Quality subtitles never used to be an issue for me. I would either stream whatever I could get my hands on or (gasp) watch dubs. Now that I’ve started watching anime on a more regular basis though, I’ve become a lot more concerned with those little lines of text at the bottom of my screen.
At first, I thought being a good translator was simply translating Japanese to English, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. There are a plethora of factors that can effect whether or not a set of subtitles is good or bad.
First and foremost, translating is not a straightforward game. Even the simplest thoughts can have a multitude of variations that color the mood and tone of our speech. Lets take the arguably simple emotion of happiness. Is that really all there is to it? Or are you happy, joyful, cheerful, pleased, delighted or ecstatic? I think you get my point. Open up a thesaurus, and you’ll likely be surprised by the array of words available to describe each individual thought, action and object in our world.
Of course word choice is just the tip of the iceberg — a precursor to a character’s tone. Does that line really fit with what is happening in the scene? An angry high schooler isn’t going to be using passive, elaborately constructed language, but the soft-spoken teach probably will be. To accurately translate a character’s dialogue you have to assess their feelings and emotions and pick the appropriate words to express them. These subtle differences can mean everything. Just take a look at any sub comparisons; some phrases will come naturally to you while others will feel incredibly forced.
Another issue that is just as apparent to the discerning viewer is the level of liberalism in subtitles. A liberal translator will take more liberties with what is being said than a more conservative subber. This can boil down to hot-button issues like the translation of honorifics such as -kun, -san, -senpai and -sama, but other alterations are more widespread. For instance, I don’t really care if they keep honorifics because I’m hearing it anyway, but I do find it nice when the translator adds some English slang and idioms when appropriate. This can get out of hand, but it’s the mark of a skilled translator when done properly.
So how do I pick my fansubs? I go through a number of steps, but there aren’t a whole lot of resources on the topic to begin with. It doesn’t help that the subject is further convoluted by the inherent subjective nature of determining the “best” fansubs for a particular show. Even so, I try to figure out which subs complement each anime I watch.
- I start by checking MAL. Usually I avoid this site like the plague for anything but the most basic information, but when it comes to fansub ratings, I can at least figure out what groups are subbing shows and hopefully cross a few off my list if they have particularly bad ratings. As a word of advice, do not pick your fansub group by what is number one on MAL as it is incredibly unreliable.
- Next I’ll move onto sites that specifically review subtitles for anime. They’ll usually cover most of the big groups translating a series and give a brief rundown of the pros and cons. These sites are usually in agreement on what the best group is so that’s what I’ll end up going for, but every once in a while there is a debate which leads me to my final step.
- If experienced translators can’t come to a consensus, I’ll go to a sub comparison site. These simply take a few frames from a show and put the subtitles side by side. Sometimes they’re identical, but there is usually a little twist in the style of each one. This can really help you nail down which sub group you’ll enjoy the most if review sites are unclear or conflicting.
Why do I go through so much trouble? I think it can make a significant difference in whether or not you enjoy a show. I could be watching an amazing movie adaptation of my favorite novel, but if the acting sucks, I’m obviously not going to enjoy it. It’s the same concept.
Here are some of the resources I use in case you’re interested: