Is There Anything To Miss About Old School Subtitles?

by Justin Sevakis,

James asked:

During the 1980's and 1990's, some media that was imported from Japan to the western world (most notably video games but also some anime and manga) would be translated improperly, often with hilarious results that have produced numerous memes that are now part of popular culture. Now, media is often translated much more accurately, which is obviously a good thing, but, as someone who was born in the 1980's and raised in the 1990's, I do sometimes miss those poor translations and the unintentional hilarity that they provided. Thus, I have two questions: first, what changed in recent years that led to translations being more accurate; and, second, do you miss the days of unintentionally hilarious translations?

I was just thinking the other day, the "All Your Base Are Belong To Us" meme is now 17 years old. I thought of it because of the Yodeling Kid meme, and how that was basically exactly the same joke -- take something weird and put it in literally everything. The internet really is best at taking something ridiculous and applying it excessively, isn't it?

Anyway, extremely wonky translations, while still occasionally a thing, are far, far less prevalent today than they used to be. The internet is largely responsible for that. No animator can really get away with writing "RED ALART" (as appeared in the Appleseed OVA) when their smartphone is sitting right there and they could just google the correct spelling. Additionally, before the late 90s, few animators realized that their work would be seen in English-speaking countries, so they didn't try very hard to get things right.

But more than that, languages were a barrier that seemed much more insurmountable in the days before the internet. Familiarity with more than one language (especially vastly different languages like Japanese and English) was far more rare than it is now. If you didn't already have some working knowledge of a language, or know someone who did, seeing or hearing it was a complete barrier: you had absolutely no way of learning what was being said. The few people who had some rudimentary knowledge were relied on for translations well beyond their ability, and nobody could check them.

This led not only to awkward translations but a lot of just-plain-insane Engrish in Japan, especially on apparel. You still see plenty of Engrish coming from China, but not so much from Japan or Korea as in decades past. I'm sure some of the ridiculous ones were semi-intentional on the part of their creators. I know the reverse was also true: I have a distinct memory of a friend and his mother walking into the EB Games where I worked in high school, proudly wearing a T-shirt that said, "私はバカなアメリカ人です。" (I'm a stupid American.)

The boom in anime and Japanese video games in the early 90s inspired a lot of Westerners to learn Japanese, and Japan also gradually became more Westernized in that time. By the mid-90s, electronic pocket multilingual dictionaries started becoming popular. Once the internet became commonplace, it became easier to ask for help with certain words, and eventually online dictionaries and references turned into full-fledged AI translators. With all of these resources, more people learning the languages, and more people becoming passionate about faithful translations, slowly things got better across the board. You simply can't get away with a bad translation today without being called out for it.

Frankly, I don't think anybody misses bad subtitles. It was genuinely frustrating not to be able to fully comprehend what was being said, or have entire scenes fly over your head because a joke didn't work in English, or some incidental background text didn't get translated. (For an example of just how bad "professional" subtitles used to be, check out the 1980 subtitle track on the Blu-ray of Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro. Your jaw will hit the floor. Full disclosure: I worked on that disc.) What we have today, however imperfect, is a huge improvement. Technology to make subtitles and captions has also improved by leaps and bounds, so accuracy in timing and legibility is nowhere near the problem that it used to be.

But ignorance can lead to languages having a certain mystique to them, and bad translations that made another culture seem inscrutable might have been some small part of Japan's charm back in the day. I don't really miss being ignorant, but I suppose that excitement of being exposed to a culture for the first time is something I do miss.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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