Put simply, fansubs are usually better. Here are my comments about it when psygremlin at Mangaforums asked about mangled fansubs. I honestly couldn't think of any I'd seen in recent memory that really butchered the dialog. Scanslations, yes, but not fansubs.
I know a little Japanese. I try to learn a little more every day. One easy way to do this is by osmosis from subbed anime. Here's what I've decided about subs:
1) Commercial subs are, at best, as good as average fansubs. Most of the time, they're worse. If you're really unlucky, they used the dub script for the subs, and so you have mangled meaning both from translation errors and from the dub director's edits to retime to mouth motion. If you're doubleplus-unlucky, you get something like the Disney sub track for Kiki's Delivery Service, which includes lots of annoying patter that doesn't even exist on the Japanese voice track and whose only purpose seems to be to distract from the beautiful pictures on the screen. (insert generic I-hate-Michael-Eisner rant here).
2) Fansubs (and manga scanslations) sometimes suffer because the source material for translation isn't a Japanese soundtrack, but a commercial or pirate Chinese or Korean dub or sub track. Nothing like two layers of translation to ruin your day. The problem, simply put, is that there are a lot more people who can, and choose to, translate Chinese or Korean into English than can translate Japanese.
3) Fansubs, most of the time, are labors of love, and fansubbers take them seriously. This may result in slow release schedules, but usually means good product. Generally speaking, the more widely popular the content, (consider Welcome to the NHK versus Slayers), the more care is taken in translation. Likewise, standards have gone up over the years. I have yet to find good subs of the Captain Harlock series, and the subs of Devil Hunter Yohko are pretty weak as well, but the average sub of last season's stuff is generally pretty good. I'm grateful there are groups out there like Central Anime who are currently doing a great job subbing stuff from my childhood like the Yamato series. (You guys rock!).
Likewise, there's talk now (mostly due to the strong underground fan support) of releasing a licensed R1 DVD set of Simoun. English-speaking Simoun fans are of two minds on this: On the upside, we'd get direct-to-DVD video quality. On the downside, it's unlikely at best that the subs that shipped on the DVD would be as careful, nuanced, and generally good as the ones done by Simoun-Fans (you guys rock, too!). So I guess I'd end up ripping the R1 DVDs to computer, building subs in from the Simoun-Fans subs, and then burning new viewing copies. Please, Simoun DVD people - if you're reading this - just use the Simoun-Fans subs - they'd license them for free I'm certain.
4) Fansubs, at their best are so full of otaku goodness that there's no way that a business would dare release shrink-wrapped DVDs with their content. Consider the detail in the Solar subs of Honey and Clover, where literally any piece of readable text in the frame is translated in a matching font. Sure, it takes three rewinds to read it all, but who cares? It's great, and adds a lot of meaning and depth to the scene. Oh, and yes, I did catch them in one translation error in all 41 (I think?) episodes of H&C they subbed, but it was minor. Careful sub work like this or Oyasumi's work on Welcome to the NHK (which translates the ads on the trains in Tokyo) just doesn't happen if somebody has to make a living from it. (You guys rock, too!)
Frankly, I've read a lot more creaky manga scanslations that creaky anime subs. Some of the chapters of Fruits Basket I have require considerable mental editing before a coherent English sentence emerges. Chobits was another one that I feel like deserves a best-possible scanslation and hasn't had one.
Originally Posted by psygremlin
I agree with the comments above. My intention wasn't to disparage the translators (who do a sterling effort!) but more to see if there are any classic examples of Engrish that crop up from time to time. Funnily enough, I've found the translations in scanlations to be better in some cases than in the licenced mangas - the latter often seem to suffer from mild censorship (*grumble*) that does then lose something in translation.
More often than not, I would say it's not Engrish you get as much as hybrid grammar. For instance, the Japanese equivalent of an indefinite third-person pronoun is "ano hito." This translates literally as "that person." Sure enough, you see "that person" a lot in scanslated manga, and it's often used as an indefinite, rather than a reference to a particular person. English, of course, has a perfectly good indefinite third-person pronoun as well - "one." Example: "One should be neither a debtor nor a lender." It's sexless (remember, words have gender, people have sex, and personal pronouns refer to people), and is therefore a perfect synonym.
Most of the time when 'ano hito' is used in an indefinite sense, 'one' is the only grammatically correct and logically consistent translation. But nobody ever seems to use it.
A lot of times I'll see someone's sentence stretch across two bubbles, and the grammar won't make good sense in English, because predicate phrases and verbs usually need to be switched around. This is a case of translating the bubbles correctly, but not the sentence.
And then there are sound effects. Some, like the 'gacha' a sliding door makes opening or closing are great and should be left alone or just rendered in the roman alphabet. I've actually gotten used to doki doki and dokun for heartbeats (in either katakana or romaji), and never have liked translations to 'ba-dum' or 'thump' because neither is specifically an onomatopoeia that only a heart makes like 'doki doki' is, and it can sometimes confuse the reader instead of explaining something.
Another area of complaint: Japanese uses a number of ritual set phrases. These are always the same, and carry a certain formality simply because they're rituals. Accordingly, they logically should be translated the same, and in a way that makes sense. 'Hajimemashite' generally does OK ('nice to/pleased to meet you'), but 'yoroshiku onegai shimasu' is frankly difficult to literally translate into English, because we don't use such formalisms in English any more. Perhaps the closest real English phrase would be something like "Hail and well met," or "May the sun shine upon the hour of our meeting." but they're both medieval. It'd be nice to see these used in a sword-and-sandals manga, though, since they're usually set in Japan's feudal period - using feudal English would be a good fit. Perhaps something like 'I hope we'll be friends' might not be out of place most of the time.
A common mistake is with 'onegai shimasu' and its variants. This phrase is usually translated as 'please.' But a bunch of different words and phrases can be translated into 'please,' and don't mean the same thing. 'Onegai shimasu' has overtones of humbly beseeching (it's what you say at the shrine when praying for something from a god). Just translating it as 'please' often isn't strong enough.
A lot of times its these ritual phrases that trip up translators who aren't native speakers of Japanese. They get mistakenly literally translated, so unless the reader knows that it's a ritual phrase, he don't understand that there's probably more gravity and formality to the situation than the literal meaning of the words suggests. The phrases used for "lets go steady/let's get engaged" are frequent victims.
A last example is poor modeling of degrees of completeness and politeness. You've probably noticed that girls generally say 'gomen nasai' when they are making heartfelt apologies. Guys, being in a more dominant position in society, generally get by with a bowed head and 'gomen...' A 'gomen...' from a girl means she either is not as worried about appeasing the recipient of the apology or she doesn't take the offense all that seriously. Frequently, the translators will miss one or the other case. A guy actually saying all of 'gomen nasai' while bowing is really profoundly apologizing (sometimes in a comic over-the-top way). A female needing the same degree of apology would probably have to raise her voice, repeat it several times, or abase herself to get the same level of intensity. Insults work the same way...
So that's the sort of thing I see most often wrong with fan translations. All of this said, they're still generally drastically better than some of the evil things that commercial firms have done to manga and anime to supposedly dumb down/broaden appeal to the western market. You know, if you take all the seasoning out of something, it becomes bland, and nobody likes bland. Tokyopop's earlier efforts on Fruits Basket (de-pervifying Shigure, among other things) as pointed out by Sephiroth's Samurai Girl (hard working translator) are a great example why I won't be buying the Tokyopop tanks of Furuba ever.