We have all been there. Laboring over the computer for hours trying to find that next episode of that series you’re currently obsessing about. All you can think about is how incredibly insane that last episode was, and your determination to see what these crazy writers have planned for you next has currently occupied your very being. The only problem is - you don’t understand the language. What probably happened here after five search queries on three different search engines, is that you found the file in “RAW” format. What does that mean? It means you haven’t yet taken three or four years of college to become slightly competent in a language you hear everyday because it’s all you watch. That means, that you’ve found it, after all this searching, you have found it! You’ll just have to guess the situations by the gestures because there are no subtitles.
I've been in these shoes, or seats, many times as a foreign-film enthusiast. There are a lot of people in this country that have several foreign interests. Some people live for anime, others are Asian drama connoisseurs. There are even some hipsters out there that live vicariously through their new age independent European films. Whatever it may be, the consistent problem we always run into is - subtitles.
There are many different circumstances you can find yourself under while you’re searching for these precious translations. Here’s a few of the most common examples:
- Machine-translated subtitles: This usually happens when you find only one forum post, website, or discussion board that has this file. After a video is subtitled, the post usually makes its way around the internet. If you can only find this video/file in ONE place, be cautious. A lot of times, naive netizens will take this video and run it through a machine translator. While under good intentions, the outcome is an incoherent, poorly punctuated, and just plain incorrect collection of sentences that is released as ‘Official Subtitles.’ When this happens, delete this file immediately, not because it has a virus, but because it has just wasted your time.
- College-project subtitles: This is a division of fansubbing and I have absolutely nothing against these users. I think it’s awesome that they choose to subtitle films and dramas for their projects in their language classes. Most of the time, they will note that they did this simply for a college project and if that’s the case - more power to them. It’s when they forget to remind us that you should be cautious. Depending on how high their level is in competency of that language, you’ll be able to see right through those translations. The subtitles will seem fluid for one part, and will simply disappear during highly scripted, fast paced back-and-forth scenes. It’s almost as if these students gave up where the challenge was. I applaud them for their effort, but be weary of these as you will start off ravenous with an appetite for entertainment, and they will leave you only half-full.
- Officially-subtitled American releases: That sounds like it would be a good thing right? Wrong. I simply cannot trust the American film industry to rightfully translate my films. They simply do not get it, and after watching one of these, I will most likely not either. When a foreign film is subtitled for an American release, the subtitles are often times, lazily done, to say the least. Language is a contextual thing, and screenplays rely heavily on many allusions and background cultural knowledge. I’ve seen some of these American releases completely give up on a sentence or conversation that American audiences just might not quite understand the cultural reference to. They also completely change the meaning of sentences thinking that it would be awkward in English. While any good ‘subber’ knows that you have to change sentence structures and certain expressions around to cater to the appropriate audience, these big budget subbers have proven useless at this. Many films center particularly on the execution of vague sentences, short and almost incomprehensive conversations that soon make meaning of themselves later. Changing these words are doing an injustice to the art, and that is why I give any ‘officially subtitled’ film a no-go.
The above mentioned subtitle situations are the top three that I find myself running into. The last, and absolutely best option for your dose of foreign entertainment is the fansubber (Wiki).
As intelligent fans, we would only want to experience our media in a way that is presented honest and accurate, wouldn’t we? I have found that the best option for us now is fansubbing. Fansubbing has evolved into fully functioning online communities that connect the world with different and optional forms of media experience. There is ‘hard subbing’ and ‘soft subbing.’ ‘Hard subbing’ is when the raw material has the subtitles coded right onto the videos, and ‘soft subbing,’ is when the subtitles are released in a separate file to be played with the video in a special media player. With all the technological advancements, ‘subbing teams’ have been formed, and are able to split up to give us the absolute best in subtitled releases.
This process starts with the obtaining of the ‘raw’ material. While in the past, this meant an actual recording on film, now all that’s required is the digital file. With this, ‘subbing teams’ have been able to form splitting up the work and making it easy for them to share this with the world. These teams are never paid, and are only driven by the sole satisfaction that they can nerd out with the rest of the world. Now that is pretty impressive.
‘Subbing teams’ consist of many roles. There are some members who have nothing but the software that rips these digital files from their televisions or other sources. They will obtain the ‘raw’ file and send it out to the translator. The translator, the least surprising of the members, is the one who must meticulously go through the entire episode or film and translate things word for word. This is where the magic happens for fansubbing. Fansubbers are more worried about getting things accurate and making sure that references are noted both culturally and series-specifically. Either the translator themselves or the ‘Timer’ will transcribe the translations into the digital file. This is also great for us and their work is admittedly superior to their big budget counterparts. Different characters’ dialogue will be noted by different colors and ‘Translator’s notes’ are also included when needed. The Timer must also make sure that each line of dialogue matches with that of the actors and actresses on screen. These teams will either rely on one of the aforementioned members or another person to convert these files and make sure everything is hard-coded (for hard-subbed videos) into the file for viewing and - boom, throw it into the pit of hungry fans and watch them feed.
Subbing teams and fan communities have become very protective of themselves, considering the legal issues that come with even owning the raw material. Much of them are password protected, and communities require application upon entering. The system has shown to be some of the greatest in Internet Lockdown, and is admirable to say the least. When these pieces are released, they are gobbled up in minutes without any of us taking a second to stop and appreciate the scrupulous work that goes into this, simply to feed our hunger for our latest obsessions.
If there’s anything that can be learned from these fansubbing communities, it is that this is a department waiting to happen for the film industry. Subbing, timing, coding, ripping, even converting are all jobs that take technology backgrounds and hard skills. If the Motion Picture Association of America took a little more care into their foreign releases, they could create more jobs, and in-turn create a better product that will satisfy fans and newcomers. I salute you fansubbing teams and the global community that you promote. By sharing these forms of media with the world, we create friendships and find common ground between countries with different cultural backgrounds, religions, and traditions. Though I know this day may never come, I hope that one day you will be recognized for your loyal contributions to our obsessions and community.
I also hope that with the oncoming of more accurate subtitles, that ‘dubbing’ will become ancient history.