Amidst the announcement of Dragon Ball FighterZ, a Guilty Gear-esque 3-on-3 fighting game based on the popular Dragon Ball franchise, one of the old debates between fans has cropped up: do you play with the Japanese voices or the English ones? Frequently, choices have to do with familiarity (what did you grow up on?), as well as the divisiveness of Nozawa Masako’s performance, which some fans see as not fitting for Son Goku’s masculine appearance.
Because of this, I began diving into old sub vs. dub threads, and to my surprise I found that quite a few people were also not big fans of Horikawa Ryo as Vegeta. On the occasions that commenters preferred Christopher Sabat’s Vegeta, it frequently had to do with Sabat making Vegeta sound more gruff and “badass.”
English and Japanese Vegeta have a lot in common. They’re both extremely arrogant and prideful, and even their caring sides will be expressed through anger. However, I find that each of them brings a different feel as well. If both of their performances could be likened to boulders (big and powerful), then Sabat’s Vegeta would be rough and jagged, while Horikawa’s would be smoothed and polished.
I’m beginning to wonder if the Horikawa-style Vegeta is somehow “lost in translation,” as if the effect doesn’t come across properly. The reason I’m considering this at all is that I also see other cases of similar characters coming across differently in English performances.
One example is Meta Knight in Smash Bros., who sounds more like a noble knight in Japanese but has a deep baritone in English. (In the dub of Kirby: Right Back at Ya!, they went for an odd Spanish accent, but that’s more a directing choice than anything else.) Would the effect Horikawa has as Vegeta work better if a voice akin to English Smash Meta Knight’s was used?
Another example is Kaiba Seto in Yu-Gi-Oh! In Japanese, Kaiba’s performance is more curt than anything else, like he has no time to waste on being nice or courteous. In English, Kaiba sounds more actively mocking and malicious. Would the former have not been as memorable? All of these different performances (as well as different scripts) can change people’s impressions to the point that they can almost be viewed as different characters.
I’d like to believe that it’s possible to successfully translate the feel and intent of a character at least for the most part when dubbing a series, but I have to consider whether or not cultural context actually changes how a given voice “sounds” to a person. It’s not uncommon to see dub anime fans complain about all the “high-pitched voices” in Japanese, but fans of Japanese voices might lobby the opposite criticism towards dub actors making high schoolers sound like 40-year-olds. It’s almost impossible to get an “objective” opinion on how a character sounds across different languages, especially because the actors themselves will slowly evolve their performances over time.
If dub Dragon Ball Z was ever able to perfectly adapt Horikawa’s Vegeta to English, would it actually have garnered him a somewhat different fanbase than he possesses now among English-speaking fans? Does the core character of Vegeta transcend voice, or is it a major factor in defining how the character lives?