Subtitle Hues and Cry

by Justin Sevakis,

After last week's column was posted, I got some grief on Twitter from a handful of readers, who were incredulous that I had such high praise for the staff that works on simulcast subtitles. After an acrimonious start, we had a lively discussion, and I think everybody ended up learning something. That conversation gave rise to my first question this week.

CoffeeFlux asks:

I was wondering why it is that official subs tend to be such poor quality? I see mistimings, broken English, hardsubs (from Funimation), a lack of consistent editing standards, poor styling, and questionable typesetting. While perhaps Flash players can't handle advanced typesetting (though i'd question why they haven't yet made a nice HTML5 player that is more capable), if you're hardsubbing there is no technical limiation. In addition, why does Blu-ray typesetting and styling tend to be of such low quality, as bumblebee subs are rampant and typesetting is generally static, poorly-matching text?

This question was a lot longer, and was pretty typical of a very specific sort of fan, the type that is extremely frustrated by what they deem as shoddy work in professional subs. I agree, there are definitely a handful of shows each season that are clearly being translated by each respective company's "B-team." Some of them have awkward wording or some general sloppiness. I know for a fact that while watching some simulcast subs, I've muttered to myself, "that is NOT what that translates to" a couple of times. These are scripts that could definitely use another editing/proof-reading pass. With the sheer number of shows and the ludicrous speed at which they have to be turned around, something has to give, and I suppose having a fully qualified team to do those things every season will always be a work in progress. But having a ready team of translators and editors ready to wake up at 3 in the morning to churn out an episode really quick and go back to bed is always going to be tricky, and I don't expect everyone to be perfect all the time.

A few of these dissatisfied fans, however, go to great lengths to find and catalog as many of these flaws as possible. There are whole blogs out there of screenshots, pointing out with a great deal of disgust what are usually very minor punctuation errors that most people would never notice. (Incidentally, this email had lines like, "using two hyphens instead of an em-dash is not OK, sorry.") Some of them find fault with a wording or translation choice that is either intentionally colloquial, or a little overly literal, but nonetheless a subjective choice. From what I can tell there's only a handful of people like this, and I don't think they realize that they're coming off as irascible -- I get the feeling from reading these blogs that they'll simply never be satisfied. Ya gotta pick your battles, you know? Dedicating a blog to nit-picking the jobs of others doesn't earn you sympathy points.

The actual quality gap between the unpaid work of more talented fans and the paid work of professionals is, frankly, not very wide in either direction. For one thing, the top fans often get hired to do professional work. The pros don't get paid very much; getting paid just enables them to work on anime all the time. The motivating factor behind their work remains unchanged, as does the amount of care and effort that goes into producing their work, be it a website, comics, or subtitles. That what it means to be a fan-turned-pro. However, the rigors and demands of paid work is very different, and this is where I think a lot of people find differences.

The one thing that fansub aficionados point out over and over again is the lack of what they call "typesetting" in professional subtitles: the meticulous font selection, coloring, placement, and in some cases, animation of on-screen text. This used to be something sort of ridiculous back in the heyday of anime fansubs, but more recent developments in software have resulted in some truly spectacular work. I mean, look at this stuff. [Example below from fansub group Underwater's work on Kill la Kill]

It's pretty cool looking, I have to admit. However, pro subtitles will never look like this, probably ever. The main reason why has to do with the software. Fansubbers have developed their own software since the earliest days, and the current gold standard, Aegisub, is THE most powerful, flexible subtitling software that exists. Unfortunately it was developed in a bubble, completely oblivious to all of the standards and use cases in the professional world. There's no good way to import Aegisub scripts into any professional video program. None of its unique features, from text styling to animation effects, can be translated to any other format.

Now, think about all the ways an anime distributor has to use its subtitle scripts. The subtitles need to be burned onto the video for streaming. They need to be converted to low-resolution graphics for DVD, and HD ones for Blu-ray. They need to be converted to a very simple XML format for Netflix and Hulu. Some of those formats are so basic that they don't even let you pick a font. Adding a ton of styling and animation to a subtitle script, only to have to strip it out later for another format, doesn't make a whole lot of sense, especially when you're on a tight deadline (as professional subtitles almost always are). Any animated titles would have to be burned onto the video, which would absolutely enrage the video purists.

Now, I use Aegisub when I create subtitles, and a lot of professionals do. Despite all the compatibility problems and weird hoops you have to jump through (I have to use 4 different apps to convert them to Blu-ray format), it's still better than any of the broken, clumsy, extremely limited "professional" subtitling software on the market. Crunchyroll actually programmed limited Aegisub support into their Flash-based video player (which was quite a feat of engineering, frankly). But for other companies, there are just too many problems to bother with any of Aegisub's features. Their scripts have to stay stripped down, or there will just be too many problems.

This is not something that the rest of the world will "catch up to" someday. These features aren't in mainstream subtitling software because nobody outside of the anime world cares about these features. It's a total case of "Galapagos Syndrome" -- a little self-contained corner of the internet that matured completely cut off from the rest of the world, only to find out later that it took a completely different evolutionary path. Fansubs will always be able to do things the professionals can't. It's the nice part about not having to care if your viewers can play your video or not.

Chris asks:

So I noticed in "SNAFU 2" It is by "FEEL" and no longer "Brains Base"? This happens in the states as well with films. Is it because originally the anime wasn't planed to have a sequel but another animation studio wanted to continue it, so they bought continuation rights? Or does the company sell it's sequel off to some other company. I Also read that "Denpa Onna" the writer wanted to get another season but "SHAFT" wouldn't approve. So is it possible that the creator asked another company to animate the second part. And the company purchased rights to continue and etc? Please tell me Im confused.

I think you're misunderstanding what the animation studio does and how much power they have. The real people with the power to decide who animates what shows are the show producers, not the animation studio. The producers are often the publishing company behind the original manga/light novel/game, or a media company like Bandai Visual, Geneon Universal Japan, d-rights, or maybe a TV network like TBS or TV Tokyo. (It CAN be the animation studio, but that's rare, and almost always original works.) They get a bunch of other companies to chip in money, and together they form a "production committee" that confers with the original creator and decides what animation studio to hire.

When it comes time to make a sequel series, there could be any number of reasons why they're not going back to the studio that did the first season. It could be that the original studio is fully booked for the season they want the show to air. It could be that producing that first season was particularly contentious or chaotic, and they'd rather take their business to another company. Or their could be budgetary reasons. We'll usually never know the answer.

But when that happens, the original animation studio has no say in the matter, and no control over what happens to the franchise. They are simply hired staff.

Steffan asks:

You mentioned in a previous answerman that funimation sometimes grabs streaming and broadcast rights to all English language territories. How often do funimation and other america-only companies end up with these rights, and then how often do they make an effort to sublicense the series to UK and other non-US streaming services?

It's hard to say how often a licensor requires all English territories to be licensed in one go, but if I had to make a stab in the dark, I'd say it's about 1/5th of the time. Basically, some licensors do this a lot more than others. It's pretty rare for that publisher to just sit on those rights, however. They're almost always immediately sublicensed to a partner in the UK and Australia. That's just common sense: they have those rights, they paid money for those rights, so they should probably get somebody who can use those rights to help pay for them.

Jake asks:

In the last few years a number of anime series, movies, and OVA's have been license saved from a number of companies that went under during the bubble burst in 2008. But I don't seem to hear many announcements for any of Geneon, CPM, or ADV's (not Evangelion) older titles compared to Bandai Entertainment. Why is that? I cannot image the currently existing anime companies have “mined out” everything worth taking a second glance at yet.

I think there might be something to your observation, although it's a pretty broad one that's hard to prove one way or other other. The Bandai Entertainment catalog definitely had a few things about it that made it different from the others. The first is that it has a disproportionate number of shows from Sunrise, and Sunrise is quite unique as an anime studio in that they both function as animation producer, and as licensor. Their shows may have a small production committee, but the studio largely calls all of its own shots. The label also usually got first dibs on anything from sister company Bandai Visual, which included a significant percentage of shows from Bones. And for many years, Bandai Entertainment was their primary conduit into the American market, shutting out all of the other studios.

When Bandai closed its doors, suddenly both of those catalogs were available to Funimation, Sentai, Discotek and everybody else. What's more, nearly all of those shows got decent English dubs (that were owned by the licensor), most of them can be released in HD (either via an upscale or a new film transfer) and a very decent number of them were either hits or had some sort of cult following. Even if not all of them were all that successful upon their initial release, there IS still a market for them. Many of them have aged pretty well.

Let's compare that to the catalog of some of the other companies you mentioned. Geneon had their hits too, but most of those have been relicensed by now. Most of the stuff that hasn't either didn't set the world on fire, or were complete bombs. I don't think anybody is all that excited to re-release Cybuster, Gate Keepers, Nazca or Mao-chan. Aside from Paranoia Agent, there aren't many noteworthy shows left in the Geneon catalog that haven't been snatched up by somebody.

ADV Films' corpse is similarly picked over. Nobody wants Generater Gawl, Mezzo DSA or Orphen. Their catalog is also full of short OAVs that are harder to sell these days, and don't often get HD remasters. (Central Park Media's catalog is like that, too.) What's more, ADV often owns the rights to the dub of older shows, and they may not be willing to offer those dubs to competitors. With a handful of shows from the bubble era, ADV was actually on the production committee to make them in the first place -- effectively giving what is now Sentai Filmworks/Section 23/etc. veto power over re-licensing those shows to another publisher at all.

When license rescues don't happen, it's often either because the show isn't available at all due to issues on the licensor side, or the show has not been legally cleared for online streaming. "Deep catalog" shows such as these are often not big sellers as discs, and are licensed more to feed the gaping maws of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. As online represents an increasingly large and important share of revenues, not getting the rights to post those shows is usually a deal-breaker for the US publishers.

That said, as fewer and fewer previously-released anime remains unspoken for in the US market, I expect Discotek, Sentai, Right Stuf and the other usual suspects to start going after the more obscure stuff that remains. There will always be something we're still waiting for.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.

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