The Anime Dubbing Process

How English Audio (And Other Languages, too) For Anime are Created

Kostja Ullmann Dubs Cartoon Network Mini-Series. Clemens Bilan/ Getty Images Entertainment

Anime may come from Japan, but a good deal of the way it's brought to English-speaking audiences is with an English-language audio track. It's hard (bordering on impossible) to get anime aired on TV without it sporting English audio, and so a dub is vital to getting a given anime series or movie in front of the widest possible audience.

Here's a breakdown of the way English-language dubbing works for anime, as gleaned through discussions with industry professionals and voice actors.

Translation

The vast majority of the time, an anime is provided by its original Japanese licensors with no English subtitles or audio whatsoever. The first step, then, is to create an English translation of the Japanese audio.

The translation process demands broad cultural knowledge of Japan, and sometimes knowledge of a highly specific or technical area. Many anime that focus on the supernatural (xxxHOLiC, Natsume's Book of Friends) or Japan's history (Sengoku Basara, Basilisk, Oh! Edo Rocket) require an understanding of some fairly esoteric aspects of Japanese culture in order to be coherent (or funny).

The most difficult titles, though, are those that involve current, cutting-edge references to Japanese popular culture (e.g., Sayonara Zetsubo-sensei). They may involve references that even some native Japanese might miss. Try to imagine someone from outside the U.S. watching an episode of The Simpsons and imagining how much would simply fly over their heads.

There are a few exceptions to this state of affairs. A few anime titles -- typically theatrical films -- may be released to DVD/BD in Japan with English subs included. However, that English translation is almost never re-used if the same title is localized by a U.S. releasing company. One good example: the Studio Ghibli films, many of which did include English subtitles in their Japanese releases.

When Buena Vista (the Walt Disney Company) licensed the films for U.S. release, they created their own English translations from scratch. In the case of Ghibli's Princess Mononoke, they even retained famed fantasy author Neil Gaiman to polish the dub script and give it the poetry it needed.

Adaptation / Scriptwriting

The translation produced from the show's Japanese voice track is not what's used to actually create the dub. Instead, another writer will take the translation and any associated notes or documentation, and produce from that the actual adaptation dubbing script. Some writers are themselves voice actors as well, which allows them to both expand their creative horizons and bring an "in-the-booth" understanding of what's needed to the scriptwriting process.

What makes this stage most difficult, and most crucial, is that several goals all have to be met at once.

  1. The dialogue has to fit comfortably into the same amount of time as the original speech, to make it easier to "match flap." (More on this later.)
  2. The script has to sound natural to English speakers. Japanese grammar is entirely unlike English, and so sentences might have to be restructured completely in order to fit in the same space. What can be said in a few words in Japanese might take a whole sentence in English or vice versa.
  1. Plot points, subtle emphases, and other crucial information all have to be conveyed. It's too easy to lose these things in the shuffle.

The second and third points are both parts of a larger issue: fidelity. Over time, anime dubbing work has moved away from being slavishly precise and more towards being adaptive. A lot of this is context: a historical anime, for instance, needs to have more of the "Japanese-ness" of its original dialogue preserved. A show set in the modern day, though, can swap more of its Japanese-centric gags for matching Western pop-culture concepts. Steins; Gate, for instance, had an English dub script positively peppered with this sort of thing, as a way to replicate the snappy back-and-forth banter of the original show.

Some shows may abandon any attempt at being faithful at all, but only if the material calls for it.

Shin-chan was rewritten from scratch for its English dub, in big part because the original was such a blizzard of culturally-specific gags that any attempt to be faithful would have just collapsed in on itself. (Biggest surprise: the Japanese licensors for the show heartily approved of this approach.)

Recording Sessions

Once a dub script has been written from the translation, the next step is to cast suitable actors for the dub and produce a recording from it.

When a show's voice cast assembles, the choices usually are dictated by the voice actors' existing roster of performances or their general mien. Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, the tough and capable Major Motoko Kusanagi from , would rarely be cast in a wilting-flower role.

Exceptions happen, though: Monica Rial, a celebrated U.S., voice actress normally known for crackle-voiced little girl roles (e.g., Mina Tepes from Dance in the Vampire Bund) has been known to push her performances in a wholly unexpected direction by dropping her voice an octave and unleashing a great deal of vocal grit (e.g., Mayaya from Princess Jellyfish, Jo from Burst Angel).

The director may also work with the actors to produce a specific effect in their performance. Brina Palencia, for instance, took subtle cues from Katharine Hepburn when creating her performance for Holo the Wise Wolf in Spice & Wolf. 

During the actual recording process, a key element is what voice actors and directors refer to as "matching flap." "Flap" is slang for a character's on-screen mouth movements, and so the actor voicing the character has to time his speech to match, if only roughly when there are mouth movements.

It isn't always possible to be completely accurate, but it helps to preserve as much of the illusion as possible. This becomes doubly difficult given that the flaps are originally timed for Japanese speech; as per above, the differences in syntax and speech patterns means it can sometimes be difficult for the dialogue to be stretched or squashed to fit.

The best part of any dubbing session, as most any anime fan can tell you, is when people screw up. Gaffes and flubs in the recording booth are hilarious, and the DVD/BD editions of some shows will include these as extras. Berserk, whose flubs are all the funnier given how starkly they contrast with the grim and brutally serious nature of most of the story. (If you can watch the cast breaking into song and not fall off your chair laughing, I'm not sure you have a funnybone.)