Found in Translation – A Discussion on Accessibility in Media

We’ve ALL Heard the Sub VS Dub Debate…

When it comes to anime, the conversation surrounding accessibility in the community is a weirdly contentious one. I don’t just mean the usual sub VS dub debate either, as the conversation goes well outside that but for several reasons, supposed “fans” of the medium are quick to dismiss these ideas all too often. The weird thing though, it’s not really an issue in live-action media. That’s why I’d like to take a moment to talk about two recent things I watched:  Amazon Prime’s Cinderella and Netflix’s Squid Game. What do these two experiences have in common when it comes to accessibility, and why anime licensors and distributors should be taking a page from their books? Well, you’ll have to read on to find that one out.

The Cinderella Experience

For the ease of conversation, I’ll be breaking each of the two examples out into their own categories. I want to first start with the new Cinderella film because this one actually took me by surprise as opposed to Squid Game in terms of what it had to offer when it comes to accessibility in media. Kind of wild to think since the film is a bit of a mess, but Amazon really went all out on this one, at least when it comes to getting as many eyeballs as possible to view it.

Naturally, Amazon did do the obvious thing and upload the film with several language tracks available for its viewing audience. I don’t think any of you would be surprised by that. When it comes to today’s streaming experience, this is more-or-less the norm. The barest minimum that companies tend to strive for, at least when it comes to live-action film and TV created in the past few years as, understandably, it isn’t always possible or realistic to do so for older titles (not to mention financially viable).

This kind of action is what many of us would consider to be a “common sense” move. It doesn’t take a business degree to figure out that more people watching your stuff equates to more money lining your pockets. Therefore, it’s in a company’s best interest to provide these different language tracks, especially when said company is launching a piece of media globally. So getting back to Cinderella, what exactly did it do beyond that? To understand this, and the larger point I’m trying to make, let me tell you a story.

When I first sat down to watch this film my expectations were low. My good friend K at the Movies along with other reviewers had promised me a terrible film, which is kind of my jam, so of course I wanted to check it out. Booted it up with a buddy and the film defaulted in Japanese of all things, which was confusing. Naturally, I went and changed it to the English settings but here’s where things get interesting, the most “obvious” English option isn’t what you’d expect. Any guesses? Well turns out, I had turned on the English version with audio descriptions for the blind by accident. The movie started, and I went, “huh, that’s a weird choice for the film” before having my friend point out what I had done. Here’s the thing though, it didn’t bother me at all and felt just fine for the film.

When it comes to this kind of audio description option, it’s a rare thing I almost never see. Do I personally need it? No. However, more people than you may think benefit from this accessibility option. In the US alone, around 12 million people, just counting those over the age of 40, experience some kind of visual impairment with only 3 million of those having some kind of corrective measures taken. While it is true that not all of these cases are severe, that is a decent chunk of the population that can see potential upside to this kind of accessibility option.

What’s more is how easy Amazon actually made choosing this option. It was buried in the menu like the standard English language track where the audio description version was right at the top. This is great user design from an accessibility standpoint, even if it is somewhat confusing or inconvenient to the standard user. That means there’s still room for improvement, but it’s a step in the right direction that in no way detracts from the original version.

As a result, I’d really like to see anime tackle this kind of thing. Now I’m aware that it wouldn’t necessarily be practical on every show or film, but for some it would absolutely work. Imagine Violet Evergarden, or one of the bigger Netflix properties doing this. They have the resources to pull that off, and if people knew about it, I’m sure that enough precedent would be set for other companies to take a chance on occasionally offering this sort of thing.

Please take a moment to enjoy this short clip from… several years ago (goes to show how little effort/progress has gone into making this sort of thing more available)

In my research, it took a lot of effort to find any anime that even had audio descriptions, and to no surprise, Netflix is really the only one attempting this having some success on the Japanese side of things (meaning English, let alone other languages don’t really have this), but even then it’s not a lot (source there are more threads like this). For live-action, this practice is actually extremely common and a place where I believe the anime industry absolutely falls short. Even if it’s not the most profitable option, it’s a shame that it hasn’t even really been tried.

Squid Game’s Explosive Success

I’m sure you’ve been waiting for me to talk about this one! Squid Game has seemingly taken the world by storm and I think there’s good reason behind it. For a Korean drama it does a great job avoiding (up until the end) most of the trappings of that kind of programing while delivering a fun death game scenario with some minor shake ups that leave it feeling rather refreshing overall. I do think it falls short at the end, as it leaves a few things unexplored for the inevitable sequel, but the casting, sets, and everything else really is quite engaging, largely making up for that.

Some people may be surprised to learn that this is actually an original story that isn’t based on a manga like this sort of thing so often is. In fact, the entire history behind this series is quite interesting and something I encourage you to look into more on your own. It’s been waiting since 2018 to get its shot, and now that it has, well, you’ve seen the results! It’s hard not to see the influences from anime like Kaiji or series such as Liar Game, which are things you may wish to check out if you liked this.

The reason I’d like to talk about this show though is the fact that it has been dubbed over, rather well might I add, in multiple languages. This kind of ADR work is actually fairly common in live-action media, something we discussed above with the Cinderella film, almost becoming the bare minimum for most modern products, but something I don’t think a lot of English speaking individuals might realize. It’s not as if Squid Game was the first show to do this on Netflix, and it won’t be the last, however, it may be the first time someone like you have been exposed to it.

I’ve actually watched several, mostly Korean, dramas on Netflix using this method. Often prominent voice talent is used, the acting is somewhat campy at times, but otherwise there, and best of all, I’m able to fully enjoy the programming in a way that’s much easier for me. While it may not be as good as anime often is nowadays, this too is a form of accessibility that you may not have even realized you wanted, especially if you don’t watch much foreign media.

I said earlier the sub vs dub debate doesn’t really happen outside of anime circles, but that was kind of a lie. It does happen here, and as I mentioned above, this kind of thing still isn’t quite there all the time. Still, that doesn’t diminish the value of such work. The fact that this is increasingly more common is proof enough that this kind of thing is seen as valuable, even if not all works receive the treatment. This is more the point I wish to make.

For me, I have a difficult time with subtitles, especially after an extended period. I have a neurological disorder that makes focusing and sitting still in a way where I can read said subtitles for a long time quite uncomfortable, if not impossible. Now obviously I do watch subtitled media, my extensive anime review history is proof of that, but if a dub is available I’ll almost always pick it. Hence, when Squid Game gave me the option, I jumped on that immediately.

I find I miss a lot less, am able to focus better, and staying in the media is a lot easier (meaning I need fewer breaks). This story is all too common in others who also value this kind of accessibility option. Are we getting a worse experience? Maybe sometimes, but it isn’t as if the original work is magically tarnished or diminished by the existence of dubbed works. Might I find some faults in this version? Yes, of course, but I promise if I listened to the original Korean version, I would find faults there as well.

The question of accuracy is often raised when this type of discussion is brought about. That somehow the original meaning is warped or lost entirely, but I find this argument to be fundamentally flawed as subtitles themselves are a form of translation, they too are just as interpretive. I’m not here to say that one is superior, or that you should feel badly for enjoying one form more than the other, but rather for understanding in the value of said accessibility, it allows for many more to enjoy the work.

For Squid Game, though I do not have concrete numbers or proof, my informal asking around has shown that a lot of people did watch this in English. Now some were unaware that this wasn’t actually in English to begin with, but I think that only makes the point more valid. Today it’s harder to tell that ADR work has been done, it really has improved since 1954, which is one of the earliest examples I could find of such a thing occurring.

Even with the uniqueness of Squid Game, had it only been available in Korean with subtitles, I do not think it would have taken off as much as it has. Just looking at other break out media from foreign countries is proof enough of that. For examples that my audience may recognize, look at One Punch Man, Attack on Titan or Demon Slayer, both having English dubs and easily found on major platforms. There’s real incentive to do this kind of thing, even if it isn’t for accessibility alone, because today eyeballs = profits, and this is one easy way to get that.

Why the Anime Industry Should Care

At the end of the day, why does any of this matter? For a lot of folks these options aren’t necessary or are nice little bonuses. While that can certainly be the case, I believe I’ve made a compelling case for why these kinds of services should be expanded in the anime industry where only some of these practices have even started becoming more available.

Non-English dubs of anime have been a thing for awhile, but it hasn’t been until recent years that major players in the distribution game like Crunchyroll have begun to take them seriously, expanding their catalog with dubs of several recent series, each in several languages. This is a positive step that is owed a lot to the precedent laid down in live-action media, a proven model of success for this kind of accessibility.

However, the anime industry still falls short of providing a truly inclusive experience as I mentioned in my Cinderella section. A company like Funimation is seriously missing a big opportunity to offer audio descriptions in some of their works. Not only would this be a show of good will to the community, but it is a potential opportunity to see increased revenue from an underserved population as anime only continues to become more and more popular with a general audience.

In a world where social changes like this are pushed every day, it’s weird to me that this aspect of society is often overlooked. Most abled individuals just don’t consider this stuff, not necessarily out of spite or malicious intent, but because they don’t always need these services. I’m not here to place blame, but to ask for understanding. Go out and advocate for this kind of thing, because if you don’t, well things just aren’t likely to change. Doing so may not benefit you directly, but who doesn’t want their favorite show or film to be enjoyed by everyone?


Thanks for joining me on a fairly informal look at accessibility in media. I sincerely hope you enjoyed this, and if you did, please consider sharing it with some of the bigger companies along with your thoughts for why they should look into expanding these kind of options. What media do you think could benefit from this sort of thing? Let me know in the comments below. If you want to support my work and see more stuff like this, then consider a donation via the buttons below. Finally, one last thank you for taking the time, and see you in the next one!

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22 thoughts on “Found in Translation – A Discussion on Accessibility in Media

  1. Live action foreign language films being dubbed into English is an age old issue. I’m sure you are aware of the horrific dubbing of the old Godzilla and kung fu movies in the 60s and 70s. I am surprised they still do this today when subtitles are more accepted – at least here in the UK – but I guess this suits the blind too.

    If you have ever read any of my film reviews, you’ll know there is a regular issue with modern home media (and streaming) releases not having HOH subtitles for deaf/hearing impaired folk like me; worst still they don’t subtitle English dialogue in foreign language films which is also a nightmare, due to thick accents, poor delivery, and poor sound mixing.

    But, to avoid sounding selfish, I often wonder if people in non-English countries feel the same about subtitles or are happy with dubbed dialogue? Maybe English is a universal enough language many people don’t need translations, though this doesn’t apply to someone in Spain watching Japanese cinema.

    Some company’s like Disney and Universal load up their home media releases with numerous subtitles and language options to cover most territories which is something ALL distributors should do as a matter of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As mentioned, it’s gotten a lot better and the practice is generally an accepted one. It’s just an option like any other.

      Yes, this is a thing that has been brought up a lot and something that should change. The inconsistencies of this sort of thing is a problem.

      Ideally, yeah, agree.

      Thanks for reading and weighing in 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m all for pointing out the benefits of accessibility changes and encouraging industries to adopt them, but I don’t really understand why this is particularly a problem for the anime industry. If you’re just saying that these are some things you’ve seen recently that you think all media would benefit from, I’d be hard-pressed to find an issue with that. But if we’re acknowledging that Japanese Netflix is already making improvements in this area, then it seems more like a matter of what different companies are willing to do, rather than genres of media. I’d personally be fine with the idea that the industry seem to be trending in the right direction, and I’d hope that it continues along those lines.

    And as an additional note, the idea that Squid Game owes a lot of its success specifically to these elements seems kind of unsubstantiated. I’m more than willing to acknowledge that there were those who watched the series that wouldn’t have watched it otherwise, but it doesn’t mean that it was a significant number. I’d be happy if it was a significant number. I think it’s great.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate you taking the time to read a comment. This was by no means an extensive article, so allow me to clarify some of the questions/points you raise here in your comment.

      When it comes to all media, yes all would benefit from this but there have been fairly solid efforts in most industries except for anime. As I mention in the article, JP Netflix has made some efforts here but they have been on kind of random products, not at all promoted, and of course, only applies to the JP side of things which doesn’t really help anyone else.

      As for what companies are willing to do, I wager that this isn’t an issue that’s necessarily in the forefront of their minds. I’m hoping that this article provides some optics and opportunities for people to tell their stories and ask for these kinds of changes. If nobody asks, nothing changes. Believe me, after doing a lot of research I read a lot of accounts of people asking for this kind of thing but in places like Reddit, where visibility is low.

      That said, it’s not like the entertainment industry is totally dropping the ball, just that it could do better. I hope that clarifies the initial question for you.

      The second point, unfortunately, is hard to say definitively as I can’t prove a negative. However, you make the point I would that foreign language media often has this hurdle when it’s subtitled only. Looking at something like Parasite and the flood of comments it received after winning an award (Not in English? Not going to watch! Etc…), for example, is enough evidence for me to make this kind of claim comfortably. A lot of the discourse on Squid Game against the dub is that it simply shouldn’t have one, which doesn’t make sense. It’s good to have the option, which is the larger point I’m making.

      Thank you again for reading, hope these additional comments clarify things for you.

      Like

      1. Like I said, I don’t have a problem with saying that the entertainment industry could do better. And I started by saying that pointing these things out and raising awareness is good. I’m just having trouble with this idea that the anime industry has a unique problem here. Adding audio descriptions even if they’re only in Japanese seems like a discrete step in the right direction, even if it’s not at an ideal state. Providing dubs in languages other than English also seems like a step in the right direction. It’s hard for me not to get the impression that you’re judging the anime industry against the best examples you can find in overall media, which seems unfair.

        For the second point, it’s not really proving a negative, right? That being said, I’m willing to grant that you can’t just rewind the clock and see how the series would perform without accessibility components, but that’s kind of my point. There are people who wouldn’t have watched otherwise that were convinced to watch because of accessibility, and that’s great. Isn’t that good enough?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I appreciate you saying so, however, please do not misunderstand that I am not cherry picking examples and unfairly portraying the anime industry. I call that industry out specifically because there is less communication with these issues, and while steps have been taken, which I do praise, compared to other forms of media often the bare minimum is done if at all.

          For this second bit, I think we both agree here overall so… yes? Again, thanks for reading and commenting.

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          1. Am I just missing something here? I see audio descriptions in Korean for Squid Game, so I don’t see why that’s different from anime with Japanese audio descriptions. In addition to that, a lot of Korean shows on Netflix are only available with Korean dubbing, whereas anime very often has at least English dubbing if not more languages.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Look, I’ve kind of accepted that no amount of explanation or further conversation with you will be fruitful for either of us. You seem to really want to nit-pick every aspect of this article. The point was to draw some attention to an issue that I noticed in the anime industry, it’s not that it doesn’t exist at all in other industries, but they tend to be consistent and generally better about it.

              If you disagree with my article or anything I’ve said, by all means, write your own and run with it. I know you came here from Cartoon Cipher’s share (which I really appreciated), which they would not have done if this conversation was lacking in merit since I’ve had discussions with them in the past.

              Finally, I want to again remind you that this is NOT a deep dive on the topic. This is purely for optics on an issue, my goal wasn’t to make a 100% thorough peer reviewed thesis. Sorry, this probably reads as hostile, which really isn’t my intention, but I am getting frustrated by your continued comments when I’ve explained myself and added clarification numerous times.

              Like

              1. Alright then, it seems we’ve gotten to a strange place. I can state for the record that I have no idea who Cartoon Cipher is, but at this point, I’m not sure what that’s worth at this point. Also, the main point I’ve been pushing is that I’m curious why the anime industry is specifically being singled out here. If it’s just because it’s an industry you’re familiar with, that’s fine if you acknowledge that. But my impression so far is that the statements being made have been broad, so I don’t consider that to be clarification.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Yeah, it seems to be the case that we are missing each other here. I also seem to have confused with another user to the Cartoon Cipher point, sorry about that (they talk about the anime industry, specifically the dubbing side of things).

                  I’ve singled out the anime industry because it’s what my website is primarily focused on. That said, that industry in particular is behind compared to other industries when it comes to accessibility. Be that with inconsistent closed captioning, audio descriptions, or anything else. Yes, my article is broad, but that is necessary for engagement purposes as well as simply explaining an issue that many people just don’t know about. If you disagree with my methodology, that’s fine, again, please feel free to write your own article but I also kindly ask you refrain from implying I did not do adequate research or presented the information unfairly.

                  Anyway, let’s call it good here. I’m sure we both have better things to do with our lives at this point.

                  Like

  3. Great article! Not that you need to know my stance on subs vs. dubs, but subtitles really help me comprehend what’s being said (especially when different accents are involved), so at the minimum, it would be nice if all dubbed things have a subtitle option. Not every anime streaming platform has that, but it’s nice to see that it’s starting to become a norm!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. How important are the facial expressions and gestures, cadence and intonation and inflection to making a foreign language film understandable? To me they are very important.

    I read the subs for what is literally being said but I listen to the voices and watch the faces for how it is being said. How is often just as important as what. Even if I didn’t have the subs, I’d still have a rough idea of what was being communicated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sure, communication is made up of a lot of information and if you can be given all of it that is obviously ideal. That’s not really the point(s) I’m trying to make here in the article though, so to me, this comment is confusing. Yes, I agree on the basic idea here but this isn’t something everyone can do (deaf, blind, etc…).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post! And I definitely agree that any kind of accessibility/inclusivity will help at least a portion of people, no matter how big or small. It’s something companies should put more effort into. I also understand where people come from when they encourage watching these non-US products with subs. This effort probably targets the same group of people who leave 1-star reviews to manga for being “printed backwards”. 🙂

    I’m an able-bodied person, but because of motion-sickness there are a lot of games I can’t play more than 2 minutes. When a game included a point in the middle of the screen where I can focus as I go around without feeling nauseated, I remember being incredibly happy. I can only imagine how people with disabilities might feel for being invisible to companies even though they, as you mentioned, are a good percentage of the population.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and I appreciate you taking the time to share your experiences as well. When I learned about this, it was kind of surprising, so I wanted to shed some more light on it even if it wasn’t the entire focus of the article.

      If you can, I have a post on Twitter using #Anime4Blind, please share that and let companies know this is something you support. That would be very helpful.

      Thanks again for reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This was a very interesting read, yeah Dub vs. Sub debate exists in live-action it’s just less common as it’s harder to lip sync or match voices to a real person.

    Yeah, I mean besides Cinderella having a bigger budget as movies tend to do I was trying to come up with maybe the “why”. Maybe Japan is still into cable TV which tends to lean more national or anime is more considered a “visual medium”.

    It would be interesting to interview a blind anime fan which I’m sure exists, anime has very expressive voice performances and like anything is telling a story.

    Yeah a lot of food for thought so I appreciate it. Maybe you just got to watch Cruella with audio descriptions on?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well the funny thing about all this is that Japan is the only place actively trying to do audio captioned anime, it’s just very slim pickings and only Netflix titles from what I could tell. So I guess I should say Japanese Netflix is trying.

      To the first point though, I’ve actually found that recent ADR work for dubbed over live-action series ranges from decent to pretty good. I can tell it’s dubbed over, but it isn’t distracting. My point in the article is that the average person isn’t able to tell most of the time, which is a good thing.

      To the third point, of course! I actually researched that pretty extensively, which is how I learned Jojo is on of the favorites lol. That point amuses me but it makes a lot of sense. Characters often describe their own actions or the actions of other parties while loudly proclaiming the use of a move.

      Haha, yeah I might just have to.

      Liked by 1 person

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