Subtitle Obsession

By Shamus Posted Saturday Mar 25, 2006

Filed under: Anime 35 comments

From what I’ve gathered, most serious American Anime Otaku prefer to watch their Anime with subtitles, as opposed to watching the English dub. Steven Den Beste has been doing it for so long that he’s starting to learn some Japaneese.

But I can’t watch shows with subtitles on.

As soon as the words appear onscreen, my eyes jump down and read them. Then, my eyes stay there, waiting for the next line of text to appear. As long as words are at the bottom of the screen, my eyes are locked down there and ignore the action above. I have no idea why I do this. I have to make a mental effort to make my eyes go back up and watch the show after I’m done reading. As soon as I stop thinking about it, I go back to watching the text and not the images. So, I end up missing most of the images because I spend all my time staring at words I’ve already read. The only time I watch the show is when no dialogue is onscreen.

I don’t know why I’m wired this way. It doesn’t make a lot of sense and I don’t know of anyone else that has this problem. It’s very strange.


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35 thoughts on “Subtitle Obsession

  1. Scott says:

    Yeah, I know how you feel. This is really annoying when you are watching something artistic. I, however, still would rather watch with subs than dubs and if I am watching subs enough my brain gets over it and I am able to focus on both the words and the video.

  2. Bitwize says:

    maybe because it’s not something we’ve ever been taught before – like how to study a language using subs. It’s like.. “yeah, i must be either lazy or stupid!” re-wiring is the correct terminology.

    Either multitask like Scott is trying to do, or take a childs approach and start from scratch. Firstly subs are your friend so don’t paper-tape them over just yet. Find some common short dialogue often repeated (called set phrases) and replay them over a few times.. like;

    “Matte!” – wait! ,
    “Nan de?” – why?
    “So daiyo!” – correct!
    “Sore wa nai yo!” – that’s not true!
    “Sa iku yo!” – ok let’s go!
    “Ja matte ne!” – see ya!

    ..then forget there’s a story at all, just lotsa nice pickies and colors and characters with cute voices. Start the vid from the begining and listen out for all these key phrases you chose. When you hear them remind yourself (instantaneously) what they mean in english, and perhaps mimic the sound in Japanese. Then pat yourself on the back ‘kos you just learnt some Japanese!

    Repeat the process..

    To be honest i have a Japanese wife and daughter and get told a bunch of new words everyday that go in one ear and out the other. So when they’re chatting there are times when i’m like half there, and half daydreaming about “next-tech” where the whole scenes are streaming onto my non-existant goggles with subs and TIVO style instant replay..

    ..but until that happens, “Gambare-masho!” – try our best!

    1. Df458 says:

      Even if you take classes, it still helps to an extent. Most Japanese taught in class is very formal, as opposed to most Japanese found in anime/manga.


  3. Dan says:

    That is extremely helpfull and insightfull advice Mr. Bitwize. I had a friend in highschool that insisted on watching all his anime shows in its regular form and used subtitles to get by. he also claimed that anyone who didn’t do so was a Philistene. I don’t think he knew how to use that particular insult.
    He also claimed I was a Philistine for not reading Dantes’ Inferno. God I wanted to punch that kid in the face.

  4. Hale Adams says:

    It’s like Scott said– reading the subtitles and keeping track of what’s going on in the picture is a skill you pick up after a while.

    I’ve been watching (make that “addicted to”) anime for nearly eleven years, since I ran into it at a science-fiction convention in ’95. For me, watching it subtitled is the way to go. Early dubs were pretty awful in many cases, and hearing the Japanese voices just added to the “cool” factor of a “cartoon” that could actually hold an adult’s attention.

    Dubs nowadays are much better– I actually prefer watching “Princess Mononoke” and “Castle of Cagliostro” dubbed– the Japanese tracks are good, but the English voice talent is *outstanding*.

    Every once in a while a studio will cheat, though. Buena Vista, when they released “Return of the Cat”, gave the movie “dubtitles”– the subtitle track is actually a transcription of the English dub. That wouldn’t be so bad, except for when the subtitle either indicates dialogue when there’s nothing being said, or when the Japanese dialogue doesn’t match the words on the screen, as when “Arigatou!” gets displayed as “Come back soon!” or something like that. Urgh.

    Yeah, I nitpick a lot. :)

    Anyway, enjoy your new hobby. It’s a lot of fun.

  5. Shamus says:

    Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful responses

  6. anachronist says:

    Why do I prefer subtitles? I guess it’s because when I first discovered anime, there were no companies licensing it; we had to watch it raw after studying a synopsis, depend on other fans to subtitle it, or subtitle it ourselves (and I wrote software to do it). As Hale Adams says on this page, watching subtitled anime is a skill you pick up.

    Then in the 1990s, companies like Streamline came along and started licensing anime and dubbing it. And you know what? They were horrible. For example, try watching Project A-ko subtitled, and then watch it dubbed. It’s downright painful to watch. It was enough to make me go running back to subs, I thought, for good.

    Then Disney got into the picture. Finally, here’s a company who can afford to hire real voice-acting talent! I actually liked Disney’s dubs – although they took unecessary liberties with Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service when they changed the music soundtrack (in this respect I like Streamline’s dub better).

    Unfortunately, Disney’s elevated standards for voice talent didn’t raise the bar for their competitors. My biggest gripe with most dubs these days is that studios hire f***ing adults to act out the voices of young children. In Japan, they use child actors. The American dubs just don’t sound authentic. Close your eyes; do you hear a child speaking? No? Sounds like a 30-year-old woman trying to speak falsetto? That’s enough to make me switch over to the Japanese soundtrack and turn on the subtitles.

  7. TheJoeSword says:

    Wow, talk about posting after everyone else has forgotten the topic. I’m pretty new to this site and I figured that I’d read old posts to get a feel of where the discussions have gone.

    Anyway, I am primarily a fan of subs and I will only watch most of my anime subbed (For example, Irresponsible Captain Tylor…I hate the Doctor’s voice actor). However, there are various animes that I will only watch dubbed. For example, Generator Gawl is BORING when you watch it subbed. The characters have no personality and I quickly turn the anime off so as to get in a quick nap. But, if you watch it dubbed, the story is filled with friendly banter between the characters and you get the feeling that there is more to them than the mission they are on.

    A good anime that was ruined in the english dub is Escaflowne. The problem isn’t that they change the storyline, but the American voice actors can’t seem to get the emotion that is in the original Japanese. A better explanation is as follows:

    English: “Mr. Balgus!”

    Japanese: “BALGUS-SAN!!!!”

  8. NewAnimeFan says:

    I find it absolutely impossible to watch something dubbed, as I’m dyslexic. I’m constantly having to pause or rewind so that I have time to catch all the words, since I read so slowly. I miss the entire show that way and lose the flow completely.

  9. elfsage says:

    In theory, I prefer subbed over dubbed because the original voice actors usually “get” the character and can express him/her better, especially when dealing with a uniquely Japanese cultural thing. But there are those shows I still watch in English because that’s how I saw and loved them first – it’s sentimental.

    The bottom line is, whatever format helps enhance your enjoyment of the show is what you should do. I’ve always thought the sub/dub war was rather petty.

  10. Ralanost says:

    The main reason I stick with subs if I can is that there are a lot of good titles that don’t get American licenses for one. Secondly, even if translated properly, they sometimes have to compromise to lip sync. I would rather just stick with the original script.

  11. Ralanost says:

    Just a thought for an example. The first anime was a horribly butchered script with outstanding voices that truely got me into the movie. Disney rereleased it with the full and accurate plot, but the dubbing was horrible compared to what it was in the bastardized version. Even though the voice actors had top names, they didn’t fit the bill, and they weren’t voice actors primarily. Just watch Warriors of the Wind vs Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to see what I mean.

  12. Peter says:

    I personally prefer dubbed because i just read slow and my ADHD tends to kick in if i have to read so the story gets lost in all the prettiness of it all. So the way I get around this is i Watch the dubbed version to get a feel for what they are saying then go back and watch the subtitled version to get the emotion and a more… “accurate” translation.

  13. Nik says:

    I’m the same way. I miss a lot when I watch an anime subtitled. I find it very difficult to pay attention to what’s going on on screen, as well as subtle things like body language and tone of voice, when my attention is distracted by the words at the bottom of the screen. I’m told that dubs sometimes mess up the intended emotion, but that’s just something I have to take their word for, since I completely miss out on tone of voice when I’m distracted by reading

  14. Evan says:

    I my self only watch subbed anime when i have to, in cases like anime that have not yet or will not be dubbed.the main case of that for me is i watch anime that aren’t dubbed (like sgt. frog, i only watched an episode of it, and sorry but i don’t remember the jap name of it) I also watch anime that are dubbed baddly or sencored (naruto) with dubs. i my self watch shows ahead of time dubbed too.

    and the reading it issue? just read with the corner of your eye, or just rewind or pause when they say something fast or too long. I hate to have to watch dubbed anime, but i hat crappy dubs worse.

  15. Pellanor says:

    I almost always prefer subs. About the only time they bother me is when I have to look away from the screen for something. Like food. I usually solve that problem by only eating after I have finished reading the line of text, in the time before the next line shows up. usually enough time to grab a bite of something.

    While I have seen some good dubs, Last Exile and Hellsing being tow that spring to mind, most of them just annoy me. Like anachronist, I can’t stand the old folk doing the high pitched kids voices.

    I think the worst dubbing I’ve seen is in Initial D. Not only did they alter the story, and completely change the soundtrack, they also added all sorts of 90s slang in an attempt to make it cool. ugggh.

    As for being able to watch the show while reading subtitles, I’ve never had a problem with it. I haven’t really paid attention to what parts of the screen I pay attention to while watching anime, but I have a feeling that my eyes end up darting back and forth between the text and the action. I also tend to read notably faster than the subtitles show up, so I’ve usually got a second or two between lines showing up when I can just watch the action.

    Also the vast majority of the anime I watch is fansubs, so I couldn’t watch it dubbed even if I wanted to.

  16. Otters34 says:

    I prefer subbed versions, as most of the sentences are(to me)rather short, and as I can read quite quickly, it’s easy for me to keep up with the dialogue.

  17. The_Pixel_Ninja says:

    It kinda depends. There is no way on earth I would watch Naruto in English, I’m sorry but if hear believe it i think I’d throw my couch at the TV. I don’t have and issue with reading subs, my eyes are constantly moving around the screen anyway. so i just catch the subs in the process of absorbing it all. :p

    There’s some anime’s where the dub is good enough so that i don’t really mind, like FMA and Last Exile. then there’s dubs that make me go grab some q-tips because my ears are bleeding.

  18. Robel says:

    That`s weird. Being from Romania, I started reading subtitles on movies and such since I was 7. Of course, most movies being from hollywood, they`re in English, and dubbing them would really ruin them. There were some dubbed movies but they just sounded stupid. How could I watch a movie with Jim Carrey dubbed? That`s just one example. In my opinion dubbing is a bit immature and should only be done for children under 7. Subtitles are much better in MANY ways. I think your problem with not being able to focus is because you`re not used to watching subtitled shows. If you would have been watching them since you were a child you`d have no problem. Of course I can`t blame you for not watching subtitled shows, because most shows are in English anyway. But for example romanian movies are few, and so are italian movies, but I know for a fact that italians watch dubbed movies and such all the time. And not only them. That can`t be good for the movies they`re watching, in my opinion they`re missing 50% of the fun…

    PS: Oh dear Lord, those girls in the picture have no mouths!! ;)

  19. nm says:

    I can’t stand the subtitles. I just want to see and hear at the same time. I am not lazy or dislyw? whatever. I am an American. I perfer in dubbed. It’s a lot better. Plus, an anime is a cartoon,right? It is not a live action show or movie.

  20. nm2 says:

    P.S.: I as read this comments above, most of the sub-lovers in this column are bunch of weridos. I like Japan but seriously, not loving it. You all wanted to be in Japan instead of freedom America. Well, y’all move there already but leave these dub-lovers(like me) or casual fans alone about the original thing.Your points dosen’t make sense at all. Anime-haters out there, I fill your pain. Wake-up, Japan-lovers!!!!

  21. yoshi927 says:

    Now, my problem with dubs is that they have to make the English dialogue fit the Japanese animation. That means they will have to add or remove words. It’s a fine balance. But, in the end it makes the voice acting sound unnatural, and it’s a big handicap to the actors. That’s why I prefer subbed. It just seems to flow better.

    nm2; You’re trying to say that we sub-watchers have no arguments while your only argument is “I live in America.”
    Well, my argument is up there.

  22. stuf says:

    I do watch shows with subs nowadays, altough my japanese studies have progressed to the extent that I might not need them for much longer. I can’t watch subs on DVD’s, though. The subs are a genocide to readability and good taste, so no wonder that you get distracted from the shows.

    Of course, this probably isn’t the case.

  23. Ravens_Cry says:

    I like to watch anime movies first in subtitles, then in dub, but I prefer subtitles. The reason I watch the dubs is because often more information is presented. I prefer subtitles because I love the sound of other languages. Though some anime voice ‘types’ drive me insane, the sound of other tongues make up for it. I don’t know why but The Fire Demon in Hoyles Moving Castle was much more hilarious in Japanese, then listening to Billy Chrystal. And that is another thing, as an aspiring voice actor it bugs me how American voice acting seems to be done by celebrities. This CAN be done well, but it shouldn’t be done just for the sake of having a celebrity voice over.

  24. Sam says:

    Subs, subs, all the way subs. Not just in anime. Imagine watching Pan’s Labyrinth in English. *shudder* I guess I’m just so damned used to it. Living in Sweden I’ve watched subs since as long as I could read. I think watching subs is simply a skill you pick up as you go along. Kind of like learning to ride a bicycle. The original post kind of reminds me of once when my mother tried to read a comic, something she had never done before. Her eyes kept themselves focused on the text, unable to tear themselves away before finishing. Then she looked at the pictures. Rince and repeat. Text. Images. Text. Images.

    Me, I’ve read comics since I was a lil’ kiddo, so I take it in all at once. Comic and text. Am kind of the same with subs. So yeah, It would seem it’s a skill you pick up. And also, the vast majority of dubbed material I’ve seen have /sucked/. Horrible. It’s not just the sound either, the dialogue, compared to the subs, are often mind-numbingly grating. About the only examples I can think of that’s been good or acceptable are Jackie Chan’s Legend of The Drunken Master and Machine Girl. And Machine Girl only works because it’s so horrible over the top, the dub seems kind of fitting. Well, that’s my two cents.

  25. ricky says:

    subtitles are better because its more like a book. It just means you are more imaginative and creative than someone who REQUIRES their language to be spoken. You probably prefer manga over anime? Its because while reading and not understand specific accents and word emphasis, you create youre own. Its like you are watching half the show, and imagining half the show.

    That is the REAL reason you enjoy it better. Once you start watching full dubs, you are losing half of the creative aspect that made you fall in love with the show in the first place. The characters aren’t in your head anymore, they are displayed right there on the screen, you dont think anymore, you dont imagine, you just watch. you are no longer part of the show, but a mere spectator.

  26. NBSRDan says:

    As someone who still prefers subtitles anyway, I think EVERYONE gets annoyed when they miss something cool while reading the text. The real answer is that subtitlers need to start exercising a little creativity. I’ve managed to find some rare fan-subs in which the text is placed close to the character who is speaking, and they look waaay better.

  27. Paperbard says:

    Or just watch the dubs. There’s some good english voice actors and having it in your native tongue really lends to the cinematic experience. I’m not bashing subs, but don’t assume that all dubs suck. Oh and Otaku means “Hey You” in japanese. It was developed because a lot of japanese cosplayers make themselves up pretty androgynous and the japanese anime fans didn’t want to accidentally inccorectly label them as the wrong gender. It’s a dumb thing to call yourself. I prefer anime fan.

  28. Jimmy says:

    Usually I just stick with whatever language I hear it in first, after I get used to one or the other for a particular production it’s pretty much over.

    Some exceptions exist. There are some truly awful examples of both forms.

  29. Beverly says:

    I personally prefer subs as I read too fast for my own good. I just glance at the words then look up and watch the action. If there are too many words to understand from one glance, I pause the video, read, then press play. I do not like dubs very much for reasons like adult doing kid voices, lame voice actors, and the loss of the original meaning of the words where phrases that are common in Japan get altered to sound better in English.

  30. 87392v says:

    I am almost the complete opposite.
    Rather than prefering Japanese with subtitles, or even English without subtitles, I want English dubs WITH subtitles.

    The reason is because I cannot read the lips of the dubbed characters, but hearing what they are saying helps me follow the inflections of their voices in sentences, not missing any context. Because I can’t read their lips, I sometimes miss what people are saying. I have no problem looking at the bottom of the screen really quick to catch a missed word or two, rather than miss the point of entire lines thanks to the missed words.

    I don’t really care if it’s in English or Japanese, I just want my subtitles. Both have their merits–English lets you here their tone, Japanese ensures you don’t lose the original meaning–and their disadvantages–poor English voices actors vs. obnoxious-sounding Japanese voice actors.

    I recently watched Berserk with English dubs without subtitles and I loved the voice acting. However, I really wish I could have had subtitles, because I had to go back and re-watch some sections.

    Of course, I suffer from very mild hearing loss, so I’m used to having subtitles on everything, but I have hearing friends who agree that subtitles add a little something–like hearing what individual people have to say when a crowd is talking in the background, or having sound effects denoted.

  31. SKD says:

    Interesting arguments, in my experience I have found that the majority of the Sub vs Dub wars arise from the early days of Japanese Animation making its way to America. Often the Dubs were poorly translated and/or rewritten to the point that the original story or characters were lost, as well as studios making poor and/or inconsistent voice actor choices.

    Personally I prefer Dubs whenever I have the choice. I rarely sit down and focus my attention entirely on a TV, I usually am doing multiple things at once such as playing a game or cruising the web on one screen while a TV show or movie is running on the other screen. Subs force me to keep so much attention on the screen they are running on that I cannot be doing something else while I watch them. I have no problems with subs as I am used to visual multitasking and can read the text without losing what is going on elsewhere on the screen. I consume several fansubbed animes which are not yet available in an English dub but I will be buying the English dubs once they are released.

  32. Karen Jansen says:

    There are many skilled voice actors in the US… just look at the US voice casts for GitS, Utena & Ranma 1/2 (especially after they had a season under their belts).

    Some Anime (I’m looking at you, GitS) have sections of very dense dialog where subtitles become very distracting… either you have to read very quickly, or the text takes up 1/3 of the screen!

    Also, as a person with poor vision, unless the subtitles are very crisp and don’t bleed colours with the backgrounds, I have trouble reading them. :(

  33. Eljacko says:

    I have the very same problem. Fortunately, I don’t watch a lot of anime, and when I do it’s usually the Studio Ghibli stuff which is usually dubbed by Disney, and thus has decent voice acting.

  34. Disthron says:

    I have a reading disability witch makes watching subed videos somewhat tedius to watch. That’s not to say I will not watch a subed anime or foreign film but I have to have a high interest in it and I won’t bother seeing one at the cinema as the text goes by so fast I would have no idea what is being said.

    So yea, I prefer dubed. But more than that, the assertion that ALL dubs are bad and even the best ones are only tolerable smacks of fan-boy wankery to me. The way some people talk about it, it seems less like the dubs are actually bad and more like they are just so used to hearing Japanese voice over that anything different is sacrilege. Now I have nothing against Japanese dubs, and not all English dubs are good but to completely disregard them just because they are in English, that’s just silly.

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