I was reading this paper the other day: Anime Fansubs: Translation and Media Engagement as Ludic Practice

(PDF) Anime Fansubs: Translation and Media Engagement as Ludic Practice – Academia.eduThe democratization of new media technologies, particularly the software tools though which “content” can be manipulated, has invited a seemingly vast array of modes through which people can express themselves. Conversations in fan studies, forwww.academia.edu
Let’s hope this link works!

It’s pretty good. In short, it’s about how the viewer’s experience is shaped by translation and what that means in a context with no real regulations or corporate considerations like fansubs, specifically in anime. Unfortunately, it’s a Ph.D. thesis from 2012 and international anime distribution has changed drastically since then. The world of fansubs just isn’t what it was a decade ago, and the paper actually discusses an even earlier timeframe.

Still, if you don’t mind the 154-page count, it’s a good read.

And it got me thinking about a few things. Mainly, about the good ol’ sub vs dub debate and viewer experience in anime.

otaku debates get intense!

To be perfectly frank with all of you, I have no side in the sub v dub thing. I personally think the entire debate is completely silly and people should just watch anime whichever way they want to. It’s like when people get really heated about whether you should put ketchup on certain foods or not. It doesn’t change anything in my world. If you like ketchup, put it on whatever you want.

Still, it’s a very classic point of discussion for anime fans and even if you are a completely disinterested party, like me, you probably have seen this debate play out at some point. And there is this occasional, very weird argument, that watching anime subtitled is somehow closer to the intended experience, therefore more “authentic”.

This is baffling on so many levels. I’m sure that all the painstaking hours put into animating a series and creating beautiful consistent art weren’t put in just so you could concentrate on reading the bottom third of the screen. And the subtitles are just as translated as the dubs so… I personally prefer watching my anime subbed, but I find the disdain for dubs very odd.

However, this search for “authenticity” is something that has always been present in the international anime community and it has lead to a vilification of the very concept of localization. And when I thought about it, I came to the belief that localization is not only unavoidable but absolutely necessary in a lot of circumstances, for an authentic experience.

I know you’re doubtful but hear me out

I’m using the word authentic a lot. Personally, I don’t think it matters. Anime can be seen as either a consumer good, in which case personal enjoyment leading to more consumption is really the main and only intended experience or anime can be seen as art. And in my opinion, personal interpretation will always be a crucial part of art appreciation, which means that a single universal experience is not possible.

However, I realize that as international fans, we have an urge to try to understand and take in anime while relating to the author’s intent and experience, simply to make sure we’re not missing out on the best part. That delightful subtleties aren’t going over our heads. I think it’s an ambitious goal but a noble one. It’s an urge I certainly feel myself. So, throughout this post when I mention authentic experience, I’m not talking about a specific way of appreciating anime, but rather a vague sense of satisfaction that a viewer may feel after watching a show.

And this finally leads me to my main point, localization.

Just to make sure we are on the same page, let’s define localization for this post. I will be using the word to describe not only language localization, in which translators use idiomatic expressions that are specific to the country or region in which the anime will be distributed. But also, more general localization in which situations, references and conflicts are adapted to reflect the cultural realities of these regions as well, or explanations are added in when that isn’t possible. And finally, even designs can be tweaked, either due to local regulations or for marketing purposes.

In the original, her shirt is green!

There are a lot of anime fans that shudder at the mention of localization. This is mainly due to “bad” or at the very least clumsy attempts at localizing anime in the early days of international distribution. These were often heavy-handed and could completely change the original meaning of a scene and would be used as a tool to enforce local censorship laws. And audiences felt cheated. In some cases, you could say that the non-localized versions were simply objectively better.

But it’s important to remember that these are examples of bad localization, and I don’t think it’s fair to judge the entire practice based on the worse it has to offer. I mean there is plenty of just bad anime, to begin with, but some anime is fantastic. And I think that is the case for localization practices as well.

On a basic level, I think everyone understands that literal translations aren’t always the most accurate. If that was the case, google translate would have solved all of our translation needs and we could call it a day. If you’ve ever played the Google translate game, where you go from one language to another, to another and then back again, you know it’s not that easy.

There’s a pretty common expression in the Eastern European country where I’m from that says: Getting someone to buy you green caviar. What it actually means is sending someone on a wild goose chase but that wouldn’t necessarily be understood, especially in an age where coloured caviar and wasabi tobiko are a pretty common thing.

Moreover, I say that it’s sending someone on a wild goose chase, but there’s a slightly more malicious intent to it. It’s not simply keeping someone busy or distracted for a while. There’s an element of making someone lose their time on purpose. It’s a bit more meanspirited.

So, if I was to translate this for an American audience and I really wanted them to get the point, I would absolutely have to use an expression that is common here and probably add extra inflection to make the inferred mean part more obvious. Localization would have to be a part of that translation, or else it’s just not the same.

But then how accurate is it. It’s completely different words and if I don’t use the exact right amount of inflection in the performance, it might come off as way too mean-spirited or weirdly theatrical when the original was delivered in a fairly neutral way.

Translators already shape our understanding and appreciation of anime to a huge degree. I know that for a fact. I have read a lot of fan-translated manga. Occasionally, I have had the pleasure of reading the same manga translated by two different people. And the difference is staggering. I can go from being bored or disenchanted by a manga to being fascinated by the exact same pages and ravenously wanting more. Even when the general idea is the same. The words make an enormous difference. But they are also informed by the translator’s interpretation.

When you add localization, that’s another layer of interpretation that we have to deal with. Maybe I’m touchy so I have always inferred a slight insult from certain turns of phrases that someone else may be completely oblivious to. How will that affect a product if I’m localizing it? Will the characters I have worked on all come off as extremely rude compared to the same characters localized by someone else? There’s a chance.

or maybe it will come off perfectly innocent…

At the same time though, unless I have lived long enough in Japan and grown up there so that I can fully internalize the culture, then without localization, the subtleties will definitely be lost on me. I will be blissfully thinking that sending someone out for green caviar means getting them to buy me an expensive sushi diner or something.

It’s a balancing act.

For artistic works such as anime, that depend not only on getting an emotional reaction from the audience but also on creating a relatable context in which the story takes part, translators have to constantly weigh how true to the letter of the text they want to be, against how true to the spirit they wish to stay. And that is a gargantuan task. I am so impressed by the fact that we have so much quality anime in English, both subbed and dubbed that is readily available for all.

I think we should give localization a bit more appreciation. It’s very difficult to do well but when it’s done well, it’s wonderful!

22 thoughts

  1. As a dub preferrer (Not sure if that’s a word) myself I definitely enjoy seeing all the different localization styles. Personally I prefer one that is tailored to the experience. Like, don’t do a literal translation if it’s not going to sound very organic. I think picking the English equivalent makes sense so it’s not a pure 1-1 but it makes sense and captures the heart of what they’re saying.

    For example there’s one Naruto filler arc in the anime where they suddenly switched over to a literal translation. (The blood sacrifice arc) So you suddenly had the characters calling each other “big brother” and “big sister” since in Japan they were using neesan and neechan, but the reason this didn’t work is because they never did it before.

    Naruto’s a show I watch with my parents so they were asking me if they missed an episode and the characters were suddenly related. It’s quick enough to explain away but I think that would be a common reaction to anyone who only casually watches anime like my folks. So if a series is localized one way then it should stick to it and I think the art of translating should try to prioritize being organic over literal.

    1. It’s very odd when styles switch in the middle of a show. That’s probably the worst case scenario

  2. As a child of the 4kids/Toonami era, I want to say to these people “oh you have no fucking idea.”

    Twitter and the outrage culture of social media hasn’t helped this at all. Reasonable people understand that translating is never going to be a perfect 1 to 1, and that most translators are doing a good job with one of the hardest languages to put into English. 98% of works tend to be warmly received with no fuss. But there are some translators who seem more concerned with scoring political points online than actually giving a faithful recreation of the work. That isn’t helped either by the pissing match on both sides who take one or two comments and blow them up to be the end of days. But as you say Irina, we shouldn’t paint the entire translation community by the actions of a few vocal bad actors. That’s not fair.

    I think it is the ‘sausage principle’ at work: if you love something, don’t find out how it’s made. Attaching a human face to that, especially people who are active on social media only muddies the waters and make people unable to separate the art from the artist. I long stopped following voice actors on twitter because I don’t want to know their views about whatever social or political issue. They create the content, I consume the content and have my opinion. That’s the end of the relationship.

    Or just stop using twitter.

  3. My argument on this, is something like ‘if it’s pre-2010, almost definitely watch it in subs. Especially if it’s 4Kids.’

    This is partly because I want to learn more about Japan, and the harsh localisations of pre-2010 anime (generally) don’t allow for that. It’s also because for my tastes, the pre-2010 English voice acting circles just weren’t good enough compared to the subs. Even today, I’m watching Iruma S2 in sub after trying S1 in dub, because the dub just has far too much unintelligible shouting and it catches on my nerves. On the other hand, it can go the other way, too. Trying to decide what language to watch Higurashi in melts my brain.

    This said, I really do love good localisation! And I think the decisions made in translation are fascinating! One of my favourite sub-to-dub transformations is Steins;Gate. It doesn’t all land perfectly, but there were so many challenging concepts to get across and I love how they handled every part of it!

    This post also makes me think of the current trends for female linguists to re-translate the Greek epics, because so far it seems like male translations have been adding sexism in. So, it really depends on the team and the story they want to tell. A lot can change, and that’s both scary (from an authorial perspective, trying to maintain some control over your creation) and very interesting (academically).

  4. Man, I must be dumb or something…because I don’t think about any of this stuff. I either like an anime or I don’t…sure, I can usually articulate why I do or don’t like an anime, but I don’t usually take things like localisation into account…actually, scratch usually and replace it with never…

    But on the point about translation, I believe the contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has told his translators not to try for a literal translation but to capture the “essence” of what he’s been writing and using that as the basis of their translation….I wonder if that applies in anime….?

    1. well Murakami creates moods. His writing is mostly athmospheric Litteral translations would be a disaster. I think a lot of anime is more straightforward but I could be wrong.

  5. People love arguments, just look at the programmers. We love arguing about our languages all the time.

    On a more serious note, people need to understand that most people don’t care about authenticity, they want something entertaining to watch. They are not willing to learn an entirely different language for that.

    Having said that, the localization has gone too far in India. I mean when you refer going to Tokyo as going to Dehli, while clearly not in India, what can you say aside from clearly insulting the inteligents of kids? Yes, kids do notice these things. Adults don’t listen, that is why they are ignorent.

    Overall though, I don’t mind dubs, and in fact, I favor them. But I don’t have any problems with subs either.

    I do have problems with gatekeepers though, who actually mock and bully people for watching anime in their own way.

    1. I’m not sure about that. I see the desire for authenticity all the time, even amoung my fellow bloggers.

      I guess for you dubs are really way more practical.

  6. That’s the best treatment of localization that I’ve read in, well, ever. It reminded me strongly of how folks accepted or didn’t accept ancient scripture translations (based on several of the classes I took back in college). It’s almost comical: the ancient Christian church didn’t encourage reading scripture, which was either in Latin (the Vulgate, with literal translation error), the LXX (Greek), or the original Hebrew (well, until you get into the New Testament — I’m talking at a 10,000 level here).

    So when the King James version hit in the language of the people, they began to consider it the standard — despite its errors compared to the Vulgate or LXX.

    Fast forward to the late 1960s. Some scripture scholars tried to come up with a new translation using modern idioms. If I remember right, it was called The Way. It didn’t catch on, because it didn’t sound like the King James, which itself was a flawed work.

    Sounds a lot like an application of your thoughts on localization!

    You know, this post qualifies for the Some Faith in Humanity Restored meme.

    1. Oh wow, I have very little religious background but I hadn’t thought of scripture translation. That must be a fascinating minefield!

  7. I’m in agreement that the sub v. dub argument is silly. I will admit that I prefer subs. You can’t escape translation by writing a subtitle. The number of Americans who speak enough Japanese to understand the original is microscopic. My preference for subs is because I listen to the inflection and tone of the speaker while I’m reading the sub. It gives me a better sense of the emotional content of the words.

    In very very very many dubs the English-speaking voice actors don’t catch at all the subtleties of how the words should be spoken. I think it is because the producer of the anime themself believes the sub is the actual product and the dub is an afterthought for people who can’t be bothered to read. Good dubs cost money, require real talent, and take time.

    OTOH, the anime that made it to Adult Swim usually have very good dubs. I think there’s a financial incentive here to get it right. Cowboy Bebop is an outstanding dub.

    Localization is another matter. I suppose you can never go wrong by lowballing the intelligence of the American viewer. Aside from outright censorship, (which I abhor) I find most localization insults my intelligence. I suppose subtle localization might pass my awareness but if I can see it, I don’t like it.

    1. Most anime is censored at the production level way before it makes it to international distribution. Although, for me, it’s the propaganda that’s more grating.

  8. Translating fiction is difficult. You pretty much always have to sacrifice some stuff, and you also pretty much always add stuff that’s not in the original, simply by cultural recontextualisation. Localisation is an important tool for any translator, but there are roughly two schools of translation: one favours accessibility, while the other favours authenticity.

    Authenticity doesn’t mean that you have the same type of experience that a native speaker has. It simply means presenting something that’s as close to the source text as possible. Or differently put, where the two schools differ is in their philosophy about culture shock. Someone aiming for accessibility is going to transfer alien cultural concepts into the closest native concept that still has the “same” effect. Someone aiming for authenticity thinks that the little hiccups along the way are an integral part of the experience. What someone aiming for authenticity still wants to avoid is invisible misunderstandings: things that – if translated as is – have different meanings in the different cultures, so the scene either makes no sense, or the different immediate interpretations cause a problem down the line. Localisation is necessary in these instances. For an easy anime example: anyone interested in authenticity wouldn’t replace onigiri with donuts (as early Pokemon allegedly did – I watched the German dub, so I wouldn’t know). If you’re audience doesn’t know onigiri, that doesn’t matter. It’s something they eat. Your target audience may think it’s something special rather than ordinary, so that could be a problem. But it’ll stop being a problem if you then go on to see onigiri in all sorts of context elsewhere. Localise and you deprive your audience of a learning experience that’s rather painless and organic. There’s a sliding meter here. For example, I tend to err on the side of authenticity, but there are people further along the continuum than I: I wouldn’t, for example, keep honorifics in the English text. That feels like going a step too far. That said, I’m totally fine reading a text like that (or watching subtitles like that).

    Honorifics are interesting, when it comes to translation. There’s this very elaborate system that just doesn’t exist in English. We have a few rudimentary words like “Mr.” and such and that’s where it ends. But you can’t just use “Mr./Ms.” anytime they use “san”. Then what about “kun/chan”? Or “sama”? How do you tranlate the stage in a relationship when the honorifics are dropped? (I still don’t completely understand the implacations, after all my years of watching anime.) There seems to be an imprlicit hierarchy: family name + honorific -> first name + honorific -> first name (plain). But it doesn’t seem entirely linear. So I can see the argument for keeping honorifics in the English. The problem is that names are far to prominent, and text will inevitably feel klunky. However, I haven’t encountered a translation method that “feels” the same. Basically, authenticity moves from confusion to comprehension (though if you do understand or just made something up that’s sort of wrong but makes sense to is hard to tell without input from someone who understands both languages).

    I’ve always been a sub-boy. Way before I watched subbed anime, I’d watch subbed anything, whenever I got the chance. When I was a kid, stuff on TV or in the cinema was subbed. Dual channels on stereo TV weren’t a thing yet. Occasionally, usually between 8:00 a.m. to 12 a.m. on weekends, they’d have subbed movies. I remember watching the Marx Brothers that way and always being disappointed when of their movies was dubbed (it didn’t feel right).

    I saw my first subbed anime (Silent Möbius) sometime in the 90ies. I’d watched a lot of anime by then (all dubbed into German), and it was a revelation. Some common tropes suddenly made sense. I didn’t speak a word of Japanese (well, I did know some words, like “sayonara” or “hai”, but that doesn’t count for much), yet simply hearing the inflection with the bodylanguage made a different sort of sense. It was hard to put my finger on it, but characters felt less… naive? It felt more like the expected optimistic act that it is. Rote cultural performance that just doesn’t translate the same way in a language not made for it. It would have been hard to describe the difference back then; it’s now impossible, since the memory’s long been over-written. It’s at least 25 years ago now, probably more.

    Still I’m firmly in the sub camp, and I tend towards the authenticity school of translation. And that’s based on how I make sense of the world. But even so, localisation is an important tool for any translator, regardless of their philosophy of translation. And it’s not an easy tool to handle, again regardless of the philosophy. So anime tranlators will always have my respect; especially, if they’re not given enough context, or can’t even watch the show before translating (I hear that has happened).

    Finally, something somewhat related. My copy of Final Fantasy X has an English dub but a German sub. Both the dub and the sub have been translated from the original Japanese, and there’s no co-ordination whatsoever between the two. When I first played the game, all I really noticed was the obvious terminology difference. None of the setting terms matched up. When I replayed the game years later, I’d watched a lot more subbed anime, so I found myself forming hypotheses (which I’ve never checked) about what the original would say. It was a fun extra layer of the game that I could only play in the space between different localisations consumed simultaneously.

    1. The problem is that onigiri translates into rice ball. Rice ball is not a concept alien to Americans. The change happened because they translators thought that the a rice ball wasn’t what US kids wanted to eat. However it was pretty obviously NOT a jelly donut, leading to ridicule for the choice. And eating a rice ball in Japan is NOT functionally equivalent to eating a jelly donut in the US.

      The worst example of bad localization was the relationship between Uranus and Neptune in Sailor Moon. Making them cousins just made the obvious relationship creepy.

      1. Oh they should have translated it to arancini!
        Why is lesbianism only ok if it’s also incest? It’s an existential question all Sailor Moon fans have had to grapple with…

    2. I doenjoy watching things in a language I understand with Engish subtitles on and seeing all the little differences. Sometimes it’s pretty mindboggling

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