Why Do Subtitle Styles From The Same Company Differ?

by Justin Sevakis,

Wonchop asks:

One things that's been noticeable in this age of internet streaming is that even within the same distributor (be it Crunchyroll or Funimation etc), there are differences in the format of the subtitles depending on the show. Some shows will stick with the Japanese name order (ie. family name first) with all the -chans, -sans, and -senpais a weeb could ask for, while others opt for a more standard English approach, with all names in English order and nicknames or buzzwords used in place of Japanese-oriented terminology. Is this difference usually down to the preference of whoever's assigned to translate each show or is it, like the copyright-friendly name changes in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, something that's decided on by higher ups (presumedly the licensors or rights holders)?

This is one of those things that's changed in recent years. It used to be that the more organized anime distributors had a "style guide" for their subtitles -- something that not only established a set of rules for punctuation, how lines are broken up into multiple subtitles, and all of the other tiny micro-decisions that happen in the course of subtitling an anime that 99.99% of fans never think twice about. Some of these style guides also give general guidelines for translation choices, such as how name suffixes are handled, Japanese name order, and words that can be safely left in Japanese.

The purpose behind having these style guides isn't just to unify everything a company releases, but to maintain a certain level of quality, and take the guess work out of what is expected by their team of translators and editors. After all, when you're managing a big team of people, there's always some staff turnover, and new people on the crew need an easy reference for how things work -- they likely weren't around when such decisions were made before.

The rules set forth in style guides are never iron-clad. There are exceptions to every rule -- such as, if name suffixes are an important part of a conversation, they would have to be translated in subtitles. If a previous installment of the show was released, most producers would prefer to maintain continuity with a previous release, rather than blindly follow the style guide. It's simply there to be a guide, and that's all.

But style guides take effort to implement and adhere to. They require that the subtitles have an editor with a strong hand, that the translator have the guide and remembers its unique rules (and if they juggle multiple clients, that's not always easy). They also require that, as the general level of fan knowledge changes, and new words start to find favor among anime fans, they be kept up to date.

Simulcasts, and the current avalanche of new anime being produced every week, has made the anime publishers drastically reconfigure their priorities. Gone are the days when an editor could go through every subtitle script with a fine toothed comb. There's simply no time. Once they've built a certain level of trust, translators are often tasked with simply getting a subtitle script out the door as fast as humanly possible. With new episodes being turned in sometimes just hours before they need to be posted, nobody is paying much attention to whether style guidelines are being maintained. No editor is punting a line back to a translator and going, "can we think of a way to rework this line so we don't have to include name suffixes?" It's all the subtitle team can do to just hammer out a coherent and accurate script.

While these subtitle scripts are inevitably cleaned up for later DVD/Blu-ray release, there's a great reluctance to tinker with the overall translation very much. The show was already presented online, by the company, and there's not really a point in adhering to a strict style guide after the fact. Many fans have already experienced the show with that translation, and some especially passionate fans may have latched on to certain phrases or word choices. Changing them later can and has completely pissed off a few fans. So unless a licensor requests a change, or an existing line is just outright wrong, there's no point in really making many changes.

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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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