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How Fan Translators Made Virtual YouTubers a Global Phenomenon

by Kim Morrissy,

Lately, I've been watching a Virtual YouTuber called “Usada Pekora.” She has a resting smug face and a quirky laugh, and she says “peko” every second word. She streams herself playing video games, often taking on way more difficult challenges than she can chew, and her amusing failures are the stuff of legend among her fans.

Pekora is a streamer who belongs to a Virtual YouTuber agency called hololive. She's part of hololive's third generation of VTuber talent and she had her streaming debut around a year ago. In the rapidly developing world of VTubers, personalities can rise to prominence in a flash thanks to corporate backing. (hololive is currently introducing its fifth generation.) Many anime fans, and even people outside the general anime sphere, may be familiar with the shenanigans of Kizuna AI, but you may not realize just how deep the VTuber rabbit hole goes.

By this point in 2020, a mere four years after Kizuna AI's debut, there's just so much VTuber content out there that it gets a little overwhelming figuring out where to begin watching. It also poses challenges for fans overseas, many of whom can't speak Japanese but are still drawn to the quirky personalities behind the live-animated anime-style avatars. VTubers tend to stream for hours at a time, with mostly unscripted performances, which makes translation a daunting task.

Fortunately, there's a dedicated English-speaking fan community doing their part to make VTuber appreciation accessible. This primarily manifests in two ways: During the livestreams, some helpful translators in the chat may briefly summarize what the VTuber is saying. Fans also compile clips that highlight amusing or endearing moments and add subtitles to those if necessary.

One of the most popular accounts for spreading humorous fan-translated clips is “Out of Context Virtual YouTubers” (@OutofVTubers). The account has gained over 120,000 followers on Twitter in just under two years. The owner cited the work of prominent fan translators in the community for boosting interest in VTubers.

“I was a fan of VTubers since mid-2018. I saw the explosive growth of VTubers in the West in real time,” they told me through Twitter Direct Message. “There was a small established western fan base of about over 100 people who all hung out on Twitter and Discord. They were some of my first followers and most of them were either VTubers themselves or translators.”

Out of Context Virtual YouTubers recalls a handful of “viral” moments and clips that are responsible for the rapid growth of English-speaking VTuber fandom, like hololive's collaboration with the popular Azur Lane mobile game, or when Shirakami Fubuki sang the opening of “Scatman” in a video with over 2 million views.

Another popular English clip is one of Natsuiro Matsuri recounting a very embarrassing tale of when she wore band-aids instead of a bra. Matsuri went on to become very popular with English speakers due to her frank willingness to talk about her body and make dirty jokes, things which go against the “pure idol” image.

In some ways, the flourishing VTuber fan translation scene is reminiscent of the anime fansubbing scene of yesteryear, but there are some crucial differences. Instead of taking anime properties without permission and redistributing the subtitled versions of them wholesale, VTubers and their fans enjoy a closer and more even relationship. VTuber videos are almost never translated and reposted in their entirety; instead, fans have made use of YouTube's community captions function for years. The account owner has to actively approve every subtitle submitted to the channel, meaning that every fan translation successfully displayed has the personal approval of the VTuber. (Sadly, YouTube is phasing out this feature, but it was a blessing while it lasted.)

Then there are the VTubers who go out of their way to interact with their English-speaking audiences, like Amano Pikamee, a bilingual VTuber who does weekly streams in English, or Kiryu Coco, who makes videos explaining Reddit memes and whose catchphrase is "Good morning, motherf*ckers!" Even some VTubers who don't speak English make an effort at times, and are generally regarded to be all the more endearing for it.

Due to the language and cultural gap, however, it's inevitable that most fans who can't speak Japanese end up consuming VTubers in bite-sized chunks. In this context, translators and community leaders don't just serve the purpose of delivering the content to fans; they are also keenly aware of the impact their work may have on the livelihood of VTubers. Being a VTuber fan means recognizing that there's always a real person behind the avatar, whose feelings and privacy must be respected at all times.

Out of Context Virtual YouTubers emphasizes the importance of teaching Japanese online etiquette to their audience. “Your typical Japanese VTuber isn't going to understand western memes or the connotations that come with western Stream culture like with Twitch terms like MonkaS and pog.”

Although there have been attempts to “troll” VTubers by encouraging them to say swear words or slurs in a foreign language, or people who attempt to dox or dig up a VTuber's personal information, such actions are heavily frowned upon in the community. Not everyone plays by the rules, however, and even well-meaning fans can make VTubers feel awkward about not being able to accommodate them.

“I have to say that after almost more than two years in the community, I realized that not all VTubers are that comfortable interacting with foreign viewers, especially for Japanese VTubers,” says Wakaba-tan, who runs a community of translators with over 100 members. “A lot of the Japanese VTubers don't know English, or any other foreign languages. Some VTubers might react with strict rules in English or other languages, to keep the chat enjoyable to them while streaming. Others might try to not interact at all, since it might not be worth their time and effort to deal with foreign viewers, when they're doing just fine locally.”

Wakaba-tan has generally preferred to translate VTubers such as Kizuna AI and Kaguya Luna, who release edited videos instead of livestreams. “If I were to pick what VTubers/parts to translate, then I would only put subtitles/translations for VTubers that had existing English viewers . . . Videos-only VTubers are much safer in a sense, since there's less interaction with the viewers, and it wouldn't affect their daily activities.”

On the other hand, the corporations and agencies behind VTuber talent often have global aspirations. In June, the Virtual YouTuber agency NIJISANJI launched its official English YouTube account. The content on the channel is very similar to what fans of the agency's talent have been creating for years: clips highlighting fun moments in livestreams and subtitled versions of scripted videos.

“What brought us to think about making the channel is the popularity of our Japanese VTubers among fans from English-speaking countries,” NIJISANJI told me through email. “Especially from those who love the Japanese culture such as anime. However, our goal for the channel is not only to boost the VTuber culture for already existing fans, but to also reach new English-speaking fans who do not know the VTuber culture.”

NIJISANJI also confirmed with me that it works directly with the fan community for the channel. “When we wanted to expand our VTuber culture to the world, it was very important for us to work with existing fans. A good example is our focus on making short video clips (currently known as NIJIClip) of VTubers mainly from Japan, with the help of existing creators who are professionals in the field. We believe that such content with good quality can only be made by those who normally watch and enjoy the live streams.”

hololive also recently started a recruitment drive for fan translation and clip creators to work in an official capacity. Cover Corp, the company which runs hololive, singles out the international anime streaming companies bilibili and Crunchyroll as inspirations. Not only does hololive make an active effort to recruit content creators who can speak non-Japanese languages (including English, Chinese, and Indonesian), it's starting to tap into the grassroots fandom energy as well.

The VTuber community is built upon positive interactions and open dialogue between the fans and content creators. Through the passionate work of everyone involved, VTubers are becoming global in more ways than one. Not only are Japanese VTubers transcending national borders, people around the world are becoming inspired by those creators to become anime-style VTubers themselves, although that particular trend is an article for another day. It's exciting to witness the VTuber community flourish and grow in real time, and I look forward to watching more good VTuber content.

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