Anime subtitles are the only way English speaking people can watch a new show straight from Japan within the hour. That much is a given. But just like the post on anime dubs I did, I felt it was necessary to discuss the limitations of subtitles as well.

Obviously, if you can’t speak Japanese, watching anime with subtitles is the best way to view the medium. Hell, it’s the only way in some cases. But sadly, doing this can have its own issues.

Anime Subtitles

In the days before Crunchyroll and official streams of niche shows, we had fansubs. Without fansubs, a lot of people wouldn’t have gotten into anime and it’s wouldn’t be as popular as it is now. Though, because they were unprofessional subs, we got translations that were kind of … dumb. See the above image.

Unprofessional subs meant that you’d get unprofessional translations. These could be in the forms of memes, more vulgarity than warranted, or just plain stupidity. When I was a teenager, I didn’t mind this too much cause LOLZ RANDUM. I’ve since grown up and learned that memes have no place in my Chinese cartoon.

We don’t live in that age anymore. We live in an age where we can watch mostly any anime we want, hours after broadcast, with decent-ish anime subtitles.

Sometimes anime subtitles are great, sometimes they’re not

Why? Cause, as I pointed out in the anime dubs article, we’re still at the bias of whoever is translating. Usually, for Crunchyroll, the translator has a quick turnaround, and not paid as much as they should be. This can lead to some very … unique subs.

(Note: Anime subtitles are usually fixed for home video releases and had approvals.)

Anime Subtitles

Take for example the above image from Gabriel DropOut. In Japanese, she is saying “いただきます” (itadakimasu) which roughly would translate to “to receive”. Because of the context, and the fact there’s not really any English equivalent, it’s usually translated as “Let’s Eat”. That translation makes sense, because, in Japan, there’s no real religious element to “いただきます” anymore. Though to be fair, why would a demon be thankful for her food in a very culturally Japanese way when she wasn’t brought up in Japanese society?

The translation, while being fun, is wholly unnecessary. The whole season of GabDrop has had pretty poor subtitling. They’ve missed classic Japanese proverbs, been incredibly liberal, and just plain didn’t spell check the subs before release. Watching the show has reminded me of the fansub days, just now my money is going back to the official creators, which is much better than before.

Personally, I actually really enjoyed the line. It was nice having a line that was kind of correct, and not the plain “Let’s Eat”. Though I wouldn’t have translated it as such.

Anime subtitles can change context

Yuri on Ice had an issue where Victor was saying “lovers” in Japanese, but the subtitles read “girlfriend’. Obviously in the context of the show, Victor was hitting on Yuri, but because of it being early on in the series, and how Japanese works, it could have been interpreted as “girlfriend” rather than “lover”.

Anime Subtitles

These days Crunchyroll is basically the only subber in the market, with getting video files early and scripts, who needs fansubs? Making is easier for translators to get shows out on time. Problems like Yuri on Ice could be fixed with more time in production, but as the animation on the latest episode of GabDrop has shown, deadlines have to be met. Something has to suffer.

The best way to watch anime is in Japanese…

…without subs.

It’s fun, as I learn Japanese for myself, to watch anime subbed and pick up words and translations. It’s helping my learning and vocab training. So clearly, that’s the answer to all the issues and watch anime as the original creator wanted.

You just have to spend the next 3 years learning Japanese.


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Posted by Daryl Harding

A 20-something who has nothing better to do than watch anime, talk about anime, and play with my totally not sexual anime figurines.

2 Comments

  1. I’m glad someone is talking about this! I see very few posts/videos on how subtitles can affect a viewer’s perception of the show, and I think your post really gets into some of the details regarding that.

    The GabDro subs were highly controversial this season among the community (look through some of the Reddit/4chan discussions about the show), especially when it comes to how TLs should handle subs. Personally, I liked the liberal translations as they managed to retain the meaning of the original line while also making the subs more fun/comedic as well to fit the tone of the show. While your argument against the line makes sense contextually, I disagree with the fact that TLing it as “Let’s eat” would have been a better choice. I think the way Crunchyroll handled it created a good joke by keeping the religious connotation of the line there, and using that as a joke to play off of that.

    Of course, how much you like that style can be up to personal taste, and it probably could have been handled better on CRs part given more time. I can’t really speak against the translation errors/spelling errors for the series though, and those boil down to just the TLs not having the time, which is where I think the Yuri on Ice example you mention comes in. It’d be really nice if they had some more time before episodes release to clean up their scripts and check them over, but I don’t know if that’s possible with the state the anime industry is in with productions of episodes being sometimes hours before release. I can’t imagine Crunchyroll and other simulcasts get a whole lot of time to check things over with that being the case.

    I agree with your overall point though, learning Japanese would be the perfect way to get the experience of the show, but I doubt most people are going to do that just to be able to watch anime and get the correct meaning/feel of the show, which is why I think these more creative subtitles can be better. However, I think we have to be careful about how liberal we make them, otherwise they can lose their original meaning and we turn into some of the fansubbing monstrosities (look at some older Commmie/gg shows) that have happened over the years. On the other hand, I think going the overly literal route can also be harmful, as subtitles can suck the fun out of certain shows as well by giving you too much meaning to enjoy the script, which can kill the joke. You can also get other things like unnecessary TL notes or random Japanese words in the subtitles which don’t need to be there (like the pictures you linked at the beginning), which can just be annoying to a viewer.

    We definitely do have to be careful with how these things are presented though, as they do definitely affect the audience’s perception of the show, whether intentionally or not. I’m really glad you’re talking about this too, as many people just read the subtitles as the end-all be-all “this is how the show is translated” without taking into account different methods of translation and the pros/cons of those methods.

    Again, great post on your part!

    Reply

    1. Thanks! Love the reply!

      There’s a perfect example of too literal translation in the subs of A Silent Voice which I’d use as a counterpoint to a good balance of literal/liberal, but it’s a spoiler…

      Reply

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