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: Part 2
Following my first article about curious techniques used by anime fansubbers, I present to you the second part that focuses on the visuals. We’ll start with simple tricks and progress to more complex ones as we go.
So, without further ado, here’s what I’ve found:
Blurry Text For Fuzzy Hearing
Sometimes fansubbers slightly blur subtitle text for when a character hears words fuzzily due to being dazed, intoxicated, shocked or something like that.
In the example below, the main character passes out after getting slapped across the face by a robot girl. When coming to, he hears someone say his name (Mabuchi) twice. The first time it sounds fuzzy; the second time it’s clear. The fansubber blurred the first “Mabuchi” to reflect the fuzzy hearing.
Fading Text For Fade Transition
This one is used quite often. When a shot fades in or out, so does the subtitle text. In the example below, the last subtitle fades out along with the scene, which I think works well with the theme of descending into an abyss.
Reflected Text On Reflecting Surfaces
This technique, on the contrary, is pretty rare. Every now and then fansubbers add reflected text to mirrors, glossy materials and the like to enhance the effect of a funny or scary moment.
In the example below, the subtitle text is reflected on the girl’s forehead along with the guy’s face.
Onscreen Text Imitation
Fansubbers use complex methods and algorithms to replicate the style of onscreen texts in their subtitles, so as to make the result look genuine for the viewer. These are not really subtitles, they’re titles, but I’ll be calling them “subtitles” from here on, since they are part of the subtitle file.
In the first example, the word “transform” is a subtitle in both instances. Here’s an image of what the original looks like:
And here’s a video of how it looks subtitled:
In this second example, the fansubber replicated not only the text style but also the visual effect of running light in the onscreen text “Adventurer’s Guild”. Here’s the original:
And here’s the fansubbed version:
Onscreen Text Substitution
On occasion, fansubbers cover onscreen texts entirely with a subtitle, mimicking the original in style and format, and sometimes I don’t even notice that. Watch this short video, for instance:
Nothing suspicious, right? Except the billboard is covered by a mimic subtitle; in the original it’s in Japanese:
Here’s another example:
And here’s what the computer screen looks like originally:
The fansubber replaced the entire email message with English subtitles. Interesting, isn’t it?
Subtitle Text Distortion
This technique I’ve only seen used once. In the example below, the fansubber distorted the subtitle text “pleased to meet you” to make it similar to the spooky face.
And in case you didn’t realize, the texts “Science Lab” and “Home Economics” are mimic subtitles:
Now, this one is known to many. Anime fansubbers create special karaoke subtitles for the opening and closing musical sequences of a show. In the example below, the subs were made to look like the original Japanese credits (note the colored bubbles that move to the beat):
The bubbles at the bottom move to the bassline, and those at the top move to the treble. To achieve this, the fansubber did an audio spectrum analysis.
For this last technique of the batch, I chose an example that demonstrates not only fansubbers’ creativity but also the mind-boggling technical complexity of some of the visual tricks they use. Before I explain what “masking” means, let me show you the video example. But first, here’s the context:
Two investigators are trying to find a girl with mysterious powers. When they come to her house to talk to her mother, the girl, who is there, mind-controls them and forces them to go away, which the investigators realize later, after coming to their senses. They decide to head back to the house, but the girl sends them off again. The whole come-and-go thing happens several times, and each time the male investigator adds tally marks on his hand to keep track of their attempts. In the video below, you can see them realize that their fifth attempt failed.
At the first glance, nothing special. Well, the thing is, in Japan they use a completely different format for tally marks. Here’s the original scene:
So, not only did the fansubber create a mimic subtitle for the tally mark, but he also animated the fifth stroke. Talk about creativity!
But wait, there’s more! You might’ve not noticed, but the “tally” subtitle is partially behind the pen when the stroke is being drawn:
And how do you put a subtitle under the image!? Well, you can’t do that, it’s not possible. What the fansubber actually did here was he hid (“masked”) part of the subtitle under the pen for every single frame, to make the result look real for the viewer. Pretty cool, huh? And quite difficult to do.
And this is it for now. In conclusion, I’d like to say I wouldn’t mind seeing some of these techniques used in professional anime subtitling. Such methods wouldn’t work for live action films, of course, but anime is a different medium that might require a modified set of subtitling standards. Perhaps it is time for a paradigm shift?
P.S. Credit to GrygrFlzr, begna112, itsP and eXmendic for the subtitles in the video examples.