Should Fansubs Be Taken as Gospel?

Regardless of what you think about fan translations, the problem with them is that they lay down the foundation for weird things to happen…

The answer to this Answerman (specifically “…30-page-long snail-mailed hate screeds in broken English (angry about subtitle translation choices not matching that of fansubs, natch)…”) made me think about how fansubs are consumed. Sure, they can tell you about things that don’t get official English translations, but should they be the be all and end all for any potentially translatable material?

Of course, the answer is “no”.

Fan translations are just like any other translations – they’re potentially flawed because they have to be processed by humans to make them and processed by humans to make meaning out of them. Humans make mistakes and machine translations often make mistakes, so when those mistakes are posted to the internet masquerading as “actual content”, it’s a real dilemma…(Take it from someone who’s done that before, lots and lots of times.)

Furthermore, languages, especially ones like Japanese where context is key, mean a lot of meaning can be lost through turning a word into English. This is especially the case where there are untranslatable concepts that can’t be parsed, like honorifics and keigo (language that indicates the level of formality). Also in the case of Japanese is that it’s often said to be one of the hardest languages to learn, and for good reason – you have to learn hiragana, katakana and kanji, plus vocab, grammar, keigo…so finding a person who can spend the time to learn this and English, then work with both languages, is hard. Even with the infamous Translator’s Notes, fan translations are not perfection on a plate…and if they’re riddled with errors, the fans go down too. It’s even worse when your source is a simplified Chinese translation of Japanese material (which pops up surprisingly often in fandoms), since you have to learn the characters, tones, vocabulary, grammar and then apply scepticism to ensure not too much was lost between Chinese and Japanese (which sometimes isn’t possible, because Chinese is all you’ve got). (The other dialects of Chinese bring a whole ‘nother can of worms to the table…)

Additionally, people have to sometimes interact with the anime and manga fandoms through fan translations because of how monetised the fandoms really are, so having people that can translate the materials to a sufficient standard will be able to push the fandom to higher heights. I don’t deny that – I admit I’ve dabbled in fan translation myself a bit (I admit I’m not proud of this status as I used to be), and I’ve learnt simplified Chinese, Japanese and English over the years. Therefore, due to the inherently problematic process of translation – especially from a fan source, which may or may not be reputable depending on various factors – I ask that people put a healthy dose of scepticism to their sources and do their research before taking fan translations as the be all and end all. If that means using whatever minimal Japanese skills you have as a fan, then by all means do just that.

For fan translators, what I’m asking for is a certain level of transparency being achieved between translator and audience – find resources you can understand and your audience can understand, and ensure your audience can chase down meaning just as well as you can to ensure nuances aren’t lost between the two of you. Fan translation is a tricky game due to the nature of distribution, so do take care if you land in a position that allows you to create them.


If this seems like it’s an older writing style, that’s because this post has been sitting in my “to post” folder for about a year and a half, being untouched until I chose to post it (the Answerman column itself has just been declared “dead until the role of Answerman can be filled” as I post this in early September 2019). That said, it’s probably my best foot forward from my reservoir of reserve posts.

So, what’s your take on this topic? Whose responsibility is it to ensure critical judgement is made on whether a translation is correct or not, if there is any need for finger-pointing at all?

3 thoughts on “Should Fansubs Be Taken as Gospel?

Add yours

  1. It’s hard, but I think a lot of people get stuck on what they heard first. It’s hard to adapt to change but what people are used to isn’t necessarily better or the best. But I often readers are looking for an excuse for free fan translations to continue so they don’t have to pay for the legal, licensed version.

    Liked by 1 person

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