Anime Localization

by Christopher Macdonald, Sep 10th 2005
A few weeks back at Anime Next, I had the pleasure of sitting down on a panel with Zac Bertschy (he worked at Anime Insider at the time), Bamboo Dong, Toshi Yoshida and David Williams to discuss anime localization.

In case you aren't familiar with the term "localization," it's the process of making something locally accessible. Everything from literal subtitles, to extensively re-written shows fall under the term "localization." In order to differentiate between rather simple localizations and extensively altered localizations, we decided to take a term from Tokyopop's marketing department and called the latter "tricked out titles."

Tricked out titles of course include Initial D, Cardcaptors and Robotech. Many anime purists hate what Tokyopop, Nelvana and Harmony Gold did to these titles. Unfortunately most purists fail to respect the fact that these companies are in business to make money, and they came to the educated, researched conclusion that their titles would sell better in "tricked out" format. Let's look at Initial D specifically; Tokyopop saw a growing North American drifting / import tuner market and realized that Initial D could appeal to them. A look at Initial D's sales numbers shows a certain amount of success in this market, frankly, Initial D is selling more copies than it ever would have if it were sold only to anime fans. David Williams believes strongly that it would not have sold as many copies had it not been “tricked out”.

These tricked out releases that are targeted to mainstream audiences also offer the industry, and indirectly fans, another benefit. They act as "gateway titles," titles that introduce new fans to anime. This obviously benefits the industry because it increases potential sales of new series. This, in turn, benefits other fans, because as the market grows, it becomes steadily more possible to bring a greater array of new titles out sooner.

So while hardcore fans may not like or approve of these so-called “tricked out” titles, there's a silver lining for them.

Ultimately, what most fans want, in terms of localization, is a nearly literal dub and an even closer to literal subtitle track. Some adaptation of sentence structure and what not is required to make the translations work, but no meaning or innuendo should be added, removed or altered.

It was the humble opinion of all the panelists, myself included, that if fans get a "fan-friendly" release they really shouldn't complain about what companies chose to do with the other versions that they may chose to release on TV or a second DVD release. We stated for example that fans of Initial D have no reason to complain about Tokyopop's "tricked out" release, because Tokyopop also released a subtitled version of the show with a literal translation, the original music and no edits or cuts. Unfortunately this conclusion of ours fell apart rather quickly when we were reminded that some anime fans prefer dubs to subs. In fact, while a preference for subtitles was once the defining mark of a "true anime fan," there are now more anime fans that prefer English dubs. Like their subtitle loving brethren, these purists demand a literal adaptation with no changes, the only difference is that they want dubbed it in English, not subtitled.

These fans, who now make up that majority of the anime enthusiast market, are the ones who are cheated when companies release "tricked out dubs" combined with true-to-the-original subs. Like any other aspect of a release, and in fact any other topic at all, understanding the issue is required to effectively lobby for change.

I don't feel that anyone should "shut up and be happy with whatever they get," but knowing when and how to complain, and accepting a few compromises, will get anime fans more of what they want.

In a perfect world, every anime and manga would be released with perfect translations, and there would be no need for tricked out releases because the North American mainstream audience would only want faithful adaptations. Unfortunately the world isn't perfect, so we have to accept that sometimes companies will have to decide between us and the mainstream market. And given the choice between selling a couple thousand and tens of thousands of copies, what would you chose ?

Like I said, you don't have to quietly accept every tricked out adaptation, but pick your battles wisely. And for the love of god, don't complain about a title that you weren't going to buy anyways, it's as bad as supporting the movement to get a particular title licensed and then not buying it when it is licensed. In the long run, it kills the credibility of anime fans in general, and makes companies less likely to listen to our requests.

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