To Sub or to Dub: Translation and Fansubbing in Anime

A translator is like a dog with two masters, the author of the original work and the audience. A translator’s allegiance—to culture, to language, even to literature—shapes their every decision. Thus, a single work can have multiple translations, each possessing a unique aspect. In ‘fansubbing,’ the often illegal subtitling of anime series by fans, the translator transforms from a dog to a gateway. These guerilla translators use the Internet not only to fight against the Network decided the distribution of anime but even standardized translations. Putting aside the moral and legal aspects of copyright infringement, fansubbing has garnered appreciation and even fan support for translators working for free to provide access not only to a foreign commodity but culture.

The fansubbing of an anime is a group project, composed of individuals who know each other only by avatar names, but by the power of the Internet come together to produce unique translations of anime series. Some groups will only subtitle certain genres of anime—historical, romance, comedy etc.—while others focus more on the speed of production as oppose to accuracy. Either way, a group’s style of translation or subtitling influences their popularity amongst fans. Some viewers of online anime prefer one group’s translation to another. As a result traditional anime distribution network’s version of translations have come under attack. An example of a corporate distributor adopting the fansubbing style of translation is Crunchyroll, whose subtitling and promotional campaigns attempt to include fans in both the culture of Anime and Japan.


Translations by fansubbing groups include the meaning of the word as well as the explanation of the popular culture significance of the word, usually in a translator’s note. Whether you’re a fan of translators’ notes or not, some fans find the note helpful. By engaging the audience the translator makes the translation and meaning more accessible to a wider audience.

Though ironically, by initiating a conversation with the audience, the translators of these fansubbing groups, such as New Life Anime, are beholden to a new, albeit more demanding master, the audience. In an effort to try and gain more followers and subscribers, a fansubbing group may rush their translations, often sacrificing good grammar in order to produce an online version of the episode the day after it originally airs in Japan. The question then becomes which is more important—the audience or the translation? Perhaps in the future, there will be subtitles that will be able to both engage with the audience, as well as provide accurate translations. For now, there is only the choice.


5 thoughts on “To Sub or to Dub: Translation and Fansubbing in Anime

  1. locksleyu says:

    Interesting topic!

    I do fan translations of a different type, Japanese web novels that are freely available online.

    Legal issues aside, I firmly believe in keeping true to the original material. This doesn’t mean making an overly-literal translation, but it does mean never changing something because “the fans will like it better”, which includes rushing translations to get them done quickly just because of competition between groups (in my case it can take a week or longer for a single chapter).

    In writing, I think translation notes are great, but in Anime I think they are usually a distraction since you may have to stop the show to read them. A good translation should convey the meaning well enough, including any important nuance or tone.

    Watching a few anime on Crunchyroll, I’ve seen a wide range from really good translations, to pretty mediocre ones where the translator injects his or her own thoughts too much in many phrases. When reading those in English, it may seem “totally natural” or “cool”, but that sort of thing must be done in moderation and careful thought.

    I recently got a comment from a reader saying I should use the metric system, and that is a very difficult international topic that I am still considering. But I am not going to make a snap judgement to use the metric system just because one person complained.


    • ofallthingsweb says:

      Wow thanks so much for your insight! I’ve never done fan translations mostly translations of Japanese poetry and literary translations, but I can imagine that subtitles can be harder. It’s an interesting topic that not a lot of people are really addressing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • locksleyu says:

        Actually, I really enjoy literary translations as well, though I have only done potions (often just a single chapter) of novels for my own learning. Would be cool to make it a career someday though.

        What sorts of literary stuff have you done?


      • ofallthingsweb says:

        So far I’ve done mostly modern poetry and short stories by Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami. But, my goal is to translate Higuchi Ichiyo’s takekurabe.

        Liked by 1 person

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