Why are dubbed movies/shows and their subtitles so off from each other?


I love anime and a lot of foreign films/shows that are on Netflix. I mostly watch in the original audio, but sometimes watch with dubbed audio because the subtitles are not great. I’ve always noticed though, that the subtitles are way off from the dubbed audio. I’m assuming that they’re done separately, but why wouldn’t the studio try to sync them up as best as possible? Looking for any linguists out there to shed some light.

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This bothers me too. I always find myself wishing that they’d do the subs based on the dubs, or if the subs are already done first, just read the subs as the dub “script.”

You’re correct that they’re done separately, and they’re also done with slightly different objectives:

The subs are trying to explain what the actors are trying to express. Suppose emphasis is given at the end of a sentence, but the foreign language follows subject-object-verb order (instead of subject-verb-object, like what English uses). This means the emphasis is actually on the *verb* and the translator has to move the sentence around in some way to get the verb to the end, or otherwise rephrase it to make it clear it’s the verb that’s being emphasized.

The dubs are replacing the voices altogether, trying both to match **both** the natural mannerisms of an English speaker and the lip movements and body language of the character as best as possible. This means the translation often has to move words within sentences (and even entire sentences) around to match that as best as they can.

In practice this difference doesn’t turn out too badly. Most audiences prefer either subs or dubs, but not both. I’m somewhat hard-of-hearing with spoken conversations so I have subs turned on, even when I’m watching a dub, and I really wish the subs would just be redone to the dub. But I also realize I’m in the minority. 🙂

There are a few reasons for this. As you said, subtitles and dubs are generally translated separately, by separate groups. Translation is a bit of an art. You can emphasize exactness of vocabulary, or the feeling that a native speaker would have hearing a particular word or phrase, or a multitude of other aspects, because it is very difficult or impossible to consistently get a translation of a sentence that is exactly 1:1 in both the literal meaning of the words, the layered meanings of the sentence, the way the sentence sounds, the tone, the register, etc.

This alone will result in slightly different translations of the same thing when different people are translating. Then you have to factor in that the dubs tend to have an extra constraint, where the translators will do their best to sync the timing, and sometimes even the specific mouth movements, as well as they can. This means that they often have to get creative in not just conveying the meaning, but conveying it in a way that fits the form of the conversation you are seeing.

Subtitles don’t have this restriction, and frequently you will get much more literal translations for subtitles that are giving you an exact translation of what was said, as close to word-for-word as possible. Meanwhile dub translations tend to be much looser, aiming for something that fits both the visually depicted flow of the conversation as well as something that will sound good when spoken aloud by whoever is dubbing.

The differences in these constraints, combined with how inexact translating is in general, means that the translations can often be very different in both word choice and general sentence structure.