English versions of anime have gotten exponentially better over the past few years. The quality of English language voice acting is almost incomparable to what it was, making it possible to watch dubbed anime without loosing anything in the experience. The difference is really remarkable.

Similarly, subtitles have come a long way. Sure, you still get some stilted grammar occasionally and there are some classic and very common Japanese expressions that sound odd when you’re not an anime watcher, but for the most part, you can rely on accurate and well edited translations. This is great news for us English speaking fans. I suspect that a lot of classic series are really much more profound and interesting than their translations would have you believe.

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We do however lose a particular type of magic in the trade off. The Engrish littered dialogues that went from baffling to seriously hilarious have provided me with countless hours of entertainment regardless of the actual anime they were from. Occasionally the stars aligned, and you would discover an absolute gem of poorly translated rubbish that would completely captivate you for an afternoon.

Some of you may be too young to have ever known the absolute treasure trove of creative translations that were fansubs, but let me tell you, they were a delight! Try to imagine an amateur with no translation OR writing experience or training trying to adapt an episode to an entirely different language. Sometimes these brave souls didn’t exactly speak Japanese, but they really liked the pictures and it seemed interesting. Sometimes they didn’t quite know English, but they enthusiasm would breach the language barrier as they tried their hardest to use ALL THE WORDS. At the best times, they didn’t understand either language!

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I tell you my friends, those were wild times. Incidentally, Fansubs is how I learned English in the first place. (It’s not. I wish it was, it would explain so much…)

I had the brilliant and unique adventure of watching a number of classic anime in Fansub format. Not only do you have the pleasure of trying to figure out what each line means, but you get to relish in the surprise of what the next episode would bring as there was no guarantee it would be translated by the same team.

For instance, I watched the original Breserk fansubbed and the names of the characters chaged every episode. We had Guts, Gutz, Gutto, Gatz, Hurts (I dunno), Gurd and Garry (yeah Garry!!!). Griffiths also had every possible phonetic spelling of his name as well as Griffon and being called Prince for an entire episode (not confusing at all). Once the demon names got into is and all the secondary character, I really had no idea who was who anymore.

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I had to navigate that story on instinct. Since I couldn’t count on the dialogue or narrative to inform me about character’s pasts (cause names would randomly get switched between characters, especially if people were taking about someone not in the scene) or motivations, I had to figure out if I liked or trusted anyone based entirely on first impressions and what they were doing in the moment. It was a very fly by the seat of your pants experience.

And let me tell you, this constant state of uncertainty only made those big events hit me harder. I did NOT see them coming at all. There was really no way I could have

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Years later I rewatched an official translation. It’s a great show. However, part of me still cherishes those baffling episodes spent trying to figure out why a character was suddenly being referred to as someone’s son or whether this guy really had killed his entire family or is this just a mix up in the name, because everyone seems to be taking the news really chill…

However, my experience with Berserk was a walk in the park compared to the time I carelessly decided to watch the fansub of some random little show I had never heard of at all, called Serial Experiments Lain…

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I mention Lain a lot. All the time. I annoy myself with how much I bring that anime up. It’s odd because I wasn’t really that impressed with it at the time. And even now, I can’t say it’s one of my favorite shows. I really like what it tried to do, I’m just not sure it did it. Yet, I act as if I’m borderline obsessed with it. That may be because the fansub of this baby almost broke my brain.

Even in the best of circumstances, Lain is a difficult story to follow. It’s delivered by a completely untrustworthy and capricious narrators, littered with plot holes and not fully realized but very high concept ideas. It tackles a cornucopia of ostentatious themes with a purposefully erratic pace. The fansub was quite simply a chef d’oeuvre.

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The usual pitfalls of fansubs were all present. Character names had every possible spelling and would occasionally be Westernized. Same goes for the particular lexicon used in Lain. Words such a Wired, Navi, Cyberia, Accela , ECCO, Schumann Resonance and so on would have alternative spellings or even completely different names without warning but beyond that there was a certain magic that could only be produced by this type of show.

You see, Lain is experimental in many ways. A lot of the series is quite silent. Meaning is meant to be inferred for a sparse few lines of dialogue. Information is doled out sparingly leaving the viewers desperately grasping at straws for episodes on end before getting suddenly buried under a gargantuan exposition dump full of over complicated information and obscure references. Yeah – I really like this show.

Basically, it’s impossible to simply do a literal translation of the series and have it make any sense at all. Some amateur dubbers did do that, forcing me to try to wring some sense out of the flat story by forcefully imposing my own interpretation over absolutely everything. Better still, more ambitious ones added in their own! The first time I saw it, Serial Experiments Lain was in turn a clearly religious parable, it would occasionally celebrate technology at other times condemn it.

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It was an action packed cyber mystery (and short program) without any deeper meaning when one enterprising dub group decided to throw out all the vague cryptic references and subsequently cut out all the sudden white space it left in the episodes.

One episode was even a fairly straight forward school slice of life series with some yuri undertones for good measure.

I can’t explain to you the impact of such a concentrated ball of incomprehensible mishmash has on an impressionable brain. I was completely enthralled with the weirdness of it all. Don’t get me wrong, Lain’s a pretty weird show to begin with but it’s nothing compared to my Lain. And what’s more, no one is ever going to have the same experience as me, since they’d have to watch all the exact fansubs I did in the same order.

Of course, the actual SEL is a much better series that the mismatched collection of “good tries” I watched. It’s objectively better in every way. But the abject weirdness of the SEL fansub was a completely unique experience that no longer exists. Some days, I miss those days of Russian roulette. I miss reading the manga of a series and finding out the story is just completely different. Then I remember having to wait 3 to 6 hours for a single episode to download just to find that the file is corrupted and I don’t miss them so much anymore…

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38 thoughts

  1. All this makes me think of is the “Super Duper High School Level [insert terrible and odd specialty here].” I mean, “Duper??” Ah, the Danganronpa fansub, one of my firsts, one of the bests.

  2. I admit, I also thoroughly enjoyed fansubs, and am glad I grew up knowing them. What I particularly enjoyed were the times where the fansubbers would include a text slate, or even several, explaining something about the translation, something that they couldn’t explain “in the scene”. It was often interesting to see how they interpreted the language, and the culture.
    One particularly interesting example was a Kino’s Journey movie, where the protagonist struggled with their name. Sometimes the name was expressed using one “tone” or “subtext”, sometimes another. The two styles were expressed by using pink and blue fonts for the name “Kino”, expressing how the character did not feel as “strong” or “ready” as others did. The line “I don’t know if I am ‘Kino’ yet was very potent.”
    Another strong example was Ergo Proxy, a series full of complex philosophical and artistic references. The fansubbers were kind enough to offer their “theories” on what was being referenced, and its significance, after each episode.
    Granted, the official translators have improved, but sometimes I liked seeing how, on a very basic level, the language was structured differently, and used different words to hint at similar meanings, and how that in turn hinted at the difference of cultural perspective that lay beneath the specific story.
    There were also no shortage of times where the same name or phrase was changed each episode.
    More than once I wondered if a new “off camera” character was being referenced, until I learned to recognize the Japanese “sound” of Guts name, and realize that was not changing.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Brought back many pleasant memories :-).

    1. I agree. Translator’s notes rock. One of the biggest pluses to manga is the author asides on the sides if pages

  3. I think you should be required to watch “Ghost Story” in the English dubbed version. See, the original bombed totally so the folks who bought the English dub rights had them some REAL fun. I’t’s on the roll that goes crunch.

  4. Oh dear, Guts as “Garry”… My brain immediately connected that to Gary the snail in Spongebob. As if the naming itself wasn’t weird enough.
    Yeah, fansubs and fandubs do have (and especially had) their charm. “TL note: keikaku means plan” or the entirety of Garzey’s Wing are an endless source of fun.
    By the way, even if fansubs had become far more competent, there still from time to time appear things as that one from Koutetsujou no Kabaneri: ” it’s 2.8 (idk what measurement) away”.

  5. Those examples were gold, I laughed so much! I really like the last one – whoever was doing that one had clearly been reaching the end of their shift and was like, “well, die!, is the general gist of it all …”

          1. I will not swear to this, but I believe there are still some fandubs on YouTube on older series.

            I loved your examples here and laughed my ass off. I may have gone off the deep end but due to my twisted brain I got so curious about different translations of my favorite anime (you guess, Irina…okay, Natsume it is) that I ended up studying Japanese. I have a long way to go but I can follow nice simple conversations now LOL. I’m still a fan of subs, though. Maybe it is simply my particular selection of anime, but I find most dubs lacking. I think it’s mainly personal preference though. As always, great post!

          2. Am I really the only one here old enough to remember usenet? It’s not quite dead yet! I won’t advocate for non-licensed consumption, but there are often ways…

  6. Ah, as usual I came in too late, at the end of an era. I saw my first fansub in 2009, and most of the ones I saw were pretty good. I adore those screencaps. The fish one I’ve seen before, the rest are new to me. I’ve been watching anime now for roughly 40 years, and for most of the time I was reliant on offical translations, which were often not even translations, but edits, to some extent different shows.

    I’m totally used to different names and such, as different editions often changed things around. Also there’s videogames: Playing with an English dub, but German subtitles, and both coming from the same source can be… interesting. I remember playing Final Fantasy X and having to remember two terms for the same concepts, because the German interface and English dub would different words altogether (“Fayth” — “Astra” or something like that). In some cases I was starting to triangulate a putative Japanese concept without having a word for it. A strange experience (and the most radical I remember).

    I’m so, so glad it’s the age of the DVD, and we get subs almost as a matter of course (not for very old shows, since it’s often hard to get the rights).

    1. I just realised I said “age of the DVD”. As usual, I come in too late, at the end of an era… QED.

      1. I do remember watching Hidan no Aria, and dropping it early. Lots of people dropped it early, which led the fansubbers to produce is-anyone-still-watching-this-shit? subs. Go here for reference.

        I almost picked the show back up. Almost.

  7. “Sometimes they didn’t quite know English, but they enthusiasm would breach the language barrier as they tried their hardest to use ALL THE WORDS. ”

    Those are the best!

    I remember even recently seeing a fansub of Ordinal Scale, and toward the end, when Yuna was singing to Kirito in the dream sequence, the fansubber just gave up and said something along the lines that they could barely understand spoken Japanese; for singing Japanese translations, we’d have to buy the Blu Ray!

    I admired that kind of honesty!

    And yes, I own the Blu Ray now, too. And the fansubber was right!

  8. I have a fan subbed copy of the Cowboy Bebop series and some fan subbed Bollywood movies (my ABSOLUTE FAVOURITE is God Tussi Great Ho… It’s “Bruce Almighty” Bollywood style) these have given me countless hours of laughing so hard I’m crying. Ha ha ha!!! They’re so bad, they’re good!! 💖💖🍻

  9. While I was never really into fandubs, I’ve always watched my anime with fansubs. I really miss the days of stuff like the translator’s note explaining an illegal chess move for three paragraphs in Code Geass, or anything the Coalguys or Coalgirls ever did. It was just more fun never knowing what you were going to get.

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