Answerman Why Aren't Opening And Ending Themes Subtitled?
by Justin Sevakis,
I really love the opening and closing theme songs of anime. Back when most of the anime online seemed to be through Fansubs alot of them (or at least the ones I liked) would have their songs subtitled. Usually a Japanese karaoke on top and an English translation on bottom. Now adays going through what I'm watching on Crunchyroll very, very few of them have the alternating English and Japanese subs. Is it a labor of love vs a labor of labor thing?
It's not so much a matter of the labor involved as the logistics. Simulcast rights often aren't signed until right up 'til the last possible moment before -- or sometimes after -- a show begins airing. The songs that are included in an anime don't need to be negotiated separately in order to be included in a stream, because each streaming service pays a blanket royalty to ASCAP or a similar performing arts organization that authorizes them to play virtually any professionally published song from around the world. At the end of each month, that company reports what got played, the organization tracks down the song publishers, and everyone gets paid their tiny royalty.
But once the streaming company (say, Crunchyroll or Funimation) starts transcribing and translating the song lyrics, THAT'S something not covered by ASCAP. The right to do that has to come separately from the original music publisher. Often the anime licensor can help facilitate that, but it can be a long process. By the time the anime itself is signed, the show is often already airing (or is about to), and there's simply no time left to negotiate another set of licenses or permissions.
Home video comes much later, so by that time the publisher has had time to get all the permission necessary to include song lyrics. It doesn't always happen (often due to someone dropping the ball -- hard to say who), but 90% of the time we end up with song lyric subs on DVD and Blu-ray. But going back and adding those subtitles to the streams is usually determined to be more trouble than it's worth.
What's more, translating songs in Japanese (or worse, some bizarre combination of Japanese and Engrish) can be exceedingly challenging even WITH a written copy of the lyrics. Those written lyrics often don't end up becoming available until the song is released as a single, and sometimes that can be weeks or months after the show's begun airing. Translating Japanese songs by ear is asking for trouble. Fansubs used to do this all the time, and years ago professional subtitles did too. A good percentage of those translations are just flat-out wrong.
Here's a particularly amusing example: ADV's old subtitles of the ending theme to Blood Reign: Curse of the Undead Yoma attempted to puzzle out some of the most muddled Engrish lyrics I've ever heard, without checking a written copy. The result is below.
The ACTUAL Engrish refrain? It's supposed to be, "Racing is a future, Chasing is the answer, Where is a so happy? Love is a future, Claim is the answer, So take me away tonight!" At least they got one line right...
The (sometimes ridiculous) karaoke effects that fansubs have are not really possible with streaming video, where most subtitles are added to the video by the Flash-based software that's run on the user's computer.
You're definitely not alone in wishing that the song lyrics got translated in some way. But such things are luxuries, and unfortunately doing things the "right" way make it very difficult to have them on streaming sites.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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