Fansubs: Serious Business

By bluemist on May 31st, 2008

If you are an old reader of my blog, you would certainly notice that I do inject a lot more terms in Japanese today. I understand that this is indeed a bastardization of both languages, English and Japanese, but sometimes I can’t help it. How do you translate “tsundere” in English anyway? It’s hard to provide banter on new trends in anime without adhering to those new trends themselves.

This recent documentary about how bad anime fansubs are nowadays also was a bit of an eye-opener for me. Clearly the guy who made it has raised some spot-on points, although I would argue that he’s a bit barking at the wrong tree. Fansubs are NOT professional subtitling jobs! Hence the “fan” in fansubs right? Well he did mention that old fansubs are better, and I have no qualms about that. He’s right too, many old fansubs are on par with professional subtitles. The problem is, in this modern age of information overload, the term “fansub”, and maybe even “fan” itself, will have changed.

I wish there were a simpler way to explain to you readers every single aspect of this issue, but yup, even this trivial thing called “fall of fansubbing” can touch on issues such as dumbing down of societies, bastardization of languages, age gaps and divides, internet subcultures and memes, how anime is getting more Japanese-self-serving, west vs. east, population explosion and new demographics, piracy and gray-areas, the rise of moe~ anime, new words and new meanings of words, and a whole other bunch of stuff that spawned from information overload. But I don’t have the energy to write a novel-sized article nor spend hours and hours editing video proving my point over at YouTube. For more insight, maybe look elsewhere:

+ Dorama makers

As for me, I should just trickle it down to my own personal experiences to keep it short.

You see, it’s not just anime fansubs, but I have so many experiences of bad sentence structuring in real life. With the extremely fast pace of life and the demands of modern society, sometimes we really make sentence mistakes in speaking and writing. It is hard to return to the pure and perfect form of language like our parents and grandparents are using mainly because people are rarely pure and perfect anymore. Only linguists and professionals will be keen on one’s writing errors, but I can argue that even professionals are starting to become lax, mainly because modernizations are outdating them. Before I lose myself explaining again, the simple fact is this: more and more people are slacking off their language, and we can’t help but slack off because the avenues for pure and perfect language are losing ground. If we can’t exercise our language skills effectively anywhere, our languages are bound for failure.

The old anime fan crowd had it better. Back then since anime is not as popular as today, there is no immediate need to learn Japanese. So them viewers have it easy, just read and enjoy. We are not as lucky, because as we delve more and more into Japanese entertainment, there is a certain stigma to learn the language in order to, well… understand crappy fansubs. Did I just go around in circles? To get the good stuff, we had to not only learn Japanese, but learn Japanese culture, or maybe just the anime and otaku subculture. Otherwise, you wouldn’t understand half the jokes in an obscure parody anime like Lucky Star. New fansubs cater to our own demands for more information, and because we want more information, they show more information on-screen. (I don’t know where I’m going with this, maybe someone can find the root of the problem.)

Sometimes I think some anime producers are purposely making their anime “hard to translate”. Think about it, a otaku-based show like Genshiken didn’t exist in 1980s or 1990s. Even if it did, it would be few and far between. Nowadays more anime is catering to the otaku than ever, and I watch in horror because some anime really demand translation footnotes in subs, or at least, an entire booklet explaining things. It’s not just fansubs getting more and more complex, anime itself is getting more and more complex. Entertainment as a whole is getting more and more complex. Compare a simple slow-paced Star Wars movie of old with the monstrosity complex fast-paced Star Wars movie of new.

I think the best example I can give is of my own. To quote myself in my post about doing a fansub of my own:

“I may be too literal in many lines for the sake of accuracy, probably because I didn’t like straying away from what was actually said. In effect, some dialogue would seem totally out of character for some (like kids saying too complicated words). I discovered first-hand how hard it is for a (fansub) translator to balance… keeping it either literal or contextual to the story, while picking words according to the character’s style of speaking.”

I noticed that the more things I know about the Japanese language, the more awkward subtitles are for me. There is a certain subliminal part of me who critiques the subtitles as I watch, saying “oh it should be translated like this or that”. Couple that with my third (but primary) language, Filipino, and indeed I am in a world of hurt. Sometimes I ask the meaning of “literal” when I said I wanted to keep things literal in my own Shugo Chara fansub. Most of the time, the problem is mainly because of the fundamental difference of sentence structures between the English and Japanese languages. I do admit that in order for the sub to be as “Japanese” as possible, I had to improvise or formulate improper English sentence structures to ‘simulate’ the Japanese structure. The main problem is this: I am trying to learn Japanese, so the tendency is really to compare. You have the spoken lines (Japanese) and the written lines (English), both juggling in your mind at the same time. So you have two separate interpretations of what’s supposed to be the same scene in an anime.

+ Sample script

If you read the script alone it’s complete rubbish, but reading it along with the actual video provides an entirely different experience. It is like somehow the two separate interpretations I said earlier have molded into one acceptable interpretation. This is how I watch anime today. This is perfectly fine, because I am the only consumer of that interpretation. This is inevitable because my Japanese language is not 100%. As long as I don’t have full command of the language, I will continue to depend on English fansubs. But indeed, going back to the documentary’s argument, a translation must be invisible. In an ideal world, the viewer must be invisible too, meaning his knowledge of the Japanese language is close to 0%. But the fact remains that many of us fansub viewers are hell bent on trying to learn the language, so the fansubs cater to us who have certain percentages of knowledge of Japanese. The consumers of a fansubber’s interpretation are people who agree at a certain percentage of the fansubber’s interpretation, and mixes it with their own percentage of Japanese knowledge to formulate their own interpretation. Hmm… maybe that sounds too complex even for me. But I hope you see the main point in this.

Simply speaking, we are getting close to creating languages within languages.

Finally let me say that I REALLY HATE some useless translation notes. It really diverts attention and is a worthless annoyance. For those anime that demand these translation notes… usually I don’t watch them. Maybe this is why anime for younger audiences (shoujo anime) and the bishoujo genre appeals to me so much. Not much complex stories and dialogue, just simple but fun entertainment.


Posted By: The Sojourner On: June 01, 2008 At: 11:24 am

Translation notes are better off as a notepad file to come along with the fansub.

Posted By: Of flesh wounds (*ouch*)… and a little about everything else. » Incredible Nothing! On: June 01, 2008 At: 10:01 pm

[…] since everyone else is doing it. There also seems to be a link to every other post on the issue at bluemist which is handy :P) and state a condensed version of my own personal take on the […]

Posted By: wildarmsheero On: June 02, 2008 At: 7:24 am

>>Think about it, a otaku-based show like Genshiken didn’t exist in 1980s or 1990s

Uhhhh there was that little thing called, you know, OTAKU NO VIDEO.

But yeah, that shit was few and far between in the 80s because the guys making anime were still the old guys from the 70s and not the fans. Now the fans of those guys are making anime, hence more otaku-centric stuff.

Posted By: tsuntsun: Marmot’s Animu Blog » Blog Archive » OTAKING! HEY, OTAKING! On: June 02, 2008 At: 1:28 pm


Posted By: Shin On: June 02, 2008 At: 8:19 pm

I feel so left out knowing I’m probably the only one without a proper opinion on the matter (ಠ_ಠ)

Posted By: bluemist On: June 02, 2008 At: 10:15 pm

@The Sojourner – first time I encountered that was some group’s Paniponi Dash subs. It was revolutionary.

@wildarmsheero – back in those times too, male leads are almost “never” otakus, nowadays you have some to reflect the changing population of anime viewers.

@Shin – but you gave massive lulz on those screenshots of yours!

Posted By: soulassassin547 On: June 03, 2008 At: 9:13 pm

Oh, the drama… I mean, some people like Marmot have a point: why don’t the heck we just sit back and watch and enjoy the show? That’s what it used to be, and that’s what I do right now.

Given the size of intarnets drama he made, Otaking will soon get his 15 minutes in ED.

Posted By: blissmo On: June 03, 2008 At: 10:04 pm

Yeah, I don’t think anything’s wrong with the fansubbers and sometimes they leave annoying extra notes, but sometimes its funny.