Subbed, dubbed and the wider question of what gets lost in translation

Ross Hall

October 19, 2021

Graphic of the outline of Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell

Subbed or dubbed? It’s an important question for those of us who enjoy “Foreign Films”. On the one hand, dubbed is easier to watch as the audio is in a familiar language. On the other, dubbing often sounds forced and lacks the nuance of the actor’s delivery in their native tongue.

My first encounter with foreign media was through dubbed translations. I saw many films, from classic Godzilla to Das Boot, with English voice actors speaking the dialogue. Sometimes it felt stilted, but I accepted this as a small price to pay for enjoying a well-made piece of entertainment.

Then I accidentally saw Ghost in the Shell with the subtitles.

It’s a totally different film.

The main character – Major Kusanagi Motoko – is an artificial human imbued with a soul. In the dubbed version, the American actress plays up her mechanical side. In Japanese, she’s a more humane character, prone to self-reflection. This is most obvious in a scene on a boat where Kusanagi questions whether she has a soul. In the dub it’s a flat, fast, emotionless rant. In Japanese, it’s more of a philosophical musing, where she poses deeply personal questions. While the subtitles invariably miss some of the detail, hearing the original voice actress’s delivery brings the scene to life.

Trying to fit complex dialogue into 2 lines of text is hard work. My rudimentary Japanese knows some of Kusanagi’s thoughts are lost from that scene. Still, it’s easier to understand what she intended because you have her voice, with all its intonation and nuance.

There’s a cultural aspect at play as well. In the West, we might view a cyborg as mechanical, and that might have given rise to how she’s portrayed in the dub. In Japan machines can have a spirit, a Kami, which Kusanagi wrestles with throughout the film. An entire layer is lost in the dubbing, simply through the style of delivery.

Squid Game and the translation factor

A similar complaint has been made about Squid Game. Character traits deemed vital in Korean have been lost. Some have gone as far as claiming the social commentary on the wealth disparity is completely missing. Instead, we foreign viewers are left with a muted dystopian survival drama.

Whilst I have sympathy with this view, I also think there is a practical issue at play, one some translators were quick to point out. Subtitles are 2 lines of text displayed for a few seconds. Capturing the nuance of the original writing isn’t always possible, and sometimes a minor character’s arc is tweaked for the medium.

(If you’ve ever tried to summarise tens of pages of analysis into a “couple of bullets on a PowerPoint slide” you might get a flavour for the challenge.)

There’s always going to be a compromise. Dubbing must try to match lip sync and stretch or contract original meaning to fit the time the actor speaks. Subtitles have two lines every few seconds. Cultural tropes are going to be lost, so too detail and nuance. As an acquaintance of mine noted: it’s not a book where the reader controls the pace.

Netflix is bringing “foreign” entertainment to a new and wider audience. The success of Squid Game, Dark and 3% in their non-native markets shows there is an appetite to enjoy media from outside of our comfort zones. If that encourages people to widen their horizons a little, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

I'm Ross, a digital editorial designer and content creator from the UK now living in Japan. I help growing companies plan, source, produce and promote a range of content. Find out more

Like what you read? Sign up for my weekly(ish) missive, delivered straight to your inbox.