Who Are Subtitles Written For?

by Justin Sevakis,

Asiko asks:

I've noticed with a lot of anime that when a character is speaking translators often leave Japanese words in the text when there are English equivalents. For example, in Naruto, rather than have the translation for Justus in the translation for subtitles often they keep the name in Japanese but have a separate translation at the top of the screen. Why is this?

As has been noted by anybody who watches subtitled anime, many amateur translators and subtitlers do, in fact, keep lines in Japanese here and there, and add notes so fans can still follow along and perhaps learn something. Pro subtitles, on the other hand, try to avoid translation notes as much as possible, and tend to be less literal than fan translations. There are exceptions, of course, but these are the broad strokes.

This subject has been discussed to death. (Cue the classic pro subs vs fansubs argument, along with the classic "just according to keikaku" screenshot meme.) I am very sick of this discussion, and the people who basically jump onto forums and social media to shout into the wind about it, usually with an angry, condescending tone for reasons I do not understand. On the other hand, there's a broader point of interest here that kind of gets lost whenever this comes up.

And that point is this: who are subtitles for, exactly?

It's a strange question to bring up, but within it lies the answers to all the "why is it this way" and "my way is better" arguments that the internet has shat upon us all. Because translators are essentially bilingual writers for hire. Japanese is so different both structurally and contextually from English that anybody translating from one to the other is simply going to have to put their own literary spin on the writing. And so, like any other work for hire, translators try their best to tailor their writing for the intended audience.

That very audience has changed a lot over the years. In the 90s, when anime was a new thing, nobody knew what -chan, -kun or -sama meant. Few of us would even attempt to pronounce something as basic as "jutsu." But more importantly, when we brushed up against something we didn't know, we often didn't react well. Because in those days, if people ran against something unfamiliar, we could almost always expect a negative reaction.

I can't tell you the number of times I've seen anime screened for older audiences, and their opinion was based in seeing the film from the position of a defensive crouch. Professional film critics would begin discussions of a Miyazaki movie with, "well I'm sure I missed something culturally somewhere," and then try and BS their way through the conversation without ever really thinking about the film's themes or subtext. It's a major reason why early anime releases went to such lengths to delete Japanese credits and hide anime's "foreign-ness." Distributors were constantly trying to distract from how unfamiliar the content was, so that people would give it a chance.

There has been a subtle but impactful difference in Western (and especially American) attitudes toward things they don't know and don't understand. For at least a couple of generations, if an average American read a word or saw something happen that they didn't understand, and there weren't enough contextual clues to figure things out, they got frustrated. It would take them out of the story, and depending on how insecure they were, they would get defensive. "This is dumb. Why am I watching this?" I've seen this happen SO MANY TIMES over the years, especially with anime. Once a certain level of non-comprehension has been exceeded, they withdraw. I've even seen parents see unfamiliarity in media as a threat, and try to protect their kids from it.

One of the things that separated anime fans, especially the hardcore anime fans, from "normal" people was that this didn't happen with us so much (at least, not with anime and Japanese things). There was a curiosity there, and we were willing to do as much work as it took to understand as much as we could. OF COURSE anime fans are going to make fansubs that are extremely literal and delicately interpreted, with as much additional notes and contextual padding as possible. They're making their translations for other fans, most of whom also have a deep well of anime/Japanese knowledge and are interested in having the "purest" experience as possible. These are media consumers who want to learn things that will help them better understand anime, and Japan in general.

Professional subtitles don't, and generally can't, think like that -- particularly with shows that might reach a broader audience. Those subtitles are intended for as many people who might watch as possible: the young and the old, the learned and the ignorant, the otaku and the plebian. While there are lots of otaku, there are orders of magnitude more of the masses, who haven't excitedly taken their single semester of elective Japanese, who have maybe tried a fried roll at a sushi restaurant once and sorta liked it, who can't tell the difference between all those different languages spoken by Asian people.

Professional translations have to be "for" those people too. And that means up putting as few barriers to entry for an "average" English speaker to understanding the show as possible. That means translating EVERYTHING, even name suffixes and dumb puns, and every other thing that doesn't easily translate. They just have to do the best they can to convey the mood and broader meaning of each scene. Sometimes they can really pull it off. (I'm STILL impressed that Studio Ghibli managed to cram the phrase "pearls before swine" into Porco Rosso's subtitles.) Sometimes the result is clumsy and dumb. Translator skill, the complexity of the show, and dumb luck all play a role.

But attitudes are changing, and fast. All those stereotypical American reactions to the unfamiliar are still a thing, of course, but they've subsided a tremendous amount in the last 15 years or so, especially with film and TV. Where we once were thrown into angry confusion by things we don't understand, we now just reach for our phones, open another browser tab, and google it real quick. And then we know.

This is a very subtle behavioral change that most people don't seem to have noticed, but the results have been epoch-making. American TV shows are now predominantly serialized stories. Movie franchises now go on for a decade or more, with an increasingly complex "universe" being built to support them. New words, especially relating to technology, enter the lexicon with shocking speed. Higher-end restaurant menus list not just dishes, but exhaustive combinations of ingredients and preparation methods. All because the barrier to intellectual curiosity has been lowered. We don't have to feel stupid anymore. This is especially true of younger people, who grew up in a world with Google.

Fansubs, and fans who demanded the same sort of translation from professional translators, were part of this transition. So was right-to-left manga, automated internet translation, and many other small changes over the last two decades. Suddenly, we would rather know about small nuances in another language than be protected from them. No longer are unfamiliar words and cultural norms scary, intimidating, or a reminder of our own ignorance. Most of us, even the newbies, want to know more. We lean in. If we feel there's something we're not getting, we research it, and learn something. And that's pretty cool.

Professional translations probably will never reach the levels of nerd-splaining that fansubs are known for. (And to be fair, many do go overboard.) They can never rely on the consumer having a huge fountain of nerd knowledge, particularly in a show with mainstream appeal. But the pros have learned to relax a little bit over the years, and let the viewer be left with questions. It's what the customer demands, nowadays.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original 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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