I have a pet peeve. Ok, I have many pet peeves. Today, though, I'm talking about one in particular.
Recently, I finally watched Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (it's wonderful, in case you're wondering). When first starting the movie, the Blu-Ray actually started it with the Disney dubbed audio rather than the original Japanese audio with subtitles. It is remarkable how much this bothers me.
I used to watch a lot of anime. I don't watch nearly as much now, but there's some very good material that continues to come out of Japanese animation studios. I always watch anime in Japanese, with subtitles, if given the choice. Some people in animation fan circles get far too embroiled in the "sub vs dub" debate. To me, people getting overly impassioned about how others prefer to watch pieces of work is a bit silly. I understand the opposite preference. Some people don't like to read subtitles while they watch, feeling disconnected from the events on screen if they have to. Some people simply can't read fast enough. There are many other perfectly reasonable reasons to prefer a dubbed version of a work to a subtitled one.
So then, what's with my irritation over the English version of the movie playing when I first started watching a fun movie about two little girls and their possibly-imaginary-but-also-possibly-real monster friends? It comes down to respecting the original work.
Let's step back for a moment before it sounds like I'm only talking about anime. I'm talking about much more than that. Translation of artistic works is a wonderful thing. It is through translation that more than just a sliver of the world can experience tremendous pieces of film like Roberto Benigni's 1997 Holocaust comedy-drama La vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful) and last year's depressing Amour. It is through translation that I was able to read Voltaire's Candide and Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. It is through translation that I could experience a huge proportion of my favorite video games including my very favorite of all, Chrono Trigger. With translation Harry Potter was not constrained only to the English-speaking world and English-speakers get to enjoy awesome Chinese Kung-Fu flicks. With translation, the House of Mouse was able to achieve truly global reach. And, yes, with translation I get to enjoy all the anime I want.
Clearly, I don't have a problem with translating works per se. So what do I take issue with? What I take issue with is the false equivalence between a translated work and the original work itself.
In many forms of artistic expression, and especially those which heavily utilize a spoken or written language, the art or story becomes intrinsically tied with the medium through which it is presented. Any language allows for certain nuance of thought. By this I mean every language allows for particular nuance of thought. This is an idea more difficult to grasp for those who are mono-lingual and generally more naturally understood by those with considerable exposure to alternate languages. Anyone who has been asked to translate phrases often enough is familiar with the feeling of beginning to translate a short phrase, or even a single word, and realizing entire sentences, or even paragraphs, are necessary to explain. Sometimes the translation fails altogether. This doesn't necessarily mean a quick translation is impossible. It simply means that a good translation, complete with all the weight something implies in one language, often can not quickly or accurately be translated without somehow offering additional layers of context beyond that of the story or work itself.
All this is to say that a translation is rarely, if ever, the same as the original. In general, this offers up three different major types of translations (others tend to be variations therein). The first type of translation is, well, a bad one. A bad translation simply fails to deliver in the target language, thereby not really delivering the original piece in any reasonable way.
The second type of translation is well illustrated by an example. Have I read Candide? Well, yes and no. I read Voltaire's work years ago, but I read it in English rather than French. Really, that means I read what I hope (and believe) is a reasonable approximation of the original work. I understand, though, that I did not experience the work itself. If the English translation is as good as I hope, I got a reasonably accurate retelling of the original work, with a bit of nuance lost in the process. This type of good translation is a strong literal one which delivers a work derivative of the original within the constraints of the target language and leaves it up to the target audience to educate themselves further in the original culture or language in order to gain fuller understanding.
The last type of translation is an entirely different type of good translation. This type of translation is one where content itself is changed in the process of translation in order to make a new experience which better targets the secondary language's audience. An example of this is the playful renaming of a trio of significant enemies in Chrono Trigger from Vinnegar, Mayonnai, and Soysau (Vinegar, Mayonnaise, and Soysauce) to Ozzie, Flea, and Slash (in reference to metal legend "Ozzy" Osbourne, "Flea" of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and "Slash" of Guns N' Roses). These types of translations result in a work that is decisively different, though mostly derived from, the original.
Of these two "good" translation types, the former will always give you a nearer understanding of the original work, but can only attempt to approach the original's ability to affect an audience. The latter "good" translation type, because it results in a different work, will never give you as good an understanding of the original work. However, because the work itself is being changed it is possible, though unlikely, to actually surpass the original by choosing to drop deficiencies in the original. It must be clear, though, that if the goal is to come as close as possible to experience the original work the former type of good translation will always be better.
As I mentioned earlier, a work is often intricately tied to its medium. In the context of a book or an older video game without spoken dialog, there's only so much that can be done with regards to language. A path must be picked for the translation, then that path must be executed. In the context of Candide, clearly anyone capable of reading French fluently at the required reading level should read the original rather than a translation. Once it has been read and fully understood in French, there is no additional value to be gained in reading it translated into English. In the context of Chrono Trigger, which was altered to create a new work, someone fluent in both Japanese and English may actually want to experience both works. In this case, however, it would still probably be preferable to experience the original work first, then to experience the changed work afterward. Regardless of which is experienced first, however, the knowledge of what the original work is like would exist.
So now, finally, we can bring this back to film. With film, language is much more firmly tied to the medium itself. What I mean by this is that there exists much less flexibility for translation. The delivery of a spoken line of dialog is constrained to a very specific rhythm and span of time. This is true regardless of whether the movie is animated or live action, as high quality animation is generally produced after the voices are recorded in order to match the visuals to the dialog. This opens up two possible options for translating a movie. The first is subtitling the audio, while the second is to dub over the audio with an alternate language track.
Referring back to the two types of "good" translations, subtitles can be used to aim for either. Subtitles can aim at being extremely precise and literal, leaving understanding of the original culture to the viewer (or even providing further explanation with secondary subtitle notes, as anime fan subtitlers have often done). Subtitles can also choose to translate idioms, aphorisms, and the like into the target language's equivalent, aiming to get the spirit of the original language used rather than the letter of it. The significant thing to note here is that, no matter what approach is used for subtitles, the entire original work is still present. The original audio lines up with visual cues to indicate context to the viewer. The inflections of voices are delivered as originally intended to the moviegoers' ears while the subtitles are read. This means that even if content is changed in subtitles, the work can only diverge up to a point without the viewer being aware that something is amiss.
A dubbed audio track, however, does not have the constraint of the original film's dialog cues being heard. In fact, because languages have inherently different rhythms and lengths of sentences, every single dub must by necessity be more of the second type of good translation than a subtitle. Nearly every line of dialog must be changed to some degree or another in order to simply fit into the medium. With sufficient work the same general feeling can be achieved, but a dub will never be as close to the original work as a subtitled work with the same exact translation written down would be.
As I come to a close, I want to emphasize that all this is not to make an argument of the qualitative superiority of subtitles over dubbed audio. I am quite certain I have seen a movie or two which was improved in the English dub from whatever the original audio source was. The point I am trying to make is that dubs are inherently less accurate to the original work than subtitles.
Finally, I can answer my original question: What is it that irks me about the situation that presented itself when I recently watched My Neighbor Totoro? It's certainly not that Disney has an English dub of the film. I have no objection to people choosing to watch it in English and enable their young non-reading children to watch the movie. From everything I've heard, it's a good dub. My issue is simply that the dub is the default, meaning that the majority of people who do eventually watch the globally acclaimed film will not be experiencing it as closely to the original as possible. What these people are watching is, in effect, not actually the same movie I'm watching. It's my understanding that they're still watching a great one. In the case of some other movies the similar situation may even end up with them watching a better movie (again, this is unlikely, but possible). In the end, though, the majority of people who watch the movie (and Miyazaki's other works) aren't even ever going to experience the closest thing to the original work they have on the disk in their player. Because I believe the original work deserves respect and reach, I just wish the original audio was the default (providing a translated experience closer to the original work), and the English dub was the option. That will never be the case, though, and that thought makes me sad.