|See also:||scanlation, fandub, Fan Translation|
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Fansubs are done by fansubbers, so that other fans who can't understand the original language can watch and understand. There are also parody fansubs, which provide completely false, usually silly translations, and are sometimes done by fans with no knowledge of the original language or actual script.
Most fansubs are for series or movies that have not been officially released with subtitles. Currently, with online distribution, fansubs for popular series are often available within 24-48 hours of an episode's broadcast in Japan.
Fansubbing is a difficult process - it requires translation, timing of the script, and the video tech to code the subtitles onto the video. Due to the amount of work involved, fansubs are rarely undertaken by sole individuals. Instead, most fansubbers work together in fansub groups. While in the 90s and early 2000s, fansubbers usually would stick to series that other fansubbers had not yet subbed, current fansub groups sometimes 'compete' for popular series, striving to be the first to release, or else to the highest quality subs; or with long series, subbing later or earlier episodes than other groups.
The first fansubbers distributed their fansubs on VHS via mail. Anime fans would often trade tapes and redubs, just as Western media fans would trade TV shows. Before anime's popularity skyrocketed in the late '90s, fansubs were the only way for many English-speaking fans to see the majority of anime series, and with other series available only in dubbed form, the only way to hear the original Japanese voices.
One basic VHS distribution model began with a fansub group, such as Tomodachi. The group would produce a fansub on master tapes, then make several copies using the simple 2-VCR method. These first generation copies would be sent to friends and associated distributors of the group. Owners of first generation tapes would receive requests from other distributors and end users, asking for up to three copies at a time and including both return postage and video tapes (or the price of tapes). Each tape usually contained four episodes' worth of material, depending on the show, so a 52 episode series like Fushigi Yuugi required 13 tapes, requested in 5 batches at intervals of 3-4 weeks, depending on the distributor's personal policies. The quality of subs varied widely depending on how far down the chain an end user's copy was (anywhere from 2nd to 5th or 6th generation). Less formal copying occured on a personal basis, often through anime clubs.
Starting in the late 1990s, fansubs began to be distributed chiefly online, once mostly through IRC, FTP sites like AnimeDownload.net, and early peer-to-peer networks. Now distribution is focused more through peer-to-peer services, especially bittorrent, and direct downloads. However, most groups retain an IRC channel.
Fansubbers work together in groups in order to pool skills and resources. Even video tape fansubs were often produced by groups of two or more people. The fansub process requires a wide range of highly specialized skills that are difficult to find in a single individual: language and translation skills, editing, and technical skills like timing, typesetting, encoding, and distribution. Sometimes a group loses a member or does not have the resources to begin or complete a project; in that case, they may work with another group on a joint release.
There are a variety of groups across the world producing fansubs to and from various languages. In November 2012, the Anime Database listed 10,693 anime fansub groups, including joint projects. Many of those groups no longer existed or barely released anything. Nonetheless, the complete number of fansub groups for all video mediums (including television, films, video games, etc.) may be in the tens of thousands, though not all groups may identify themselves as "Fansubbers".
As with all areas of fandom, fansub groups are subject to a great deal of wank at times, much of it expressed on boards like /a/, on IRC, or on forums. Much of this wank is due to competition between fansub groups. As Tofusensei of Live-Evil explained to an interviewer at Anime News Network:
A long time ago it was about getting anime out there – things you couldn't get, or things you could see before they came out here. A little while ago things got blurred… but yeah, it's become a community. Many of us liken it to an MMORPG, where it's really no different from people playing Warcraft all day. There are people playing under nicknames, adopting a character – we even gain “experience”, getting to “higher levels”. There's a lot of one-upsmanship, doing things other people haven't done before, releasing files before someone else releases them. It used to be a lot more competition between groups, before the advent of bittorrent, because distribution used to be a lot more difficult. You really needed a lot of people with high-bandwidth connections in order to get the files out to people. Bittorent leveled the playing field, so you had a whole influx of new people coming in doing speed subs, because if you were the first person to release a file, you were going to get that notoriety, that attention. People would recognize you and be interested in you. It really is a competition; there are people who are friends and people who are enemies. At the end of the day, it's one giant social environment, and instead of playing Warcraft, having guilds and fighting eachother, fansub groups compete with one another for downloads.
The modern process for fansubbing varies by source type, medium, target language, and fansubbing group. Common tasks include:
- capping or obtaining raws
- translation checking
- script editing
- subtitle timing
- karaoke timing and effects
- quality checking
Some larger groups also have project leaders for particular shows. Each of these tasks may be performed by one or more individuals, and one individual may perform more than one task. Sometimes tasks are skipped due to lack of staff or time; for example, speedsubbers may skip translation checking, do only cursory editing and quality checks, and/or leave out karaoke entirely. However, not all speedsubbers skip these steps, nor are all groups who skip these steps speedsubbers. Groups that release only softsub text files do not follow the same typesetting steps or use any fancy karaoke or video encoding.
Fansub groups which need skilled individuals for one or more tasks may advertise on IRC, on their own webpages, or on forums (though some forums restrict listings to series unlicensed in the admin's local region). Skills that are most often in demand on the AnimeSuki forums include translation/translation checking, timing, typesetting, karaoke, and encoding, though editors, quality checkers, and raw providers are also requested from time to time. It is not uncommon for a fansubber to work with two or even more groups during their fansubbing career, sometimes at the same time.
Fansub Quality and Speed
Fansubs can vary enormously in quality, from painstakingly accurate translations and great effort to properly convey the spirit of the original language (the fansubs for Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou were as clear as they possibly could be, given the insane amount of text and text-related visual gags in the series; and Kaizoku's One Piece fansubs feature extensive notes and explanations, as well as great visual effects ) to slapdash, poorly edited subs that may be almost as difficult to understand as the original language is to a non-speaker (though rarely as bad as Asian bootlegs.)
Some fans value speed over quality. A common nagging question to fansub groups is where?, as in 'new episode where?' Some groups treat these questions as jokes, such as UTW filling their Release FAQ with questions like, "(series) batch where?"
Legal Issues and Industry Reactions
As with other types of fan distribution of official media, fansubs are on shaky legal ground. While some anime have never been officially licensed for English-speaking release, more and more are being licensed. Some fansubbers and fansub distribution sites will stop subbing or distributing an anime once it has been licensed. Others wait until they are served with a Cease & Desist letter or other formal request by the licensing company or the original production company.
However, a series that is licensed usually will not have an official release for over a year or more after the licensing, and many fans are unwilling to wait, especially if they have been following a series weekly. There is also a matter of cost - free online fansubs versus the price of DVDs. In addition, Region 1 releases may be in English, but that does not make them physically accessible to all English speakers in other regions. For example, the licensed streaming site Crunchyroll shows different series in different markets. Some fansub groups do not consider the announcement of a Region 1 license to be a reason to stop their work.
"Sorry, but we won't abandon the rest of the world simply because someone bought the R1 license." ~Eclipse
Some fansubs may also be of higher quality (both in accuracy of translation, and appearance of the subs) than the official releases. As 8thSin of 8thSin Fansubs explains:
Personally, I am in full support of legal streaming services, and I have dropped quite a few planned projects due to legal licensing. However, I do help out my friends who want to sub licensed shows, because those subs can still be improved upon. As I said before I like sharing things I like, I would like to those series to be appreciated the way they were “meant to”, conveying as much meaning and nuance by story/script writers as possible. Hopefully, this kind of pressure would cause [licensed anime companies] to have more true simulcasts and better quality subs, though not very likely. Legal anime subs right now are far from true “professional-grade”, unlike Ghibli or other movie translation quality. Even one mistake per episode is not acceptable for a product.
Reactions to fansubs by industry professionals vary. Otaking's Fansub Documentary expresses anger at the current fansubbing system, while Sean Leonard of the University of Chicago Law School argues that fansubbing created the very market that North American anime companies now depend on, after Japanese companies abandoned it years before. Fansub ethics arguments often follow the same patterns as scanlation ethics arguments.
Some fansubbers, especially for J-drama or in Russian-speaking spaces, sidestep part of the legal question by providing only softsubs, which force fans to obtain raws on their own and avoid some of the legal implications of distribution. For example, softsubs are encouraged at D-Addicts.
There is an increasing body of academic work surrounding fansubbing.
- For an Abusive Subtitling, article by Abé Mark Nornes in Film Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 3 (Spring 1999)
- Celebrating Two Decades of Unlawful Progress: Fan Distribution, Proselytization Commons, and the Explosive Growth of Japanese Animation, article by Sean Leonard in UCLA Entertainment Law Review (Spring 2005)
- Of Otakus and Fansubs: A Critical Look at Anime Online in Light of Current Issues in Copyright Law, article by Jordan S. Hatcher in Scripted, Vol 2 Issue 4 (2005).
- Fansubs: Audiovisual Translation in an Amateur Environment, article by Jorge Díaz Cintas and Pablo Muñoz Sánchez in The Journal of Specialised Translation, Issue 6 (2006).
- Fighting the fan sub war: Conflicts between media rights holders and unauthorized creator/distributor networks, article by Mikhail Koulikov in Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol 5 (2010)
- Answerman: What Were VHS Fansubs Like? (Anime News Network), Archived version (2017)
- Anime Suki Fansub Forums
- Fansub Wiki at Drama Wiki
- Karinkuru Anime - Distribution "While Karinkuru Anime itself does not distribute titles due to lack of time and resources, we've set up relations with the best fansub distributors around to provide you with the most inexpensive yet highest quality copies of our tapes." Accessed Nov. 19, 2012.
- Of Otakus and Fansubs: A Brief History Accessed Nov. 18, 2012. (Please note that many of the references in the paper are inactive links.)
- Re: Early days of fansubbing post series: Reply #2 Posted Aug. 16, 2006. Accessed Nov. 19, 2012.
- AniDB.net Group List Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.
- Interview With The Fansubber Posted March 11, 2008. Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.
- Anime 101: Fansubbing "QC: A final check of the completed product to see if there are any mistakes. Some speedsubbing groups such as #gg skip this step to save time." Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.
- Doki Fansubs Staff Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.
- What happened to patience? Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.
- Eclipse Productions FAQ Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.
- AnimeSuki's Fansub Help Wanted Classifieds Accessed Nov. 18, 2012
- Kaizoku Fansubs (Accessed 1 March 2009)
- Unlimited Translation Works Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.
- "AnimeSuki will not list anime that has been licensed in North America." --Animesuki.com Listing Policy (Accessed 1 March 2009)
- Crunchyroll - Help "While we try to get worldwide availability for all of our titles, due to the vagaries of licensing restrictions we cannot promise that every single title released on Crunchyroll will be available in all countries." Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.
- Why Do People Fansub? – Part 4 – Guest Post by 8thSin Posted Feb. 23, 2012. Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.
- Celebrating Two Decades of Unlawful Progress: Fan Distribution, Proselytization Commons, and the Explosive Growth of Japanese Animation Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.
- How to watch subtitles (softsubs) Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.