The Infuriating Case of Engrish

For as long as I have been watching anime, I have been staunchly neutral on the “dub vs sub” debate. I let people watch their shows in whatever language is most enjoyable to them and expect the same in return. I usually watch a few minutes of any new show in all languages available to me and stick with the one I like the most. There is one exception. If a Japanese dub has non-intentional Engrish in it, then I will always side with a dub.

PHOTO: Yukari excitedly approaches a foreigner.

Engrish is a difficult term because it can mean lots of different things. In the case of anime, it refers to characters speaking in broken English. Many anime over the years have played this for laughs. An unfortunate Japanese person runs into some foreigners and stumbles out some hilariously butchered English. Or you have shows with returnee characters, where their terrible usage of the English language is a bit of a meta joke.

However, Engrish has also long slipped its way into anime by “accident”. Many an anime has featured English settings, characters, or names, which voice actors struggled to pronounce correctly. Take Pandora’s Hearts. I had read the manga for this show before and knew what various names should be. Instead of Oz Vessalius, however, the anime gives us Ozu Bezarius.

This entire series is set in a fantastical take on Victorian era England. Every name is like this. Listening to that for the duration of a 25-episode series is incredibly grating, but no dub of Pandora Hearts was ever made. Were I not a fan of this series already, I would have dropped it for this reason alone.

PHOTOS: An army of monsters from Pandora Hearts.

Some of us who have been watching anime for a long time may be able to sort-of tune it out, but this is an issue you’re going to bump into time and time again. When you show an anime to someone else and they comment on the disparity between the subtitles and spoken dialogue. Or maybe you watched a show that was fansubbed incorrectly and later discover that you’ve got the names all wrong.

Spice & Wolf is a famous example of the latter. This popular fantasy anime created a schism within its community over the name of its female lead. Those who watched early fansubs of the series were introduced to her as “Horo” and that name stuck. Yet, when official translations of the anime and books manifested, localization companies used “Holo”. A decision that was later confirmed to have come directly from the Japanese licensor. Still, some swore by “Horo” meaning this argument is bound to resurface with a season 3 now finally on the horizon.

PHOTO: Holo drinking like a champ.

I don’t want to put to much blame on the actors and actresses themselves. They can’t entirely help it if they struggle with English vocabulary. However, what frustrates me is how terribly little has changed over all these years.

English dubs used to have a bad reputation for exactly the same issue. Japanese words and names would sound awkward in dialogue, rendering it painful to listen to. A friend and I recently rewatched some early Naruto episodes and couldn’t stop laughing at the dialogue. I had entirely forgotten how they pronounced Genin and “Kunien”.

Except, the quality of dubs steadily improved as the industry around it became more professional. Anime became big business. Some anime created such shockwaves that they became a recognizable part of our media culture. Half-assed dubs that butcher all the terminology and names wouldn’t fly anymore. Thanks to that, it’s a rarity these days to run into anything as cringe-worthy as what we endured in the 80s and 90s.

PHOTO: Naruto hiding with the forbidden scroll while Iruka is being interrogated in the background.

By comparison, it feels like the Japanese scene has remained largely stagnant. English has been butchered for so long that I remember seeing other anime poke fun at it even back in the 90s. Pandora Hearts came out in 2009 and it’s far from the newest anime where I have been annoyed by Engrish. This makes it feel like the Japanese side of the industry is just content with it. They want to keep using English because it sounds cool, but put no actual effort into coaching their talent to make it sound right. Then parties like NIS come around that slap some subtitles on it before tossing the Blurays unto the market without a dub.

Even if the industry can be content with it, I won’t. I endured both Engrish and bad dubs for decades. One improved, the other did not. If this is the limit to the effort they are willing to make, then that is fine. Just don’t expect me to put my time or money into it.

6 thoughts on “The Infuriating Case of Engrish

  1. Wait…there’s a third season of Spice and Wolf coming? Yay!
    Onto the topic though. When it comes to dubs and subs, I’m fairly neutral too. Some shows I prefer subbed, others dubbed. What I watch also depends on how and when I’m watching. If I have something on in the background while doing something else, for example, it has to be dubbed. The dubs have certainly improved a lot from my childhood though. I have plenty of nostalgic love for some of the older dubs, don’t get me wrong, but the overall quality is far higher now. As has the translation work. I would say though that Engrish never hugely bothered me, so for me, it’s a non-issue.

  2. I hear you when it comes to that issue. It gets frustrating when you see it happen. Since you mention Naruto, I will have to bring up the first ending song “Wind”. Musically it’s good, but the haphazard English lyrics ruin it for me. Even other anime is guilty of this like Lain, the original Kino’s Journey, and even a couple parts of The Place Promised In Our Early Days had some errors.

    1. I recently watched Kino’s Journey, but must have missed the error you’re referring too. As for Lain and The Place Promised in Our Early Days, those are good examples of just how long this has been an issue already.

      1. They were a few errors with some of the intertitles with misspellings or the prophecy episode saying “We NO the future” as the subtitle in Kino’s Journey for example.

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