A recent post by @fkeroge talked about how subtitle quality can vary between official subtitles and fansubs, with the official ones not always being the most accurate. But ultimately, the only way one can get the original experience of watching an anime how it was intended, is to learn Japanese and watch it raw. Obviously this isn’t an option for a lot of people, so I’d like to explore the topic of subtitle quality further…
Like other aspects of the fandom, there are sentiments on both sides in terms of how important subtitle quality is. Some fans are extremely picky, waiting extra days for the “good” fansubs to come out and nitpicking any mistranslation in official subs. And on the other side, we have the fans who will watch crappy speed subs and not care about spelling/grammar errors, nor will they care if any cultural-specific dialogue is changed in the official subs.
Does the former of the two groups end up getting the better viewing experience? I would say so, since a more accurate translation means a better understanding of what’s going on. But as to @fkeroge’s notion that the only way to watch anime in its original, intended way is to learn Japanese and watch it raw, I’ve heard others bring up that idea too, even those who like dubs. After all, the original way anime is meant to be viewed is by native speakers of the language it’s in – Japanese. So in a way, watching an anime dubbed is more of a similar experience to this than watching it with subtitles because we’re watching it in our native language (English) just as the Japanese audience watches it in their native language. Watching it in a foreign language and relying on constantly reading subtitles to understand the story, that may also distract our eyes from the show’s visuals, could arguably be less of the “intended” experience than watching it dubbed.
Assuming most of us watch subtitled anime because it’s not plausible for us to learn Japanese, we prefer the Japanese voices, dubs are rare nowadays, or whatever our reason is, subtitle quality varies all across the board, as do people’s opinions of what constitutes good and bad subs. For me, the first place to start when accessing subtitle quality is how names are handled. I remember official subs from several years ago rarely left honorifics intact. Nowadays, Crunchyroll, Funimation, and other companies often include honorifics, which I think is a good thing since there isn’t really an accurate translation for “-kun” and “-chan.” But I don’t have a problem with honorifics being left out either if they’re given a decent translation, such as “Lord” or “Master” in place of “-sama,” “Mr.” or “Ms.” for “-san,” and making up a cute nickname in place of “-chan.” So I could go either way with honorifics being left in or not. What I don’t like is when they’re completely ignored altogether, as that prevents an audience not familiar with hearing Japanese honorifics from picking up on nuances in character relationships.
While I could go either way with honorifics, I actually think that the more things that are translated the better. I’m all for translating “o-nii-chan” as “Big Bro” and “o-nee-san” as “Sister” (when not used as honorifics for a non-sibling). I’d rather Naruto’s village be officially translated as “Hidden Leaf Village” instead of “Konoha” and his “Kage Bunshin” attack be called “Shadow Clone Jutsu.” The reason? I feel that profession translation should make subtitles as easily understandable to the native English speaker as possible and not cater to a small, niche audience. My personal viewing experience isn’t going to diminish if words like “hikikomori” or “mahou shojo” are left untranslated, but if I’m watching anime with my mom (which I do) or anyone who’s not particularly into anime, foreign words like that are just going to alienate them from the show.
But for fantasy-laden anime, I don’t think it’s a problem if some fantasy terminology is left untranslated since any fantasy series is going to require memorizing fictional words (whether in Japanese or another language). So Viz deciding to keep “Zanpakuto” untranslated in their release of Bleach is fine. It’s hard so say with certainly that names, Japanese slang, and fantasy terms should always be translated or not since it’s really dependent on the context and the series it’s in. In general, some things left untranslated is fine and could even enhance understanding. You just don’t want your subtitles to end up looking like this…
As for things like jokes that revolve around Japanese culture and words that can’t easily be translated into English, I don’t have a problem with translation notes. I remember old fansubs I had of Air dedicated the first couple of minutes of each episode for translation notes, and ADV’s old box set of Azumanga Daioh included a booklet explaining each episode’s culture-specific jokes. I prefer these to flashing a quick translation note on the screen during the episode that I barely have time to read. Or, if the translator can actually translate it in such a way that the reference has a similar affect in English, that works too.
@fkeroge pointed out in his post that sometimes even official translations try to “otaku-fy” their subtitles to better appeal to the anime fan niche rather than stick with the basic idea of accurately conveying the dialogue to English speakers. I never saw this in my early years of fandom, but recently it’s become more prevalent. Not just with the inclusion of honorifics, which I don’t have a problem with if they’re done right, but leaving words like “o-nee-chan,” “-senpai,” and “moe” left untranslated could again alienate less savvy viewers. For things like this, you just have to think about the context of the series. Leaving “eroge” untranslated in subtitles for OreImo is fine since few people but those familiar with otaku culture are going to be watching that show. But leaving the word “moe” untranslated in Bandai’s release of Haruhi wasn’t necessary. Again, I think good subtitles try to convey accurate translations but only leave words untranslated if it enhances the show while not making it seem too foreign to the average native speaker.
And I think that’s all I have to say in terms of subtitle quality. Since few of us will become fluent enough in Japanese to watch anime in its pure, raw state, I think the best subtitles we can have are those that accurately translate what’s being said into native English without being too literal nor leaving too many things untranslated that it diminishes the viewing experience for anyone but a knowledgeable anime fan.