July 13, 2017

Sub vs. dub


Watching stars like Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise and Diane Lane on Asa-Ichi (NHK's morning show) plugging their latest movies, I'm impressed at what great interviewees they are--not only at ease going through a translator, but setting everybody else at ease too.


Charisma is a real thing. Of course, lots of practice doing lots of interviews helps too.

But it's also a reminder of how rarely American television viewers have to work through the intermediary of a translator. The Il Divo guys default to English on Asa-Ichi. It's easier than arranging for French, Spanish, and German translators everywhere they go.

2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato did his post-race interview in English. Though he's more the exception than the rule. Due to the feudalistic posting system, Japanese baseball players come to the American game midway through their careers, too late in life to bother getting fluent.


Come to think about it, sports is where you're most likely to listen to an interviewee through a translator. English is the world's lingua franca, if not as a first language then as the default second.

Which also means that American rarely have to read subtitles. Unless you are an anime fan, in which case it is a perennially lively topic of discussion. I can't ever remember seeing the subject discussed on a mainstream American chat show the way it is on mainstream Japanese chat shows.

In Silence, Martin Scorsese believably minimizes the use of subtitles. The Shogun miniseries eschews them altogether, depending on in-context translators and the occasional Orson Wells narration. And 47 Ronin has Japanese actors speaking dang good English throughout.

(47 Ronin is a movie with a plethora of problems, beginning with a script that was never going to appeal to American or Japanese audiences. But it does demolish the canard that Japanese actors can't speak English well enough for standard Hollywood productions.)

When subtitles do pop up in lower-brow fare like John Wick II, the director tries awfully hard to pretend the subtitles aren't really subtitles. They're misplaced opening credits! Read them! They might help!

As a general rule, I prefer subs to dubs. For languages other than English and Japanese, my fluency is zero. But when I watch Inspector Montalbano, for example, half the fun is listening to Luca Zingaretti speaking Italian.


I saw an interview with Zingaretti (his English is quite good) in which in said that he plays Montalbano a bit over the top, more "Italian" than the typical Italian. You would miss that in a dub, unless perhaps he dubbed himself. Or recruited Al Pacino or Nick Stellino for the part.

I don't totally discount the possibility of a good dub. Thanks to John Lasseter, Studio Ghibil films can attract top-tier talent. Most U.S. anime releases can't rely on Disney's cache or deep pockets. Though I always hope to be, and sometime am, pleasantly surprised.

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