn’t have quite as many issues to deal with on a regular basis as the English side does when it comes to what can affect the production in that department. Of course this isn’t to say that seiyuu (Japanese voice actors) are nigh perfect and deliver flawless performances every time because they’re certainly capable of mediocrity (for instance Shunsuke Kazama’s performance as Yugi in Yu-Gi-Oh’s earlier episodes is so monotone that Dan Green’s performance is genuinely better acted in spite of how clearly cheesy it is) but it’s less frequent.
Now does this mean there’s no merit to dubbing? Not in the slightest. Dubs have always been one of the most reliable methods of getting newcomers into anime and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Plus if like me (and most of the English speaking fandom) you don’t fluently speak Japanese, you’re always going to be at the mercy of someone else’s translation anyway. Dubs are also a pretty good tool for rewatching shows since you can sometimes notice things about a show you may not have paid much attention to while watching it in Japanese and you can watch them while doing other stuff since the screen doesn’t require as much of your attention. All those technical reasons aside, even though the Japanese side of the industry is more reliable in terms of consistency, there’s plenty of exceptional talent on the U.S. side of things who’s worth paying attention to, and when a production really comes together it can stand on par with (and in extremely rare instances surpass) the original performances.
With that bit settled it’s now time to see exactly where the level of dubbing is in terms of actual quality these days.
The Four Stages of Dubbing
Now this is just my own personal way of ranking things and I wouldn’t really hold it as any kind of universal standard but there a few levels at which I normally rate dubs
Bad– Really horrible voice direction and cringeworthy performances or scripting. Perhaps a couple of decent performances in the mix but overall a bad product to the point where even if you aren’t particularly concerned about acting it’s immediately apparent how awkward it is (ex. Revolutionary Girl Utena, Penguindrum, 4KIds One Piece, Guin Saga)
Serviceable– A dub with a mix of performances ranging from good to mediocre. The good mostly outweighs the bad and the scripting and voice direction are workable. Not particularly great by any means but okay sounding enough that if you aren’t too concerned with the Japanese version and just want to listen to the show in English, it’ll do the job though it may not have much in the way of rewatchability (ex. Majestic Prince, Prince of Tennis, Gatchaman Crowds)
Good– A solid and competently put together dub. The majority of the performances work with only at best a couple of dull sounding ones and a possibly a few that are outstanding. Scripting and voice direction hit the right marks and even if the Japanese version is technically competent in more areas it’s a good enough production that you can stick with it and not miss out on much. Worth revisiting every now and then (ex. Gargantia on the Verderous Planet, Psycho-Pass, From the New World)
Exceptional– An extremely well made dub. A lot of really outstanding performances, great voice direction and a well crafted script. Can be perfectly comparable to the Japanese version in terms of technical competence and in some rare instances can stand out as the superior product. Definitely worth revisiting and recommending to others (ex. Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist, Death Note)
So that’s more or less the general range. Now for as how it pertains to modern day dubs, I’d honestly say that extremely bad ones are generally non-existent now. There’s been some horrible stuff over the years, but for the most part even certain studios that have been notorious for putting out mediocre work such as Seraphim Digital (Sentai Filmworks) or Blue Water have worked things out to the point where they can at least put out a fairly listenable product.
Most these days generally fall into the serviceable and good range with Sentai/Seraphim stuff mostly leaning towards the serviceable end, Funimation stuff on the good end and California stuff all over the place between serviceable and exceptional work. Though speaking frankly, out of the 30+ dubs or so that are put out on average every year, only about 3-5 of them ever really fall into the exceptional category on average for me, but things are at least at the point where horrifically bad stuff is even more of an exception.
The Three Core Elements
So now that we’ve looked at what the general range is for dub quality nowadays it’s time to look at what elements affect them most. There are a few factors involved but it mainly comes down to these three things:
Casting a pretty obvious thing so there’s no real need to go into why that’s important but there are aspects to it worth addressing. Specifically the idea of what counts as “miscasting” since more often than not, people (myself included sometimes) usually default to the idea that English VA’s not imitating a seiyuu’s performance = bad. At the end of the day seiyuus are also lending their voice to a characters that have already largely been written for them the same way dub actors are, and while they should be used as a general baseline to determine what a character should sound like in English, they don’t always have to be the absolute standard.
For instance in Sentai’s recent dub of Log Horizon, there’s a pretty distinct difference in tone between how the character Nyanta sounds versus how he sounds in the original version. His character is that of a smooth, polite sounding older man, and Joji Nakata portrays in the Japanese version as sounding like a middle aged butler while in the dub Jovan Johnson’s portrayal is that of a suave, jazzy sounding gentleman. The difference is pretty clear and definitely one that can take you for a loop but both are valid interpretations as they get what makes that character work and personally after hearing it, it’s hard to imagine him sounding any other way in English.
Now mind you this logic doesn’t always work as genuine miscasting happens more often than it should and even instances where it does won’t always equate to two equal interpretations of a character (I find Brina Palencia’s Yuno in Future Diary to be a mostly valid interpretation of that character, but Tomoe Murasa’s works better by far) but it is something that needs to be taken into account a bit more.
Bad performances are a pretty clear issue when it comes to voice acting, and the direction actors receive is often the culprit. Even with the industry here not being as large as it is in Japan, most of the talent pool at least has some degree of talent, so the difference between a good performance and a bad one can often come down to how an actor is told to portray their role (or isn’t in many instances) by whoever is handling the ADR (dub syncing and direction).
Funimation and Sentai’s talent pools often intertwine for example but there’s a clear dissonance between how some of them perform in Funimation dubs v.s. how they sound in Sentai ones as poor voice direction has long been an issue for the latter. Even California dubs which pretty much use the same talent pool across the board (well with the exception of union stuff but that’s a whole other thing) can sound distinctly different depending on who’s handling things behind the mic. Thankfully as dub work increases, new ADR directors pop up and old ones improve, but as a whole there’s still enough inconsistency in this area that there’s a lot of room for improvement.
This is an aspect of dubs that often gets overlooked in favor of voice direction, but it’s also a really crucial factor. Scripting can make or break a dub production and it’s significance is often understated. Part of translating a show into English means the script too, and given that most of the time whatever the Japanese version of the script was is something that wasn’t quite intended to work in English, it often requires a few minor alterations to make the adaption work.
Given that, it’s important to note that sometimes dubs can go too far in adaptation, and even a few changes in dialogue can completely change the effects of certain scenes (for better or worse) and the quality of the dub itself, Funimation’s recent dub of Attack on Titan for instance is extremely well acted and casted, but there are more than a few questionable script choices (courtesy of J. Micheal Tatum who’s now become infamous for that sort of thing) that drag the whole production down a bit and keep it from being a masterpiece. Most cases aren’t quite as extreme but there are definite boundaries that have to be considered when making an English script.
That said, much like with casting, complete and absolute faithfulness isn’t exactly a requirement for an English script to work (in some instances it can just lead to some really awkward sounding dialogue). YuYu Hakusho’s dub has stood the test of time pretty well but it’s script is actually pretty liberal in more than a few instances and the dialogue is generally snarkier than it’s original Japanese counterpart. However the dub works well because it stays true to the core of what makes the series work and knows when to play things straight. Ultimately it comes down to a case by case basis as some shows work better with a more liberal touch while others can crumble with even the slightest alteration. As with voice direction it’s an area of dubbing that’s led to plenty of mixed results and is one that can stand for more improvement in order to find the best balance for each show.
There’s a lot to the world of dubbing and it’s something that’s continued to evolve over the years. With the advent of broadcast dubs, it’s about to undergo another one and I’m curious to see how it effects the quality going forward. Dubs have their flaws (some more than others) but they still play a significant role on this side of the anime industry, and as they take the next step, I’m hoping that we’ll still be seeing things improve rather than the opposite.