Some time ago I posted a series of videos by The Cartoon Cypher on the subject of the dub versus the sub and I will be referring to them. I think my conclusion article was a bit rambly. It was about “hack dubs”, where Japanese shows were turned into a completely new, more American show. You know, like the original Voltron, Robotech, Battle Of The Planets, and stuff going back to Astro Boy. I don’t believe this is necessary today but at the time it was the best way to expose America and other Western countries to Japanese animation and we do that now with the Power Rangers franchise and super sentai. Nowadays we don’t need to do that because the anime style is accepted enough. There’s plenty of art and Western shows that take cues from anime if not copy the style outright.
I’m not going to post the video because the video itself isn’t directly tied to this commentary but it is the starting point so I’m about to link to it. In a recent commentary by dannphan (she spells it with a small d, so blame her–and it’s her screenname so I’m not going to tell her she’s wrong–I hated when that happened to me and “ShadowWing”) she discussed a Funimation VA defending dubs…or rather their more recent dubbing style which adds social commentary and political attacks not featured in the anime because Japan couldn’t care less about our stupidity. I’m not going to get into the current backstage drama at Funimation and with the fans because that isn’t what we do ’round these here parts. However, I did make a comment that ended up leading to a conversation with two other commenters.
Changing a line to reflect something that is only understood if you know Japanese culture is one thing. Changing it to make an attack on this or that person or group that the Japanese creators weren’t thinking about and probably couldn’t care less about is not doing that.
Most of the sub versus dub debate involves the artistic side, and I’m more interested in a good story than how artistic it is. However, some good points are made. The two people that responded came from some different angles and were not attacking my viewpoint. They were actually calmly disagreeing with me…which is unusual for the internet, or at least that’s how it appears. One of the conversations did spark what I thought was a good article idea when I was asked:
Make some examples: what are the things you would change and what the ones you wouldn’t.
My initial response that it varies from project to project, which I shall now expand upon in this article. See, good things CAN come from the YouTube comments. Occasionally.
Going back to dannphan’s video a moment let’s already toss out the one aspect we all agree shouldn’t be changed. Nobody really talks about GamerGate anymore. It was a question as to whether or not game critics were responsibly reviewing games based on their quality, or if it was based on other areas like making the publishers happy to get early access for clicks (basically the same stunt CNN did by ignoring Sadam Hussein’s more immoral activities so they could get more interviews with him and boost their ratings–when they admitted to that I lost any interest in watching them again), and the specific case of Zoe Quinn in which you’d feel sorry for the harassment she got if not for some of her more scummy tweets. However, that’s not relevant here because GamerGate is barely relevant anymore and yet as Cartoon Cypher noted taking shots at GamerGate or anti-SJWs etcetera was looked down upon by fans because they’re out of place in Japan but in some cases might have been said by the characters in a more Western setting. You have to judge each one individually, though we do know many of the writers and actors at Funimation swerve further left than a NASCAR race.
It’s also a question of whether some of the changed jokes are even funny. Again, in dannphan’s video she noted that season two of Hetalia, a series that gives the nations of the world human avatar to poke fun at international relations, changed almost everything and she found the new jokes unfunny compared to the original dialog. I haven’t watched the series in either language so I couldn’t tell you. I know some fans weren’t happy with all the added jokes in Digimon: Digital Monsters during the three Saban-translated series, and for some reason there were a lot of poop jokes. (Then again Agumon seemed to spend as much time on a toilet as I do and the show itself made their own poop jokes.) Compare that to the response to Ghost Stories, a dub that was practically done ad lib and is full of a lot of crass humor, especially when you remember these are elementary school kids making sex jokes that were not in the original language. The original show wasn’t a comedy. I’ve also complained about the comedic dubs Japan itself made to American Transformers shows from Beast Wars through Transformers Prime that weren’t nearly as bad from what I’ve heard. So I do hear and agree with these complaints (though Ghost Stories is indeed hilarious when it isn’t cringy…but like South Park it’s equal opportunity, just funnier in my opinion), which brings us back to the original question of when localization is important.
Depends on the story. Wanna read Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo”? You’re gonna learn some French stuff. Moby Dick is homework in large parts just because Melville likes talking about whaling. Don’t wanna learn? Well, I guess you could edit and publish an abridged version. But that’s not the work, it’s a trimmed version. Something was lost. Intentionally changing art in order to achieve mass appeal necessarily brings it down to the lowest common denominator. Not everyone gets every reference. That’s fine. You’re not required to, but if you want to get it, you have to learn about it.
This defense against localization isn’t completely wrong but I don’t think is really on point. Remember in my review of The Black Stallion’s Ghost I brought up how all the stuff on horse breeding lost me. (Someone did come along to clarify things after my review was done so I understand a bit more than I did.) The other poster also brought up a Blade Runner reference in an episode of Agents Of SHIELD. These however are references. Of course a story about whaling is going to discuss wailing. I admittedly haven’t read The Count Of Monte Cristo so I don’t know what French he means but I hope it isn’t a series of random French words tossed in like many Japanese dubs did. If we’re using French terms for things that’s a different thing.
Before we go further it should be said that any localization should be based on the target audience. For US kids, unless the show comes with explanation of Japanese cultural descriptions (Mega Man: Upon A Star being an extreme example as it was created to teach kids outside of Japan about Japan) some changes will have to be made. The writers need a space to somehow discuss, for example, the Cherry Blossom Festival, or what an oni is if that matters. Otherwise you’ll have to swap “oni” with “spirit” or “ghost” or something so that the audience has a frame of reference they can follow. Even shows designed for a mainstream adult audience who is watching the dub and wouldn’t get the pun in a joke that references an oni and the Japanese honorific for brother, oni-chan. For that matter, Japanese honorifics may go over a mainstream audience’s head. They still don’t always use sensei correctly and now we’re trying to figure out sempai thanks to meme culture insisting sempai notice them. Can this go to stupid levels? The image I opened with, where the rice balls of Pokémon was replaced with a sandwich or more famously called donuts (it’s a ball of rice…that’s not too hard for a seven year old to wrap their head around) is a good example. Though some of these changes were called for by the Saturday Morning “Standards and Practices” group because they had certain rules as to what was allowed on kids television and someone thought Vision Of Escaflone, a show about love and war where one of the villains is a bloodcrazy psychopath, would be perfect for a kids show dub.
The more you target a more seasoned anime fan, one who watches a lot of Japanese media and could get all the references in Excel Saga, the less localization you need. However, one thing that one of the other posters and I agreed on is that leaving the titles untranslated is a bit confusing. Titles will draw people in to your show because we want to watch something called Star Trek or The Practice. At the very least you know Perry Mason is about a guy named Perry, and looking into it you’ll find it’s a show about an attorney. Going onto Crunchyroll’s homepage I’m hit with the title Jujutsu Kaisen. I have no idea what that means. Wikipedia translates it as “Sorcery Fight”, which is sure to draw more interest to an English-reading audience without having to look it up. Even translated a few changes might be made when literal translation leads to a very long title, and there are plenty of jokes about long titles. When Super Beastial Machine God Dancougar was originally dubbed for US home video they altered the title slightly: Dancougar: Super Beastial Machine God, which flows better to an American ear. Sometimes a title is just reduced to one or a few words of the title to make it easier: Dancougar, and often fans will shorten a longer title to save time and tongue. You need to draw in your audience and word of mouth only works if you know people who saw it. Considering how many more anime shows get translated now and the pitfalls of binge watching a number of shows get lost in the river and not every anime gets a dub or even official subtitle release if it can’t find a distributor.
In short, how much localization depends on how familiar the target audience will be with Japanese culture and terminology, since there’s more to the language barrier than the words themselves. The goal ultimately is to clearly tell the story. While the original intent of the overall piece and depiction of characters is the most important and really should have as little meddling as possible some changes need to be made. And we haven’t discussed lip flaps because that just means finding the right workaround. There is no one answer, though there are things to be avoided and I’m all in favor of preserving as much original intent as possible. However, I also believe you need to entertain the audience without losing them and the less familiar with Japan a chosen audience is the more needs to be cleared up, although the more that’s required to stick to Japanese culture the more impossible that ends up being. Don’t we want these great stories to be found by more people? It was the hack dubs and localized translations that allowed anime to gain a foothold in American TV and cinema, even if through home video. It’s a balancing act between authorial intent and not losing your audience. Some creators are more easy going about it than others but in the end the goal is to reach an audience with good stories and sometimes thoughtful commentary. So the even shorter answer is…it depends on the project. And remember, Japan changes shows for their audience too. Nobody complains about that.