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The future of anime fansubs in a simulcast world

As Crunchyroll and Hidive invest in translations, a few passionate fans cling to the amateur treatment

A scene from Revue Starlight.
| Kinema Citrus

Where do you watch anime?

For most people in the United States, the answer is streaming sites like Hidive, FunimationNow, and Crunchyroll, which today, lag behind Japanese broadcasts of the most popular series by only a few hours. While Netflix hopes to grab a piece of the pie in 2019 by releasing classics like Neon Genesis Evangelion and commissioning original works, the company has yet to embrace “simulcasting,” a model that allows series to air in Japan and around the world on the same day. Simulcasting is an integral part of Crunchyroll’s sales pitch to viewers; since launching in 2006, the site has attracted 45 million registered users to date, 2 million of whom pay for subscriptions that allow for same-day viewing.

Anime access is so common that it’s hard to recall a time when English-speaking fans relied on pirated copies of Japanese shows and films, whether on videotape or via file-sharing sites, that were translated by fans for public consumption. The rise of licensed, legal versions of anime delivered by streaming services should theoretically put an end to that work, but there are still “fansubbing” groups out there, translating anime for reasons that include self-education, community building, and love — simulcasts be damned.

Simulcasting isn’t a new idea; since the 1940s, the word has generally referred to the simultaneous broadcast of radio or television across different channels. It’s one thing to broadcast a talk show via AM and FM radio, but until the advent of the remote workplace, the idea of doing the same with media that required translation was a completely different matter.

Via email, I asked Q Williams, the director of content operations at Crunchyroll parent company Ellation, how the service manages to produce translations at such a breakneck speed. He wrote, “We currently translate [series] into 10 different languages and have subtitlers located all over the world in nearly every time zone. So there’s generally someone online and working at any point in the day.”

Crunchyroll’s top simulcast anime series of spring 2018 Crunchyroll

Simulcast translation for anime is done within a few hours of Japanese broadcast, and involves a high level of coordination, with staffers literally working around the clock to finish episodes. “The workflow is designed to have multiple, different eyeballs reviewing subtitles, which provides more opportunities to catch errors and ensure a quality subtitle,” said Williams.

Professional anime distribution services like Crunchyroll have changed how their audiences consume that media. “No more trading battered VHS tapes to get your fix,” said Williams, adding, “A quality subtitle is expected and no longer a surprise.”

As recently as a decade ago, instead of tuning into a streaming site’s simulcast, fans were glued to Japanese premiere dates and their preferred fansub groups’ schedules. They waited with a heady mix of agony and ecstasy for the latest episodes to pop up in their feeds, hoping against hope that they wouldn’t be delayed or, at worst, suddenly dropped due to lack of time or interest from fansubbers, who were everyday fans themselves.

Those amateurs, who translate anime in their spare time and for free, can’t compete with a well-funded and -staffed venture that guarantees access to shows on a strict schedule. Crunchyroll reported in 2017 that its paid subscription service, which grants early access to translated media, reached 1 million members. The number has doubled since AT&T acquired full ownership over Ellation in August.

Unofficial translators are also facing a more robust anti-piracy stance within Japan itself. Last spring, several Chinese nationals living in Japan were arrested for illegally translating over 15,000 manga and games, which were then published on Weibo. The Association of Copyright for Computer Software reported that, if convicted, the individuals would face prison terms, steep fines, or both.

In this moment, when legal streaming services like Crunchyroll offer near-instant anime gratification, why would any amateurs continue to do this kind of work? Many haven’t: According to the Fansub Database, a site that has tracked both professional and amateur translation efforts since 2010, the proportion of shows getting the fansub treatment has shrunk dramatically. Regarding Crunchyroll’s piece of the pie, Williams told me that “three years ago, Crunchyroll was translating between 20 to 25 simulcast episodes a week. We’re now up to 42 to 50 episodes.”

To differentiate themselves, the fansub groups that remain have gone a route that one could almost call “artisanal.” Their relative slowness is a virtue. Some have even criticized the new culture of instant gratification as a detriment to the anime viewing experience. One extant fansubber, who goes by Akatsukin, found a fansubbing niche with a group called Mezashite.

Six years ago, Akatsukin and his friend, Etoce, began Mezashite with the goals of perfecting their language skills and translating a show. They chose Aikatsu!, an animated television series aimed at young girls, as their project. Since then, Mezashite has become the main source of translations for the series, which has since generated multiple spinoffs and hundreds of episodes.

“Even though I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t consider myself an expert translator,” Akatsukin told me via Discord voice chat. “But in the case of this show, we are probably the only people who have worked on every single script of this show for all these years. […] Even if I’m not the best possible translator out there, I’m the best Aikatsu! translator.”

It’s a relatively easy claim to make, since the property has been untouched by licensing companies, allowing Mezashite to work without interference. Groups like Mezashite often identify gaps in translation, and pick up shows that would otherwise be unavailable to audiences outside Japan.

Aikatsu! - ‘and this one too!’
BN Pictures

For instance, due to a lack of popularity outside of their native country, the majority of shows in the tokusatsu genre, which includes sentai and kaiju shows, remain unlicensed for translation into English. A show may be unlicensed for a variety of reasons, including a studio’s lack of resources or licensing companies’ hesitance to devote time or effort to something that isn’t a sure bet. Shows may also lack translations for audiences that speak less dominant languages, like, say, Lithuanian or Kazakh. Fansub groups, which are made up entirely of volunteers, aren’t as beholden to those financial considerations, and can freely take on projects according to their own interests or whims.

“If you want to fansub in this environment, you have to be really internally motivated,” Akatsukin told me. “You have to do it for the love of it, not fame and exposure.”

Anime viewers are incredibly opinionated about the content they consume — inaccurate or strange subtitles are the spark for many a meme — and in turn, fansub groups gravitate toward shows that they feel get short shrift by professional translation efforts. In our email exchange, Williams alluded to that level of persnicketiness: “Users aren’t shy about taking to the forums if they feel there’s an issue, so their empowerment has changed.” Indeed, streaming sites like Crunchyroll field criticism from numerous venues, including from one very devoted Twitter account.

Akatsukin himself joined a fansub group working on Revue Starlight, a show that was also simulcast by the Hidive streaming service. Though he initially joined only to do translation checking on the song sequences of the show, he enjoyed the anime so much that he signed on to help with the entire endeavor. The fact that the show was being simulcast by a major distributor only added fuel to the fire. Akatsukin watched Hidive’s broadcast, but thought, “I’m gonna watch it and write down everything wrong with it.” That included the lack of translated song lyrics, untranslated signage, and phrases that were translated too literally. To him, working on the show as a fansubber was a matter of sharing its true essence with fellow fans.

However, one of the strengths of simulcast-ready services lies in their access to the original texts of given media products. According to Williams, the different translation teams coordinate efforts and also work with reference materials — which may include scripts, notes, and style guides — received directly from Japanese animation studios.

While working with the studios and writers can aid accuracy, some corporate decisions can dictate texts that, outside of a Japanese context, may not be the preference of translators. This seems to explain phrases whose professional translations seem a bit jolting, like Encouragement of Climb or, famously, Senki Zesshou Symphogear GX’s episode title “Believe in Justice and Hold a Determination to Fist.” To that point, Williams told me, “The Japanese license holders usually have an English title set by the time it reaches the subtitling stage, but on rare occasions, Crunchyroll is asked to submit English suggestions for anime titles early in the licensing process.”

To counter the flaws it saw in Hidive’s approach, the group Akatsukin worked with on the Revue translation designed karaoke-style lyrics. These were color-coded to the characters who sing each line, emulating the show’s visual style with sign lettering, and the group came up with its own solutions for character nicknames and slang. For the duration of the show, the team’s release schedule averaged four to six days after the Japanese air dates, well past the acceptable time frame for a simulcasting service. Other fansub groups have played with the form to enhance the viewer’s experience: A fan-translated version of Monogatari’s second season paired the retro visuals of its opening sequence with the old-style yellow subtitles that were de rigueur in ’80s-era anime.

Though fansubbed shows are in decline, the situation isn’t as binary as that: Many professional translators began in the fansub world. There’s really not much of a difference between the folks who work on either side — besides the raw fact that one group gets paid while the other does not.

But when I asked Akatsukin if he would ever be interested in going pro, he gave me an emphatic “no.” He’s happy with his day job, and prefers the freedom of translating without a true deadline, company-dictated style guides, or profits to worry about.

“I just do it for the viewers,” he continued. “Sometimes at conventions I’ll meet people who tell me in person, ‘This show saved my life; this show is the reason I can keep going every week.’ Honestly, even just seeing comments on the website is really awesome, like, ‘I’ve been waiting all week for this.’”

Soleil Ho is a food and culture writer and podcaster who’s written for GQ, The New Yorker, The Nib, and many other publications. She spends much of her free time plotting out her farm on Stardew Valley.

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