Over the years of work, I have noticed an alarming trend — many otherwise capable subtitlers will often follow their client’s guidelines too strictly, almost dogmatically, without a real understanding of why those guidelines are the way they are and not knowing when to deviate from them to ensure the audience’s viewing comfort. This leads to countless subtitling errors, because no matter how robust and well-thought-out a style guide is, there will always be gaps in it, and so there’ll be moments when you need to make a judgement call based on your expertise rather than a written prescription.
In this new article series, I’d like to stress the importance of a thoughtful, intelligent approach to subtitling and to highlight some of those gaps, starting with arguably the biggest one.
At the same time, when given creative freedom, the most skilled and experienced subtitlers don't obsess over that number as much everyone else seems to believe, because they know just how unreliable it can be, for multiple reasons.
First of all, as I wrote in one of my previous articles, CPS and WPM consider only the volume of subtitle text but not its other properties, such as complexity or format. Unfamiliar words, tricky syntax, puzzling dialogue, italics and some other things will slow down your reading, and these two metrics simply do not reflect that.
Max Deryagin’s Subtitling Studio
Creative Fansubbing Techniques
Anime fansubbers are awesome. Yes, their work is illegal and mostly amateur, with a fair bit of translation and subtitling errors, but as an anime enthusiast I appreciate their work and the time they spend making this form of art accessible for so many people.
Having quite a bit of experience in my trade, when watching a fansubbed show, I can't help but notice not only the subtitling errors but also the creative techniques fansubbers come up with, and in this blog post I would like to share some of my findings.
This show's typesetter used dropcaps in the subtitles depicting ancient lore, which is something you can't do in professional subtitling. I felt like this approach added to immersion and was a great display of ingenuity.
2. Seamless Subtitles
Thanks to the power of Advanced SubStation Alpha styling, typesetters can make fansubs look like the original on-screen text. Sometimes they are so good, I don't even realize those are fansubs. Examples here would include shop and road signs, smartphone/PC texting, letters and newspapers, different notifications, etc.
3. Moving Subtitles
Fansubbers often use moving subtitles to emphasize the manner of action taking place in the scene. Subtitles will drift, jump, accelerate and rotate along with an object or a character.
4. Alien Language
In professional subtitling, when you subtitle an alien or foreign language that the viewer is not supposed to understand, you just type something along the lines of, say, [speaking in Russian], and that's it. However, in the video example below, the fansubbers took a different, peculiar route. They used an exotic font for the foreign language, matching the same vocal sounds with the same characters.
5. Word Chain Game
How does one subtitle a word chain game? Well, you need to find translations that also form a word chain, so that each word begins with the letter the previous word ended with. If that doesn't work and the words just don't want to connect no matter how you translate them, you'll have to improvise and change them a bit to fit the bill. However, if these two words are likely to be known to the audience — e.g. simple words like "potato" or "car", universal words like "mother" or "Batman", or the words that can be learned from the dialogue — you don't have much creative room, lest you introduce the feedback effect and confuse the viewer.
So, what do you do? This show's fansubbers had their own idea:
(To save you some confusion: in the Japanese version of this game you can't end words with N (ん), since no Japanese word begins with this kana.)
Let's go a bit deeper. This paticular case has additional translation restrictions:
We learn from the dialogue that "shiritori" means "word chain", so both games must start with it (because we can hear the character say "shiritori").
We also learn from the dialogue that the fourth character's words must have something to do with torture.
The last character's word must break the chain.
Even so, I don't think this word chain game warrants the approach taken by the fansubbers, because
Finding a workaround for these restrictions is rather simple.
With this technique, the reading speed is doubled, which makes it too high.
The target audience most likely doesn't know what these words mean, so you do have some flexibility here.
Most importantly, there's no explanation of why ending a word with N counts as a loss, which makes the scene confusing.
Still, I think it's an interesting approach to this subtitling puzzle.
And this is pretty much it for now. If you have some other examples of ingenuity in fansubbing or if you want to discuss it, please leave a comment below.