“More subtitles!” says Japan (and me)

An recent article which popped up on my daily trawl through the internets got me thinking about subtitles in videogames. The article reports that a survey taken by game journalists in 2007 found that Japanese gamers prefer to read rather than listen. That is, they prefer captions in their videogames as opposed to voiceovers.

The article doesn’t cite the original study, which isn’t really the best of practice, but that’s irrelevant. I started pondering what significance captions would have in a medium and industry that is forever placing a greater emphasis on effective localization.

There are obvious practicality issues with captions, as the article points out. It’s not news to anyone that there are limitations on how effectively captions can communicate intonation and emotion, not least when it has been quickly translated between contrasting languages with vastly differing grammatical and cultural codes. The original article does have some funny examples of translation gone wrong, proving that it is easier said than done (or written, hahaha).

Surely then, as production budgets and international audiences swell, greater localization with re-dubbing in other languages is a good thing? We can all comfortably listen to our favorite characters waffle on in our mother tongues! It is here that there is a slight problem, whenever I watch a non-English language film, I never, ever resort to dubbing rather than subtitles. The performance of the original actors with all their intonation and emotion, though I don’t know the language, is enough for me to keep the audio intact without settling for substandard dubbing.

The obvious difference between cinema and videogames is that there isn’t the audio-visual connection between the words out of the characters mouths and the movements of their mouths, even with current-gen technology lip synching is still less than perfect. Furthermore, there isn’t the same relationship between actor and audience that there is in the movies. Bar, perhaps, the likes of David Haytor as Solid Snake or Tara Strong as Rikku, there are few videogame voice actors with anything of a name for themselves.

The lack of this connection might be enough to argue that we have no personal relation with the actors and their voices are interchangeable. However, I know for a fact that a huge number of anime fans, myself included, still watch in Japanese with captions, though we do not know the actors.

The point that I’m trying to draw from all this like blood from a stone is that captions, while irrelevant in the eyes of many (especially native English speakers for whom most things are either in English originally or translated quickly), may still have a valuable role to play among those who don’t see foreign languages as something to shy away from.