Voice dubbing sometimes gets a bum rap. I myself have been guilty of knocking it a time or two (“Wait, so you’re not watching Dark with subtitles?!”).
The truth is, with this platinum age of on-demand television, the subbing vs. dubbing debate will probably rage on. It’s OK no matter what side of the fence you stand on; yeah, dyed-in-the-wool purists will continue to sing the praises of original audio, inclusivity, hearing the original accents, etc.
Even streaming platforms like Netflix, who have pushed for subtitles and foreign shows, are copping to the popularity of dubbing. In fact, they’re revamping their whole strategy for it. It seems that even those who preferred dubbed content are not happy with the overall quality offered on the platform.
And you see, there’s a reason for dubbing’s bad reputation: it doesn’t generally offer the best acting quality. From sounding uninterested to outright breaking immersion, bad dubs can completely break the flow of a well-paced story.
But it would be prejudiced to affirm that this is always the case. In fact, worldwide audiences have tuned into great franchises to the English-speaking world, and not just through subbing. Voice dubbing has brought behemoth, multi-movie offerings like Avengers or Star Wars to willing audiences.
And that’s because, when done right, voice dubbing can make everything better. It can create a connection between audience and film as if it had been made especially for their local culture. It can help break down differences and make content more immediately accessible.
So, what’s this voice dubbing thingamajig you speak of? Easy! You’ve probably tuned in to one or two foreign shows on Netflix, Hulu, etc. It’s very likely that, if viewership numbers are to be believed, you did so while not choosing the original audio as an option. What you heard was, in all probability, dubbed content.
Dubbing entails maintaining the original audio track of an audiovisual production, switching the speech from one language to another. This, when speech movements are synced correctly, gives the viewer the illusion that the characters are speaking their native language. If the voice actors have done their job correctly, dubbing should mesh pretty well with the original.
Other types of dubbing also exist. While all dubs are a form of voice-over (a production technique), things can get a bit confusing. In the old Soviet Union, for instance, lip-synched dubs were not really sought after. That ended up meaning that a different audio track was noticeably overlaid over the original, usually by just one voice actor. These were known as voiceover translations.
The result from voiceover translations was a documentary, detached feel. Low production costs and bad techniques also abounded, giving the proceedings an unintentionally tacky vibe. It still enabled the audience to hear the original voices, though barely. Things got confusing quickly when multiple characters spoke over one another, among other gaffes.
Nowadays, lip-synched dubs are the most common types of voice dubbing available. And with good reason, as well-executed dubs can bring audiences closer to foreign characters or situations in an instant. It’s about relatability and immediacy. Some people connect more fully with complete audiovisual cues instead of reading text on a screen.
That’s why the importance of voice dubbing can’t be overlooked.
Replacing mediocre voice dubbing with better versions
Netflix is one of the few companies spearheading this initiative. One of their main plays is to go against dubbing’s bad reputation as schlocky or mediocre. This prevailing view was probably inspired by decades of bad martial arts dubs — hilariously mocked in 2002’s Kung Pow. Slashgear notes the following about the English-speaking world’s preference for dubbing:
“There’s a downside to this preference, however, and it revolves around low-quality, awkward, or overall unconvincing dubbed content that sounds fake. Many Netflix subscribers have complained about lackluster English dubs offered by the platform, in some cases reporting that they stopped watching certain dubbed shows over the audio.”
The first voice dubbing effort for Spanish hit Money Heist didn’t help matters. In fact, it’s one of the negative examples that forced Netflix’s hand. This New York Times article states:
“Netflix, which has perhaps the world’s fastest-growing library of international series and movies, wants badly to change that perception. Over the past nine months, it has been actively recruiting actors and filmmakers to build a production chain it hopes will drastically elevate the quality of its English-language versions of foreign shows, making them seamless enough to win over more American subscribers and, in the process, significantly boost viewing of Netflix’s international offerings.”
The idea is to make their content less “dubby”, approaching natural speech patterns and accents more. Money Heist was one of their first experiments with this new production chain. Netflix relaunched the first two seasons with the best quality dub, which resulted in better audience numbers.
So, apparently the issue is not dubbing per se, but the quality thereof. Let’s look at some examples in which voice dubbing did its job and made justice to the source material!
This blockbuster Anime show is one of the best examples of the genre. Its bombastic animation and unforgettable soundtrack are heavily inspired by Western Sci-Fi and Spaghetti Westerns. It constantly namedrops or references well-known movies, bands or soundtracks in a way that’s very relatable for English-speaking audiences. That’s why anime fans in our hemisphere consider it one of the gateway drugs into the genre.
Many would have my head for saying this, but I’d say that English may be an even better fit for Shinchiro Watanabe’s 1998 opus. When the dub broke into the American market, it instantly connected with audiences. The kinetic action, the flippant, sarcastic characters, and the banging score were all perfectly complemented by the veteran voice cast.
Anime Network gave the dub an A+ with Mike Crandol stating that it was “one of the most popular and respected anime titles in history,” adding that it was “a unique television show which skillfully transcends all kinds of genres.” He was especially commendatory of the “flawless” English cast.
In fact, most publications at the time seemed to agree that the English voice cast elevated the material and was more fitting. Purists would disagree, but the fact that a dub can come as close to the original as to be worthy of debate elevates dubbing as a whole, in my opinion.
And this is not the only case in which this has happened. If you want a deep dive into well-subbed anime, check out this article. It lists many cases in which an English dub has been seen as an equivalent or better fit to the original audio.
It’s always a strange constellation of events that can cause this; a fitting source material, soundtrack, characters, and script can sometimes make voice dubbing a great choice — maybe even the best.
Metal Gear Solid
1998 was a great year for alternative media. Gaming was already incredibly popular by then, with the Playstation and Nintendo 64 consoles selling millions, continuing previous console successes. But, almost nobody except gamers was positive about the medium’s artistic and conceptual validity.
Few games did more to upend that view than 1998’s tactical espionage action extravaganza Metal Gear Solid. The game, which borrowed heavily from action-movie and thriller tropes, was a nesting doll of surprises and subversion. For one, it forced players to play tense games of hide-and-seek with enemies instead of outright confrontation. Cunning, not force, was the protagonist Solid Snake’s main characteristic.
These stylistic and mechanical twists were not the only things that made the game hard to pigeonhole. The rote “save the world from the evil terrorists” story gradually spun into degrees of higher complexity. The magnificent voice cast — with David Hayter, Jennifer Hale, and Cam Clarke as standouts — brought the multi-faceted characters to life as the plot gained weight and momentum.
It’s hard to imagine what would’ve become of gaming as a narrative medium without this watershed moment. In fact, it’s what made many up-and-coming writers and veterans alike take notice. Metal Gear Solid was the game to hold up as a beacon of what storytelling in games could be. As clichés started to give way to full-blooded, raw performances, characters gradually became more humanized. It’s hard to come up with one game that symbolized playing with expectations as much, except maybe Metal Gear Solid 2.
For curious newcomers and fans alike, here’s a Game Informer video about recording the first game.
So, should I choose voice dubbing or subs for my project? A conclusion
That is entirely up to you and, mainly, your demographics and budget. Try to get a sense of what your audience likes the most, and invest accordingly. If possible, of course, I’d say you can’t go wrong with doing both. If you’re producing a show, video, series, you have to think multilingually.
But that’s not to say that one option is better than the other. In fact, I’d argue that the fact that it’s so hard to find precise cases in which dubbing is outright better than subbing is already telling. Even when both things are done to perfection, it will simply come down to personal preference. Even audience numbers don’t have the last word when it comes to quality.
What you do want, though, is to have your material performed by professionals. I’d believe that in 2020 that goes without saying, but it seems even Netflix took a while to get the memo.
If this is you, and you want to do things the right way, just get Pros. Browse their voices, find the right ones, bring your project to life. It’s about as easy as it gets. Read our guides about hiring and discovering voice actors, just in case.
When it comes to voice dubbing, things will hardly ever be cut and dry. There will be fans, and there will be detractors. But with a new age of great dubs undoubtedly on the horizon, here’s hoping we’ll add yours to this list in the future!
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