I’ve been watching a lot of anime DVDs lately, and I noticed that the English subtitles are usually different from the dubbed English voices. My guess is that the subtitles are a literal translation, but the dubs try to capture more of the emotional essence of the original. I can’t tell for sure since I don’t speak Japanese. Any bilingual anime fans want to enlighten me?
Subtitles are intended for “purists”, and you’re right, they tend to be more literal translations. In something like Princess Mononoke, the dub script has been rewritten a bit to explain to American audiences things that would be obvious to Japanese audiences. Dubs are also Americanized in language, because lines that are spoken have to be to sound natural. If you’re watching anime intended for children, the dub will likely have lines added in to fill quiet space, to cover deaths, sexual situations and drug use, or even to change plot lines.
I seem to remember that another consideration in making a dub is that the new dialogue has to be synched up with the lips moving onscreen. This sometimes means adding, dropping, or reordering a word or two. (Here’s a game for you…you ever notice that anime characters usually say "What’s that?" when most english-speaking characters would say “What?” They were probably saying “Nani?” in Japanese, which has an additional syllable that the dubbers have to cover for.)
And, of course, there’s the occasional censoring. Like taking out homoerotic subplots, or substituting “destroy” for “kill.”
Luckily, fan outcry, among other things, has pretty much done away with dubtitles (that is, subtitles that are only the dub script.) A massive petition and grassroots campaign is credited with getting Princess Mononoke released with an accurate subtitle script and the original Japanese language track. This was a big deal as Mononoke was the first really big anime movie released on DVD and I believe the first one released by a major distributor. DVD is, quite frankly, the best thing that ever happened to the anime market in America. Of course, fans being what they are, there are always debates over whether or not honorifics should be translated in the subtitles or left alone, how best to subtitle a show, how much dialogue (especially incidental backgroun dialogue) should be subtitled, and the like. If you’re curious about what differences there are between the original Japanese versions and what’s released in North America, try Jim Lazar’s Anime Prime.
There have been major changes in a lot of animes that, in my opinion, should never have happened. Things like Pokemon are excepted for the sheer requirements needed to make it a “kid-friendly” show from what I’m talking about, though I hate all those changes too, as well as that generally the American licensor refuses to release an uncut subtitled version. The only exception I can think of is Card Captor Sakura. Sorcerous Stabber Orphen (a fantasy anime series I recommend), for example, has massive amounts of changes in the dub and ADV caught a lot of flack for it. CPM (I think it was CPM) for Slayers toned down the language used in the casting of the Dragon Slave.
The good thing is, as I said, it’s happening less and less as the anime market gets bigger and the fans pickier. Also, the distributors are starting to get more clout, especially ADV.