Anyone who grew up with anime from the late 90s to the mid-2000s remembers an era where anime streaming was completely fan-driven. This was the era of fan subbing, which as the term suggests, was a time when fans translated anime completely free of charge.
These days, most anime are picked up for streaming by big companies like Crunchyroll and Netflix. While fan translations for other forms of media still exist, especially with scanlations of manga and games, it is becoming increasingly rare to find fansubs for new anime series. Here’s why this is such a big loss for the anime community.
Unique Translation Notes
Japanese can be a tricky language, and there are certain terms that are near-impossible to properly translate to English. This is where translation notes come in. They’re the little notes that explain the meaning behind terms like “senpai”, “onii-chan”, and “yokai”. Often times, they’ll be displayed at the top in parentheses giving a textbook definition of the terms. Occasionally, the translation notes are used too liberally, going so far as to use notes on words that very clearly have an English equivalent like the now memetic “keikaku means plan”.
But there was a certain charm to it that’s lacking in professional subtitles. The notes weren’t always there for informational purposes. Sometimes, the translators would insert a comment or a joke, something that still gets carried over in fan translations for manga now. It’s silly, but it also really drives home that these shows were translated by fans for fans completely all because they loved the show so much that they wanted to share it with other English-speaking fans.
Translating Opening & Ending Themes
A big part of anime is the soundtrack, particularly the opening and ending themes. Fan subbing teams always took great care to translate not just all the opening and ending themes of anime, but the insert songs as well. Even if the song was just a few seconds long, fan subbers made sure to leave no part untranslated. Some fan subbers would even go so far as to color code the lyrics if different characters were singing.
These days, it’s very rare for official subtitles to go out of their way to translate opening and ending themes outside of official home video releases. The chances of them translating insert songs are even slimmer. However, this isn’t due to inherent laziness, rather, how strict copyright laws for music have gotten. Yes, that’s right, companies now need to purchase the rights to translate songs featured in anime.
Unique, Personal Touches
Perhaps the biggest difference between professionally done subs and fan subs are the personal touches that fans would go out of their way to include in their translations, oftentimes making things easier for viewers to understand. Changes in fonts to better differentiate which characters are talking, karaoke-styled romaji subtitles for fans that want to sing along with the opening and endings, and even links in translation notes for viewers interested in learning more about certain Japanese terms.
Because official translations have to adhere to certain rules, there’s not as much freedom in the way that translators can personalize the subtitles. Typically, they have to stick to a single, uniform color and as anime becomes more and more mainstream, the use of translation notes has become less necessary. Now, official subtitles even use terms like “tsundere” and “moe” expecting the viewers to already understand what such terms mean.
Official subtitles can never capture the kind of charm that fan subtitles had, and this is because fans had more freedom in the way that they chose to translate — they were doing it free of charge to benefit the greater anime community with no strict guidelines to follow. While fan subs seem to have become a thing of the past, fan translations are something that likely will continue to exist, even as copyright laws continue to get stricter.