Why (Most) Subs Suck

I recently read an article by Baka-Raptor (who we’ll be facing in the four-way aniblog tourney round this Wednesday) about a particular line in the Crunchyroll localization of Madoka Magica’s first episode:

Baka-Raptor complains that this type of cheap otaku-pandering gimmick was detrimental to his enjoyment of the show, which is quite a shame, especially because they didn’t even translate the actual line properly.

In this scene, Sayaka says: “Suge-! Madoka made kyara ga tachi hajimeta yo!”  which literally means: “That’s great! Your personality’s finally starting to stand out too!”. Though I think Baka-Raptor is overreacting a bit on his post, I would say that Crunchyroll failed to get the proper message across to its audience. This isn’t even an issue of nuance – they totally altered what was being said in favor of… in favor of what? I don’t even understand why they translated Sayaka’s line like this.

There’s a world of difference between localizing to translate nuances as accurately as possible and translating so that you get as far away from the point as possible. I took a sample from the most respected Madoka fansub group, Yesy, just to show you a better attempt at localization:

See the difference? IN GLORIOUS 1080p?

Though the phrasing of the sentence could use some work, this is obviously more accurate than Crunchyroll’s version. The two versions’ translations of this line were basically the same, but no unnecessary details were added to Yesy’s version. Crunchyroll’s idea of adding a more “otaku” feel to Madoka Magica left the scene quite different from what was intended by the original creators.

This is why most subs (fansub or official subs) are not very good ways to really enjoy anime. Sure, some official subtitle groups take pride in their translation skill, and carry over the original message from Japanese to English quite well, but the experience would just not be the same as watching it raw (untranslated). Some nuances would most definitely be impossible to carry over, especially for comedy anime that rely heavily on Japanese wordplay or cultural references. There’s also the constant worry over sub quality – typesetting, phrasing, karaoke, among other things.

I think that if one really wants to enjoy a piece of entertainment in a different language, one should make an effort to learn said language. For example, my cousin recently got very interested in Bollywood movies. What did she do? She did not limit herself to incompetently subbed copies of The Three Idiots and went out of her way to self-study the Indian language. As for me, I went to some Japanese classes and also did a lot of self-study. Even though I can watch raw anime now, I’m still learning how to write and read about 2000 kanji.

I’m not saying that one should be fluent in Japanese to be an anime fan, I’m just saying that it’s unfair, both to the creators and the one watching, if a person gets the wrong message from an anime that he could have enjoyed so much if it weren’t for the language barrier and bad subs.

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20 Responses to Why (Most) Subs Suck

  1. Seele00 says:

    While I’m not one for completely trashing subs myself, I do feel that it’s important for both localizers and the audience to know the setting of the scene (TL/localizers) and the very core of the language (audience). However, most non-Japan viewers will have to rely on subs, therefore the burden lies heavily on the subbers. I prefer to cut them some slack if they’re subbing something that doesn’t use that much Japanese nuances. Otherwise I will be critical.

    Just to note though, I watch most of my anime raw nowadays out of speed and accessibility (raw streaming, etc).

  2. Aelysium says:

    Now I’m not defending that crunchy roll translation but the idea of translating something literally is a very bad idea. The idea of translating exactly what the characters say is also a bad idea. There are far too many nuances, cultural factors and differences in how certain words, phrases and ideas are used between various cultures which near enough are untranslatable or even if they are, would sound ridiculous or not make a whole lot of sense to people.

    People think the Bakemono and Nisemono subs are great, I’ve never heard complaints about that but, actually the phrasing from the translated Japanese is actually quite different.

    I really think before people go bashing fan subbers they need to look into these things. Or at least be grateful. Fansubbing is a free service by volunteers – yet all the community does is trash on them. Translating isn’t easy. And then when your only critics are the audience you cater to who also know zero Japanese, I think its a pretty awful mood the fandom is getting into.

    • @fkeroge says:

      I’m not really trying to bash fansubbers. I got into anime with the help of fansubs as well. The time and effort that fansub groups put into their work (for free, even) is not something to be taken lightly – but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t criticize them, as criticism helps people improve.

      This is why I tried to argue that people should try to learn the language, especially the regular fansub consumers, as they are usually the ones who make a big deal out of every single error in the subs.

      As for people who really have to rely on subtitles, I think the burden really does lie on the groups who are doing the subs, especially the professionals at Crunchyroll. It’s their job and they get paid for it. They need to do it properly.

      • Aelysium says:

        Hmm fair enough. Well I think criticism is fair enough, but to simultaneously hate and attack (most) fansubbers whilst the general anime (outside of japan) populace rely so heavily on them, just seems contradictory. Not to say you’re doing this because as you said, you’ve taken the time to learn japanese but I’m noticing this is a trend on the rise as of late.

        I don’t think I could tell people to learn the language. Now I’m not saying we should be lazy and lean on the fansubbers but I don’t think one should have to learn a language to watch a piece of media. That’s the whole point of subs. I used subs for ages, in fact, I still do. Even though I’m currently living in Japan. Learning japanese is a lot easier said than done. If someone can do it, I would say they should but I’m thankful that people like subbers and crunchyroll (no matter how silly a few lines may be) take the time to do it so anime can be appreciated world wide. If people had to learn japanese to get anime, anime would be dead by now – at least outside of Japan.

        Well I think groups should take a little more time on some subs, not to name names, but a couple groups have gotten into “speed subbing” i.e. The quicker, the more seeds. I guess I disagree with that but a lot of fansubbers put whole days into subbing and re checking a single episode multiple times. Errors pop up from tie to time and compromising translations may have to made – I think its just how it is, we can’t expect perfection.

        As for Crunchyroll, they’re paid so they should do a better job but again I think its down to crunchy roll targetting its viewers, the fansub line read really awkwardly tbh. Whilst the Crunchyroll line was silly, they were trying to (and I guess failed) humour) add humour. Different people go about it different. I know that some are annoying and others just wrong but at the same time, the collective effort of these translators is all that’s keeping anime afloat outside of Japan.

        I know enough japanese to probably watch a raw but I couldn’t translate. I’ve tried before and its ridiculously hard and time consuming. Hence why I can forgive groups. If people have an issue with fansubs, they don’t have to use them. But I for one appreciate them. That one line from Puella didn’t ruin the show or the episode so I really get confused when something like that becomes a huge outrage.

    • @fkeroge says:

      Also, literal accuracy isn’t really the primary concern in translation, it’s getting the original message, or something close to it, across the language barrier. If you add unnecessary details to your translation, it deviates from the original purpose of translation itself.

      I do some translation work myself, so I know the difficulty of the job, but I would never sacrifice the message of the original for some trifling reason like making it sound more “American” or appealing to a niche audience.

  3. Canne says:

    I am in a situation that I need to rely on subs. And I’ll have to make do with it.
    But I completely understand about watching raw being better than subtitled. I do that with all English-speaking media (English is my second language).

    Now I wished I hadn’t dropped out of Japanese camp when I was in high school -_-

  4. moichispa says:

    Even being a Japanese student I still have to rely in subtitles. First years of study helps if you watch simple moe stuff but you will don’t understand of you try most complicated A type anime. Subtitles are not perfect. Translations is not just dropping text from a net translation, it is complicate and ever more if you’re working with two languages as different as English and Japanese. So I can say we should not complain so much and be grateful that we can understand what the characters are saying. Yeah encouraging people to study Japanese to understand anime is great but it may take years to understand specific, technical, honorific or distant past situations.

    • Baka-Raptor says:

      Basically what I was going to say. I can watch something like Yuru Yuri and comprehend a disturbing amount of what they’re saying. But when I get to a show like Madoka Magica, where language is less infantile and details across all dimensions of the show really matter, I won’t even try. If I concentrate on listening comprehension, I’ll have less attention to pay to everything else that’s going on. Better leave it to subbers than to make bigger mistakes on your own.

  5. Reed says:

    The “Indian language”? Hahaha oh wow

    This isn’t some inherent problem with subtitles, it’s just a case of bad fansubbing.

    • @fkeroge says:

      Yeah, I know that there are a lot of dialects in India, but I was just making a point.

      While it can be argued that Crunchyroll just did a bad job, it still says something about the current state of the subtitling community. The fansubbers are trying their best to pump out accurate translations, but the question still remains: Are they successfully delivering the intended message across the language barrier?

      • Reed says:

        They’re not “dialects”, they’re full-blown languages and language families. There’s more similarities between Sanskrit and German than there are between Hindi and Tamil.

  6. Justin says:

    Wait timeout…The JP publishers approved said subtitle (after all, they look over everything) I am also sure that the same line is in the box set for the N.A. side too (Aniplex!), so as always, translating JP is tricky and sometimes it’s left up to the translator, but I’m not sure this is all Crunchy’s fault here.

    • @fkeroge says:

      I highly doubt that the original publishers look over Crunchyroll’s script. If they did, there would be a lot less mistakes.

    • Carillus says:

      In the first place, if the JP publishers have the means to look over English subtitles and check their accuracy, they’d probably sub it themselves in the first place.

      The fact that they outsourced it to another company points to the fact that the publishers likely aren’t exactly fantastic at English themselves, so I highly doubt they look over the script in the first place… or if they understand the nuances that the translators try to include in the script…

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  8. Smiley says:

    I have to agree that the subs play a very important role in how you understand and perceive a show, but learning a new language is quite a daunting task, and at some point we have to just draw a line and settle for something “less accurate”.

    Of course, the debate of how “literal” translations should be is quite complicated, but in the end I feel that the loss of some subtle nuance is unavoidable. It’s all just a result of the cultural barriers that separate us, so outright mistranslations or “liberal interpretations” can be somewhat acceptable given the appropriate circumstances.

    That, or I’m just finding excuses for being too lazy to learn Japanese.

  9. hiroy_raind says:

    I don’t think a slight divergence from literal translation is a really bad thing. After all, after knowing a lot about 3 different languages (although I studied 5. The other two wasn’t used often and probably went down the drain somewhere), some cultural nuances from each language just can’t be translated as is, if not at all without knowledge of the translated language.

    I do, however, raise my eyebrows whenever what I heard is different with what I read, although not much more than that usually, at least if it’s not broken translation *ODEXface*.

    Though I will admit, Crunchy’s translation really just sounded like “we have to amuse the otaku crowd!”, which is just bad ;^^.

  10. lvlln says:

    Some people seem to like the idea of and even taj pride in getting the English translation as far away from the original as possible while technically being close enough, even if it adds meaning that wasn’t there and doesn’t make the language flow better in English. This is why I try to stay away from sub groups and am skeptical of some sub reviewers.

    Really, once the script gets passable, speed – time between JP release and sub release – is the most important factor. Fancy typesetting, flowery language, who cares, they’re just cartoons. Just get the meaning close enough, don’t make shit up, and let’s enjoy ourselves.

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