While there will forever be an ongoing debate as to whether sub or dub is the paramount form of foreign animation, it is an undeniable fact that many English-language iterations have achieved cult status among the West.
From series such as 'Pokemon', 'Dragon Ball Z', 'Full Metal Alchemist' and more, to the epic feature of Studio Ghibli, ‘Ghost in the Shell’, and Akira, a countless list of projects have resonated with Western audiences just as strongly as they have among those of their home countries. This, of course, owes largely to the amazing premise, visuals, and music of the production which is universal in nature, but it is rare that fans are aware of, or even contemplate, the full scope of what goes into translating such a work for an English-speaking audience.
One of the most vital and key roles to the success of an English-language adaptation is sadly one of the most overlooked. Adaptive writers are central in making a production reach its full potential among their appropriated audience and yet it is a role many have never heard of.
Those who have often commonly, and incorrectly, assume that a script’s journey from its native language to English merely involves a simple process akin to an entry into Google translate, but this could not be further from the truth.
Adaptive writers are tasked with a range of obstacles that require great creativity, intellect, and artistic prowess.
The dialogue itself does not often translate directly to English in a manner that is understandable, nor one that pertains to the differing sensibilities of the Western audience. Jokes that may reference local customs or ones based on puns are likely to miss their mark in English without the artful guidance of the adaptive writer. In their hands, comedy, drama, romance, horror, and more are sculpted to a much more resonating effect thatbetter fits its intended audience. Even references to something as simple as food items are often refashioned, a trait which you may have seen in work such as ‘Pokemon’ where the typical Japanese snack of rice balls is often referred to as “sandwiches”.
Not only must the English dialogue make sense and present great artistic merit in its use of wording, as any great screen writer would aspire to, but the words themselves must fit to the pre-set mouth flaps of the animation. For those unfamiliar with this term, mouth flaps are the animation movements given to a character’s mouth as they shape the vowels of each word they use - movements which are obviously crafted to their original language. Attempting to fit the translated wording within the rigidly timed and shaped mouth flaps is a momentous task that requires hours of precise honing, trial and error, and lingual expertise.
While those tasks alone warrant an immense amount of acclaim, one of the most influential and inspiring jobs of the adaptive writer is their exploration of character through the updates script. This may seem like an aspect that would be very much pre-determined by the original writing, but that is not entirely the case as adaptive writers are given the opportunity to fully flesh out characters and explore their inner working on a level that may differ to the way it is presented in its original production. A character who may be offer a more timid or auxiliary role in a Japanese anime, for example, may be presented in a much stronger light when re-crafted for the English script. One who seems apathetic in their wording or delivery may be suddenly illuminated by an aura of humility that carries them to a level of cult icon among their Western audience, despite their original appearance. Many of the characters that resonate so strongly with audiences, and ones who are so often perceived as “family”, may not, in fact, be presented in an identical fashion when they appear in their original foreign language form. That is not to say that the writers intentionally alter the characters or change their essence, as they clearly have great respect for the original work, but merely that they can polish the characters to allow them to truly shine to their ultimate potential in their new and adapted world. It is for these reasons and more that great reverence must be given to the adaptive writers.
Those who have viewed both the sub and dub versions of a particular title may notice the disparity between them, both in character development and overall atmosphere of the production. It is not uncommon to turn on subtitles while watching an English dub only to find the wording not fully aligning with the dialogue, and this is largely due to the work of the adaptive writers.
It may seem like iconic characters such as Goku, Ash Ketchum, Chihiro, Kiki, Major Kusanagi, or Tetsuo are ones who would transcend the bounds of language with qualities that relate to an international audience, but a great deal of that effect is due to the talent of their adaptive writers.
It is thus a great sadness that knowledge of their work is so often overlooked and even difficult to locate on something as expansive as the internet. As such, we have located the talented team behind some of the most popular productions in an effort to highlight their exceptional work, with hopes that it will inspire you in your future viewings of a translated film, series, or short, to take a moment to look to the credits and acknowledge the brilliant minds that offer you such an incredible gift.
Production - English Script Adapted By
- Spirited Away - Cindy Davis Hewitt, Donald H. Hewitt
- Princess Mononoke - Neil Gaiman
- Kiki’s Delivery Service - John Semper, Jack Fletcher
- My Neighbor Totoro - Cindy Davis Hewitt, Donald H. Hewitt
- Howl’s Moving Castle - Cindy Davis Hewitt, Donald H. Hewitt
- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time - Kevin McKeown, Kathleen Westlake
- Wolf Children - Patric Seitz
- 5 Centimeters Per Second - Alex Von David
- Akira - Michael Haller (1989 version) & Julie Phelan (script supervisor, 1989 version), Heidi Wilbur (2001)
- Ghost in the Shell - Kevin Seymour (as Quint Lancaster), Mary Mason
- Perfect Blue - Lia Sargent
- Summer Wars - John Burgmeier, Patrick Seitz
- Ninja Scroll - Raymond Garcia
- The Boy and the Beast - Bonny Clinkenbeard
- Ernest and Celestine - Stephanie Sheh
- Dragon Ball Z - Neil Bligh, John Burgmeier, Chris Forbis, Eric Vale, Steven J. Simmons, Andrew Rye
- Cowboy Bebop - Marc Handler
- Neon Genesis Evangelion - Matt Greenfield
- Gurren Lagan - Monica Rial
- Psycho Pass - John Burgmeier (head writer), Blair Rowan, Jared Hedges
- Naruto - Steve Blum, Marc Handler
- Bleach - Jessica Renslow, Liam O’Brien
- Death Note - Stephen Hedley
- FLCL - Marc Handler
- Code Geasse: Lelouch of the Rebellion - Marc Handler
- Tokyo Ghoul - John Burgmeier, Aaron Dismuke, Josh Grelle, Monia Rial
- Steins;Gate - J. Michael Tatum, Patrick Seitz
- Attack on Titan - John Burgmeier, J. Michael Tatum
- Pokemon - Kathy Pilon, David Sartorius, Stewart Ferris, Crispin Freeman, Michael Haigney, Thomas D. Sullivan, John Touhey, Matthew J Clark Sr, Arthur “Sam” Marukami, Mark Ryan, Norman J Grossfeld