What's Wrong With Fan Translations?

by Justin Sevakis,

James asks:

Why do you and the other staff of Anime News Network seem to have a dislike for (unofficial) fan translations of Japanese animation and manga? How do those media affect you and your website in any way, and do you have some personal stake in the matter?


I am sick to death of arguing about the morality of fansubs and scanlations. People have been having the exact same damned argument for twenty years. It is TIRED. There is nothing new that anyone can possibly say on the matter.

I am not going to address the morality of piracy. This article is not about that. This article is purely about quality of translations. Nothing else. Good? Good. Let's move on.

Anyway, to answer your question, I don't know where you got that feeling, because it's not correct. I need so stress this: I can only speak for myself, and not the rest of ANN as a company or for its individual employees, but I personally have no problem at all with fan translations (distribution of said translations being - say it with me now - a separate topic). But I only use them as a last resort. Part of that is wanting to use the discs and services I paid for as a fan and industry member. But part of it is also because the translations do tend to be more dependable.

I started out as a fansubber, many many years ago, back in the VHS era. I was never a translator, but have edited subtitles and worked with translators, both professionally and as volunteer labor for 19 years. I know first hand how hard fan translators work. Translation is rough, no matter who's doing it. I'm far from the only industry professional who got his start in fan work. In fact, most of the better fan translators have over the years been hired by Crunchyroll, Funimation and Sentai, and others to work on the absolutely massive amount of subtitles that have to get made very very quickly these days, both for simulcasts and for new streams and discs of vintage series that are getting released for the first time.

Whether a translator is getting paid or doing the work out of love, the effort being put out really doesn't change very much. Those people work their butts off trying to juggle ideas from one language into a very different second language, trying to convey as much nuance, subtext and dumb jokes as they can, and that doesn't change. But as anyone who has worked on both sides of the fence can tell you, doing the job professionally usually gets you some very significant advantages:

  • You (sometimes) get the Japanese scripts. It's very, very easy to make a mistake in a translation when you have to translate by ear. Hearing something wrong, particularly if Japanese is your second language, is very very easy. Pro translators usually get the After-Recording (AR) Scripts that were used in the show as a reference. Now, sometimes those scripts aren't entirely accurate -- anime voice actors are often asked to incorporate last-minute changes, or ad-lib something in the booth. But with that caveat in mind, having the script helps immensely in ensuring that the translator got everything right.

  • You (usually) get pointers from the licensor. Not sure how a faux-Western name is supposed to be spelled in English? Trying to decipher some obscure technical or military jargon? Was that supposed to be a biblical reference? A fansubber just has to guess, but in many cases a pro translator can ask the licensor for clarification. The licensor will send the request all the way up the chain of command, to the show producer or the original creator. Their answer might not be what you expected, but it's the only way to be sure that what you're writing in English is what the creators intended.

  • The licensor may check your work. Not all licensors do this, but most will check over your translation to make sure nothing is significantly off. This step often has to get skipped during simulcasts for deadline reasons, but most will go back and check everything again before it gets used on a DVD or Blu-ray. Sometimes they may flag things because they know something that's coming up later in the show, that you have no idea about. Other times, they'll ask you to clarify an English figure of speech to make sure it fits with its intended Japanese meaning. This step can be frustrating, but it also catches lots of mistakes.

  • Your skills as a translator were vetted by whoever hired you. This is a big one. Not every self-proclaimed translator is as good as they think they are. Most of the major anime publishers ask prospective translators to take a test to check their abilities before they hire them. If they're short-handed, that publisher might not be as discerning in who they hire as they'd like to be, but all of them try hard to hire the best translators they can afford at the time.

  • You can be fired. Assuming you like your job, that can be quite a deterrent from putting too much of yourself into a translation. The temptation to put your own spin on something is ever-present, and the idea that, yes, adding a dumb nerd joke into that samurai drama WILL get you canned makes for a very good reason not to troll the fans.

None of this is to imply that mistakes (sometimes quite embarrassing ones) don't slip through. But that's a whole lot of protective measures, and everything else being equal, the advantage is definitely on the side of the pros. It's true that older translations were a lot rougher, since a lot of these measures were put into place around the time of the last anime boom (2005 or so). Simulcast schedules and real-world circumstances (i.e. translator has to wake up at 3 AM to translate an episode while having the flu with no editor, because Japan is far behind schedule) can also impact the quality of the work. But most translations done in the last ten years or so has benefited from these procedures.

Here's the problem: There are a HUGE NUMBER of anime fans that think they know what a good translation is, and won't hesitate to call a company out on the carpet for one that they perceive to be "wrong." And unfortunately many of them choose to do so in pretty abusive ways. Companies get hate mail -- usually email or tweets but sometimes thick physical envelopes -- filled with every cuss word known to man and sometimes even violent imagery... because those fans compared their subtitles to a fan translation they like "better" and they don't match.

Now, professional translations aren't perfect by any means, and there are fans out there who are passionate about correcting grammar, punctuation and font choice issues with legally streaming shows. Generally that's fine - fans will always point out technical issues, and even though a lot of that stuff boils down to personal preference, the technical criticisms of subtitles on legally streaming shows (insomuch as they can be blamed on the insane production schedule) are worth pointing out so the industry can improve. But for every one legitimate, considered, respectfully-worded clarification or correction a translator might get from a well-meaning fan, they get piles of predictable abuse about the translation itself. Although they are very passionately convinced otherwise (which is driving the angry responses they're producing), the truth is that 99% of these fans are not remotely qualified to make any of these "corrections". Most of them openly admit they don't know Japanese, which is the obvious #1 requirement if you're going to nitpick a translation. They obsess about small, easy-to-identify localization choices, like whether the subtitles have name suffixes, or if a random word or phrase that the person might've picked up somewhere (usually "baka" or "kuso") is translated literally. The complexities of Japanese -- with its non-specific subjects and vague polite speech -- are lost on these guys. Their complaints -- which are nearly always meaningless and ill-informed -- drive the publishers and pros up a wall.

The problem is even worse on the manga side of things, since nearly all English translations -- legal or not -- delete the original Japanese text. The lower bar of entry for manga translation (all you need is one person and a cracked copy of Photoshop) means that more completely unqualified people pump out translations and nobody can easily check them -- the fans are none the wiser. And so some fans inevitably compare the fan translation to the official, approved one, and jump to the conclusion that the professional ones are the ones that screwed up. They've imprinted on the first thing they saw.

Most fan translations, particularly from well-respected fan groups, are just fine. Some are outright great. The problem is, you never know what you're getting. Professional translations can be a crapshoot as well, but they're generally far less of a crapshoot. And the line between Japanese and English is sometimes so blurry that you can often translate sentences in 2 or 3 different ways that are both entirely accurate and valid. Note how seldom "they're both valid translations" seems to come up in these debates - almost never. Why? Because oftentimes the real unspoken point of these arguments is "fans vs. pros" tribalism, rather than legitimately determining quality.

To any pro who's endured an onslaught of borderline incoherent abuse over a valid translation choice from an extremely angry fan who doesn't know a lick of Japanese, the fan translations are just a frustratingly arbitrary thing against which your legitimate, licensor-approved, painstakingly proof-read and researched work will be judged against. The fact that they even exist is understandably frustrating to a mountain of professionals.

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.

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