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|
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.
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’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.
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.
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!