Audio: English - My Philosophy

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Audio: English
With the Audio:English series, PenguinTruth takes a critical look at the English
dubs which grace some of anime's most defining series in North America.

I've done a few of these articles on English dubs for anime, and I've discussed at great length specific anime dubs I've liked or disliked. However, I haven't really explained what it is I look for in an anime dub, what I think of English dubs for anime in general, or anything of that sort. Because of this, people may misunderstand some of my views on them. So I'd like to dedicate this particular entry to laying out what it is I expect from the anime dubs I listen to, when I listen to them.

First, my general philosophy on English dubs for Japanese animation. Japanese animation, "anime", is, of course, Japanese. The intended audience is generally Japanese and the intention is for the viewer to watch something in that language. I'm not fluent in Japanese, so I'm often at the mercy of the people who subtitle anime titles. My understanding of what is being said relies on translators. So there is some doubt in what's being translated. However, I believe in general, anime is supposed to be watched in Japanese.

English dubs are marketing tools. Quite useful ones, actually. My native language is English, and it's more convenient for me to watch something in English, so an English dub becomes a great convenience to me and the rest of the English-speaking community, especially to people like me who only speak English. I find that when the Japanese version of an anime and the English version of it are of equal quality, I tend to watch the English version out of convenience, so I understand that English dubs are quite convenient, and perhaps a necessity in the success of anime in North America and other English-speaking areas of the world. However, I do not see them as a necessity in the sense that anime is Japanese, and akin to foreign film, is more appropriately viewed in its original language with subtitles. Ideally, I wouldn't need subtitles because I would speak Japanese. However, it's not realistic for me to learn a foreign language to understand a piece of entertainment.

I quite enjoy several English dubs. I get the reputation for disliking English dubs as a rule. I do not. I do not necessarily see them as vital in the enjoyment of anime, or even the best way to enjoy most anime, but I do not reject them, and like many of them despite my general philosophy. For instance, in my first Audio: English article (9/03/08), I outlined my favorite English dubs for anime, and have since even added a couple of titles to that list.

The quality of most, if not all of those I consider my favorite English dubs are dependant on two key factors:

1) Scripts
2) Voice Performances

But what am I looking for in scripts and voice performances?

Script

For an English dub for an anime to be good, it has to have accurate scripts. I'm not looking for a 1:1 absolute mirror of the Japanese scripts, necessarily, but they have to get down all the important details, they have to capture the dialogue being said in the Japanese version in a way that captures the personalities of the characters as portrayed in those scripts. They cannot make up details that will derail the narrative or themes of the scenario at hand. I'm not looking for the script to be jazzed up with added jokes, inappropriate slang, or out-of-character dialogue. I understand dialogue has to fit mouth flaps to a certain extent, so often certain words have to be changed, but let them only be changed when truly necessary, not because the dub script writer gets a case of, "Let me be creative." The show has already been written, it does not require a lot of additional creative input by somebody unrelated to the original production. I'm not looking for the dub studio to transform the show into their version of the show. They didn't make the show, the Japanese studio that made the animation, recorded the voices, and the like did that. English dub studios are not involved with the creative process, and need to stop pretending they are.

If a licensor is going to license a show that they know will have to be changed dramatically, script-wise, in order to sell in America, then they have failed as a licensor. If they cannot sell the show as it is intended to be, then they should not license it, let alone dub it in a way that makes it a different program altogether. That is a slap to the face to the creative processes of the people who made the show. They may have the right to change it by paying for the license fee, but that doesn't give them the creative right. It's a moral issue, as far as I'm concerned. It shows disrespect to the original product to gut it and try to pass it off as a different show altogether, especially as one made by the licensor or dub studio (or both, if they're the same).

I allow for some latitude in these standards, however, as long as the scripts remain largely faithful to the original version. Some may say it's more important to stay loyal to "the spirit" rather than "the letter", but I have a hard time trusting dub studios to knowing what the spirit of a show is. The spirit to them is whatever will make them the most money. If they cannot make money off of the product as it is intended, they should not have taken on the project. Do it right or not at all.

Added dialogue, removed dialogue, completely rearranged dialogue, name changes, these are things I treat on a case-by-case basis. I generally frown on complete name changes.

Voice Performances

This category can be broken up into three parts: casting, directing, and acting. I've seen all kinds of combinations and permutations of good/bad casting, good/bad directing, and good/bad acting. All three of these things have to be accomplished at least a moderate quality to create good performances. If somebody is well-casted, as far as sounding appropriate for the character they play, but their actual acting doesn't sell the character to the audience, then it's pretty worthless. And of course, some of that is due to directoral decisions. I'm not going to just give partial credit to somebody who sounds good in a role if they can't deliver the goods. Though, I suppose ultimately that means they weren't so well-casted after all, now were they?

The Japanese track is important in establishing how the English one will sound. Absolutely. I don't buy into ignoring it and trying from scratch to just capture the personality of the characters and story on your own. That's a lot of bunk, because it ignores the intention of the original product. Now, I am not looking for an English cast that simply sounds like the Japanese cast. Anyone can put together a simplistic collection like that. Nor am I saying everyone should attempt to sound like their Japanese counterpart. However, it must, must be used as a guideline in the English casting and performances. The director and the voice actor both have to ask why the Japanese performer voices that character that way and what specific personality traits, if any, that performer is highlighting, and try their best to highlight those same aspects. If they can also sound like the Japanese peformer while doing that, and deliver very well, more power to them and the dub. But I am not necessarily seeking an English track that sounds identical to the Japanese one. It couldn't hurt, though, if it can be done well enough.

Also, I'd rather the studio avoid using unnecessary accents or stereotypical "character voices".

Of course, you cannot sell a performance alone on seeming like an appropriate voice for the character. If the performance itself is lacking, if it doesn't feel genuine, then it fails. A VA has to connect not just themself and their performance to the character, but that performance as the character to the viewer of the show. A proper emotional dimension has to be there. Emote appropropriately. If I don't feel like the performer is expressing the emotions of the character as if they were themselves the character, then the performance is a failure to me.

Again, specific performances can be dealt with case-by-case. For every rule there is an exception. Sometimes several.

Overall

I cannot stress enough that those two elements, scripts and voice performances, are equally important. You cannot have a good English dub that is well-written but poorly performed, nor can you have one that's got great performances but terrible scripts. You can have tolerable dubs that way, but not good ones. Good dubs have good scripts and good performances. And it can't be just a handful of good performances, it has to be the majority of the cast.

I also understand, and have to come to express this more clearly, that just because a performance is bad, does not necessarily make a voice actor or actress bad. Not everybody nails every role every time. I've at times blamed too harshly the actual performer without considering what they may have been told to do with their performance.

I'd like to also mention the practice of replacement music. This is a foul and outdated practice that I'm glad is mostly gone from anime's English dubs. On occasion, a song will be replaced where a licensor cannot get the rights to play it, and this is upsetting, especially if they do not admit this ahead of time. However, as long as the basic score of the show is the same as it was in Japanese, I hold little against the decision (anymore, anyway). Whether or not it's better to leave a song alone in Japanese in a dub or to do an English version is another aspect of judging the quality of an English dub, but it's one of those case-by-case situations, where sometimes an English version of a song works, and others not so much. My preference tends to be to leave all songs as they are.

I would like to wave aside the whole, "If it's based on a manga, they should try to capture what's in the manga, because that's the original" argument before I wrap this up. I'm afraid this doesn't hold any water, because the dub studio isn't doing a dub of the manga, they're doing a dub of the Japanese show or movie. It's not their place to reinterpret what's in the manga. It's their job to interpret the Japanese version of the show or movie.

English dubs for anime are something I can enjoy and I understand their existence. If you want, I can list several dubs I'm fond of. I just wanted to be clear on why I criticize, and by what standards I use in criticizing, English dubs. In large part, I'm looking for the English version of an anime to be an English version of the Japanese original.

- Penguin Truth
(2011)