The most common difference between the fan-subtitled video and the professional release is that the first frequently exists, and the other does not. When professional releases do get done, the fan-release has been there long, long before. This could be a case of the people with the money waiting and watching to see what is popular before putting their cash on the line. Or not. Without telepathy, it is hard to say for sure.

Sub-titling is something I can speak of from first hand experience.

I have a 386SX IBM clone, with a VGA-AVer video converter card. The way things are set-up in my living room, I sit with a VCR on my right, which has cables feeding audio and video from it into the card in the computer in front of me. Another set of cables runs from the computer to the VCR on my left, which is connected directly to my television set below. The result is that when everything is running, whatever is on my computer's monitor screen is also on my t.v., overlaid on top of whatever image is coming out of the right hand VCR.

It's a useful gadget, but the program that came with it is next to useless when it comes to subtitling. (It is, however, great for doing titles and credits for video productions -- which is all the makers seemed to think it was good for.) Effects are done video page by video page, each one flashing its contents on screen for a specified length of time, and connected by command to another page of effects. Altering the timing on one page affects all the other pages unless the next one in sequence has been correctly amended, and then the next, and the next, and so on. This is even harder to get right than it sounds. To further complicate things there are not enough "pages" in the program to do subtitles for a video of even minimal wordage. On top of this, everything has to be typed in word by word, as the video-page format does not allow the importing of existing material.

While I was on holidays in Japan in 1993, I left the VG-AVer card and the program with some computer-literate people at the Melbourne Anime Society. They looked at it, but did not share my opinion in thinking the program was next to useless...they thought it was completely useless. Following my return to Oz, my stuff was duly returned to me with a newly written program that actually worked!

The new program can take a text file, add timing notations, and write the result to a new file. By reading the timing notations in this new file, it is able to bring the accompanying text up on screen, on cue.

The fun part is in setting the timing. One way is by tapping the space key while the player video machine is running, and keeping one eye on the text-preview screen on the computer. (Tap to bring the text on screen, tap to take the text off the screen, tap again to bring the next line of text on screen, and so on, while the computer jots the timing into the script.) Rough edges can be polished by going into word processing and changing clock-times directly. An option of putting a digital timer in the upper left of the screen helps precision still further, when watching the play-back, although some people don't like doing this. Some do a timing script without dialogue, going by when people start and stop talking, and then do a cut-and-paste job from the original script. This last option takes longer, but is more likely to produce something close to accurate on the first try. Timing an existing script for the first time, mistakes happen. Dialogue gets cut off too soon or too late, gets given to the wrong characters, gets put in at the wrong name it. If there are too many errors, there's always the option of starting from scratch and hoping the new product is better. No matter how likeable a particular show is, by the time it is fine-tuned to a satisfactory state, the odds are you will be getting pretty tired of the sight of it.

Following is part of an original translation by Daisuke Suzuki (of Arctic Animation), exactly as received on computer disk by yours truly. (PLOT BACKGROUND: Boy and girl walking at night see and photograph a UFO. Boy gets home to find the UFO is a result of his sisters experimenting with light-fixtures and telekinesis. His family's ESP abilities must be concealed from the public if they are to live normal lives, so at school he denies knowing anything about a UFO...of which the news of their sighting is already in the school newspaper. Girl is left out on a limb. Two of their friends discuss the matter.):

But.. It's UFO..
It can't be..
Baka!! What're you talking about, Yuhsaku?!
We're talking about UFO!
Then you don't believe in the existence of UFO?!
How can you be "the new race" with that? (new race = slang for Younger Japanese Generation)
New race?
Besides, there's no way
Ayukawa-san lies!!
Then Kasuga is..

(The above was actually used in subtitling in the USA, but the timing notations and any indication of who was talking to who were removed before the scripts were released for fan use. This is the way the same part looks on computer disk now, with dialogue polished and timing added.)

0:09:43.44,0:09:45.93, But we were talking about the UFO!
0:09:46.29,0:09:49.59,HIKARU You don't believe there was one?
0:09:50.52,0:09:53.71, How can you be of the "new race"? (SLANG: NEW RACE = YOUNG JAPANESE WHO REJECT TRADITIONAL VALUES)
0:09:53.75,0:09:54.98,YUSAKU "New race"?
0:09:55.25,0:09:57.43,HIKARU Besides, there's no way Madoka-san would lie!
0:09:58.01,0:09:59.48,YUSAKU So it's Kasuga who's lying!
0:10:01.07,0:10:03.00,HIKARU That's.... Oh!

First set of numbers: The time from the beginning (0:00:00.00,) when the entry is to be put on the screen. The second set of numbers immediately following: The time when the text vanishes from the screen. The numbers do not appear on screen, of course, and neither does any word or symbol or blank space immediately following on from the second comma. This feature helps the subtitler understand who is speaking, while looking at the script during editing.

I normally try to avoid adding explanatory notes, but could see no way out of it with the "New Race" matter (However, see footnote 1). The term crops up within a discussion about possible alien spacecraft, and could be misinterpreted in bizarre fashion. Another "New Race" reference pops up again later in the story.

With more bells and whistles than the program has a the moment, words can be set to different colours, and different sets of subtitles can be put on screen to an "overlapping dialogue" effect. (Useful in such cases as translating a background song at the same time as foreground dialogue.)

Knowing even a little of the Japanese language helps. Even if one only recognises a key-word here and there, it helps match the translation to events on the screen. (Even so, giving dialogue to the wrong people has already happened, and there must be more of this sort of thing in my timing scripts I have not caught yet.) My greatest personal nightmare is the long, rambling, philosophical monologue...especially when there is reason to be suspicious of the accuracy of the translation in the first place.

Fan translations are usually done by English speaking fans who know Japanese to some extent, or by Japanese fans who know English to some extent. Either way, errors happen. This is not helped by the fact that Japanese is a language very different from English, and has been going its own sweet way for thousands of years.

The "all men are equal" theme crops up in English language fiction a lot, but the belief that all men are damn-well NOT equal is built into the very structure of Japanese speech. The pecking order within a group can easily be determined by an outsider, just from the politeness levels being used within the group's speech. The superiority/inferiority of the speaker to the listener and the position of the person being talked about is quite clear in Japanese, but not always too easy to get across when converting to another language. (EG: "Anata", "omae", "kimi", and "kisama" all mean "you", but that last one usually gets translated to its closest politeness equivalent instead...such as "bastard". If someone addresses you as "kisama", watch out! On the other hand "omae" can be a term of endearment, and in one video subtitled be me became a headache when the plot hinged on an innocent conversation being misinterpreted by a third party.)

Japanese body language: The 'Come here' gesture in action Apart from the politeness levels, women's speech patterns are different from men's, titles are given to people where we would not give titles, superstitions are different, word order is different, body language is different (See footnote 2), verbal expressions are different, clichés are different, and some basic concepts are totally not the same.

(For more details on the woes of trying to turn Japanese into its nearest English equivalents, check out this link. -- or, for a list of common Japanese words that are often hard to find matching meanings for, this one.)

Sometimes a translator will go to extremes to stick as close to the original meaning as possible. Another may give a sentence up as being too hard to bother with, and leave it out altogether. (I just love it when this happens. Try spreading three words of dialogue over seven sentences, and make it look natural.) Other times something will be replaced with a radically different meaning altogether to what has really been said. (Example: Rip Van Winkle is a future-shock tale, often referred to in other fiction. So is the Japanese legend of Urashima and the turtle. It is easy to translate a passing reference to them as "Rip Van Winkle". This only works so long as the story does not torture metaphors and expound on the turtle references later on. Something like this happens in Beautiful Dreamer. It's easy to get around such things if translating -- say -- a novel, but when you are putting words on a screen, to a strict time limit matching the voices, nightmares can occur.)

Yet another example of translating one thing into something completely different occurs in the professional release of the Gunbuster series. The heroine calls a particular unrelated friend "Big Sister" throughout -- not unnatural in Japanese. In the subtitles of the first two episodes, the word for Big Sister ("Onesan") is always replaced with the girl's name, presumably to sound more natural to an English-speaking audience. Then the subtitlers realised that in an upcoming story the friend being referred to as "Big Sister" is called attention to in the dialogue. So they suddenly started translating the word literally, without explanation, in mid-stream. (Not much else they could have done at that stage.)

Then there is failure of nerve by the translator. I have lost count of the number of times the recognisable word "toilet" has been translated as "washroom".

Other times a subtitler becomes so familiar with a certain Japanese word, he/she/it will not bother with a translation at all. It is not unknown to hear the exclamation "Baka" while reading the informative subtitle "Baka." (In the interests of relieving suspense, the word actually means "idiot".)

One of my favourite examples of literal translation I have not personally seen, but am assured does exist, is a fan-subbed video in which a leader whips his followers to action with words along the lines of "All right men, the leader of the enemy has incestuous designs on my sister. Let's go get them."

The trend to literalness in fan translations can often produce a result as dry as dust and/or incomprehensible. Fan credits often show a second party has polished up the grammar, but even then the end product can be woeful.

Something I madly hope is unique to Japan is the concept of the idol singer. An idol singer is usually a young girl whose main function is to be cute. She sings -- not necessarily well -- makes records, gives concerts, gets interviewed on t.v., is the subject of magazine articles, is very popular, makes lots of money, and finally vanishes from sight. (I presume when she has lost her cuteness.) At one stage in an episode of Kimagure Orange Road the central character fantasises that one of his girlfriends has grown so popular she becomes an idol singer. In one sentence, you translate this into something that makes sense to somebody seeing a Japanese video for the first time. I finally settled on using "major star" in place of "idol singer."

In America the authorities have ruled that if somebody watches a tv programme, it does not matter how many times they watch it, so video-taping is okay. In Australia the powers-that-be have ruled that video-taping tv programmes violates copyright, regardless of who does it, thereby automatically making a criminal of every Australian who owns a VCR. (Unless there really are people out there who only carefully use their machines to record certain news and sports programmes.) I am not totally sure what the legal situation is regarding watching programmes that have never been transmitted here at all, and which have little likelihood of ever being so. I have never heard of Japanese enforcers travelling overseas to break the knuckles of fans at anime conventions, so it seems safe to assume it is okay.

The normal situation is that when something is professionally released, fan-subs are supposed to vanish. Only...what constitutes a "release"? (Just because an English language dub/sub has been made in Britain or America -- and can be purchased in specialty stores here in the land of Oz -- it still does not necessarily mean it has been officially released in this country. Just because something is now covered by American or British copyright law does not automatically mean it is also covered in Australia.)

Nearly all fan-subbed works carry a disclaimer that the work is free, and money is NOT to be charged for the contents of the tape. There was one case where certain people took fan-subtitled tapes, copied them (excluding the bit with the disclaimer) and sold the result for profit. The one group of fan-subtitlers who had been most hit have been going to absurd lengths to avoid a repetition, peppering videos with disclaimers from beginning to end. It is not an unknown experience to be watching an intensely dramatic space battle where whole fleets clash for the prize of the universe...when along the bottom of the screen appear the words "If you paid money for this video you have been ripped off," or something even less polite.

I have personally done the subtitling on almost every single episode of Kimagure Orange Road. Fan subtitles for each episode already exist, but most need -- to put it mildly -- more polish. The originals were done by people who seemed to be doing them just to see how fast they could finish. (They put notes on how long it took into the subtitled videos, along with personal comments on what was happening in the action, what they thought was happening in the action, unique spelling and grammar, opinions about the characters, remarks about the inferiority of computers are that are not Macintoshes, warnings to people who would sell fan-subtitled videos for money, odd use of punctuation marks, and on and on. These sort of things were not just at the beginning and end of each video, mind you, but all the way through.) Say what you will about these people, but they were actually doing stuff -- in the absence of competition -- and so their work flooded the market. I think they prompted new subtitlings out of sheer irritation with the existing product.

Translators and subtitlers are seldom the same people. Translations are easy to get hold of, especially in today's computerised world, but even for those with the right equipment, the time and bother involved in getting the timing right can be daunting -- especially when looking at an entire series. When I started on Orange Road I did not know what I had ahead of me. By the time I did, there were American fans of the series expressing interest in the completed product. If Australia sent them the timing scripts, they would send back high-quality direct-from-laser-disc sub-titled videos of the result. (Some of the episodes I have copies of are several generations removed from the original, and are a real eye-strain to work with. At the very best I have a copy of a PAL copy of a conversion of an NTSC copy of a video of a laser disc of an original show.) As of the time of writing, the Americans have the scripts, and are producing nothing but silence.

- Bruce Barnes -
July 1995      

One of the Americans is back on the Internet. Unfortunately he seems to be having software problems, and is sending people messages with nothing in them.
September 1996

And finally, by 1998....

The Kimagure Orange Road subtitled videos eventually became a reality. The people in the USA talked a lot, never actually did anything I know of, and then sort of faded away. Then came word of another group in the UK, working with new translations from the Japanese (as opposed to my smoothed-over versions of Arctic Animation's not-necessarily-accurate scripts) who had actually done a number of episodes, working with the timing scripts done by yours truly. All the trouble I had gone to of asking Japanese speakers for translations of some of the rougher bits seemed to have been in vain. (I remember the vivid shade of red achieved by one Japanese girl when I asked for the name on a hotel sign, after showing her a polaroid of the t.v. screen. It turned out to be the sort of Japanese hotel best to put this politely?...guests hire rooms by the hour.)

I had not seen a whole episode from start to finish, but was told it was definite that newly subbed KOR videos did finally exist, based in part on my work.

Then I saw the first of the new fansubs. My immediate reaction was "They had my scripts, what the hell did they do with them?"

It was very quickly evident that the new translations were reworkings of the old Arctic Animation scripts, and not (after all) translations from scratch. Obviously only bits standing out as odd had been checked and corrected. If it sounded okay it was unaltered. Betraying details of this stand out (at least to me) in such examples as when "coffee" is translated as "tea", and "From time to time" becomes "Pretty often." (Listing all uncorrected mistakes would be a more effective insomnia-cure than counting sheep.) Arctic Animation will be haunting the KOR fansub scene for a while yet.

It is hard to say how totally the earlier-mentioned American involvement vanished. (Since getting on to the internet myself, I have become aware of how close the other side of the planet can be.) If the Yanks were not involved, why, despite the British involvement, is the spelling still American? I had changed all "-ors" endings to "-ours" and the excessive use of "guys" to reasonable alternatives, but in the new fansubs, all is as back to (or is still) as it was.

It would be easy to say the British (or whoever) did all their own work, without even looking at my scripts after all. And maybe they did, but some things make me wonder. The new subs use a smaller type-face, and slam whole paragraphs on the screen at one time, where I used a larger typeface and paced the subtitles to more closely keep up with the spoken words. For the most part the first word begins where I begin the first word, and the final word finishes where I finish. At first this did not seem too remarkable. Naturally you start a subtitle when a person starts to speak, but it is an idea to leave it on the screen for a while after the speaker finishes, where possible, for slower readers to catch up. Normally I hold on to the end of a scene, and cut the subtitles at the scene break. If the new mob were not using my timescripts, they were obviously using the same least part of the time. Some episodes the pacing was totally different, while at the same time dialogue was handled in different blocks -- not starting and finishing in the same areas where I had started and finished.

Then there were the places where a newly translated bit matched my alterations. (For instance, "idol" became "star".) This sort of thing would have to happen anyway, at least part of the time. There can be, after all, only a finite number of ways to correctly translate something.

Trying to figure out if they were keeping to my particular starts and stops to the fraction of a second, I fired up my favourite (actually...only) subtitling program, and ran one of the new subs as a master, to see if the stops and starts matched exactly. It would be pretty conclusive if even the fractional errors matched. And did they? Well...I can't tell.

Videotape stretches with use. It is usually imperceptible, but when you play the same tape over and over to get the subtitles right, the precise matching of dialogue to voice that happened at the start begins to break down. The further into the tape, the more pronounced the time difference. When I hit this problem doing my subtitles, I used a program that took the actual timing of the last sentence in the script, and pulled it into line with reality. The program assumed the timing of the first sentence was correct, and went back down the timing script, pulling all the other stops and starts into line, and saved the result to disk under a new name. Result, a timing script that now compensated for the stretched tape.

The new KOR subs are done from laserdisc, which only stretch with great difficulty. Even if they had my timing, it did not match the new length. They could have used a program similar to mine to pull the timing back to laser-disc length, but this had not happened. In fact, as the episode progressed, sentences began to start and end slightly out of kilter. Whether it had been mine or not, it seemed certain to me they had used a translation from a stretched video tape to sub the first part of the episode. Suddenly the timing pulled back into sequence, and simultaneously the blocking out of the sentences became different from mine. Because they had tried to use my timing with manual corrections, or someone else who used my kind of logic in timing? I feel safe in saying there were at least two people involved in the timing script of this episode, and my only question now is: Was I one of them?

- Bruce Barnes -


(Footnote 1Late note, inserted 1997: I have seen a different sub of this episode, in which the line is translated "How can you call yourself one of the New Generation?" and does not use brackets at all. It's the sort of thing that raises the question: "Why didn't I think of that?")                <<Return>>

(Footnote 2One thing that happened to me in a Tokyo subway: A gent who knew English saw me trying to puzzle out my location from a map and asked if he could help. When I explained what I was looking for, it turned out to be one of those "you can't get there from here" cases. He could show me how to get to the right platform to get a train to where I could get to a place to get where I wanted, but not even in his own language could he explain how to get to the platform from where we were. He volunteered to show me the way personally. Then he waved bye-bye and walked off. That particular hand-flapping gesture meant "follow me" in Japanese. Even though I just happened to know -- by chance -- about that gesture in advance, it was rather startling to have it used on me, and I almost lost sight of him in the number of seconds it took for it to register on me what he meant.)       <<Return >>

- Bruce Barnes -         
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