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Guerilla translation: fansubbing

A fansub (short for fan-subtitled) movie or TV program is one which has been subtitled, ‘by fans, for fans’, independently of the rights holder. Although this phenomenon crops up anywhere on the web that people are watching TV in a foreign language, the real home of fansubbing is Anime, a type of Japanese animated TV show.

In the early days, fansubbing focused on VHS and clandestine postal distribution networks, but with the advent of broadband and open-source subtitling it has achieved a truly global reach. Any given fansub group will have members all over the world, each of whom handles a different aspect of the process, from translation to the mysterious artistry of the ‘karaokeman’. The translation itself is generally from Japanese to English, and it is not uncommon for English to be used as a ‘hinge’ language for other translations.

Fansub techniques for translation and subtitling clearly share many characteristics of more traditional processes, but are distinguished by their innovation and informality. A fansub is a curious hybrid of ‘normal’ subtitling techniques, traditional subtitling, subtitling for the hard of hearing and video game subs.

Ferrer Simó, one of the few academics to have taken an interest in fansubbing, provides the following list of the essential differences between fansubbing and traditional subtitling:

Use of different fonts throughout the same programme.
Use of colours to identify different actors.
Use of subtitles of more than two lines (up to four lines).
Use of notes at the top of the screen.
Use of glosses in the body of the subtitles.
The position of subtitles varies on the screen (scenetiming).
Karaoke subtitling for opening and ending songs.
Adding of information regarding fansubbers.
Translation of opening and closing credits.

The opening song of a TV show will generally be fansubbed with a phonetic transcription of the Japanese words, so that fans can sing along.

Traditionally, companies that make and release Anime in Japan have been tolerant of fansubbing, despite the fact that it is essentially illegal, because it is often only through the efforts of fansubbers that series break the American or European market. Very often, the rights to a series are not bought by companies outside Japan until fansubbers create a buzz online, at which point local companies swoop in on the series. Although it is far from binding, a sort of gentleman’s agreement exists, or existed, between the fansubbers and media companies, which means that fansubbers in a certain country stop releasing their own versions of a show as soon as the rights to it are bought there. In return, the companies do not pursue the fansubbers – a task which in any case would be extremely difficult, due to the diffuse nature of their organisations.

In addition, given the cultish, counter-cultural nature of much Anime and many of its fans, distribution companies are wary of being too vocal in their criticism of fansubbers, for fear of seeming too ‘establishment’. And many of the people who distribute Anime in the USA themselves started out as fansubbers.


Fansubbing is just one of various new forms of ‘unofficial’ translation which Web 2.0 has made possible. In future blogs we will look at other tendencies, and examine the consequences for the translation industry in general.

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