Dubbing vs. Subtitles

One of the things movie snobs often complain about is dubbing, and when it comes to your typical live action foreign language films, I'm pretty firmly entrenched in the snob camp. However, animation is different, as it doesn't suffer as badly from unsynchronized lip movement. Most humans find the human face engaging and are wired, seemingly from birth (faces are among the first things babies are thought to recognize), to read facial expressions and movements. So we're very good at recognizing when someone's voice doesn't match their lip movements. Again, in a dubbed live action film, this produces a sort of cognitive dissonance. Animated films always have to deal with this (even when animation is matched to the voiceover, the fidelity of animation prevents an exact match), so it would make sense that a dubbed animated film would probably not be as jarring as a dubbed live action film. In short, I'm already accustomed to the cognitive dissonance caused by animated films, so dubbing should theoretically be fine. Beckonking Chasm recenty wrote about his adventures in Anime, and makes an interesting case:
I always watch the English dub versions. Not to disrespect the Japanese or their language, far from it, but I have absolutely no facility with foreign languages. (My abilities in English are bad enough.) Yes, one can read subtitles, and that’s how I always watch live-action foreign films. An actor’s voice is just as much a part of his performance as his face and the way he chooses to move.

However, when watching Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson argue about who gets to commit suicide first, I can see them in a familiar environment—I don’t have to wonder what the fantastical device is that they’re sitting on, I know it’s called a “couch.” Even in futuristic live-action films, I can still key in on what the environment represents to the characters and I don’t have to watch it continuously to figure out its nature.

In animation, however, everything is brand new. It’s all been designed deliberately from the blank page up—everything has a choice behind it. It’s also frequently imaginative and beautiful. I don’t like taking my eyes away from it in order to read subtitles—I’d much rather hear the dialogue so I can keep watching.
I've recently been watching more Anime, and the question of whether to use dubbing or subtitles is still up in the air for me. My live action snobbery has leaked over to animated films, so I've watched most everything with the original audio and subtitles, but I've also recently tried giving the dubs a shot as well (with varying results). However, I think Beckoning Chasm makes some interesting points. So when I started watching Ghost in the Shell, I decided that I'd give the dubbing a try. Bad move. The english voice acting was so bad that I couldn't stand it and had to switch to subtitles. Then I noticed something interesting. The translations were completely different.

The opening scene in the movie features the Major on a rooftop, eavesdropping on some diplomatic meeting. The dubbed version goes like this:
BATOU: Major Kusanagi, Section 6 is in position and ready to move in.
BATOU: Major, are you there?
THE MAJOR: Yeah, I heard you.
BATOU: I'm surprised you could hear anything. What's with all the noise in your brain today?
THE MAJOR: Must be a loose wire.
And the subtitled version was this:
BATOU: Major Kusanagi, Section 6 is ready to move in.
BATOU: Major!
THE MAJOR: I hear you.
BATOU: There's a lot of static in your brain.
THE MAJOR: It's that time of the month.
Quite a difference, and, um, a little sexist? Even disregarding that, it appears that the dubbing is a more natural translation, even if the voice actors can't emote to save their lives. I finished the movie with subtitles on, then went back and turned on the english language audio with the english subtitles. It's a bizzarre experience.

I didn't watch the whole thing like that, as it's a little distracting to be reading and hearing similar, but different text (talk about your cognitive dissonance). Oddly enough, even though I think the dubbed translation is better, I still think subtitles work reasonably well too. Some of the dialogue sounds ridiculous when voiced out loud, but reading it gives a different experience. Also, it makes sense that the subtitles would be different, as there is a limited amount of space to communicate the same information (apparently there is less space in subtitles than in the audio).

One of the problems with adapting books to movies is that an exact translation is nearly always doomed to failure. You can't typically use the same dialogue as the book, for instance. It will sound stunted and out of place. No one talks they way people talk in books. Hell, no one talks the way they do in movies. That's because the dialogue is adapted to the medium. You can get away with a lot more in prose, but movies need to convey a lot of the same information visually. This is why adaptations are so difficult. However, when I watched the subtitled version of Ghost in the Shell, the dialogue seemed much better when reading it than when listening to it (even though I liked the dubbed translation better). It's almost like an accidental middle ground between a book a movie. It's an interesting dynamic, and I'm not sure what to make of it. In the mean time, I'm going to have to experiment with dubbed versions of stuff that I've already seen. I wonder what Haibane Renmei is like dubbed? Is the translation different? Why do I have the feeling I'm going to spend my Christmas holiday watching anime with the audio and subtitles set to english (then again, December 25 is Anime Day, so perhaps this is appropriate)?